Eileen Blyth and Object Lessons

By Kristine Hartvigsen

The police officer took the report with poker-faced professionalism, but Eileen Blyth suspected there might be a few snickers back at the precinct. She had arrived at the artist’s Elmwood Park home responding to a reported robbery. The thieves did not break into Blyth’s house to steal heirloom jewels, but they did make off with priceless items from her yard. Could the officer, or any average person, really comprehend the value of rusted machine parts?

“I got robbed, and someone took all my junk in my yard,” Blyth says. “There were some completed pieces of art. Some were finished sculptures. You could call it artistically placed yard art. They stole tons. I had water wells that I was using as planters, an old cash register that I was taking apart, old tricycles, and bicycle parts – great stuff. It was all gone. … I know I’ll never see those things again. I hope it was someone who really needed it.”

For the past several years, Blyth’s work has focused on repurposing found objects into unique, multimedia works of art and thoughtful installation works. The inspiration came shortly after she moved to Columbia from her native Charleston, where she had earned a bachelor’s in studio art from the College of Charleston but had struggled to sell her art on the street. To improve her marketability, she was taking courses at the University of South Carolina in graphic design and illustration. Homesick and missing her friends, she would get into her sporty 1970 regatta blue Karmann Ghia and motor back to the coast every chance she got.

“It’s such a boring ride along the interstate,” she says. “My car is my church, and I would just completely zone. I started to see tires on the side of the road and noticed the contrast of black tires on white concrete. I kept watching until one time I just stopped and picked up a piece of shredded tire. Soon I began collecting the tires and they started stacking up in the garage. Then I started painting on them and making constructions.”

As she picked up tires and tire parts, Blyth began to notice other objects on the roadways and started expanding her “junk” collection. Her late husband, Wayne Allen Webb, and two children, Russ and Rachel (now grown), were drawn into the odd treasure hunt, making it a family affair. “It was fun, and it was something that we shared,” she says. “They were always involved in my work.”

An avid cyclist who enjoys 40-mile weekend rides, Blyth sometimes would find treasures while out riding. Of course, there’s not a lot of pocket room in one’s riding jersey. “I have been known to stick stuff in my pants,” she quips, adding that she finds 12th Street in West Columbia a fertile hunting ground.

The bounty Blyth collected from Interstate 26 blossomed into a body of work that she calls the i26 Series. Her constructions soon incorporated even more found elements, and she came to add wood as a canvas, combining acrylic paint with various pieces of found metal and other objects placed on wood.

Meanwhile, with new graphic design skills under her belt, Blyth was hired by a couple of companies willing to train and develop her talents to serve their information technology missions. It was the mid-1990s, and “the Internet thing started happening.” Blyth, who has a strong drive to figure things out, was more than happy to focus on website development in those early days when others were intimidated by the evolving technology. That eventually led to Blyth partnering with some of her colleagues in founding Mainspring Interactive, a web design and consultation firm that operated in Columbia for about 11 years before dissolving in 2010.

In 1991, Blyth illustrated a book, titled To Whom the Angel Spoke: A Story of the Christmas, by Terry Kay. Released by Peachtree Publishers, the book was a critical success and “delightfully illustrated,” according to the Miami Herald. Blyth still has the original paintings used in the book.

In addition to her fine art, Blyth still performs freelance web design and illustration work. “I have to. I depend on that income as well,” she says. A seven-month freelance gig provided resources for Blyth to secure studio space in The Arcade on Main Street, from which she has worked for about a year now. “I have always loved this building. There’s just something about it.”

Since moving into her studio at The Arcade, Blyth has changed her focus from found object assemblages to her primary calling – painting. Her genre is abstract expressionism, and she believes the found object work was simply part of the journey. “I am a painter first,” she says. “I have been working toward the painting part. … I never quite felt like I was the painter that I was supposed to be. I love those found object pieces, and it was fun. But it was definitely a way for me to get to here.”

Blyth calls veteran artist Laura Spong her mentor. She met Spong about 20 years ago, when Blyth joined an artist’s group, called Osmosis, that met regularly in Spong’s home. Others in that group included then-emerging artists Jeff Donovan, Eleanor Craig, and Tom Ogburn. Together the group critiqued one another’s work and participated in group shows. “I have so much respect for Laura’s work ethic,” Blyth adds, “and I also like her work.”

Last spring, Blyth joined Spong and others being featured as Leading South Carolina Women Artists at the Southeastern Institute for Women in Politics 2011 Leading Women dinner and reception at 701 Whaley. The recognition was enormously satisfying, especially if you consider that, starting out, Blyth very nearly took a radically different path.

Blyth’s parents were supportive of Blyth’s early artistic endeavors, for the most part, until it came time to declare a post-high school plan. Her father, an electrical engineer, didn’t see art as a career path. Her mother, who also painted, was more receptive to the idea.

“My father was always proud of my artwork and took it to the office and showed it to his buddies. But in his head, he didn’t really think about it like it could be an actual job,” Blyth explains. “He thought I should be a dental assistant or something. When I told him I wanted to go to the College of Charleston and major in art, it didn’t go well. At the time, I was enrolled at MUSC (the Medical University of South Carolina) and was supposed to start dental school the following week. But my mother, she shook her finger at him and said, ‘Just write the check.’”

Blyth’s older sister, Cathy, who earned a degree in studio art as well, also encouraged her to follow her dream. “She was the one who really told me I could do it,” Blyth recalls.

Now Blyth is indulging the painter she always was meant to be. Her current body of work, collectively themed “Not What I Meant to Say,” explores the concept of selective expression. It examines the censor in all of us by drawing attention to choices about what we keep and what we discard − a process of elimination, which inescapably corresponds with our values. In creating these new paintings, Blyth might make a mark on the canvas, only to erase all or part of it.

“What if life were like that,” she posits, and everyone found such ease in editing themselves to achieve the most favorable result. Using dry brush acrylics, Blyth literally will “scrub on, scrub off” various elements on the canvas. “I was getting excited about making the marks and then discovering that erasing them gave me a similar feeling. It was cool that the act of removing the line was equal in some way to making it. The process of pushing it back, taking back my words, so to speak, was very satisfying. That the lines started looking soft and ghostlike was very appealing to me.”

The artist understands that some audiences don’t “get” abstract art, and that’s just fine with her. “There is some art that I don’t get and that I don’t care for,” she says. “I think my work is not intimidating. It is not highbrow. I really love sharing it and watching people’s expressions and hearing their comments,” even when some comments gravitate toward a dismissive opinion that “a kid could do that.” Blyth takes it all in stride.

“Just learning to draw those lines, it’s so hard,” Blyth asserts. “People might say a child can do it, but children grow up. Children haven’t been knocked down yet.” Adults basically have to relearn the carefree sensibility of the unprejudiced child’s hand, and it is not particularly easy.

Blyth began practicing meditation last year and believes in trusting one’s calmest inner voice. Years of experience have brought renewed peace and confidence to her work. “Meditation is very hard for me. I have a hard time keeping my brain quiet. But it has helped my work,” she says. “You need to trust your gut, learn to recognize the feeling, that knowing that you are right. We are all striving for that place inside us.”

For example, vivid images from a recent meditation compelled Blyth to go to her studio and draw in a 15-minute creative frenzy on the white painted walls with a graphite stick. She did not remove the paintings already hanging there but drew around them. To the casual observer, the markings might look like scribbles. But to Blyth, they are a very specific representation of that meditative vision. “Sometimes you make a mark,” she says, “and you just know it’s right.”

Along the theme of “Not What I Meant to Say,” Blyth knows that some people don’t seem to have internal censors and may say insensitive or off-the-cuff things. In a field where one constantly is exposed to public and professional scrutiny, the affable artist enjoys wide support from fellow artists, family, and friends. “I kind of wear my heart on my sleeve,” Blyth says. “There are a few people I don’t like, but that is their fault.”

Blyth’s newest paintings are characterized by wiry lines and smudges with small bursts of color. Spong’s influence is clearly in evidence. And if you look closely, you can see tiny lines subtly etched into the canvas. Blyth didn’t use any tool you can buy in an art supply store to make them; she used her fingernails. “For about a week, my fingernails were a wreck, but it felt so good to scratch directly on the canvas,” she says. There’s also a distinctive color palette forming in the series, with orange as its anchor. “It’s deliberate now. Most every painting starts with an orange ground. It’s usually going to peek out from somewhere….

“The pieces with lines and shadows are a little different. They are the step in between the three-dimensional assemblages and the newer abstract work. The lines are inspired by the objects, the rusted wire I found. They still have a presence in the work. They are still being treated as objects on a field or in a space, requiring or demanding shadows or being drawn in a way that shows their character. They are really almost still-lifes, yet the lines are more fluid than an actual object. The wires and lines have morphed into these scribbles and calligraphic marks in the new work.”

In the not-too-distant future, Blyth has a desire to take on welding but will need a larger space and equipment. She’s been a little quiet about her plans because, about six years ago, she lost part of the index finger on her left hand using a table saw to cut wood for painting. “My family gets really nervous when I start to talk about power tools!” she says. “I know my limitations. I probably will need someone with me. And I need to be patient.”

Blyth’s paintings and assemblages can be found at her studio in The Arcade and at Camellia Gallery in Hilton Head Island. Looking ahead, she would like to expand her representation to Greenville and Charlotte. Meantime, you can get more information about Blyth’s work from her website at www. eileenblyth.com. For now, she is very happy working on this new “Not What I Meant” body of work.

“This is all so new,” she says. “This is where I am going to be for a while. I am definitely in a good place.”

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