Artists tend to be solitary creatures, and even when creative husbands and wives share studio space together, they tend to operate within their own orbits. Artist Ashley Van Etten and photographer Joseph R. Beckham are the rare couple who have found a way to collaborate directly – a happy union born of circumstance and determination.
Ashley and Joseph met on the slopes of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, brought together by a mutual love of telemark skiing. For Ashley, this was familiar territory; she spent time blazing trails and producing ski clothing in the alpine resorts of the West after graduating from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Studio Art. “My life always incorporated both art and being outdoors,” she says
Joseph, meanwhile, spent more of his life by the sea, crewing oceanracing sailboats and working as a boat builder and marine engineer for shipyards on both coasts, where his job required the occasional underwater photography. The Narragansett native and his formerly itinerant bride eventually settled back down in Rhode Island, where Ashley worked for many years as a freelance illustrator. When that profession began to be increasingly dominated by computers, however, she set her sights on starting a business that would draw on more of her artistic skills, including fine art, clothing design and sewing – the latter learned from her grandmother.
Thus Willywaw was born. Ashley uses her original illustrations as the basis for screen-printed designs on hand-sewn t-shirts, tote bags, pillows, paper products and even the occasional interior-design project. Despite the name (a willywaw is a sudden, violent wind that descends from the mountains to the sea) and Ashley’s hardcore snow-sports background (for many years she produced a backcountry avalanche report), much of her textile work now focuses on ocean-inspired themes – a shift she credits to Joseph’s passion for the sea.
The same is true of Ashley’s fine art: mermaids, eel grass and whales appear in her watercolors and oil paintings, all expertly framed by Joseph. For the former engineer, custom framing has been a rewarding sidelight to a career shift that began when his last shipbuilding client shut down a few years ago. Rather than fishing around for another job in that field, Joseph decided to dive into his passion for photography, founding Light Forge Studio and focusing on natural light and underwater images. At the same time, he began framing his own photos, then Ashley’s artworks, and finally doing custom framing for other clients, including using natural wood salvaged from local beaches.
Ashley and Joseph are now working side by side in their Narragansett studio, as well as traveling together and selling their work from adjoining booths at various art festivals and their de facto home base at the Coastal Grower’s Market at Casey Farm. For Ashley, life was once spent bouncing around the country in a beat-up VW Westfalia, living on Vashon Island in Washington, and rafting on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Now, she and Joseph have settled into a creative partnership that has the couple looking to expand their efforts beyond what they can accomplish with their own hands.
“I never thought we’d wind up both being in a studio working together, but it works for us,” says Ashley. “He’s the rock, and I’m the water that flows around it all of the time.”