Hawke’s Bay artist Billie Culy turns everyday bits into whimsical dreamscapes. India Hendrikse writes.
Picking up a tiny pink plastic shopping bag, as small as a fingernail, Billie Culy smiles. It’s evident that her tiny creations – a two centimetre-high dog, minuscule painted landscapes, thimble-sized vases – all bring her immense joy. “I want people to feel they’re in another room or space for a moment,” the Hawke’s Bay based artist shares, speaking about her latest body of work, which boasts a delightful array of dioramas.
Billie’s recent exhibition, A place to be, showed at Wellington gallery Kaukau and then at her Napier studio. But it was a nerve-wracking experience for the 27-year-old artist, as this body of work is brand-new territory. Throughout her twenties, she’s become known for immaculate photographs of floral arrangements. She has an ability to turn even the most mundane into whimsical, dreamy art. One photo captures clothing strung on a washing line at the beach. Another, which was spotted by New Zealand fashion designer Maggie Marilyn and printed on a t-shirt, places a persimmon next to a tulip, framed by a pink curtain. The collaboration, which saw two of Billie’s works printed onto t-shirts, raised funds for Sweet Charity, an organisation that supports mental health efforts.
The variety of prints Billie has produced over the years is spectacular and has seen her exhibit multiple times. But in a change from the early days, perfection and symmetry have recently been swapped for subtle peculiarity. Silk backdrops have been replaced with motley painted ones, and nostalgic still lifes are woven with kitsch curiosities; different finds from charity shops, such as tacky plastic cups, ceramic fruit and embroidered handkerchiefs, are placed about the frame, some with price tags intact. What ties everything together is a pastel palette and a penchant for turning tired objects into tantalising ones. “You’ll see that there’s things that are worn or things that have had a bit of a life, because I find most things from op shops,” she tells. “They’ve had something imprinted onto them and I like trying to translate that into a photo.”
All Billie’s art is rooted in a feel-good desire. “I use colours that make me feel joyful and peaceful,” she says. “I can’t have a colour around me that doesn’t make me feel good.” Seeking joy is why she started making the dioramas; she found herself in a difficult headspace after returning to her hometown of Napier last year, when the pandemic forced her and her partner to come back from London. She felt displaced and unsettled, and wanted a distraction. Making is her therapy. “I wanted to occupy my mind a bit. I started making these dioramas and I swear they saved me! They took me into another little world, so I started creating these dreamy spaces that I wanted to be in or transport myself into. When you’re making things, you really have to focus on that one little thing you’re doing. You get so swept up in that.”
Since she was a child, Billie always dreamed of being an artist. Both her parents are creatives – her mum is painter Leanne Culy and her dad is photographer Brian Culy – so art was always encouraged. “Mum and dad always taught me that being an artist can actually be a viable career if you want to make it one. They were always really supportive,” she says. She’s inspired by the likes of artists Erica Van Zon, Lisa Walker and Sione Tuivailala Monu. “Their work is very playful, and inspired me to branch out more with my sculptural dioramas,” she muses.
The dioramas take Billie back to being a kid, where she’d make them out of cardboard boxes at school. While her adult versions are a lot more sophisticated and sit within wooden frames, they still draw on the same principles of reusing material, including boxes found at Mitre 10 and pieces of plastic saved from bins and the beach. She uses clay, too, and loves how each piece has imperfections. They’re reminiscent of the beautiful naivety of childhood. “There’s less flaws and moments like that in my past work,” she shares. “The dioramas definitely have a quirky feel to them; a little bit shambolic sometimes, but those are the little moments that I love. The little cracks or things that are a bit wonky or the scale’s a bit off… I love that.”
Whilst her photography work isn’t the main focus of her latest exhibition, if you look closely at the dioramas, you can see it’s still referenced. “I wanted to bring in parts of my previous work into a three dimensional form,” she explains. A miniature painting of a vase of flowers hangs on the wall of a tiny room, and a vase of tulips sits on a table that even a children’s doll might be too big to eat at. The prints she did exhibit play with scale and illusion too, with Billie painting directly onto her photos, adding messy brushstrokes to perfectly crisp still lifes.
While originally Billie just made art wherever she lived – including a small flat in London, her parents’ seaside home in Haumoana, and her base in Napier – having an art studio has added a purposeful element to her work. Nestled in a 1920s art deco building in town, the light-filled studio consists of two rooms. There’s a potted banana palm, big panelled windows which create shafts of light across art prints on the walls, and a big desk covered in bits of paper, pastel paints and well-loved brushes.
Billie works alone, which allows her to tap into her imagination. “I get lost in my mind a lot, I’m a bit of a dreamer, which I think shows in my work,” she says. “I definitely find when I’m alone I think about things the most and create the most.” I ask what she’d dream up if she was creating a diorama for a teeny Billie to live in. She delights in the question, saying: “They all are a bit like I would live in them, that’s the point of why I made them, I wanted to make some dreamy spaces that would transport me somewhere. But if I did make one, I’d make a really cute bed with a peggy square blanket and lovely pillowcases. I’d make a little window that looks out to the sea. I love being in bed.”
As is the way with creative professions, the pressure to make ends meet can turn a passion into a chore. But it’s something Billie is conscious of. “I’ve gotten into a bad habit of just making for a show, rather than making for the sake of it,” she shares. “But with the dioramas, I wasn’t planning on showing them originally. So I’m going to try and do that more often and try not to think about where work will be exhibited.” She wants to make art that fills up her cup, is unrushed. “I want to try and be more mindful about what I make,” she says. “To me, these dioramas felt like a big risk because they’re so different from what I had been doing. But I think it’s important to do that.”