We had the good fortune of connecting with Beth Surdut and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Beth, how has your perspective on work-life balance evolved over time?
I believe that creativity, like curiosity, can be explored in all of life’s actions. I describe my practice, as well as my current series, as the Art of Paying Attention. Balance, for me, is being so charmed, so curious about the wild life around me, that my so-called “work” and play are intertwined. I spend much of my day observing neighborhood animals. Going for a walk is both pleasure and research. I go to sleep wondering what crepuscular creatures are doing out in the dark—owls and bats hunting for food, nighthawks flying—and what am I missing by not making my bed under glorious star-filled skies!
Exploration is an essential element to maintaining my balance. My visual art includes drawing, painting with dyes, scientific illustration, architectural art glass, textiles, and murals, all of which require research that intertwine with written and spoken word pieces. In Listening to Raven, which won first prize for Literary Non-fiction at the Tucson Festival of Books, my detailed illustrations and collected stories combine science and spirit threaded together by an iconic bird. With the ongoing Art of Paying Attention illustrated nature series–18 of which have been heard and seen on NPR— I concentrate on our relationships with local Southwest critters. My goal is to encourage readers, listeners, and viewers to actively discover their integrated place in nature and, in the process, joyously nurture this planet we call home.
I also work with fiber-reactive dyes and resist on silk to create large paintings and custom-designed prayer shawls for individuals, as well as scarves with healing prayers for anyone dealing with physical or emotional challenges. Doing these brings me to places of study that I might never explore otherwise, which is a blessing.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
The work I create as a writer, artist, and environmental educator is an invitation to observe, with unbounded curiosity, the wildlife that flies, crawls, and skitters along with us in our changing environment. From my perspective, paying attention brings care, care brings love; and that love engenders protection. Being a wildlife illustrator and storyteller, I spend a lot of time watching animals going about their lives. I see courtship, sex, birth, death, hunting, killing, eating, drinking, fighting, bathing, preening, and other intimate daily activities. I’ve been known to talk to these creatures, saying, “All I want to do is tell the whole world about you!”
I spend much of my time in solitary observation within walking distance of my home. This allows me to spend years getting to know the local wild ones. In the case of the Great Horned Owls, I’ve been tracking them through generations, and rescuing four owlets. The more details I collect, the better informed I am when I create the final piece, usually with pen, ink, and colored pencil. Observing a creature in its habitat, day after day and night, too, shows me personality traits. Taking photos and working with other wildlife photographers allows me to see structural details. I gather what I learn by looking, use my skill as a journalist to interview scientists, collect sounds for the radio pieces, draw each critter, write about our encounters, and record with a professional engineer. People tend to look closely, spend time with the intricacies of my artwork, and listen to the stories of my encounters, and, in turn, ask questions and tell me their own experiences.
I invite prospective clients to come to me with any project that celebrates beauty. Being open to possibility has led to some truly amazing projects including major museum exhibits, designing 24 stained glass windows for a Middle Eastern place, and a magical glass-tiled Raven-themed mural in New Mexico. That said, my primary focus is the Art of Paying Attention art and stories, because this is not only pleasing to the eye, but also allows me to meld audio, essays, and visual art with the potential to entertain, illuminate, and educate in positive ways.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
In 2021, the place to be is the Tucson Botanical Gardens, which is always lovely, and where I will be mounting solo exhibitions of my Art of Paying Attention animals starting January 30 outdoors, and indoors at The Friends Gallery September 2021 through mid-January 2022. When friends come to visit, we go walking where the locals hang out in the neighborhood, and hope that the stars show up. Last time, we were rewarded with three coyote youngsters playing, a male vermilion flycatcher, a Cooper’s hawk, and peregrine falcon. And that was just in midtown. Further afield is Madera Canyon (and the possibility of an Elegant Trogon), Saguaro National Park, and Whitewater Draw in winter to hear the voices of thousands of cranes. The key is to go with anticipation, not expectation, and you’ll never be disappointed.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
When I lived in Hawaii in the 1990s, designing for aloha shirt companies and painting the beauty of the islands, I met champion brainstormer, PR whiz, historical researcher, and mystery author Jeanne Burrows-Johnson (jeanneburrows-johnson.com), creator of the award-winning Natalie Seacrest series. She’s been in Tucson for many years where we continue to consult on projects and cheer each other on. And, truth being at least as much fun as fiction, I appear in a wonderful description of my tropical studio in her book Murder on Mokulua Drive!
Other: https://www.bethsurdut.com/critters.html http://www.payingattentiontonature.com/ https://www.facebook.com/Surdut.tallit.and.healing