Painting with Fire: A Visit with Betsy Eby
March 10, 2014 | by Liz Arnold
Encaustic means “to burn.” The ethereal quality of Betsy Eby’s encaustic paintings belies the labor-intensive process of their making—an ancient method involving heated wax, damar resin (the sap of a Southeast Asian pine), and pigment applied in translucent veils with brushes and knives. Using a blowtorch, she liquefies the wax and fuses the layers with fire.
Eby’s solo show, “Painting with Fire,” is now at the Morris Museum in August, Georgia. Eby is also a classical pianist, and many of her works are titled for musical pieces; her delicate compositions often seem to possess fluttering rhythms reminiscent of piano music. Eby is steeped in the Romantic era’s exploration of the interplay of senses. In a new book, Betsy Eby, art historian David Houston contributes an essay about synesthesia in her work, exploring the connections between sound and image. He mentions Baudelaire’s idea of correspondence, “anchored in the belief that sensory experiences can correspond to common emotions.” One of the surprising benefits to viewing Eby’s work in person is the engagement of another sense—smell—in the presence of natural beeswax. Drawing from poets and philosophers, composers and visual artists, her paintings resonate as much with history as they do modernity.
I recently spoke with Eby from her studio in Columbus, Georgia, where she lives with her husband, the Realist painter Bo Bartlett, in his childhood home. (The Morris Museum is also hosting a concurrent show of Bartlett’s work, “Paintings from Home.”)
I go back and forth between hot wax and cold wax, pouring, and vertical and horizontal application. I’m less interested in the formulaic rigors. In “pure” encaustic painting, you have these little tins that hold melted wax in different colors. There’s a greater methodical process. I’m more attracted to going back and forth between hot and cold wax, because it allows me to have a more intuitive approach to mixing color, and application. I want to really push the luminosity and get my gestures quite thin at times.