Betsy Eby: Leading a Poetic Life

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Written by Brenda Stevens & published in Columbus Arts Magazine

My first encounter with Betsy Eby’s captivating encaustic paintings was at the Columbus Museum in 2013. I just stood there, mesmerized; I’d never seen anything like them. So, I’m very happy to have the opportunity to meet her and talk to her about her work and her life.

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Betsy, I know you spend part of your life each year in Maine. Talk about living by the sea.

I grew up by the sea, in the Pacific Northwest. I lived in Seaside, Oregon as a young girl and I love the Oregon coast. It’s the place that makes me feel connected to my roots. Maine gives me a sense of home. The island where Bo (husband, Bo Bartlett) and I live in Maine is extremely wild. We are twenty four miles out to sea; just the two of us on a rock, surrounded by the elements. We feel we are a part of the wild, wild, unrelenting forces of nature, but also feel small by it, and grateful to it. It is an incredible place.

On your website you wrote a message titled Habitat and the Artist. I love the way you describe your childhood years in Seaside,

“…an ideal life, where I roamed freely around the forests, fished with string and stick for polliwogs in the cow trough, mucked through the swamp of skunk cabbage, and played follow the leader with my pet duck”.

That’s a wonderful image of place. You said you believe,

“habitat is so important to an artist because artists absorb, filter then express our surroundings, we must place ourselves in environments that foster our process”. I believe we are porous, particularly as artists. We can’t block out the external. Everything informs our work, whether it is music, poetry, place or something else. It is a commingling of information.

Some artists, including me, find it hard to maintain balance between their responsibilities to family, spouse, self, making art, other jobs, and in many cases, children. It is something I constantly struggle to do. Do you have any helpful tips or guidelines for achieving that balance?

I do have a discipline of working every day. I’m in the studio every day, seven days a week, when I’m not traveling. I paint every day and I play the piano two to three hours every day as well.

You are a classical pianist?

Yes, so I really work hard on that, and on my painting. I think the secret to balance is that you somehow tap into flow, whether it is painting, or music or meditation or walking. One exercise Bo and I practice each night before going to sleep is naming three things that went well for us during the day, and why.

That’s a healthy habit; keeps you positive. What gave you the idea to do that?

Well, there is a psychologist named Martin Seligman who is the founder of positive psychology and wrote the book, Learned Optimism; How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. He was the director of the Positive Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania. The book lends practical offerings as to how to shape mindset toward wellbeing.

As I understand it, Learned Optimism is the idea in positive psychology that a talent for joy, like any other, can be cultivated.

Yes, I’m fascinated about how plastic the mind is and how we can make changes in the mind. The exercise of naming three things that went well, and why, comes from his book. What I like most about it is that it asks you to state why something went well, rather than just asking you to make a gratitude list. I love that component of the exercise. The “why” emphasizes ownership, acknowledges a skill set; that you (or the other person) worked at resolving a conflict. It didn’t just happen by accident.

Are there other disciplines or practices you incorporate in your daily life to help achieve a feeling of balance?

Here are the things I practice: writing my Morning Pages, listening to my dreams, eating organic and lots of vegetables, drinking lots of water, yoga, exercise, painting and piano every day. A discerned life is important to me; discerning what is true and what is essential.

Morning Pages, the exercise I just mentioned, came from the book, The Artists’ Way, by Julia Cameron. One of the things both Bo and I practice is writing our Morning Pages when we wake up in the morning. Instead of hitting the ground running, thinking only of all the things that need to be done, we take time while having our morning tea to write down what is on our mind; concerns, dreams, whatever thoughts we may be having. I feel like that time, the bridge between the sleeping life and the waking life, is the most fertile time of the day and we should let that steep for a little while, honor that part of our day. It happens to me rarely, but sometimes when something’s going on in my life, maybe I’m dealing with some conflict, I’ll wake with an answer. I’m fascinated by that.

Several years ago you and Bo made a feature length film, SEE, “an art road trip” which premiered at the Camden International Film Festival in 2013. Kenny and I were in the audience the night it was shown at the Columbus Museum. We loved it and recommended it to all our artist friends, and we really enjoyed the Question & Answer session after the movie. You both gave everyone a chance to get to know you a little better. How did you come up with the idea to make the movie and what did you learn from the experience?

We started with the idea around 2005, during a time when America wasn’t being perceived well in the international community because of the Middle Eastern invasions and we were aware of a contrast, between the heaviness of what was happening in the news and the beauty that is everywhere in our everyday lives which has the potential to transcend strife. We began to write a script, about a couple who go stumbling along looking for the beauty in America and how art is around us all the time, and we planned to introduce a plot point, to give it structure, but then Bo had a series of events happen to him. We had started recording and then this thing happened to Bo, and we thought, “We don’t need the artifice of a plot point”. Here was this divine plot, for better or worse, which was dropped in our lap; sort of this morbid contrast of savoring eyesight, and his eyesight going away.

The threat of losing one’s vision is an artist’s worst nightmare. That was a terrifying experience for the two of you. I was relieved, along with the rest of the audience, that the story had a happy ending; Bo had surgery to remove the tumor pressing against his optic nerve and that restored his eyesight.

When Bo was telling his story, he talked about how amazing our brains are and how his brain compensated for his loss of vision. He said he misidentified a boat three times when you pointed to it out on the water. At first he said it was a sailboat, then he said it was a tugboat. When you gently corrected him each time, he would look again and tell you what he was seeing, or what he thought he was seeing. The third time, he guessed correctly, it was a ferry. He explained that his brain was making an attempt to fill in the missing information by pulling up slides of every boat he had on file. Everything we’ve ever seen, smelled, felt or tasted is archived in there. On your website, you write about SEE,

“We celebrate the gift of seeing and the visible world around us, we speak to the ideas of how memory can hold us to habit and how habit can lead us to see with blinders on. What we think we know are just rehashed versions of by-gone events or lessons learned. Our challenge is to see with fresh eyes every day”.

Betsy, I want to learn about encaustic painting. I know so little about the medium I’m not sure what questions to ask.

That’s ok, I’ll just sort of give you what I know, Encaustic is an old, old medium that dates back to 4th century BC. The first application of encaustic was excavated out of Egypt. The Egyptians used encaustic to paint funerary portraits, portraits of the deceased, which they placed on the mummy. These are known as the Fayan portraits.

The portraits were painted on the mummies?

No, they would paint the face of the deceased on a wood panel and then attach it to the mummy’s head where the face would be. The Metropolitan Museum has a lot of them. Gorgeous. Encaustic is beeswax and Damar varnish, (which is just a tree resin; tree sap), and pigment, and involves heat; fusing, burnishing. The material is archival; the pigment will hold lightfast in the wax. So the Fayan portraits are still very rich in color.

How do you get the color into the wax?

The wax is heated and then the pigment is put in. I use pigment blocks. I don’t use powder pigments because of the airborne toxins in them. I heat the purified beeswax in pots, mix with Damar crystals, then I pigment it. I move it around on the canvas with big knives, spatulas and brushes and blow torch it, and layer it. –And that’s how I paint.

Tell us a little about what you are working on now.

I’ve worked with cold wax and with hot wax. Working with cold wax, I was tapping into the ambient nature of the work; diffused edges, softness and rhythm. Where I’m from, there is coastal fog, mist, giant fir trees. Puget Sound is dewy, and misty, with moss and fern; mysterious, ethereal landscapes. The work was born from that. Now, since moving here to the south, there is a change afoot in my work. I’m less interested or less contemplative about that soft diffusion. I’m more aware of the edges of things, elements bumping up next to each other. I see edges everywhere here; light against really distinct shadows, cultural edges, the religious and the secular, and all of that is informing the work, in a way. So I’ve been asking myself this year, how I can get that into my work, without abandoning what I do. So over the course of the summer on the island, I started working on a new series of work that I’m really happy with, using hot wax and achieving sharp edges. I’m interested in the sea; the froth, the magnetic power of the sea, the crashing elements. So the work here in the studio here is a continuation of that.

Betsy, our mutual friend, Cathy Fussell suggested I ask you about the tea house in your back yard.

On my birthday several years ago, Bo and I were walking, as was our habit after a work day, and we were walking on our property on Vashon Island, in Washington. We had several plots of property we had joined together into about ten acres. Bo suggested we take the steep trail that led to an area we called the Sanctuary. It was our favorite spot, a mystical place. Owls lived down there and they would sometimes come swooping down, sit low on a branch and look at us. As we made our way along the trail and came around closer to the Sanctuary, I saw something through the trees I hadn’t seen before. There, in our special place, sweetly perched, stood a beautiful Balinese tea house. The door was flanked with potted tulips and inside Bo had placed two cushions on either side of a low table. I was reading a list of birthday presents he had surprised me with when he surprised me again. He proposed to me. He proposed to me in that beautiful tea house. When we moved here, we dismantled the tea house and brought it with us. The evening he proposed, he also threw a giant surprise birthday party for me. It was very special. He is a beautiful soul.

What a romantic love story! Thank you for sharing that with us.

Your website (www.betsyeby.com) is simple, elegant and easy to navigate. I encourage our readers to visit to learn more about you and your art. I especially enjoyed seeing photographs of your Wheaton Island and Columbus studios and watching the videos of you working in them. Thank you, Betsy, it’s been a pleasure spending time with you.  

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