Feature article, cover story.
Life Lessons from the Horselady
Story and Photos by Kathryn R. Burke
[Montrose Monitor, 2014] IN EVERY COMMUNITY – especially the smaller ones like we have in western Colorado – there are usually a few individuals who are truly unique. Not peculiar, not eccentric, but extraordinary, an absolute one-of-a-kind. In our community, Alice Billings certainly fits that description.
“Everyone knows where she is and where she’s been,” says a local businessman, whose ice cream shop she frequents. “She leaves a trail wherever she goes!” Alice travels in a cloud of llama hair, bits and pieces of alfalfa, hay, and clumps of what happens after her beloved horses eat both.
When you spot her in the pasture or around town, she’s often dressed in paint-spattered clothing, colorful ‘crocs’ (in summer) or muck boots (in winter), and a beat-up old hat clamped down on her unruly, curly hair. When she’s not working her day job, she’s usually working with horses or painting them. (And occasionally chasing after one of her ‘Houdini’ llamas.)
Another thing that earns Alice Billings her billing as “unique” is that she has created herself to be who she was, is now, and wants to be in the future. Alice is the essence of a true renaissance woman: artist, musician, poet, author. Now add educator, equine communicator . . . and self-described ‘horselady.’
Alice’s path to ‘uniquedom’ has not been an easy one; it’s been fraught with curves and switchbacks. She didn’t grow up in a barn, although now she wants to live in one. And although she’s always loved horses and rode as a child, she only recently started riding again (after 35 years). She comes by her art genetically, but her love of horses is learned. Her life journey is a balance of heredity and life experience.
Alice grew up in Queens, the daughter of a Bohemian artist and cartoonist who was also an art teacher. She made her first drawings and paintings working alongside him in his studio. “I was four years old,” she says. “It was from my father that I learned the importance of drawing and of understanding color.” She followed in his footsteps, studying art and music and earning a degree in both.
But the next step in her crooked path took her to Hollywood, then later to Ridgway; she spent 32 years as personal assistant to actor Dennis Weaver in both locations, and worked in Ridgway with a large-animal veterinarian. And she kept on painting. Living in Ridgway, maybe inspired by the Weaver western connection, or influenced by the many ‘horse people’ who live here, Alice began ‘collecting’ real live horses as well as painting them. And all the while her love of horses continued to grow.
She feels there is a special bond between humans and horses. Alice’s ranch, Thunder Heart Haven, is a sanctuary – for her, for ‘senior’ or wild horses that she rescues, for students who want to learn more about the human/equine connection. To foster that relationship, she offers workshops and classes at the ranch. She has also moved her easel to the barn. “The horses are where my heart is,” she explains. “I like to draw and paint them here, to be with them. I plan to build living quarters over the barn, so I can live with them, too.”
Asked where she sees herself in the future, Alice replies: “Where I’d like to be . . . well, I’d like to turn this property into a true sanctuary, a place where I can combine horse consciousness with human consciousness. Horses are very intuitive, and women especially, maybe because they are innate nurturers, relate to them.” Men relate too, but Alice feels the “macho man” mentality often gets in the way. So, she envisions her property evolving into a sort of female human/horse/educational center or retreat. Maybe with three women living on the ranch (house, cabin, her in apartment over the barn), all three involved with the horses in some way.”
As Alice’s philosophical future evolves, so does her art. She is a complex woman. A younger Alice painted with strong line and colorful abandon, mainly with acrylics, and her vibrant equine art is well known in the region. Always strong in drawing, she is experimenting now by combining drawing with water color. “‘Color gets all the credit,’ someone once told me,” she explains, “’but value does all the work.’“
Her new work is all about nuances and is reflective of where she’s been and where she’s going next. Like her new, gentler view of her life and her future, watercolor is a subtle, softer medium. It’s refining line, defining shape with shade and shadow. But watercolor is not a splash and dash technique. “My dad, who excelled in watercolor, said it was the most difficult medium to control,” Alice notes. “It dries quickly – in most weather – and once you’ve covered up ‘white space’ with paint, you can’t get it back again. So you work quickly, in layers, building up.”
Kind of like what Alice is doing now as she builds her future. One layer at a time. “Life changes,” she says. “You need to embrace where you are and have trust that you are headed in the right direction. The horses help me do that. They help me understand who and where I need to be.”
Alice’s work my be seen at Art by the Park Gallery, 360 Sherman Street, on the boardwalk across from the Ridgway Town Park. Join Alice and her friends for a special show at the gallery, with a reception hosted by the gallery and Café Ridgway, Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014. 5-8 p.m. Libations, food, music, painting demonstrations. See more of her work at Alice Billing’s website, Horselady.us.
Update. This article was the cover story in the Montrose Monitor, fall issue, 2014. The Monitor is now part of the San Juan Silver Stage. Alice’s work is still available at numerous local galleries including Art by the Park in Ridgway, Colo. She also sells her work and teaches workshops. Learn more at Thunder Heart Haven, Alice’s ranch and Equine Learning Center. which offers Educational Equine Experiences.