Ivy Billiot

Ivy Billiot

Woodcarving and blowguns

Ivy Billiot, a member of the Houma Indian tribe, was born in Grand Cailou and raised in Houma. He recalls that his neighborhood then was "in the woods" and that there was "nothing back there but a cane field." His father, Cyril Billiot, made baskets of split cypress for many years, a skill Ivy's brother Easton carries on today.

Ivy Billiot is a self-taught woodcarver whose work is exceptional in its beauty and close attention to detail. For years, he worked for Terrebonne Parish as a crew leader and channel finder, and was an expert chain saw operator whose work entailed cutting down trees in ditches and along bayous. Retired now, he is a full-time artist who does much of his carvings on commission. A number of private collectors collect Ivy Billiot's pieces. Although some of his regular buyers specifically request a more "naive" look, much of Ivy's work is marked by its lifelike realism, complete with such painstaking details as whiskers on a crow and blue and green highlights in a trout's scales. He carves a wide variety of birds, animals and other objects: ducks and geese, alligators, chickens, pirogues and fishing boats, and blowguns. He says that he is always experimenting and trying new things in his work.

Of carving, he says, "I've been doing this ever since I've been a little boy. I guess I must have started when I was about five years old, maybe six. I used to see those other boys play with little boats in the canal, you know," and so he decided to make himself one. Later, when he saw how a real boat was made, "I said, I can do this" and went home and made an accurate model. When he was perhaps 13 or 14 years old, he made a plywood seaplane to play with in the ditch. He also made an eight foot long plane, added an old washing machine motor before selling it for $5. He is knowledgeable about electronics, and as an adult he once made a working satellite dish. He says, "I can do just about anything if you show me what it looks like."

Although he occasionally carved when he was working for the parish, Ivy became more serious about woodcarving when he retired. He says, "It was kind of rough when I got started, but I caught on." Working at home, he carves his pieces by hand, but sometimes uses a chainsaw or squirrel saw to rough out pieces. He works from observation, pictures in books, or memory. Of alligators and other creatures he makes often he says, "I have it in [my mind]--it's stuck there." He is scrupulous about detail not only in carving but also in painting his pieces.

Ivy decided to teach himself to make blowguns (a traditional Houma skill) when an older Houma craftsperson, Antoine Billiot, decided to stop making and selling them. After carefully inspecting one of the older man's blowguns, Ivy went into the woods, cut a suitable piece of elderberry, and carved a blowgun and darts. After finishing, he decided to decorate it. Plaited strips of palmetto were the traditional decoration, but since Ivy didn't know how to braid palmetto, he decided to put some feathers on it and make a design by wrapping leather strips around the blowgun. He has been making blowguns for sale ever since. He has begun painting small animals on some of his blowguns, especially red crawfish, an emblem associated with the Houma tribe.

He has demonstrated his skills at the Louisiana Folklife Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and at Vermillionville, among other fairs and festivals.