Rebecca Billingslea is from Colorado and has recently moved Belfast to work with Fitzroy, 4 Corners Festival and Duncairn Arts Centre For Arts and Culture.
She has her first art exhibition opening on July 4th at Duncairn Centre For Arts and Culture. A study in her own personal grief it might help us all in Northern Ireland as we continue to give post Troubles.
It was actually the recent grieving of a friend that caused Rebecca to reach for a brush and un-tap an artistic vocation that she didn’t know was there.
I asked Rebecca a few questions about that process, about how she discovered the therapy of art what she might want us to find from her exhibition.
When you appeared last year in Fitzroy you never told me you were a painter?
My knee jerk response is, “I wasn’t at the time!” But I’m learning we are all artists. We are carry the Divine mark of “creator.” Whether that’s in food, music, dance, painting, design, words, fabric, or whatever our medium of choice may be. But in all reality, I haven’t ever painted seriously until this year.
When did you first start doing art?
In high school and college I was much more invested in creative writing, poetry, and spoken word. Maybe 2 years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a style of abstract art. I always thought of Picasso when I thought of abstract art, so this new style was something I’d never seen before. I remember Simon Kenny and Cody Hooper’s art bringing tears to my eyes at one point. Abstract art was something I felt more that I critiqued or analyzed. Which is funny, because I’ve always seen people, memories, emotions, and music in colors. I meet someone and they are mint green. I look back on a memory from my childhood and it is lavender with flakes of silver. I hear “Happy” by Brandi Carlile and it’s soft pinks and rose golds. My mind has always done abstract art, I think… long before my brush hit the canvas.
Have you ever done it seriously?
I haven’t. When you grow up in the wild, wild West of America, there isn’t a lot of art happening. There’s a lot of bow hunting, fly fishing, shotgun shooting, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking…. Not a lot of art flowing out of the town I’m from. It just doesn’t have a high value for the people who live there, I don’t think. You live in Colorado to ski and rock climb. You live in New York to dance and paint.
Can I ask you then the process? When did you start using the art to deal with the loss of your friend? When did you think it was good enough to exhibit?
My friend Carly passed away on January 15, 2019. I had been seeing a counsellor when I first moved out here because I have a bit of a predisposition to anxiety and depression. And by a bit I mean more than a bit. I decided to be proactive and see a counsellor here just to stay on top of my mental health and I’m so glad that God went before me in that.
I honestly had no idea this was coming, but I already had an established relationship with my counsellor. My counsellor and I started working through some grieving techniques. She knew I was a bit of a creative brain to begin with, so she gave me a few blogs about grief to read and encouraged me to think of creative ways to work through my emotions.
Because no one knew Carly here, I felt like I was completely alone in my grief. No one else around me was sad about it, no one knew her here, and no one even knew I was grieving and I didn’t know how to tell all of these strangers I had only met 6 months ago that I was coming off the rails every single day. This emotional loneliness put me in a very dark place.
I felt like I was actually losing my mind. I knew I needed to do something but I had no idea what. I began reading a lot of poetry from my favourite insane person…. Edgar Allan Poe. I read from him one day, “I do not suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it.”
I decided to try and shift my posture from fighting the feelings of insanity and instead, leaning into it. So I started creating a playlist of songs that was making me feel “The Big Sad” (my joking and loving term of endearment for when my crippling depression hits).
I was listening to Foy Vance’s “Joy of Nothing” and the music and emotions and memories of Carly were all a swirl of colours for me. Greys, blacks, and hints of red… so I ordered canvases that day to see if I could transfer what was in my head and heart to the canvas and maybe just maybe, people could join me in this and I wouldn’t be on this island of grief alone anymore. I wondered if my art could be the boat that brought me back to humanity and back to sanity.
In a lot of ways I still don’t feel like it is good enough to exhibit, but the longer I’ve been in Belfast, the more I realise this is a grieving city. The longer I’m here, the more I realise everyone around me is grieving a loss in some way. I felt the concept was something worth exhibiting, even if my art wasn’t.
I know art is a mystery but can you attempt to articulate how grief comes from your soul, through your imagination and then through your hands onto the canvas?
When I was explaining my grief to my counsellor, I used the analogy of feeling like I had this massive wound I needed to lance and drain in order for it to heal. I needed to get the infection out even if it was gross and messy. That has been my process in a lot of ways.
I am still amazed at how often I’ve cried while I’ve been painting this series. It has been magical, cathartic, dark, painful, and healing all at once. Leaning into the grief and insanity instead of fighting it is what sparks my creativity and imagination. Once I quit fighting it is when I started seeing the finished product of my pieces and felt proud of what was on the canvas.
What has the process taught you about grief? About yourself?
For me, this process has illuminated how complex grief can be. There are no rules when it comes to grief. No timelines. No prescriptions. No formulas. I never realised how essential remembering is when it comes to grief.
Someone asked me about two weeks after Carly had passed away what some of my favourite memories were of her. Such a risky question. I think grief scares people. They don’t want to send the person grieving into a tailspin, so often they don’t ask questions like that.
I needed questions like that. I needed to remember her. I needed to talk about her. I cry even now as I write that because I never want her memory to grow faint in my mind. I never want her laugh to slip through the fingers of my soul. I never want her light to set behind the clouds of years gone by.
I learned so much about myself in this process. The main one was that I had to forgive myself. I didn’t realise how much resentment I had towards myself. The 4 Corners Festival was just about to kick off when Carly passed. The theme was “Scandalous Forgiveness” and I think God knew I needed that to be the theme that echoed in my soul those first few weeks of grief.
I should have written Carly her more when I moved away. I should have told her I loved her more. I should have tried harder to see her at Thanksgiving when I was home. I could have tried to help her more. I could have… I should have…
My counsellor and I began to work through self forgiveness. I decided to paint a piece entitled “I Forgive You.” People may think that is me forgiving Carly, but it was easy for me to forgive her. This piece was about the struggle of learning to forgive myself. Each abstract I’ve painted in this series, there is a song that correlates to that piece that helped me get out what I needed to in the creative process.
So I flipped on, “Come Away With Me” by Jason Polley and the paint flowed so easily onto the canvas. His lyrics, “And turning from your past mistakes ain’t as easy as it seems. When you won’t accept forgiveness, You’re left to your own schemes” helped birth this abstract. You’ll notice how soft and gentle the colours are in this piece. I have learned how gentle we sometimes need to be with our own hearts, our own mess, and our own grief.
Are you going to do more art?
I am doing more art, yes. I have a concept in place for my next series and the Duncairn and I are chatting about hopefully showing it in March 2020. I’ll also be showing more of my work at Fitzroy hopefully in the Fall when I return from visiting the states. It is so special for me that Carly took me by the hand and helped me unlock this undiscovered chamber in my heart of abstract art. I’ll do more art for her and for myself.
What do you hope people get from your exhibit?
I hope people feel something. That’s all I want. Whether they feel their own grief, remember their own loss, or stare at a canvas and feel despair, joy, freedom, distance, frustration, hope, curiosity… anything. I also am hopeful that people will feel a sense of unity through this exhibit. Perhaps someone feels like I did. Insane. Alone. Lonely.
Maybe this exhibit will show them that they aren’t alone in those feelings and it truly is what unites us all and makes us human and in desperate need of one another.
Sorrowful Rejoicing; An Abstract Art Grief Series opens on July 4th. Rebecca will be speaking at 6.30. The exhibit will then run until July 10th.