Ask most teenagers what they enjoy doing the most, and birdwatching and animal-raising probably won’t be at the top of the list. But for Tova Beck, these things aren’t just fun activities – they’re inspirations for her favorite thing: art.
At just 14, the Gig Harbor teen not only has a passion for nature and the patience to go with it, she also has a talent for painting that has been recognized with a mini-exhibit in the Harbor History Museum’s maritime show. She’ll also be teaching her art to other young people in a workshop in November.
“I was very impressed with her art,” says Victoria Gehl-Blackwell, curator at the museum, who’d approached Beck with the suggestion that she show 24 works in the open student section of the museum’s annual Maritime Exhibit, up through Sept. 4. “It’s thrilling for us to see a young person embrace art and also share it. She’s definitely a talented young artist.”
Beck’s talent can clearly be seen by anyone walking past her works en route to the juried adult section of the maritime exhibit. Most of the tranquil, vibrantly hued watercolors focus on birds – Beck’s first passion, after a chickadee landed on her hand as a small child. From the “Bright Yellow Ducklings,” a delightful study of a chain of wobbly fluffballs with individual quirky expressions that was Beck’s first try at painting in second grade, to the meticulously flecked brown-and-white feathers of a wood duck family in the hollow of a brown-streaked tree trunk, this is art that combines a fresh view of life with an unusual expressive talent.
It also speaks of someone who is surrounded by nature, and loves it.
“Wood ducks are really cool because the babies can jump a hundred feet out of the tree when they’re just a few days old,” explains Beck, who watches a lot of birds on her family’s 5-acre property between Kopachuck State Park and Fox Island. With long honey-brown hair and blue eyes, Beck has a slow voice that gets animated when she’s talking about birds: the Canada geese she sees flying past her bedroom window, the hummingbirds that try to scare each other away from the feeder in her yard, the wild turkey she’s raising herself, and her pet chickens. She’ll point out the details she sees and replicates with delicate brushstrokes – a pale white spiderweb holding together the lichen and moss of a hummingbird nest, the swooshy line of a heron’s back as it flies, the possessive glint in a mother sheep’s eye next to her lamb.
“She’s definitely a kid who notices things,” says Beck’s mother, Mimmi.
After spotting something she wants to paint, Beck finds a photograph to work from, taking as much as four hours to do her larger paintings. She sketches, then fills in the color, sometimes outlining in black marker for clarity. Her colors are intense – a tangerine sunset, a pink Mount Rainier (appropriately titled “Mt. Rainier Cherry”), aqua water and sky.
And it’s not just the Harbor History Museum that’s recognized her unusual talent: Beck has won the Tahoma Audubon Society’s bird-drawing contest three years in a row.
Surprisingly, Beck has never taken art lessons, finding out instinctively what works. As a result, her art has a fresh, intuitive feel that derives from what she sees and how she feels about it, rather than any genre of painting.
One of four children, Beck comes from a creative family: Mimmi recently collaborated with her to self-publish a children’s picture book, “The Girl Who Loved to Draw Birds” (reviewed on the Audubon Society’s blog, and featuring Tova’s paintings and Mimmi’s text and illustrations), and also self-published a novel co-written with Beck’s two brothers. Most of the family plays musical instruments, and they appear sometimes as jazz band The Arletta Sound.
Beck also loves running, tennis and raising animals. So far, the list includes ducks, chickens, doves, pigeons, pheasants, goats and the wild turkey.
But Beck has another talent that’s maybe even more unusual than watching and painting birds: teaching others to do it. At the museum in November, Beck will be leading a workshop for tweens and teens on how to paint like she does and how to write about it. Participants will get their work printed as a book similar to Beck’s own.
While it may seem unusual for a 14-year-old to be teaching art, Beck has been doing it since her second-grade teacher asked her to show the class how she painted the yellow ducklings. Since then, she’s taught classes and workshops in various schools and at Tacoma’s Snake Lake Nature Center.
“She’s a natural-born teacher,” says Michele Cardinaux, Snake Lake’s program director, who first saw Beck’s work when the Audubon Society’s contest winners were displayed there. “She’s able to explain each step she does and walk others through the artistic process. Not everybody can do that.”
Cardinaux also is impressed at how Beck’s patience translates into her teaching: “She’s very methodical, repeating steps until everyone’s there. She’s also very kind – there are no mistakes, you just move on from what you’ve done to make it look beautiful.”
“I teach slowly,” Beck explains in front of the luminous “Sunset at Shaw’s Cove” that students will copy at the November workshop. “First they sketch, then I tell them which colors to mix, the direction of the brush stroke.”
Not everything comes easily to Beck: Painting the Fox Island lighthouse in “Mt. Rainier Cherry” took hours to get the lines right.
“Everyone knows that view, and the photograph was so small,” she explains.
But for Beck, who thinks she’ll eventually become a teacher while still continuing her art, having her work up in a museum is worth all the effort.
“It’s been so much fun,” she says. “I invited all my friends to come to the opening, and they all gave me compliments!”
Adds Mimmi: “It’s more fun to create something and share it with people. It becomes something totally different.”
What: Watercolors by Tova Beck, part of the student section of Maritime Art Exhibit
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays though Sept. 4
Event: Youth paint-and-write workshop (for those ages 10-15) taught by Beck, 2-4 p.m. Nov. 4; $40 museum members/$50 nonmembers; includes one copy of own published art book.
Where: Harbor History Museum, 4121 Harborview Drive, Gig Harbor
Entry: $7 for adults; $6 for military and seniors; $5 youths; free for museum members and children 6 and younger
Information: 253-858-6722, harborhistorymuseum.orgrosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com 253-597-8568 blog.thenewstribune.com/arts