The late October marsh reveals itself slowly. At first glance, it is contrasting striations of gold against green, the pale blue of the autumn sky. But to the patient observer it comes alive—subtle hues of flax and mustard, splendid glints of ochre and peachy streaks of ecru. Stare longer still and, miraculously, the light refracting off the grass and water flashes teal and purple. And this is only in fall. Winter offers a subtle wash of vermilion and rust; summer glimmers a bright combustion of electric greens. And that is to say nothing of the vast and ever-changing sky, the shifting green shade of the maritime forest.
Standing at her easel, Carey Benham makes quick, confident strokes, the stiff brush scratching the canvas in brilliant streaks of sky blue. For Benham art has always been about color. Originally trained in pastels, she only shifted to oils a few years ago. Her work is rich and layered, moody yet vibrant, studied but free. The few paintings I see are quite incredible, but Benham is modest and unpretentious about her work, lacking the ego and stringency of some long-time artists. And perhaps that’s her secret. “In this one I’m outlining—and you don’t usually outline! I thought, Okay this still life is going to be like a Matisse. I’m just going to be playful with it,” she says, laughing. “I’m just not strict with myself anymore.”
Benham and her husband, Doug, first visited Kiawah in the mid-nineties, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the Lowcountry really clicked. “I was sitting there one day, looking out and thinking, Oh my gosh, this marsh is so beautiful. I could have a house on the marsh!” The Benhams purchased a double lot in Ocean Park. Their property is on the leeward side of the island, an elevated rectangle of land that looks out over the marsh, Bass Creek, and beyond to the Stono River and James Island.
They commissioned Keith Summerour out of Atlanta to build their home. They wanted something modern, boxy, and multileveled with big windows. But most of all, they wanted the house to belong within the environment, to all but disappear in the tans and greens of the marshside setting. “We value these trees immensely. We wanted the house to be part of the forest.” Sure enough, the wide entrance to the house curves around a massive live oak, its branches winding over the roofline in a magnificent canopy.
But set apart from the house and nestled deep into the saw palms and wax myrtles sits Benham’s studio. It is an artist’s dream: a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows looks out over the marsh, a polished concrete floor gleams, and high ceilings set off bright splashes of color. The space is immaculate. Benham likely tidied up for our visit, but I also get the sense she’s the kind of artist who works methodically, everything in its right place.
As she paints, I peruse the books on her shelves—names like John Singer Sargent, Georges Braque, and Pierre Bonnard jump out—and it’s clear Benham knows her stuff. “I majored in art history, and we’ve collected art for years. So I feel like I know good art!” But she really draws personal inspiration from Fauvism, the colorful work of German expressionism, a sweet spot somewhere between the bright hues of Ivon Hitchens and the moody depth of Louise Balaam. “I look at other artists online, and I know what I’m aiming for,” she says. “Sometimes I can’t achieve it! But I know what I like.”
Benham started taking lessons in Atlanta, and one teacher really hit the mark. “She was a genius with pastels. She taught me to layer until it starts to vibrate with color. That’s what made me stick with it.” Indeed, some of Benham’s early pastels have the depth of oil paintings, rich with color. As she and Doug spend more and more time on the Island, she can no longer commit to consistent classes. But it seems to work for her. “Just getting out here and doing it all the time—that’s the learning curve,” she says. Watching her paint, it seems to me that Benham works on instinct, feeling around for paintings, colors, and scenes that excite her and simply giving it a try. And this beautifully uncomplicated process is what makes her work so damn good.
The light has shifted in the studio, and Benham calls it quits for the day. We stand gazing at the immense view. “You’ve got this beautiful green in the summer, and then it goes to a gorgeous gold in the fall,” she says, squinting out at the marsh. “Do you see those hints of green going through it? And earlier you saw a little bit more red! You can’t help but look out and think, I’ve got to get this on a canvas. Every single color is out there.”
Benham isn’t working from a heady conception of what her paintings should look like—instead, she is deeply grounded in her natural settings, playing on the daily inspirations of this place. The half-finished painting on her easel now depicts the rangy dune grass behind the Ocean Course, where she runs her dogs in the evenings. Listening to her talk about the colors in the marsh, it’s clear this studio, the canopy of live oaks, and the light on the saw palms are all a deep and fundamental part of her process.
Our conversation then turns to conservation—something Benham and her husband care deeply about. Since building their house, she has joined the board of the Kiawah Conservancy and plans to spend much of her time on the Island, learning and growing in her role. “It’s a knowledgeable, dynamic group of people,” she says. “They make me want to do my part.” From our vantage point, we can see the Stono River disappearing into the vast horizon, pristine and unobstructed. A flock of ibis flies past, wings low across the marsh, heading east towards Folly Island. “Looking out at this view you realize the marsh needs to be protected, wildlife needs to be protected,” says Benham thoughtfully. “This Island is a gift, and we have to take care of it to the best of our ability.” — H.W.