A conversation with Tom Billings: A Chicago OG

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A conversation with Tom Billings: A Chicago OG

by Maya Ormsby

I’m standing behind Galerie F with Tom Billings where he’s examining a teepee covered in snow.  He thinks it’d be a good place to party.  For a moment, I’m convinced he might jump in; for a moment I consider following him.  Instead, he’s wandered off into the alley where he’s spotted a mural painted by local street artists: Mosher and Sentrock.  There’s a nod and a smile.  He’s happy to be back in Chicago.


After spending the mid-80’s to early 90’s in Chicago’s Wicker Park, Billings moved to Williamsburg where he spent his time in the New York art scene. “All of a sudden I was thrown in to more worldwide art—I met people from Hungary, Japan, China.  I went from being pretty well known in Chicago, to going to New York and I was suddenly a minnow in an ocean,” he explained of the experience.  Three years ago, Billings returned to Chicago from which his most recent work emerged.


In his upcoming show, Billings’s tone of play and humor remains.  In a homage to Matthew Hoffman, a mixed-media triptych titled, You are Ugly, features a large skull painted with silkscreened buildings as a set of eyes.  The silkscreened building motif shows up again in a separate piece on smaller, individual wood panels.  In Narcotic Chicken, the Pollo Loco chicken stands defiantly goading the viewer, as if to guard its shack.  And in the The Glorious Leader, a silkscreened Bob’s Big Boy with flamed-colored hair looms large edging a jump into a technicolor world.  In addition, will be parts of Billings’s mask collection, in metal and experimental ceramics.


“What I enjoy about Tom is that he’s a fringe artist.  He’s not one to conform.  Nothing is precious in his work,” says Billy Craven who will be curating Billings’s show at Galerie F.


Despite the theme of irreverence—social responsibility through civil disobedience—present within his work, there is a genuine sense of fidelity stapled in his craft.  Billings was never formally trained, although both his parents attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.   He chose instead, to learn through experience, apprenticing several times throughout his career with printmakers, potters and painters; once with the Zhou Brothers.  When I mention this leaning toward discipline, he humbly replies, “You wouldn’t know it from looking at me.”


In person, Billings is kind and good-natured, his opinions seem muted with thought, not much controversy.  In fact, what Billings seems to enjoy most about his work is the camaraderie he’s shared with other artists.  “There are so many great artists in Chicago. Right now, I’m really invigorated and excited about all these artists I’ve been meeting over the years—and the younger artists—the vitality of that.”  Or more simply, “Artists are fun.”


Like many artists, Billings is a natural storyteller.  His most notable being of his father, who was an ad man in the 1950’s with Leo Burnett.  It was here that his father created the Marlboro Man.  The humor in this vignette doesn’t seem lost: Rebel-rebel, artist-son, cigarette in hand, in the cadence of Tom Waits and the weather of Iggy Pop; you know he’s lived and you’re longing to hear his stories; follow him right into the teepee.


Tom Billings’s collection: After the First Stroke, Everything is a Correction will be on view at Galerie F, Feb. 23-26.


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