Camille Billops, 1933 – 2019
I heard recently the sad news of the passing of artist Camille Billops in June. Around the same time, a friend sent me an article about her. These caused me to reminisce about my experience working with Camille on one of her etchings early in my career as a printer.
In the days before I started Manneken Press, I lived for a time in New York City, working as a printer at various print studios around the city. In 1993, my former teacher Krishna Reddy recommended me to Camille Billops, who was making a film and wanted to produce an etching related to it. Through her friend Bob Blackburn, Camille arranged for the use of a private editioning room at the Printmaking Workshop, located at that time on W. 17th Street near Sixth Avenue. I spent a good portion of the Fall of that year making plates for and printing the edition of The KKK Boutique Ain’t Just Rednecks, a 4-plate etching and aquatint.
The KKK Boutique was a maiden journey for me as a printer, as it was the first project I had undertaken with an artist as the lead, and sole, printer. And, as a multi-plate etching with step-bitten aquatints and tight registration, it was a fairly complex print. I felt honored for Camille’s, Bob’s and Krishna’s confidence in me as a fledgling printer, and it was fascinating to work closely with Camille and have a window into her life and career. This period was significant for me in another way as well: it was while working on Camille’s print at the Printmaking workshop that I first met Sarah Smelser, who would later become my wife and partner in art and life. Later, we would give our son his middle name, Blackburn, after Bob Blackburn who brought us together through his amazing print workshop.
My impression of Camille was that she was a force of nature and completely unique. I remember her as being tall, and the braids, beads, Egyptian styled makeup she wore, and her forthright demeanor gave her a formidable, regal presence. Like the topics of her films, she was unflinching and direct. “Masturbator” was a frequent term she used to disparage her antagonists. Thankfully, I remained in her good graces and the print we made was a success- a quick Google search shows that The KKK Boutique Ain’t Just Rednecks is included in several prominent collections, including Emory University and the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, racism, the topic of the film The KKK Boutique Ain’t Just Rednecks, seems to be alive and well in America today.
From Topic Magazine, The Artist Who Gave Up Her Daughter gives the background of Billops’ complicated decision to give up her daughter for adoption and her subsequent freedom to develop as an artist. Billops documented the reunification with her adult daughter in her 1991 documentary film Finding Christa.
The Artnews obituary of Camille Billops can be read here.