In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, artist Erika Huddleston spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff about a series of paintings she created on-site at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas sponsored by Artspace111. Her work will be on display there through May 13.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Huddleston: Hi, I’m Erika Huddleston. I’m trained as a landscape architect and I paint oil paintings on-site in public landscapes.
Fornoff: Tell me about your exhibit “PRAIRIE.”
Huddleston: “PRAIRIE” was based on-site at the prairie behind the BRIT building.
The building was (recently) built, and this prairie was originally a concrete parking lot. And when the building was complete, they removed the concrete and brought in soil from a ranch nearby that was very rich, prairie soil because that soil beneath the concrete was unable to have robust plant life. It’s been growing for (about) 10 years, and they invited me to come and paint on site. That curator is Erin Starr White, and I was just delighted to be asked.
Fornoff: Do you want to walk me through a couple of the paintings and what your process was?
Huddleston: We planned this, I think, from spring 2021. Erin called me and we walked almost a two-hour walk around the whole botanical garden and we looked at the Japanese garden, the rose garden. And then I asked to paint the prairie.
It was my inclination because I went to school at University of Texas at Austin, for my master’s of landscape architecture, and we toured that Bamberger Ranch when I was in school. My professor Ilse Frank was a studio professor and brought our class to the ranch, and they had cleared all the Juniper Cedar and sort of reinstated the habitat of the prairie grasses. It was just this whole ecological restoration, so I was really excited about the prairie being a restoration behind BRIT.
Fornoff: Talk to me about this painting because I think, (with) prairies, people think of muted tones like yellows and greens, and there’s a lot of color here.
If you go…
Where: Botanical Research Institute of Texas
1700 University Drive, Fort Worth
When: Now through May 13
Hours: Check here for more info
Huddleston: Yes. The color is the part that I let myself, I suppose, emotionally respond (to).
I draw it first in No. 2 pencil and then mechanical pencil, so you actually see the pencil marks. And after I’ve drawn it, I paint it in oil. This piece is two feet by five feet and it is a 1:1 scale.
I started in September and I finished in November, so it was a high time for change. Texas can be kind of even high summer in September, by November it’s fall. So all the sunflowers lost their petals, their yellow petals and this one vine was bright green.
This piece in particular, which is No. 3, has a lot of dark colors as well. So even though the bright colors are sort of my emotions, I was referencing the succession of the prairie.
They had done a prescribed burn in January 2021, so it was like 10 months after the prairie was charred black.
It is amazing to be back on the prairie in the fall and have it be full of sunflowers after seeing photos of it. I mean, it was literally like pitch black, you know, just a big giant pit of black. And then within 10 months, new life was growing on the reinvigorated soil.
I think it was after coronavirus, and I was just really pleased to do this project because it just felt like prairies are a great example of new growth after something traumatic.
Fornoff: And you were painting this on-site here?
Fornoff: So it evolved over time as the seasons were changing?
Huddleston: Yes, I paint one at a time. So it’s not as if I paint at a certain time of day and alternate canvases. I’ll paint from 9 in the morning until about 5, and I’ll take a lunch break. But when it’s hot like it was in September, I’ll pick (a spot) under the shade. And by the fall, I’m picking in full sun.
Fornoff: Is there another piece that you would like to talk about?
Huddleston: Yeah, we can talk about the first piece and the last piece.
The last piece which was painted before Thanksgiving. And you can see how the colors are really muted because the sunflowers turned into husks. And I just remember looking out and it was just so brown, but all the different russet colors were there. You know, it’s depressing, but it’s also serene.
The life cycle of a sunflower was just on display. Here on the right is the first painting I painted, which was in the last week of September, the first week of October, and within seven weeks, the landscape changed so much.
You can see there are tons and tons of yellow petaled sunflowers. It’s the common sunflower. The Latin name is helianthus annuus. Personally, I’m so excited about (the) exhibition because there are herbariums on the second floor overlooking the prairie. So for them, I think the painting has been interesting to see the prairie from an artist’s perspective because they’re always working with the specimens. And I love seeing what their scientific input is. They also have herbariums from Vanderbilt University and UT Austin, and I went to both schools, so I was kind of like when I arrived, I was like, “Oh, this feels full circle.”
Fornoff: What do you hope that people will feel or think of when they come look at the exhibit?
Huddleston: I would hope that people would understand that the site as a place of just infinite species, all living together, all different kinds of species cooperating and fighting it out.
I also hope that they see the prairie as more than brown because even in the summertime when it’s green it tends to look monolithic, but, of course, it isn’t.
And I hope that there’s a sense of healing from the trauma of the coronavirus. When you’re in a place like a prairie or a wilderness area it comes at you in a sensory experience (and) can get you outside of yourself.
There’s a philosopher in school I really liked. His name is Schopenhauer and he said that the point of art is to exit your own mind in a way. And I think I’ve always thought that was true also about the places that I am painting. When you’re in a place that has overgrowth and you’re exploring, you have a sense of the awe and the sublime. And whether you’re closer to God or you’re closer to just thinking about something other than yourself, it comes at you in a way that you can get outside of yourself. I like Schopenhauer’s definition of art in that way.
Fornoff: Wonderful. Thank you so much.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
Nice interview with the artist. Also I enjoyed last weeks interview with the fellow who helped build the Kimbell museum.
Thank you so much!
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