Works of art generally don’t share space with 142 species of endangered birds, bobcats, and bats. But the Raven Ridge Natural Area, which straddles parts of Hinesburg, Charlotte and Monkton, is not a conventional gallery. Far from being a box with white walls, this place can trace its origins to a continental ice cap that was melting 15,000 years ago. Its “walls” are steep rock faces, speckled with lichen and shaded by towering deciduous trees.
This is where the artist from Tunbridge Elizabeth billings chose to set up an installation – one of three that she created in different locations as the very first artist in residence at the Nature Conservancy.
Last year, the pandemic shattered the Vermont Chapter’s plans for a 60th anniversary gala to celebrate its work and thank its supporters, explained director of philanthropy Catherine Newman. It was then that an anonymous donor stepped in and offered to fund an artist residency for one year. The goal of this “engagement”, according to the Conservancy’s website, was “to elevate the relationship between nature and art in an unprecedented year in which many have found solace in nature.”
Many, indeed; Communications Director Eve Frankel said Seven days in 2020, an unprecedented number of visitors took refuge in the natural areas of the Conservancy around the state. The website even cautions visitors to Raven Ridge, “If the parking lot is full when you arrive, please consider using other trails. ”
The area is, after all, a sensitive habitat, and its protection is essential. The Conservancy is a worldwide organization with a chapter in each state; in Vermont, said Frankel, the nonprofit is the second largest landowner, with a network of 58 such natural areas.
Maybe the public doesn’t need the extra incentive to wander these wilderness areas. But visitors to Raven Ridge, LaPlatte River Marsh Natural Area in Shelburne and Equinox Highlands Natural Area in Manchester will surely find their experience enriched by the reflective embellishments of Billings.
The artist’s engagement with these sites began last September; its facilities opened to the public last week. In between, Billings walked, studied, reflected, rubbed trees, took photographs and, finally, created the materials for these works. Her contemplative observations will continue throughout the summer in journal and photographic form, shared on the Conservancy’s website.
Last week Billings and Frankel met this reporter at Raven Ridge – or rather the little parking lot in front of the entrance – for a tour through the facility. And “high” is the key word. A wooden boardwalk accessible from the road crosses a swampy grassy area in the spring, after which the trail climbs up. Navigation requires special attention to protruding rocks and fallen branches along the way.
As we had a friendly chat – three silhouettes speckled with sunlight filtering through the trees – we could hear but not see tiny creatures scurrying through the greenery. The woods met our human disturbance with gentle rustling; when we calmed down it was like a fellowship.
Twenty minutes later, we saw the first blue ribbons: a cyanotype-treated cotton fabric that is just inches tall but over a thousand feet long, Billings said. It winds around and among the trees, loosely following the ridge line above. The horizontal strip, placed at about eye level, “just draws attention to the spot,” Billings said. It reinforces the feeling of being that was already there, creating a form that embraces but does not enclose.
You can first associate the ribbon with the blue plastic sap lines in a maple grove, but this is not entirely correct. “It’s like the lines of maple syrup; this is the ridge line; it’s Christo, ”Billings suggested, referring to the late artist famous for his massive shrouded installations. “I thought of blue because of the water and the sky, and it’s such a nice contrast to the green.” In winter, of course, this thread of blue will assert itself against white.
It seems Billings, a longtime ikat weaver, created some kind of weaving with the elements – “a layering of human intentionality,” as she put it.
She marvels at how this wilderness is restoring itself – “The water flowing from the rim carries minerals to the ground,” she said – and how death breeds new life in an endless cycle. .
“It’s temporary,” Billings said of his organic installation. “Were temporary.”
This Buddhist sensitivity suits him; Billings is gentle and kind, though his devotion to Earth is as fierce as it is spiritual. She cries at the thought of the evil that humans inflict on the planet. And she made scientists cry, Newman said, with her “poetic” presentations from Zoom to Conservancy staff.
“I want to reconnect people with nature,” Billings said. “I hope the essence of this work is an offering to the courage to reconnect.”
Billings has made such offers in the form of installations across the country – often created with another artist from Vermont Andrea Stix Wasserman – over 25, she said. Her interior works typically use natural materials, such as the mural titled “Maple Apple Birch” that she and Wasserman installed at Burlington International Airport in 2001. She has also performed eco-oriented artist residencies with her husband, photographer Michael Sacca.
At the LaPlatte River swamp, Billings had the opportunity to work with his son, Mario Sacca, a carpenter. The project is more conventional but no less thoughtful: the two designed and built a graceful bench that faces and reflects a curve of the nearby river. Its uprights are tree forks, its seat a board with a sharp edge.
At Equinox Highlands, Billings again used cyanotype blue fabric strips, this time to create a maze. It’s unexpected in the middle of the woods, she noted, “but people know what to do with it.”
You can’t help but wonder if Billings came for her love of nature and genetically conservation. It is linked to the namesakes of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park, which includes a working farm and a heritage museum.
It was there that Frederick H. Billings established a managed forest and model farm. Her granddaughter, Mary French Rockefeller, and her husband, Laurance Rockefeller, conservation advisor to the Presidents, then offered the property to the U.S. government.
Elizabeth Billings is not about creating historic monuments; his work for the Conservancy is not meant to survive the ages or attract hordes of tourists. His installations are subtle provocations, reminders that humans are connected to the web of all life. She likes to quote the Scottish American naturalist and author John Muir: “[F]or going out, I found out, was really going in. ”
“That’s what it is for me,” concluded Billings.