More and more artists are determined to turn the world’s garbage into something good. East Hampton landscaper Billy Strong is at the forefront of the movement: He has traveled the world as the “Green Explorer,” making art from debris, to help himself, others and even Mother Earth heal from trauma.Last year, he visited the Galapagos Island of Isabela and helped bring attention to the trash that is washing up on the beaches, even in places untouched by humans.
Last spring, after reading the National Geographic article “When Death Doesn’t Mean Goodbye,” about the Torajan people of Tana Toraja and Toraja Utara on the island Sulawesi in Indonesia, Mr. Strong dreamed of visiting the exotic land and connecting with its people through his artwork.
It took 16 flights and six weeks, but his “almost impossible dream” became a reality. He had accomplished something that had never been done before—and that’s just the way the Green Explorer likes it.
Unlike most Indonesians, who are Muslim, Torajans combine Christianity, brought to the island by the Dutch, and their native religion, Aluk To Dolo, or “Way of the Ancestors.” It is their traditions surrounding death that prompted the National Geographic article, and piqued his interest.
“Until the family can give their loved ones a proper burial, they keep them, embalmed, in the house,” said Mr. Strong, sipping a beer at the Service Station in Wainscott.
Dead family members are kept in the house for as long as several years, depending on how much money they have, or they may wait for family members to travel to Sulawesi from faraway lands. “They wait for everybody to get back and organize that part of the funeral,” Mr. Strong said.
When they happen, funerals are big affairs; some can finish in a day, but others last a week. Surrounding villages each bring a water buffalo to be sacrificed. Pigs are sacrificed too, and cooked inside bamboo shoots. During the ceremonies, everyone eats well. Gifts of cigarettes, food and tea are given to guests.
The size of the sacrifices and the funeral itself establishes the family’s status in society. Slaughters take place in the village square, and the more water buffalo horns a home displays, the higher their status.
Mr. Strong attended two funerals during his trip—but that is not why he went to Sulawesi. He wanted to visit the homes of families who had loved ones who had died but were still awaiting funerals. His goal was to work with the families, using art to ease the transition from life to death.
While listening to stories of the deceased, thanks to his driver’s translating skills, Mr. Strong made sculptures from belongings of the deceased, sometimes taken right from their coffins.
Accomplishing his goals was not easy. It’s a long journey to the “people of the uplands.” Once in Sulawesi, Mr. Strong took a 10-hour drive from Makassar, through “amazing landscapes,” to Rantepao, a village in Tana Toraja that served as his base. He was able to gain the trust of two families before they allowed him into their homes.
“A local driver made some calls and found a few people willing to see what I was up to. It was not easy,” Mr. Strong said. “It’s amazing that they agreed to let me into their ceremony.”
He found his way to Sule Banna, an 80-year-old man who had died two years ago in a rice field. He had nine children and 22 grandchildren. His widow, La’Ritu, gave Mr. Strong a flip-flop, a shirt, a hat and bamboo from their yard. While listening to tales of Sule Banna hunting wild boar, Mr. Strong made his first sculpture. The man’s son Lucas was especially taken with the gesture.
Mr. Strong was welcomed into a second home by Martina Rabi’s 11 grandchildren on a Sunday. Ms. Rabi was 70 years old when she died three months prior. She loved animals and ate mostly vegetarian. The only fish she ate came from “her” lake and never from the sea. Again, Mr. Strong was given a pair of flip-flops, a shirt that said “love” and some wood from the yard for his artwork.
The Torajan people consider death to be like sleeping, and in that respect the artist concluded that they must have a hard time releasing their loved ones. “The idea of focusing more as trauma therapy grabbed me,” he said. “If I can make something to help release them, I’ve definitely accomplished something.”
He doesn’t know what happened to the sculptures once he left the families. He hoped that the families would keep the sculptures in remembrance, or bury them with the body. “I wasn’t there telling anybody what to do. I was there to give them a gift,” he said.
Once the souls are released and the elaborate funerals are over, Torajans are buried into the hillside. A crypt is carved into boulders, some the size of mansions, dating back to ancient times. Today, bones spill out of ancient coffin caves.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom: Mr. Strong balanced his trip with lively schoolchildren. “I tried to be a good ambassador and present myself as a ‘nice’ American, and they opened up to me,” he said. “If you can reach kids, things can be changed in a generation or two. Not all Americans are scary.”
Mr. Strong learned some lessons about Muslims too. “I realized I was wrong about a lot,” he said. “The Muslims I met were just as afraid of terrorists as I was.”
His trip took a scary turn on a prop plane to Borneo, another island in Indonesia and the fourth-largest island in the world, where a population of orangutans reside along a river. It was difficult enough to find the primates, so he stopped at a school to make the last sculpture of his journey.
Using “the universal language of smiling and joking around” to communicate with the students, he fashioned an orangutan out of debris, using the obligatory flip-flop as the primate’s face, vinyl flooring as the skin, and bamboo for legs.
He planned to give the flip-flop orangutan to a real orangutan in the jungle, but the chances of finding one was looking slim by the end of his trip. Primates or no primates, that leg of the trip sounded more like heaven: He rented a three-level boat for himself, with a crew of four, including the captain, a navigator, guide and cook and tooled down the jungle river.
“Dude, this is going to be a miracle if this happens,” the guide told him.
In heaven, miracles happen all the time. On his last day there, a former “king,” a male orangutan about 40 years old, emerged from the bush. It turned out the ranger and he were old friends.
Mr. Strong was able to hand the orangutan the artwork. The animal observed his “mini-me” intently, then gently laid it on the ground.
This time, Mr. Strong kept the sculpture.