Whitehot Magazine

Interview With American Artist Tom Bills

 American artist Tom Bills

By TOM BUTTER October, 2018

I visited artist Tom Bills in Cape Breton Canada, in mid-October of 2018, to see his extraordinary sculptural installation in a small wooded area adjacent to The Inverness County Centre for the Arts.  Directed by Elizabeth Whalley, the Arts Centre functions as a lively and vibrant community resource for the town of Inverness and surrounding population, home to approximately 17,500 people, within 1,480 square miles. This place is a remote and isolated part of the province of Nova Scotia. Our goal for this interview is to talk about this outdoor public project of Tom’s, keeping an eye towards Tom’s earlier work.       

Tom Bills “Outward Curve” and bench 2009 24”h x 3”w x 8”d. flame-cut steel                 

Butter: Tom, could you talk a bit about these pieces installed here at the Arts Centre?

Bills: Yes. These pieces hung in a gallery before they came up here to the woods. I hauled them up from a show I had in Brooklyn. I was asked by Elizabeth Whalley, the director of the Arts  Centre, if I was interested in placing work on a “sculpture walk” she was creating at the Centre. I  liked the idea, and found the way my work spoke to me in the woods seemed much more interesting than the way my work spoke hanging on a wall. Suddenly it made a lot more sense. The sculptures maintained their identity in the bush. They held their own and interacted with it.  The woods took the “art world hype” out of them. I didn’t feel the need to do explain their presence but rather I felt at ease. It was simply a moment of discovery, something specifically reaching out to me. I found that viewing them in the round, three-dimensionally, away from the pretentiousness of the formal gallery space, freed the work. I included benches to offer a comfortable resting place to sit and enjoy the woods, to contemplate and become intimate with your own thoughts.

    Tom Bills "Triple Center” 2009 5’h x 4”w x 4”d. flame-cut steel

Butter: Did it still seem like art to you, did it seem like the way art looks in a white gallery?

Bills: Art has a lot of different paths with different meanings. With the kind of art I make and am interested in, all the information is there, contained within the work itself. You don’t have to bring much to it. In a gallery that’s hard to do, because you are putting the art in a context with all the other contemporary art that exists. It’s hard not to bounce it off other work, off other artists. That’s the dialogue we all use to talk about art. You know- “Whose work comes to mind? How close is it to doing what has been done before?” We often have an insight through printed knowledge before experiencing the work. A pretext to bring the viewer into a discussion.. Out in the woods that  diminishes. I don’t have a desire to place or locate them. In the woods they become more isolated, more true to themselves. They’re not asking for anything.

Butter: They’re not asking to be compared to anything from the art world.

Bills: Yeah. They are not on display, they’re not saying “I’m an art piece.” They don’t try and make that claim. They try to be individual characters. That’s what I’m trying to do. 

Butter:  So in terms of this setting, is it different from most of the places you have shown, other than your outdoor pieces?

Bills: Yeah, most of my work has usually been shown in galleries and museums. But at some point, moving my work around, managing it, getting it out in the world became too difficult. Resulting in no one seeing it. Much of my work is still in my possession. I sold enough to feel good about it, but I never pursued the idea of placing the work, of selling it. I left it up the the galleries to do that. One of the problems was the sculptures’ size and weight. Most people wouldn’t think of moving a 2000 pound piece of steel into their home or office. Buildings are designed to take heavy load however. Spreading the weight across the entire floor creates its strength. Many feared my work would devalue or damage their structure somehow. Also, it’s a total chore to move these pieces, you have to bring in laborers and equipment to move them, often that meant bringing back the artist to do it.

Butter: I have always been interested in the physical weight of your pieces. The pieces for the Arts Centre  are lighter, two people can move them. The weight of the earlier pieces has certain associations for me.The weight makes them present in a permanent, timeless way. The weight is a way of “standing your ground”, you could say. 

Bills: The weight has a sense of “Being” to it. It’s more or less permanent, defiant. It is not there to  entertain, it’s not there to demonstrate, not there to tell a story. It’s the foundation for the piece’s character. It’s the matter that houses ego. It has an undeniable presence in front of you that can’t be explained, only felt.  

                                                   Tom Bills “Figuring He Would See Her” 1988 38"h x 24"w x 9-1/2”d steel with cast lead weight approx. 1500 lbs. 

Bills: So I was just looking for a way to make my work interact, by itself, with a single viewer. If the viewer stops, pauses and thinks about it, that’s my goal. Nothing more than that. My work is just a visual stimulation; when we walk out, and see a glistening yellow maple tree we are drawn to it, we fixate on it, we love what it looks like. It’s Beautiful!  At that moment, there is nothing else. We don’t ask why or wonder how this came to be, we simply enjoy the visual experience. That’s what I want my art to do. I want it having those qualities, I want to feel pleasure from something in front of me.

Butter: You want that kind of involvement with the thing.

Bills: Yeah. I, myself, at times might be able to do that. But to expect that other people will do this is ludicrous. No one is going to have the same experience as you have, so if you accept that as a fact, then you can’t really worry whether other people are going to see it. Some will respond some won’t. Sure I like to show work in museums, galleries and in public spaces but that doesn’t change the intent. I want my work to create a response from the viewer that is natural. One that only gives a sense of itself being. I want to rejoice in seeing something new. I want to find meaning, not be taught meaning. Often I get carried away and start putting figurative references in the work but usually back away from that. The work becomes too specific. The objects take on an identity. They become someone.

Tom Bills building a bench for the exhibition at the Inverness Centre for the Arts. 2017

Butter: You mean the objects become somebody? People project someone’s identity on them?

Bills:  Right. I really don’t want to hang a piece on the wall and have a figure there. I don’t want to suggest that the work has a narrative. I want it to stay ambiguous, sexless. I want just a suggestion of something living in this block of steel or block of cement.

Butter: You want a kind of life, but not a representation of life.

Bills: Right, exactly.

Butter: The image you spoke about a minute ago- this yellow maple with the leaves spread out in space- is directly from nature, but we ascribe something “beyond” nature to it. Which is an odd thing to say, because we know it’s just nature.

Bills: It’s a visual response, purely visual. It’s not the tree but rather what it is projecting. At that particular moment in the year a color presents itself. A vibrant life that thrills us. We don’t respond to the tree but rather to the sensuous color that is radiating in front of us.

Butter: But we get the idea of how much the piece weighs by looking at it, the weight becomes like a background to the piece…also the surfaces mean a lot to you I think, they are another visual part we learn about by looking. In the pieces at the Arts Centre, the surface of the steel works like the way bark does on trees.  

Bills: I was talking with a guy about the work, and he said- “There’s nothing more beautiful than nature itself. There’s nothing more compelling.” And that was his justification for not taking art seriously.  

Butter: In this case, your art!

Bills: Yeah, exactly. (He said) “These are great, but when I look over there at that red flower or yellow maple, that’s  art...you can’t make that.” I didn’t take the opportunity to challenge the message, but I thought: “Yes but what’s your point? Yes, you’re right, I can’t make that. I never will. That’s nature! That’s what that is. But we don’t respond to that.” We respond to the visual stimulus it’s projecting. The colors speak to us, not the plant. The colors excite us. It’s is visual stimulus, it “rings” in our mind’s eye, in our visual memory. We don’t have to fit it into nature. I’m not working with nature, I’m working with that kind of visual stimulation.

 Tom Bills “Inward Curve” and bench 2009. 24” h x 3”w x 8”d flame-cut steel     

Butter: One thing to ask this guy would be: “Is it possible you had this idea about the beauty of nature after seeing the work?” In other words, did your work bring this thought to his mind?

Bills: Well, I want my work to have the same effect as that red flower, but I don’t want it to be that red flower. This is the kind of connection I am trying to make: it’s not going to be a red rose, but it’s going to be something else that evokes the same response. With my work you don’t bring anything to it. You don’t bring any kind of information. But when you see it, you accept it for what it is, a sculpture. It begins and ends with the visual information. For most people it quickly evolves into other things, putting the art work in other contexts. But what I am interested in is the original visual stimulation that draws us to something.

Butter: There are some things that aren’t immediately apparent in these pieces. One is that you made very careful and specific decisions about the internal spaces. You have cut slots to create spaces that penetrate the form. Where you position your eye changes the work a lot. What do you think about these spaces? 

Bills: Cutting into the steel gives the sculpture life. The slots let light and air into the piece, into the block itself. It changes the color and illuminates the piece. It’s a way of floating an image within the mass creating a presence that becomes the backbone of the sculpture.

Butter: I have never seen you share your space with something else. In this case, the tree. I find that to be an opening of the work. You have us looking at both things at the same time. That’s exciting!   The tree is not a pedestal, it feels you are giving equal time to the tree.

Bills: Yeah at the time this was a very new idea. I was hanging them in my own woods, I have quite a few installed here at the studio. Being in the woods affected what I did in a huge way. I want the pieces to be isolated and private. As if there is no one else there. I want them to offer a one-on-one interaction. Putting them in the woods allows them to be more natural. In a gallery you are looking for an answer, you look for the label on the wall that explains them. But if you stumble on them in the woods and think: “Whoa, what the fuck is that?”, that excite me! That’s what I would like: I would like to be the person who sees the piece for the first time!

Butter: Yes. They are both unfamiliar and challenging. Tom, it is a wonderful installation!

Bills: Thanks! WM


Thomas Butter

Thomas Butter has been living in NYC since 1977, and showing since 1981. He is currently on the Adjunct Faculty in the Fine Arts Department at Parsons the New School for Design, and has taught at many colleges and universities on the east coast, including RISD, Harvard, Yale, Tyler, MICA, University of the Arts, and many others.  
thom.butter@gmail.com website: www.tombutter.com


view all articles from this author