Mental Contagion

current issue
artist resource
literary resource
twin cities community

Cause & Effect Mental Contagion
Art. Environement. Interview.

Erica Fielder • San Francisco, CA
Interviewed by Sam Edsill | Web site |

Erica Fielder merges artmaking with lifestyle and the natural sciences, revealing aspects of our cultural interface with the wild. Through ritual, performance, mapping and object making, her work encourages a shift to ecologically ethical practices that integrate relationships between humans and the Earth. Erica has created self-guided nature walks using handmade artbooks, maps that reference both salmon and natural system management polices and ongoing communal rituals that symbolize a return of energy and spirit to watersheds all over the world. She has installed interpretive panels and sculptures in parks and preserves along the California coast, is the co-author of two books and and leads ecoart seminars and slide lectures.

Mental Contagion: For the Bird Feeder Hat project, you create custom hats of paper-mâché and twigs that allow the wearer to be uniquely close to nature. Could you describe what it's like to have birds sitting on your head and eating? What thoughts come to mind? Or is it about not thinking?

Erica Fielder: First I should describe why I made the Bird Feeder Hats. The regular backyard bird feeder underscores our western cultural tendencies to view nature from a distance. We watch the sunset from a car window, view nature programs on TV and observe birds at our feeder from our kitchen window.

This is all quite wonderful. But consider immersing oneself deeper into the natural experience so an array of senses, not just that of sight, are activated. This is what the Bird Feeder Hat does. When a bird lands, the wearer feels the impact: our sense of gravity. We feel the vibrations of movement and hear the tiny twitterings as the birds crack seeds and hop around. We sense where the bird is on the hat whether brim or twig, and can imagine its thinking processes as it moves around. One thing I found out by doing this is that birds often mumble to themselves as they feed. They make the tiniest of chirpings that are inaudible to the more distant observer.

In this way, our experience becomes so much richer. On a larger scale, if we become aware of activating more of our senses, we become better tuned in to the wildness that surrounds us everywhere. This sensory experience creates a foundation of body knowledge that I believe will ultimately make us better global citizens and lead to better decision making about ecosystems.

MC: How did you come to be so attuned to the human relationship to watersheds?

Erica Fielder: I grew up knowing my watershed and watching as people trashed and culverted it throughout my childhood. As an adult, I am in contact with people who have been paying attention to how watersheds are treated. Over time a movement formed called bioregionalism.

A bioregion is an area bounded by natural features such as mountains and rivers or edges of large, complex watersheds, rather than by political lines of designation such as states and countries. Bioregionalism implies that we live in a place that recognizes ecosystems and all species. In my mind, the smallest feature we inhabit within a bioregion is our home watershed, not our property boundary. A watershed is a basin of land into which rain falls. Every inch of a landmass, such as the North American continent, is a mosaic of watersheds. Each watershed holds many species, both plant and animal. Each contains humans and our buildings, parks, streets, cities and wilderness areas. Watersheds aren’t found only in the mountains. They are the whole system from mountaintop to the sea. Some watersheds, like the Mississippi, are thousands or millions of acres large. Every watershed, however, can be divided into tiny watersheds. Each creek begins in a basin on a mountain or hillside and is the beginning of a watershed. Every one of us lives near a creek, whether it runs on the surface or goes underground through culverts beneath a city. A drain in our sidewalk may be our only connection with the water in our watershed, especially if we drink bottled water that comes from elsewhere.

MC: Your handmade nature walks invite the participant to experience the natural world in a more complete way. Do you base your nature walks off of walks you have taken?

Erica Fielder: As a child, I followed my parents as they went on geology field trips. I learned all kinds of things, found out that one could “read” the land, and grew to love guided walks. I began leading guided walks in natural areas and cities like Berkeley and San Francisco years ago. I even led a nature walk through the Financial District of San Francisco. I was passionate about revealing the interface between the natural and the built world and loved these city walks. I later went on the co-author two books: "Ecology for City Kids" and "City Safaris," a Sierra Club book.

In graduate school I became interested in how our senses enhance our experience and create more vivid memories. Through research, I discovered that we actually have at least 53 identified senses and sensibilities. Because we use dull, rudimentary language for describing the senses, we are rarely aware of the rich, powerful ways we can make connections.

So, my nature walks and accompanying handmade booklets, "Walking In Deeper" and "Coming To Our Senses," grew out of this sensory inquiry. People have an opportunity to identify sense of gravity, spatial relationships, sense of dryness and moisture and other senses that enhance our experience.

Handmade artbook for self-guided "Nature Walk" series

MC: You have said your art is about exploring "our cultural interface with nature," but it's quite difficult to make nature a daily presence in our modern lives, isn't it? If your art attempts to be a small step toward increasing our consciousness of local ecosystems, what should the next step be?

Erica Fielder: I have thought about this question a lot. Actually, we are so far from recognizing nature in our daily lives as a culture that I think we can be working on this first step for some time, rather than worring about the next step. The next step, like any “next step,” often just comes along and you realize you have taken it way back there. I feel that the “next step” is happening like this due to a major paradigm shift occurring in the whole human world today.

Our cultural/social world is shifting on all fronts, from food issues to medicine to how we drive our cars. Many people from my generation of Baby Boomers have wondered when “the revolution” will happen. Well, we are in the midst of it right now. All around us people are finding their own next steps and are beginning to proceed down different roads from the same old habitual paths we have traveled.

The greatest teacher along the way is nature. That is why I believe we must become acutely aware of how we interface with nature in all aspects of our daily lives. Our progress into a better world will become much easier if we do.

MC: You were an ecologist before you turned to art. How do you feel this has informed your work?

Erica Fielder: Actually, I think I was born with both passions and have followed them in fairly equal parallel all my life. For many years they were pretty separate from one another, however. I would work as a naturalist and then take breaks and go paint., or I would paint in nature. While this was rewarding and provided me with great adventure, it did not meet something deep in my soul. I felt conflicted and could not find a way to truly merge the two.

Then, fairly late along the way, I went back to school to get my MFA. It was there that a professor said my nature study was my art. Boing! The whole world shifted and I began to see how I could begin to reveal aspects of the natural world to the general public in a more integrated way.

Freshwater Marsh

MC: Your capes evoke the natural similarities between our bodies and the land. How do you go about making them?

Erica Fielder: The Salmon Skin Capes are a great example of this integration. The image pictured is of a Salmon Skin Cape, or map of my home watershed, the Ten Mile River Watershed. It is also a map of how water from this watershed courses though me as fluids in river-like vessels.

This cape is of very thin paper made of a plant fiber found in Japan. I take two sheets and laminate them by dousing them in white glue and acrylic medium.  This makes them translucent like a skin. Between the papers I layer copper wires that have been patinaed to a coppery-turquoise and bent to follow the actual meanderings of my local streams. The whole thing is collaged together in this way.

The capes are human-size and imply that we actually wear our watersheds. In fact, we drink our watersheds. In just seven days of drinking from one kitchen tap, all our body fluids are replaced by that water and we become a tributary of that watershed. This makes me wonder how we relate to our home place if we only drink water from bottles we buy at the store! Perhaps the “next step” is to begin drinking from our home watersheds and beginning to learn about the place we live.

Salmon Skin Cape

Cape Fragment: The Migration of Birds

MC: What projects are you working on now?

Erica Fielder: I make interpretive panels, the informative signs you see along a trail when you visit a park or preserve. These panels illustrate and describe various features of the park such as rare animals, interesting birds, habitat descriptions or historic information. With my art and natural history background, I research topics, write the text and illustrate the themes. I have been doing this rewarding work since 1983 for parks and preserves along the 1,000 mile coast of California. It allows me to investigate habitats that are new to me and blends my art skills with my interest in educating people about historic and natural features. My clients have included the California State Coastal Conservancy, the Port of Oakland and Oakland International Airport, The Army Corps of Engineers' Bay Model in Sausalito, CA and state, county and city parks. This September and October I will be the Artist-In-Residence at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. I expect to be researching ways to interpret sound and other unusual aspects of nature.

Interpretive Panel for the Carmel River

Mental Contagion
©2007 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers
installation, contemporary, opening, chapbook, discussion, discourse,biography, environment, resource, calendar, events, submission, guidelines, review, journal, press, quarterly,community,collective, media, gallery, museum, funding, grant