Ensemble Magazine: Billie Culy on Creativity in Chaos

As for so many, 2020 was a year of complete upheaval for 27-year-old artist, Billie Culy. And, like so many across the globe, she turned to creativity to cope with that upheaval. Rosie Dawson-Hewes spoke to her about her physical and mental journey and the resulting body of work.

In early March of last year, Billie Culy and her partner, Henry Lyons, found themselves, like so many others, booking urgent flights home to New Zealand as the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. A few long days later the pair arrived in Hawke’s Bay, retreating to Billie’s family home in the hills of Napier, with no plan and no idea when they’d return to their base in the UK.

“I had 24 hours to pack my suitcase and clean out my studio space. It was quite a big thing for us to get to London in the first place, and I loved it there, so then to have to come back so soon - it was a real rollercoaster. It feels like a dream.”

It was the start of a tumultuous few months of limbo for Billie, which has resulted in a new body of work that shows no signs of the chaos she was processing while she created it.

Her new collection, Still, Here, is showing online at Parlour Projects until the end of March and comprises 10 new photographs of pared back, still life images. Soft pastels, found objects and nostalgic textiles combine to create a sense of stillness, a gentle embrace in the emotional storm that was 2020.

“I wasn’t making with the intention of showing them. I was making them because I just literally wanted to pour myself into something… It wasn’t the happiest time of my life. I was very anxious and having weird dreams. All these weird things were happening, so I just tried to put it all into something that was actually soothing. I was basically soothing myself… [processing] all my different emotions, then finding these objects which spoke to me,” she says.

“I tried to tell myself it was fine and I was lucky and should just be grateful, but I still had all those emotions.”

She says creating was a form of disassociation for her - it allowed her to zone out from the craziness of her life, in the same way many of us found comfort in banana bread or crafts. She doesn’t remember much of the process, which is not surprising given multiple scientific studies show that when your body reacts to real or perceived threats, it produces adrenaline and cortisol, which can in turn impact memory and brain performance.

“I look back at the work now and I think ‘how did I do that?’. It’s like a weird power that comes over you when you make stuff.”

It was only when Billie decided which works to include in Still, Here that she was able to see that the images, and their serene colour palettes, reflected her state of mind, and her own needs, when she created them.

“I didn’t have a proper studio at the time, it was a tiny little shared room in my parents’ house. That’s why it’s so bizarre that the works came out so calm - because it wasn’t calm at all. My mind wasn’t calm, my space wasn’t calm, my life wasn’t calm. I think that’s why they have a bit of a spirit about them. It is magical, that’s the best way to describe it. But I’ve always felt like that about making work. It is a magic thing - it comes when you don’t expect it, you look back at things and don’t really know how you did it. It’s strange but I love it.”

She describes her last show with Parlour Projects, 2018’s Windows, as “pretty full noise”, with many objects in each frame.

“I wanted this one to be way more pared back and I was really clear with what I was going to put in each work. I was probably simplifying everything because my head was a bit of a jumble. I think that’s why the works became clear, simple, serene - because that’s what I was trying to get out. Filling a frame with all sorts of stuff would not have been helpful to me at that time.”

The show has very little text or interpretation around it, leaving the viewer to make sense of the works themselves, bringing their own emotions and experiences of the past year with them.

“Everyone’s been saying to me that the work is calming. And I like that that’s what people are getting from it - it’s kind of the dream, as it’s exactly what I experienced making them.”

Dusk ocean, is like a calming exhale for her. A captured moment of serene beauty in domestic routine. It’s an image with a soft sense of hope that things will come right, normality will eventually return, even though everything is upside down right now.

“I look at that washing line and I can barely remember doing it… What was I thinking? I don’t know. But I look at it now and it’s like a deep breath. I think that’s what has struck a chord with people. It’s been so popular, but it makes sense that it would connect,” she says.

Of the 10 works in Still, Here, A State of Mind has nearly sold out all editions. “You kind of hope that people will connect with what you make, so when it does happen it’s pretty special.”

There’s a clear sense of nostalgia in Still, Here, particularly in the textile elements and domestic objects - retro plastic vessels which, placed with a considered, modern simplicity within a created environment, have become somewhat of a signature for Billie. Alongside that nostalgia, the spectre of the only person named in the works, Neville, dances around the edges of the show.

“My friend bought this house off a man who had passed away on her street and it was like walking back in time going into his house. She was getting rid of everything so… the orange curtains are from that house, some of the ceramic fruit, the towels on the washing line,” she says.

“I never met him but I feel like I know him. I’ve always been fascinated by what we collect. That’s why I love using things from op shops, because you can see where someone has used it, it’s all worn. I’m fascinated by what people keep and discard. I love that whole side of things.”

Billie still has a lot of items in London, including most of her wardrobe, and doesn’t know how or when she’ll see them again. When asked whether she chose to use items which had been left behind at a time when she’d left her entire life behind, the answer was “not deliberately”. But it’s hard not to see a parallel between what Billie left behind in London and what Neville left behind in his home and how the two come together in the formation of these works.

“The things I’ve used and found in Neville’s house are similar to things that I’ve found myself previously - like ceramic fruit and weird, exact colours that are the colours I use. I felt like there was this strange thing happening there. But I didn’t want to make the show about him in an obvious way, because the show wasn’t all about him and the things I got from him. It was just the timing.”

Neville’s treasured possessions have now gone on to have a second life and live in perpetuity in Billie's work. “I honestly love thinking about that.”

Sitting in her recently leased, sun-filled upstairs studio in Napier’s CBD, Billie is clearly in a much better headspace now. Taking on a local physical space has been a big part of that - anchoring herself in this moment, this year.

“We may try and go back [to London] at the end of the year, but we just don’t know. So we’re just pretending that we’re here for a good amount of time so we can focus on doing stuff, rather than feeling like we’re in limbo. Having a studio space helps with that - it feels good to have a space to create.”

She has an upcoming show at Precinct 35 in Wellington in July, and the walls of her studio are lined with hand-made dioramas of imagined scenes and damaged photographic prints that she has painted over.

The dioramas are a natural extension of her previous work and the practice she’s built of selecting found items then creating a specific environment around them. She started building them during lockdown, but had to put them down due to her mental load. “I couldn’t cope with those at the time. It was too much, I had to stop making them. I just didn’t feel ready for them and I wanted to spend time with them.”

She says it feels good to physically create again and hopes to show the dioramas in future. She will continue exploring the line between public and private moments, while also finding (and capturing) moments of beauty and joy in the simple tasks of everyday life, a theme which has clearly resonated in her current show. In the meantime, she’s just going with the flow.

“That’s been my motto. That’s all I tell myself - just go with it, it’ll be fine.”

You can view Still, Here, by Billie Culy, at parlourprojects.com until March 31 or follow her on Instagram here.

Ensemble Magazine: Billie Culy on Creativity in Chaos