RIDGWAY – One of the boldly sketched, brightly colored portraits currently hanging at the Ridgway Library (through February) is “Hooey,” the name of one of Alice Billings’ horse-muses.
“It’s all about color and horses,” Billings said of the show, her third at the library since 2007. “Their [the horses’] love is unconditional, and inspirational.”
Hooey died about six years ago, and Billings, known in Ridgway as “the horse lady,” “promised him I would write a book for him.” Now she’s done it, or almost done it. “It’s a work in progress. We’re getting closer,” she said of her collaboration with publisher Kathryn Burke of San Juan Publishing Group, Inc. “I would say it will be ready by early spring.” The portrait of Hooey, staring wisely, benignly straight at the viewer, graces the cover.
Most of the rest of her 45 works at the library are horse portraits too. Horses have been a passion and salvation for Billings from early childhood on. There is a black-and-white snapshot on her website (http://horselady.us/) of a very young Alice in her Queens living room in cowboy boots and hat. Now 64, she is almost always seen in the same well-worn, hay-flecked uniform.
She was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of a bohemian sculptor and cartoonist, “a great draftsman and colorist,” as Billings described her father. She’s been drawing and painting “all along,” she said. But a couple of major losses in her life have recently sent her back to painting.
After earning degrees in art and teaching, and following a teaching stint in New York, she moved to California, where she met and became personal assistant to actor Dennis Weaver. “For 32 years I was his Girl Friday. I cooked for him at lunch. I went on location with him. When they moved out here [to Ridgway] I made the shift with them.” In Ridgway, for the first time in her life, she had the space to have a horse. She now has seven, including three that are 27, 28 and 31 years old. “My horses are getting older,” she said. “They have definite needs, just like older people. Their thermostats don’t work as well,” for example.
Then in 2006 Weaver died, and Billings’ 16-year marriage to Grammy Award maker John Billings ended. “It was very emotional,” she said. “You have to dig deep. That’s when I really started painting again.”
The horses were a great comfort, and great teachers, she said. “Horses are always in the moment. They’re always present. If you’re going to be with them, you’re going to have to be present. Horses can’t talk, but if you’re really with them, they do speak.”
Now Billings is combining her passions: “my artwork and my horses.” Her latest project is called ELLA, Equine Life Lessons and Artwork. She is inviting anyone, kids especially, to come “hang out with the horses” at her 10-acre place at the intersection of Amelia Street and County Road 5 where it starts up toward Elk Meadows. They can ride “if they want.” Or they can “sit in plein air and draw,” Billings said. “The idea is to raise their consciousness.” And by their, she means the humans.
The look on Hooey’s face appears to be that of a already enlightened being.
Billings’ work can also be seen at Around the Corner Art Gallery in Montrose.