December 16, 1996 12:00 PM

ARTISTIC INSPIRATION IS A DELICATE thing, as sculptor Patricia Billings well knows. But her former medium, plaster of paris, is more delicate still. She learned that the hard way in the late ’60s when, after spending four months sculpting a plaster swan, she accidentally knocked the bird to the floor. “It was a really beautiful piece,” says Billings, who vowed on the spot to concoct a better medium, “something I could cast statues with that would give me details but wouldn’t break.”

After tinkering in private for almost three decades, the 70-year-old great-grandmother has finally emerged from her Leawood, Kans., basement with just such a product—and possibly much more. Mixing cement and gypsum with off-the-shelf ingredients she chooses not to divulge, Billings created GeoBond, a durable, fireproof substance that independent laboratories are hailing as a nontoxic alternative to asbestos, the use of which was restricted in the ’70s because it causes cancer. The new material, experts say, could revolutionize the construction industry, making Billings rich in the process. “There’s just no telling what we’ll do with this thing,” says Billings, who notes that if GeoBond International, Inc., her three-year-old company, captures just 2 percent of targeted construction markets, net profits would be more than $260 million.

Not since tofu has a product been touted as having so many potential benefits. Already, GeoBond, which can be textured to look like marble, slate or even cork, has been made into roof tiles, stucco and insulation, and it can also be used to repair concrete. It is being tested as a fire-resistant coating for airplanes as well as a liner in which to bury toxic waste. No matter what the form, GeoBond will not burn, even when, as researchers at Edwards Air Force Base found out, it is heated to 6,500°F.

Last summer members of the Kansas City, Mo., Fire Department performed a test on two sheds, one of conventional materials and one of GeoBond. When fire investigator Gary Dull set them both ablaze, only the GeoBond structure remained intact. “I was dumbfounded,” says Dull. “The lady has stumbled onto something big.”

As an inventor, the diminutive Billings cuts an unlikely profile. The daughter of a Clinton, Mo., farmer and his wife, she attended Kansas City Junior College and worked as a medical technologist studying fungal and bacterial diseases. She quit in 1947 when she married a plate-glass salesman, from whom she was later divorced. It was in 1956, while living in Texas, that she first studied art, at Amarillo College. “She was really into plaster of paris,” says her daughter Melanie Runge, 47, an office coordinator at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita. In 1964, Billings opened a shop in Kansas City and sold her sculptures.

After smashing her swan, Billings tried adding cement to gypsum, but, she says, “the two materials destroyed each other.” Then, on a trip to Italy, she studied Michelangelo’s frescoes, which have held up for centuries. Researching obscure journals, she learned that Renaissance masters had strengthened plaster with a cement-like substance, using a catalyst that changed their chemical components to bind the two together. Billings set out to reinvent the recipe. “Sometimes,” she says, “instead of going ahead, you need to go back.”

Billings came up with an early version of the mixture after eight years’ work. She sent a 10-inch statuette to a scientist, who found it to be incredibly strong. With investments from four friends who kicked in $3 million over the next eight years, Billings slowly perfected her product. She won’t give out the final recipe—”That’s a trade secret, honey,” she says—but it looks like milk.

Currently the product is made in small quantities at GeoBond International, a 13-employee company in Kansas City. According to vice president Bob Price, the company is “just breaking even now.” But Billings, who is chairman of the board, has great expectations. She says she has turned down a buyout offer of $20 million.

Not that Billings, who shares a three-bedroom house (covered in pink GeoBond stucco) with artist friend Lea Hopkins, is averse to selling the company—or, at least, her interest in it. “I’ll probably quit in a year or two,” she explains. “I don’t get a chance to do my art at all anymore.” She’s also feeling a bit of wanderlust. “I could live in Rome,” she says. “Oh, I sure could.” And if Rome should threaten to burn again as it once famously did? Billings has just the solution.

CURTIS RIST

KATE KLISE in Kansas City

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