Closeup of curling birch bark.
Birch Bark Curls Birch bark curls at LaPlatte River Marsh. © Elizabeth Billings

Stories in Vermont

Artist-in-Residence at Vermont Natural Areas

Elizabeth Billings creates natural installations as an artful and contemplative thank you.

Conservation is powered by people. The Nature Conservancy in Vermont does not exist without supporters like you! Since 1960, your resounding support of nature has allowed Vermonters to seek respite and solace during this challenging year. We hear from many of you that you turn to connections in nature when feeling disconnected from family and friends.

By way of saying thanks, we are excited to announce Tunbridge artist, Elizabeth Billings, as our first ever artist-in-residence. Billings has been trained by master weavers in the US and Japan and has been involved in large scale public works of art across the country.

Elizabeth billings in a jacket and hat rubbing charcoal on paper to record the texture of tree bark.
Elizabeth Billings The Nature Conservancy in Vermont's artist-in-residence creates tree rubbing. © Elizabeth Billings

Together: Nature Unites Us

Starting Fall 2020 and continuing through this year, Billings is creating intentional contemplative spaces at three of The Nature Conservancy’s natural areas: LaPlatte River MarshRaven Ridge and Equinox Highlands. These creations, under the title "Together: Nature Unites Us," provide the opportunity for visitors to reflect and connect with nature during this unique moment in time. 

Join us! Each season, we are sharing Billings’ reflections from the field and corresponding visual journals. We hope that you will follow along and be part of our artistic journey.

View looking up into the tree canopy with fall foliage.
Vermont Fall Foliage A colorful canopy during Fall foliage at TNC natural areas in Vermont. © Elizabeth Billings

From the Field: Fall

I rounded a bend, the path leveled out and I started looking for my old friend. A huge dead standing maple that, every time I pass, magnetically, draws me near.

With a pencil, sketch book and camera in my backpack, I have set out looking for patterns in the woods this fall. It’s a chance to see beyond the surface. The patterns hold me, their endless variety, their ability to seem the same, yet be different.

I rounded a bend, the path leveled out and I started looking for my old friend. A huge dead standing maple that, every time I pass, magnetically, draws me near.

With a pencil, sketch book and camera in my backpack, I have set out looking for patterns in the woods this fall. It’s a chance to see beyond the surface. The patterns hold me, their endless variety, their ability to seem the same, yet be different.

How does nature do that? Why?

Christmas ferns. Their greenness stands out clearly among the fallen leaves. I started drawing them, and then photographing their silhouettes. Can you see how the fronds attach to the stem at the base, at the very bottom of each single leaf?

I’d never noticed.

Maidenhair ferns. The lace of the woods. They grow where soil is most resilient. They are all over at Equinox, along with wild ginger and ramps, the wild leeks. Does all the diversity, the very health of the soil, change the air? Is that why I feel so happy there?

Tip ups. A below the surface view into masterful intertwining and coexistence. I stare into these glimpses of connection. Or is it disconnection? Or is that just my narrow human interpretation? The tip ups, of course, are not disconnected in the least, they are just beginning another journey, another curve of their cycle. In a healthy forest,

is there such a thing as death?

Birchbark…… What is not to love about birchbark? The peeling, swirling, curling, white, pink, black speckled wonder of a bark. The spirals. Quite simply, they are just plain fun. I’ve brought a gazillion photographs home, like this magnificent one from LaPlatte and I’ve started reverberating the shapes into stitched drawings on vellum.

Moving from the bark of the birch, I looked to other trees. And I started making rubbings. Rubbings are an echo of a surface. They give intricate two-dimensional detail from a three-dimensional form. Rubbings illustrate infinitesimal elevations. And there is something a little magical about making them too. I am caught. I’ve made rubbings of beech (like this blistered one), birch, red oak, white oak, pine, hemlock, poplar, shag bark hickory, cedar. And Ash.

I’d like to tell you a story.

I picked up my backpack and started down from the height of Raven Ridge. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was getting lower in the sky but it was that warm week in October, so it was hard to hurry. The path goes right by a downed ash, a tall tree now horizontal—and that long horizontal surface drew me in. I put my backpack back down, took out the roll of paper and began the process of doing a rubbing.

I secured the paper to the tree and was reaching for the rubbing crayon, when a young family came down the hill. I was on the ground, next to the tree and at about the same height as their young daughter. She looked at me, our eyes met and she asked, “What are you doing???” I explained about rubbing the crayon on the paper—as a way of working with the tree—to make a drawing of the bark. I answered the question but the question lingered.

Her parents and I began talking about the technical aspects: They asked me about the crayons I was using, lumber crayons, made from pigment and clay. They work well and don’t smudge too much. They knew all about them, although not for making rubbings.

Our conversation moved to the beautiful lines of the ash bark—to the straight grain of the wood—and then, to the future of ash in Vermont. I said offhandedly, “And I am doing a grave rubbing.” We all stopped. We just looked at each other. Our eyes welled up and we were filled up, with a kind of grief. One moment spilled into the next, and then the next, as we collectively shared the imminent fate of the ash.

………..

I began visiting the three Flagship Areas when the leaves were still on the trees. They are mostly off now, having whirled their way, round and round, to the ground. The light in the woods has shifted and the shadows thrive. I’ll continue to follow these three places through the winter and on into spring. At the end of each season, I’ll be putting together a journal, a visual journal.

Just before summer begins, art installations will be integrated into each of the three Flagship Areas. I am developing the ideas right now, and look forward to sharing them with you.

Finally, I’d like to close with a poem by Cora Vail Brooks.

It’s titled, “No Two Are the Same”

each steep hour rises
or falls into or out of the next
while we do
what has been left for us undone

View my Fall Visual Journal

Expand to see more Collapse to see less
TNC Vermont's artist-in-residence, Elizabeth Billings, created her Fall Visual Journal as part of our art installation project titled, "Together: Nature Unites Us."

Fall Visual Journal

DOWNLOAD
Fern fronds peeking through snow.
Vermont Winter

From the Field: Winter

How did we get here?

Last fall, with my backpack and sketchbook, I began exploring three flagship natural areas.

I rotate through them, visiting one each week.

Sketching, photographing, walking, listening, recording, making bark rubbings.

Connecting.

Soon, each of the three Natural Areas will have its own

site-specific art installation.

Being the TNC artist in residence means I am able to be in these places over time experiencing the changes, with the seasons.

How did we get here?

Last fall, with my backpack and sketchbook, I began exploring three flagship natural areas.

I rotate through them, visiting one each week.

Sketching, photographing, walking, listening, recording, making bark rubbings.

Connecting.

Soon, each of the three Natural Areas will have its own

site-specific art installation.

Being the TNC artist in residence means I am able to be in these places over time experiencing the changes, with the seasons.

And each season is so hard to let go of.

I really, really didn’t want winter to leave:

the clear crisp air,

the snow,

the pared down color palette.

The starkness opens everything up, from views to ways of thinking.

And then, with that first waft of warm air ….

letting go is really not very hard. At all.

 

Laplatte

In January, I tentatively walked out into the marsh, following deer tracks and cattails through the snow, figuring, not too brilliantly, that if a deer could walk there, I probably could too.

I was lucky, I didn’t get wet.

The further out I walked, the more I could see.

The woods, the river, and the marsh all came into focus, at the same time, and my understanding of the place grew.

I stood on the edge of the frozen river and listened.

The blips, blops, pips, pops, gurgles, and cracks.

I was hearing a symphony of river ice sound.

The curve of the river is the departure point for the Laplatte installation. It will be a live edge wood bench, situated not far from the trail head, and echoing the river curve. The uprights for the bench are tree crotches. I am working with a woodworker, Mario Sacca. He is extraordinary, in my unbiased, objective opinion. He’s my son. We are on target for a late May installation.

 

Equinox

Here there are snow stripes, Christmas ferns sticking through the snow, and trees leaning into each other, having figured out how to work together, even under tension. And, do it with grace.

The installation for Equinox has gone through a metamorphosis, with each stage harmonizing better, more on key. Murray McHugh, the TNC Stewardship Manager for Southern Vermont, showed me a spot on a spur from the main path, where there is a large flat area overlooked by a ridge. I have sat on that ridge for hours, looking and listening to the place, letting it infiltrate my thoughts and then give my ideas a voice.

A labyrinth.

What began as a sketch, gained solidity on our kitchen table. After a heavy snowfall, I experimented with the shape and pathways using snowshoes. But the technicalities of translating the sketch have been swirling haphazardly around my thoughts

.

On a recent walk with Jack Markoski, the TNC Volunteer and Stewardship Manager, he asked me if my explorations, the work I have been doing since last fall, were to be incorporated in the installations.

It was a beautiful question. So utterly obvious I know I should probably feel embarrassed, but it sent off amazing synapses in my head. Of course, they should!

And all those swirling tangled thoughts rearranged themselves discovering a clear path forward.

The cyanotype rubbings will become the path.

In the labyrinth, the cyanotype bark cloth will be one foot wide with the top height about two feet off the ground. Imagine the blue curves in the green of summer, or almost covered in snow.

Equinox has a clear and pure voice.

I continue to wonder why. Is it because of its resilient soils?

In spending time in the woods, I stumbled upon a question that has shifted my world.

In a healthy forest, is there such a thing as death?

 

Raven Ridge

In January, I was at Raven Ridge with a photographer from Seven Days, Daria Bishop. She lives in Burlington but had never been to Raven Ridge.

She loved learning about butternuts, she thought the shagbark hickories were absolutely incredible, and she was generally game to go and do whatever. She helped me measure for the installation that will flow gently above the ground, following the silhouette of the ridge.

She loved the place and has been back, sending me evening pictures of stars through the trees.

These places matter.

This work matters.

How did we get here? How did we get to a world where understanding the conservation of places is essential to survival?

Because we care.

Guided by the Abenaki understanding that people and place are one, we can tell this story. We can share this story.

Art is essential in this sharing. Art has the ability to permeate into our thoughts, our beings, so understanding comes from the inside out.

Art can intuitively, expand our thinking.

Having TNC, a science-based organization, supporting, encouraging and working with art to share this story, our story, is profound.

View my Winter Visual Journal

Expand to see more Collapse to see less

Winter Visual Journal

DOWNLOAD