|Cause & Effect
Erica Fielder • San Francisco,
Interviewed by Sam Edsill | Web
site | www.BirdFeederHat.org
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
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
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
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
Handmade artbook for self-guided "Nature
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.
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
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