Erika Huddleston is an artist and designer in Texas. Her oil paintings and installations study nature in urban settings, and she is interested in better understanding how changing natural processes in urban park settings can affect mental health. She paints outdoors onsite without photography—a welcome challenge amid habits of texting and other digital interfaces. Erika has an MA in landscape architecture from the University of Texas at Austin and a BA in fine arts from Vanderbilt University.
My vocation is to consider and address the built environment and our relationship to nature. I do this in three ways: painting, writing, and teaching. In painting, which is my daily work, I focus on the urban wilderness, where rivers and creeks flow through cities. I also write about what I’ve discovered. In addition, on Thursdays, I teach elementary school students about our world—measuring it, exploring it, and building in it.
What attracts you to the urban wilderness?
There’s a beauty and a danger about the wilderness. Its beauty draws us into the sublime, as we recognize God as Creator, and there’s something dangerous about it—like looking down into the darkness of a cellar or up into the mystery of an attic. We’re safe where we stand, but there’s an air of expectancy when you’re at the edge of something. The urban wilderness brings the awe of nature to the city. In my projects, I love to capture that humility.
Is your work solitary?
When I’m working on a project, I’ll spend three months at a location—taking notes, drawing sketches, and painting canvases for 12 hours a day—and I’m usually alone. But often people will approach me, or I’ll notice the routines of strangers, like the cyclist who commutes to work or the jogger who runs in the afternoon.
Since I’m in outdoor public places, I often meet men and women living outside in these parks. At Shoal Creek Greenbelt Park in Austin, I met a kind, humble, and funny man who lived in the creek; his place of relaxation was where I painted. Another time, at Trinity River in Dallas, a community of homeless men lived nearby and, although none of them talked with me, they sat near me, and I named one of my pieces “Blue Eyes” after one in particular who had the most beautiful blue eyes.
When I’m washing paintbrushes or lugging heavy materials. (She laughs.)
For the Shoal Creek project, I did four large paintings—three were sold at a gallery show, and the Four Seasons commissioned a fourth. Two weeks after the show, there was a torrential downpour in Austin, and one of the cedar trees I painted was destroyed. It was a massive tree—40 feet tall—and the flood carried it down to Lady Bird Lake on the Colorado River and then most likely to the Gulf of Mexico. It was gone, and a few days later the city was as calm as silk.
In my work, the fragility of nature is obvious. Our God is marvelous and loving, but he is also fearful. My work reminds me that our lives are dust (Eccl. 3:20; Ps. 44:25) and that my posture in his presence ought to be one of humility (Ps. 90). Reflecting on this fragility, I painted a fifth canvas at Shoal Creek, “Epilogue,” to capture the creek without that tree.
Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. How does your work function as an opportunity to love and serve others?
God has given me a desire to see the world differently and a skill to bring it to life on canvas. Cities emerge from their patterns of usage, and I love serving my neighbors by celebrating public wilderness parks and drawing more people to these places. As we’ve crossed the threshold to more than 50 percent of the world population living in cities, I look to these parks to remember the awe of God’s creation and God’s hand.
Editors' note: TGCvocations is a weekly column that asks practitioners how they integrate their faith and their work. Interviews are condensed and edited.