I sat down with Elizabeth Billings, in the shade of a maple, one hot Friday afternoon to talk about her piece, “From the Inside Out.” The piece is installed in the Chase breezeway. In this brief interview we spoke about how the piece was created, the importance of having “nature” everywhere, and coming from the heart in your actions. I hope you enjoy this conversation.
The bold type is me, Heidi, and the normal type, is Elizabeth.
What is the name of the piece installed in the Chase Breezeway?
From the Inside Out
Why is it named that?
It is named that because I wanted it to speak to our very essence. Everything has a core from which things spring [from the inside out].The piece is quite simple, it’s pure and with any luck there enough going on to keep you looking and seeing things over time.
How did you design the piece? Was it a lightening moment?
My pieces come out best when I visualize them completely. I had seen that space and thought “what could go there?” I do not remember where I was, but suddenly I saw it. Then it is just magic, I am not sure if that is exactly what it is, but it feels like magic to me.
How long did it take you to make the piece?
It is hard to say.I started drawing in January. The saplings were harvested around March. At the same time, I had two other projects, so it is hard to know the exact time frame. I started taking the bark off the saplings in March, and finished in early June. Once the bark came off, a clear coat of varnish went on the saplings, and then all the wires needed to be strung.
How do you not get bored?
After college, I was a production weaver at home, working in my father’s office. He would be gone all day, and say the same thing to me when he got home, “How can you do that?” I just love it. I suppose it is meditative in a way. Some one once asked me why I weave and I blurted out, “I can’t not do it!”.
That takes a lot of patience, I would think. I would think determination with a little vision thrown in!
When we first started installing the piece, I felt like it was very repetitive, but it ended up being a very powerful experience for me.
And it becomes something else, right?
Yes, it really did. I am wondering if you normally work with people to create your art?
I normally work alone.
I ask because, you mentioned that Jeff [Sheilds] came over to remove some bark, Ada helped you a little bit, and your children helped you cut down the saplings. It seems like it isn’t just you…
Well, it isn’t just me, but the majority of it is. Ada and Susanna helped paint because I had another project that had a tight deadline. I think the kids have always helped. I remember doing a piece for a gallery in New York, and being really crunched, and Susanna saying to me, “Mom, we are going to get you through this.”
Wow, that is really nice.
And, she was little—maybe nine or ten.
So your family has always been a part of the process?
Well, we homeschooled. And we’re a family. And work is life. I am interested to know Heidi, what was so meaningful about the installations experience for you?
I think it is important to do different things on a regular basis. I sometimes get involved in my routines, and I just needed to use my hands. Being a part of the process was powerful—seeing the piece come together was really neat.
I am interested in your thoughts on putting such a unique and unconventional piece in the law school. I know you have installations in other law schools too. Law schools are sometime hierarchical, and standard. What do think it says about having a piece installed that interrupts that.
I think that bureaucracy needs humanity—needs nature. The committee for the CUNY installation asked, “Why Nature?” And it makes so much sense [to have nature]. People say, women’s rights are human rights, well social issues are environmental issues. This is our world. We have to start thinking of things as a whole, rather than this, and that, and the other thing.
One thing I really like about your art is that it is inspiring. It makes me want to go make a sculpture myself. Maybe I will pile some rocks up or something this weekend. In rural Vermont there is beauty around us everywhere. However, there is something about humans creating art from the natural world , and the conversations that come from art, which enrich your life. Art is very valuable.
I’ve questioned myself and how it happened that weaving moved into sculpture. I know I wanted to do things with my hands, and be outside and do something with my children. Doing my work, but encompassing the children. I just remembered something Michael and I would do when the children were really little.We would take walks and if we couldn’t take them together, we would go the same path and leave things for each other. You know, it wouldn’t be much, sticks placed a certain way or rocks lined up, aligning things in a new way or rather calling attention to what was already there. Perhaps that was the beginning of the sculpture aspect.
Any advice for people who want to start being more creative in their life everyday or are afraid of what might come of it, in the sense of the product not being that great.
If you make it out of natural materials it can always just disintegrate!
I think there is risk in everything. But, if you come from your heart I think it is going to be alright. Or at least for me it is. If I think about it too much in my head, it can get over intellectualized, and the essence gets shifted. Your head is a good thing to use, but if you can remember to use your head and come from your heart, everything looks and feels better, even the really hard things.