Artist and writer friends collaborate on book of 'Nature Meditations in Word and Watercolor'
As longtime friends and creative souls, Judy Benson and Roxanne Steed had been discussing teaming up on a book for a while. Benson, a writer who lives in New London, and Steed, an artist who is a Mystic resident, have a shared appreciation for the outdoors that seemed ideal subject matter.
“We both love hiking, we both love nature and the environment. It’s a real connecting thing in our friendship. So to have this book as a physical form (from which) other people could share the ideas and images was really exciting for me,” Steed says.
It was early 2020 when they decided to forge ahead with the project. They were going to do a series of hikes together during the year and chronicle their experiences through the seasons. The idea was for people to use the resulting book as a meditative focus, something that could inspire them to express their own creativity.
“Then the pandemic hit. What do we do now? This is not the book we thought it was going to be,” Benson says.
They paused briefly but realized they both felt the need to keep the project moving.
The book, “Earth and Sky: Nature Meditations in Word and Watercolor,” was just published by New London Librarium. It features short nature essays by Benson and paintings by Steed. Steed and Benson will do talk/signings Sunday at Groton Public Library; Feb. 9 at the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center in Old Lyme; and Feb. 16 at Bank Square Books in Mystic.
As the “Earth and Sky” text states, it’s “a book of reflections on nature and spirituality intended to invite people to spend time with Earth, sky and a meditative mind, and to love it all.”
Benson and Steed encourage people to read one selection at a time over the course of year.
Some of the pieces reflect on elements of nature like sunrise (Steed’s impressionistic image sets a small burst of yellow within browns, tans and purples representing trees and ground) and beach (a painting of a woman, standing ankle-deep in the surf, lifts a small child).
Other segments include references to local places, with beautiful images and evocative, often poetic prose accompanying. A segment titled “Dirt Road,” from Bluff Point State Park in Groton, describes how “honeysuckle blossoms scented the air that day, and buttercup flowers glowed in the sun,” and a section about a trip to Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford describes whitecaps looking playful, “like foamy balls of energy rising out of the depths to tickle the breeze before ducking back under.”
The outside world, of course, finds its way into these forays into nature. Benson writes about a beautiful bullfrog chorus at Mitchell Woods and how it sparked her to think about the individual voices at the BLM protests likewise converging “into a force of wonder and inspiration.”
The pandemic becomes an ever-looming presence, particularly during the spring, when friends running into each other at a state park inevitably discuss masks and people they know who have contracted COVID-19. “Stay safe” is a refrain.
So is the idea of finding refuge from the pandemic in nature.
“I really think that reflecting back on that first year, that first few months, that first pivot we all had to do … there are lessons to be learned that can really be valuable,” Benson says.
A source of recreation and calm
Working on this project during the first part of the pandemic was valuable to Benson and Steed as well.
“Having a creative outlet at that time was, for me, really a great anchor. It gave you a sense you could get something meaningful out of this chaos,” Benson says.
Steed felt she had to get outside, and she became incredibly aware of how important state parks and regional parks are. She noticed that more people were using and craving these outdoor spaces.
“I think there will always be things that are huge stressors to people, but I think uniformly it’s nature and the thought of preserving nature that will probably always be a big relief. It’s like humans need this space and they need moments of beauty and calm and quiet in their lives that they can seek out. We got to witness people actually doing that. I was amazed at how many more people used these public spaces for recreation and calm,” Steed says.
Benson notes that, for a few months, she thought the book would lose its relevance. But with the pandemic still ongoing, that’s not the case.
A fine collaboration
Benson and Steed had worked together before on a gallery show and an exhibit at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Headquarters in Hartford.
Benson is the communications coordinator for Connecticut Sea Grant and editor of its biannual magazine, “Wrack Lines.” She is also a former health and environment reporter for The Day.
Steed is an artist and teacher whose work has been show at galleries across the country.
Their “Earth and Sky” collaboration kicked off during an early 2020 weekend at the retreat/education center Incarnation Center in Deep River.
They returned the center in the fall of 2020, which they realize was a nice way to close the project.
Because of the pandemic, Benson and Steed had to change how they approached the work. They tended to have independent experiences outdoors and then a lot of long phone conversations about them before they eventually joined up for, say, a jaunt at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison during the summer.
Of the sections for “Earth and Sky,” about a third each were inspired first by writing; were inspired first by painting; and were developed together.
Steed’s art in the book is wide-ranging, and intentionally so. There are sketchbook works and more painterly renditions. She went abstract on a painting of needle ice, for instance, feeling the style would better reflect that phenomenon.
The importance of nature and creativity
Benson says she hopes readers of “Earth and Sky” “will find it to be a focus for their own meditation, reflection and creative expression, however they want to do that. There are many ways you can do that — you can do journaling, you can do sketchbooking. Something I’ve been doing recently that I’ve been enjoying as a nice creative outlet is something called contemplative nature photography,” Benson says. For contemplative nature photography, she takes undoctored photos of things that are interesting to her and then writes about them.
Steed says she hopes that the book might inspire people to do their own sketchbook and to start on a creative journey.
She says, “I think our creative side is a really important part of our humanity, whether it comes in the form of writing or painting or cooking or whatever we do as a creative outlet. I think those outlets we choose are really important for our health and sanity. We really find in times of isolation like this last two years of weirdness how important nature, creativity, all those things are.”
If you go
Who: Judy Benson and Roxanne Steed
What: Talk/signing about "Earth and Sky: Nature Meditations in Word and Watercolor"
When: 2-4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Groton Public Library, 52 Newtown Road, Groton
Also: 6 p.m. Feb. 16 at Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St., Mystic, and Feb. 9 at Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, 100 Lyme St., Old Lyme; check for time for the latter at ctaudubon.org.
Books: Available at NLLibrarium.com and Amazon