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'We Have To Care': Nature Conservancy's First Artist-In-Residence Focuses On Connection To Land

a long strip of cloth printed blue with tree bark patterns stretches between trees in the woods
Reed Nye
More than 1,000 feet of cloth printed using cyanotype stretches between trees at Raven Ridge in Monkton. The installation is part of The Nature Conservancy artist-in-resident Elizabeth Billing's series, titled "Together: Nature Unites Us."

A new series of art installations hosted by The Nature Conservancy aims to connect hikers to the land through the art.

Elizabeth Billings, the conservation group’s first-ever artist-in-residence, spent this winter and spring creating art based on her experience at three Vermont landscapes ?— Raven Ridge, LaPlatte River Marsh, and the Equinox Highlands.

Billings, who lives in Tunbridge, draws on nature for her large-scale public art installations. She said she wanted these three creations titled “Together: Nature Unites Us,” to instill a sense of wonder-filled connectivity between the viewer and the surrounding forest.

“I feel like if you keep walking down the path, you’ll feel that it’s almost embracing you,” she said. “And my hope is that people will feel a connection to this place, to this work, because if we’re not connected to the land, we don’t care. We have to care.”

A person stands in the woods with a strip of blue cloth stretching between trees behind them
Credit Reed Nye / VPR
Elizabeth Billings stands for a portrait at Monkton's Raven Ridge with her installation series "Together: Nature Unites Us." Billings stretched cloth between trees along ridges in the rock foundations, like water running off the hilly land.

At Raven Ridge, more than 1,000 feet of cotton cloth stretches from tree to tree. The fabric contains saturated blue tree rubbings that interact with the light filtering through the forest leaves. The installation vibrates in the wind and follows the ridges in the rock foundations, like water running off the hilly land.

Billings used a photographic printing process called cyanotype to produce the deep blues and detailed patterns of the tree bark. The material turns blue as it’s exposed to various levels of sunlight.

“The cyanotype because it’s light, it’s all about the sunlight, that’s what makes the blue. And so that’s sky and water and sun and atmosphere. It seemed to hold it all,” she said.

For Billings, there is no way to separate the art from the nature that created and inspired it.

"The cyanotype because it's light, it's all about the sunlight, that's what makes the blue. And so that's sky and water and sun and atmosphere. It seemed to hold it all." — Elizabeth Billings, artist-in-residence at The Nature Conservancy

She suspects there will be a lot of people questioning, Why? as they stumble into the installation on their walk, but that’s part of it, she says.

Billings began her tree rubbings as a field guide to the local species. Then, she began to devote a special focus on the ash tree. The emerald ash borer, an invasive insect, is killing ash trees in Vermont. According to the Vermont Land Trust, 99% of the ash population could die due to this insect.

She said the fate of the ash is unfixed, like the air between us. The cloth itself is also made of natural and destructible material. Billings said that cloth is comfortable, all around us, but it’s also very tangible and decays. Its impermanence calls the viewer to recognize their own time on this earth and how they relate to the natural world.

“It’s also to bring your attention to the fact that we’re all impermanent and the Earth ... we’re in a very precarious place,” she said.

Despite the serious future of the ash tree, the installation is fun, Billings said. The blue fabric and green leaves are voluptuous, and in the fall, the blue fabric and brown of the trees will be “like a song.”

A strip of blue cloth running through trees in a green forest
Credit Reed Nye / VPR
Elizabeth Billings' installation series will be up until the end of the year at Raven Ridge, LaPlatte River Marsh, and the Equinox Highlands.

Eve Frankel, director of communications at The Nature Conservancy in Vermont, says that oftentimes the staff gets wrapped up in data, research, and field work as biologists and scientists. Staff members were at times moved to tears during meetings with Billings, as the art reminded them of their connection to the land and why they do the work they do.

“Elizabeth reminded, I think the entire staff, certainly me, of the soul and the heart and the poetry in conservation, and that’s been an unexpected gift,” Frankel said.

All three installations are about connecting with nature and deepening the viewer’s bond with the Earth as they stumble into the art. For Billings, she said her residency has been about discovery.

“So really, my work has always been about that rhythm, that connection to nature, but this opportunity, this collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, has helped me articulate that,” she said.

The installations at all three locations will be up throughout the rest of the year.

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