Miniature art with a gigantic purpose

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Amy Benford regards her artistic production as a collaboration. In 2013, Benford lost her 15-year-old daughter Abbie to anaphylactic shock brought on by an allergic reaction. In honor of her daughter, Benford is now creating a line of cute little whimsical canvases made from beach finds, each paired with an inspirational word written by Abbie during her all-too-brief life.

The project was born out of Benford’s fundraising efforts. To honor his daughter and ensure her death was not in vain, Benford established the KeepSmilin’4Abbie Foundation in 2014. The all-volunteer non-profit organization raises funds for research and development , educational programs and scholarships. The foundation has partnered with Harvard University’s Wyss Institute on Project Abbie, aimed at developing a wearable device that would continuously monitor biochemical signals indicating anaphylaxis. Abbie’s life could have been saved if such a device had existed at the time of her death.

As part of Benford’s efforts to raise funds and awareness, she set up an annual fundraiser for field hockey alumni in her hometown of Hopkinton. To help contribute to the fund, Benford began selling small, unique canvases with images made from tiny pebbles, pieces of sea glass, driftwood and other beach finds. The positive response to her works encouraged Benford to open an Etsy shop and begin selling her designs at craft fairs. On the island, she sets up shop at both the Featherstone Flea and the Chilmark Flea Market during the summer. Small easel pictures are also available at Off Main in Vineyard Haven.

Benford’s line is called BeachArtbyAB – AB being both his initials and those of his daughter. And Abbie is prominent in the work in more than just her name. To include her daughter in the process, Benford meticulously went through Abbie’s notebooks to extract words like Hope, Family, Friends, Fun, and more. With each image, Benford provides an easel and the choice of one of the words, stamped on a small card to stick on the easel. She also puts Abbie’s initials on the back of each piece.

“She would have eaten it right away,” Benford says of her daughter. “She was very artistic. I feel a connection with her. I talk with her. I know she is with me. It really is a healing vehicle for me.

The images in the BeachArt collection include fish made from pebbles, colorful sea glass birds sitting on a branch, turtles, sharks, cows and many small pebbles – sisters, mothers, lovers, etc. Some have drawn or painted keys. Others, like a multi-jointed lobster, are just small, carefully constructed 3D images. Small freestanding canvases make ideal keepsakes for friends and family, and are priced at a very affordable $20 (larger ones are a bit more).

Benford’s family vacationed in the vineyard for years before finally buying a home in Vineyard Haven in 2016. It was during his many long walks on the beach that the artist and full-time tech teacher in primary school began collecting glass and beach stones. “Everything has to be found on the beach,” says Benford. This gives each room a special connection with the vineyard. For a recent series of scarecrows, Benford stayed true to her artistic credo by using dried grass from Owen Park.

To do such delicate work with such tiny materials, Benford must be very organized. She stores all her beach finds in neatly labeled boxes. They are categorized by color, size, shape, and even potential use. “One box has heads and shoulders, another has knees and toes,” explains the artist. You’d think she’d eventually run out of colored sea glass pieces, but Benford promises she’s well stocked (and continually restocking) to keep up with demand.

The artist makes custom pieces on demand and hopes to create a series aimed at wedding parties, perhaps with an image of toasted champagne glasses. His creativity seems limitless, as does his energy and enthusiasm for collaborative projects. It’s a unique way to honor and remember your daughter.

“It makes a huge difference to me to know that his words are out there, in other states, in people’s homes. It’s very special for me. My goal is for Abbie to leave a lasting impression.

This loving and creative tribute to his daughter is just one small way Benford made sure his wish was granted. So far, the KeepSmilin’4Abbie Foundation has donated over $100,000 to Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for The Abbie Project.

On the foundation’s website, keepmilin4abbie.org, you can find out more about the organization and its inspiration. The About Abbie section includes the following: “Abbie had an empathetic side and stood up for other children around her who were being bullied. She was a social magnet and made friends wherever she went; she knew make the most of every possible situation.

Looks like she inherited this trait from her mother.

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