The Art of Mindful Improvisation: Lois Eby’s Paintings

West Branch Gallery
Oct 20, 2015 4:00AM

Improvisation, whether it be in music, theatre or painting, needs to be built upon a strong structure, otherwise the work seems random and disconnected. Artful improvisation comes from long practice and proficiency, like the jazz greats Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. It involves taking risks, leaping into the unknown. If the artist is grounded and in a state of open readiness, the results can be exciting and beautiful.

For the deceptively simple paintings of Lois Eby, who likes to experiment and improvise, being prepared physically and emotionally is critical. Starting with paper or panel, she first contemplates the space. “I either start with an ink line to which I add color and shape, or with color and shape to which I later add line. I improvise as I go along, adding color, line and shape to make what feels like a satisfying whole to me, while striving to preserve open space, breathing room, and energy,” she says.

Eby’s work is a testament to the Asian ink paintings and African American improvised music she loves, exemplified by her group of six ink and acrylic paintings on paper called, Six Improvisations in Black & Red. The paintings are spare yet dynamic. With a few deft strokes, Eby describes energetic movement and joy. “I strive to keep the surface open, to give it air and breath, not to fill it up too much,” she said. “I want to create something alive that moves with rhythm and pulse. I want my paintings to have contemplative space and passion for life.”

Like all of life, being an artist is both a physical and a spiritual journey for Lois Eby.  She became interested in the Zen idea that a line could reveal the inner life of the one who made it. “An ongoing, lifelong commitment to inner growth and its expression in a line, the ever deepening energy of that line, is a practice I pursue. This involves living your life and not being precious about it, but being aware of the interaction between the line and oneself and the universe.”

Grace, 2010
West Branch Gallery

In the early 14th century, ink painting flourished in the Zen temples of Kyoto. Using black sumi, charcoal or soot-based solid ink on silk or paper, an infinite range of subtle tones could be created. The quality and strength of the line depends on the artist’s control of the brush. Because of this, ink painting and calligraphy are related arts.

Eby usually adds transparent washes to her bold black lines that add dynamic liveliness to her work. The details, like circles, dots and brief splashes of line, create rhythm and add meaning. In the ink and acrylic painting, Grace Note, Eby uses three rhythmic dots; three being symbolic in many traditions. “The details have to work visually but can also provide a connection to spiritual traditions worldwide,” Eby said.

In her painting, Quartet for the Journey II. Joy, Eby’s emotionally charged ink and brush take the viewer on a journey. Following the black line, along the way we experience splotches of bold color, like energetic dances. “Creating new work is always challenging; to build on what one has done before but not repeat oneself. The further I go along the path, the harder it is. In the beginning it is enough to draw a chair but later on, the questions become ever more difficult. What is art? What is its subject and purpose? We are not given a cultural answer but must find our own, and it becomes ever more mysterious to me. So, in the end, I do what I love, what draws me and gives me meaning.”

It is certainly challenging to find your way as an artist. And, as Eby says, “Being a professional artist, while keeping my records in order and living life, as well as listening for and responding to my muse, is even more challenging. But if a painting gets as far as West Branch, it has what I envision for all my work: that sense of breathing space and rhythmic energy, working together in a successful whole of color and line in space.”

Follow West Branch Gallery on Artsy to see more work by Lois Eby.

West Branch Gallery