Thomas Edward Eloby Jr. was born in Coahoma, Mississippi, on 2 April 1945. He was the first of ten children and as a young man assumed a great deal of responsibility for his siblings after his father died.
From a very early age, Eloby made art. For the most part he was self-taught, taking advantage of his good hand-eye rendering skill. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Mississippi Valley State University and briefly attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was a natural artist of exceptional talent who never received accolades equal to his achievements. While well known in the Mississippi Delta, he was never recognized on a wider scale. Whenever he needed to pay a bill, he carried art to patrons in the Clarksdale area and asked them to buy it, which many did.
Eloby followed the adage “Paint what you know.” He lived his life in the Delta, surrounded by floodplains and “just plain folks.” When a landscape appears in the background of one of his works, it is flat and treeless and may have a barn or a small shack or house. The blues surrounded him all the time in the Delta, and many portraits show men holding guitars.
Eloby’s preferred subject matter was African Americans, and he is mostly known for his Mississippi Delta people. In Eloby’s portraits, the people rarely smile, instead featuring expressions best described as stoic. Many of his subjects appear in different works painted at different times, enabling viewers to see them age.
Animals, fruit, and geometric arrangements rarely appear in Eloby’s work. Skulls, skeletons, pipes, and shoes, conversely, are often included and may be central to the work, in the background, or buried in a drawing so cleverly that they are hard to find. Eloby loved to layer images. According to art scholar Betty Crouther, Eloby worked from memory, primarily using pencil, pen, or oil paint, and often spent hours drawing layer upon layer, virtually obliterating the underdrawings. Even careful viewers cannot be sure they have seen everything the artist laid down.
Eloby’s work can be extremely simple or aggravatingly complex. The complex pieces are layered with increasing densities of pigment, are always figurative, and sometimes have a geometrically oriented design. Eloby coined the term translusionist to describe this method of working in complex layers. He also said of art, “Anything that is quickly seen loses its fascination.”
In a 1979 interview, Eloby summarized the relationship between his life and art: “I feel that every black artist should say something about himself. A white artist cannot capture the dignity to the fullest extent because he does not know the inner emotions of blacks, but those emotions are part of me. I am able, through my heritage and environment, to create a painting which depicts real life situations.”
Eloby died on 3 December 2001.
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi, 1770–1980 (1998)
- Jeff Piselli, Clarksdale Press Register (6 December 2001)