Mary Beath '71

Drawing from nature
August 1, 2006
Mary Beath '71

Mary Beath is drawn to places, both real and imagined, where predictability erodes: unexpected encounters with nature during her long, solo hikes through New Mexico's deserts and mountains; the artistic possibilities and philosophical implications found in ecological complexity and chaos theory; the wilderness of love and sexuality.

In her varied pursuits as an environmental illustrator, naturalist, and writer, Beath is drawn to the nexus of intellect and instinct, not wanting to impose strict definitions about where one begins and the other ends. In the introduction to her first book of poetry, Refuge of Whirling Light (University of New Mexico Press, 2005), Beath says that her poems "are an outgrowth of an attitude: we needn't compartmentalize our experiences, sequestering nature from human sensuality, from emotion, from language, from ideas."

The book recently received a Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor presented the award at a black-tie dinner in May.

Beath's life journey took a fortuitous turn during her early undergraduate days at Duke. In high school, she had been drawn to biology and the sciences, so she pursued the requirements for a zoology major with zeal. By her sophomore year, with all her curricular obligations met, she began to explore electives in the arts. She'd also moved into Epworth, the self-identified "arts dorm."

Refuge of Whirling Light

"I realized there was a wider world out there," she says. "The teachers I recall most clearly are those who taught outside my major--Wallace Fowlie, who taught Dante and French symbolist poetry, was an incredible teacher, as was Reynolds Price. I took twentieth-century music with Ian Hamilton and art with Vernon Pratt. I chose professors who were known for their great teaching."

After graduation, Beath lived in Istanbul for a year, then earned a B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Her final project incorporated quotes from poets including Homer, T.S. Eliot, and Conrad Aiken with original lithographs. Post-RISD, she "cobbled together" a career as a writer and illustrator specializing in natural themes, first in Providence, Rhode Island, then in New York.

After a decade in New York's East Village, Beath visited a friend in Arizona. "It was almost a mystical experience," she recalls. "I stepped out of the airport into a windy spring day, and something about the air, the light made me understand, 'I belong in the desert!' " Beath has called Albuquerque home for sixteen years.

She now runs a successful studio, working as a writer and illustrator on projects for, as she puts it, "clients whose agendas I can get excited about. All the work I take on has something to do with the land," including collaborations with the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation, the National Audubon Society, and assorted nonprofits and government agencies. Those projects pay the bills, she says, but "my work without clients--poems and paintings growing directly from love of place--remains closest to my heart."

Beath, who proudly characterizes her life as "zigzaggy," says she's found that embracing the nonlinear nature of the world yields a richer experience than compartmentalizing personal passions and career ambitions. "Long ago I realized I am much more interested in being open and attentive to what deeply engages me, so I try hard to use my mind and body and intuition together in everything I do. That seems to me to be a more whole way of living."