Inspired by the wilderness advocate Edward Abbey, I have spent the past four years creating work around the nexus of recreation and stewardship. I have devoted myself to exploring the relationship between humans and nature as well as facilitating dialogue about human encroachment of public lands. Overcrowding of natural areas is a problem of increasing importance in today’s world. According to the National Park Service, visitation to national parks reached 327.5 million visits in 2019, the fifth consecutive year where visits exceeded 300 million (National Park Service, 2020, para. 1).
Just like visitors from all over the world, I am drawn to these wild places in search of adventure. While I feel most alive in the wilderness, I am conflicted about wanting to visit these natural spaces for I know they face many threats, of which humankind is most imminent. As the popularity of outdoor recreation increases so do the negative effects of tourism.
Fig. 1. Amy Felder, Grand Teton, 2017. Oil on canvas, (three panels) 20x30 inches, 24x30 inches, 20x30 inches
This past summer I had the wonderful opportunity to engage visitors in dialogue about the impact we have on nature through Paradise Lost, a solo exhibition at Art Lab Fort Collins. The opening piece of art was Grand Teton, an idyllic landscape painting of Grand Teton National Park on three panels (see Fig. 1). Completely void of any evidence of humans, the triptych elevates the national park to a sacred place and suggests an altar piece that commands a holy reverence. Introducing the human figure, the subsequent painting creates a sense of solitude by portraying a single person dwarfed by the towering Hallett Peak of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Fig. 2 Amy Felder, Point Reyes, 2018. Oil on canvas, 46x38 inches
Next the painting Point Reyes features a single lighthouse on the edge of a brilliant blue ocean on Point Reyes National Seashore (see Fig. 2). Small in scale when compared to the vast ocean and open sky, the artifact of human development may appear of little consequence. Yet, the lighthouse very subtly hints at a human history of developing the land and conquering the seas. Each of these pieces create an ideal image with little to no evidence of human presence when the reality is that these are all heavily visited places.
Then the exhibition transitioned to meticulously hand-embroidered patches. The first four patches were Merit Badges for following the “Leave No Trace” principles by refraining from feeding cute chipmunks, picking beautiful wildflowers, and inadvertently causing wildfires. In contrast, the next four patches were Demerit Badges for failing to practice outdoor ethics. Off Trail captures a hiking boot in mid-air about to crush a precious flower and Noise Pollution warns of a backpacker bombarded by sound waves.
These small patches depict what have become common, everyday problems caused by too many park visitors not respecting nature or others. Displayed on the wall was the quote “wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of human spirit, as vital to our lives as bread and water” (Abbey, 1988, p. 165).
Corresponding to the Demerit Badges were wall hangings. I sew and weave wall hangings with topographical imagery that map the human impact on the natural world and provoke discussion about socially responsible practices. The weaving Erosion shows the negative effects of the patch Off Trail. The very loosely woven twine looks as though it may fall apart at any given moment. The weft alternates between white cloth with imagery of green topographical lines and burlap with imagery of red scars, where visitors have veered off trail.
The wall hanging Sounds of Northern Colorado combines fiber art and photos with a QR code. In our day-to-day lives, we are constantly bombarded by sounds and noises, most of which we block out as we go about our busy days. By incorporating a QR code that viewers can scan to listen to a playlist of recordings, my work invites the viewer to slow down and pay attention to the sounds of nature and civilization.
All of these sounds are a part of my personal experience. Yet, they speak to a larger issue, in fact, a global issue. The sounds of nature are becoming rarer. Instead we are faced with the noise of civilization, air traffic and sirens. Even the park system and the wilderness are unable to provide the escape, silence and peace of mind that they once did.
Fig. 3 Amy Felder, Balance, 2021. Acrylic on papier-mâché, wood and newspaper, Dimensions variable
Fig. 4 Amy Felder, Balance, 2021. Acrylic on papier-mâché, wood and newspaper, Dimensions variable
Lining the window, papier-mâché sculptures of cairns echo this idea that humans struggle with leaving nature be (see Fig. 3-4). Cairns pose a major threat to national parks as more and more people moving and stacking rocks disrupts ecosystems. Not only do people stack rocks, but they also leave graffiti on them. This is evident in the painting depicting a rock with the words “eat pizza” written on it. Another painting of a trail post reveals a no unicorns sticker above a no bicycles sign. While some may find it funny, vandalism is costly to national parks.
Even park visitors who strive to leave no trace may not consider how social media “sharing” drives visitors to national parks and causes congestion in places that are valued for their seclusion. The life-size painting of hands holding a camera phone about to snap a picture invites viewers to see themselves as the one holding the phone. The contemporary experience of nature through digital devices is further emphasized by a painting of an outstretched arm snapping a selfie. Viewers may begin to question their role in nature and consider how social media “sharing” may be to the detriment of the natural places they are seeking to capture.
Fig. 5 Amy Felder, Bison Jam, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 24x48 inches and The Altar, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 36x48 inches
Devices, screens, and windows present a barrier that prevents an authentic experience of nature and narrows one’s view. Bison Jam puts the viewer inside a car looking at a herd of bison blocking the road and raises the question of whether that road should exist (see Fig. 5). The Altar showcases an assortment of gift shop items blocking the window and obscuring a view of Rocky Mountain National Park (see Fig. 5).
Consumerism of nature has become the focus instead of revering it as Grand Teton called for at the beginning of the exhibition. My paintings span from untouched landscapes to those seen through screens and windshields; they lead viewers to analyze their own relationships with nature and often evoke a feeling of uncertainty at how to proceed in natural spaces.
Fig. 6-7 Amy Felder, Overcrowded, 2019. Acrylic on canvas and plastic with nylon, 34x90x42 inches
A display of the quote “Industrial Tourism is a threat to national parks” set the stage for the signature piece of the exhibition – Overcrowded (see Fig. 6-7) (Abbey, 1988, p.65). Transparent panels combine tent fabric with hand-painted scenes of a busy campground. Windows in the panels allow viewers to glimpse a hopeful scene of a valley of bison untouched by human presence in Yellowstone National Park. Enticing viewers to an idyllic landscape that can only be reached by walking through panels depicting human activity, my installation work creates a space for viewers to examine the dichotomies between the human desire to preserve the wilderness and to enjoy it. The final quote read “we must make up our minds and decide for ourselves what the national parks should be and what purpose they should serve” (Abbey, 1988, p. 62).
Fig 8. Scouts’ “Leave No Trace” presentation at Art Lab Fort Collins
Fig. 9 Rocky Mountain National Park ranger with artist Amy Felder at Art Lab Fort Collins
Fig. 10 Amy Felder, Stickers, 2021. Adhesive paper and marker, Dimensions variable
The exhibition included supplementary programming that brought both my own experience and the viewers’ shared experiences with nature into question. Local Scouts performed a skit of the “Leave No Trace” principles (see Fig. 8). Immediately following I lead an art making activity in which scouts made stickers that could count toward requirements for an Art Scout badge. At another event, a Rocky Mountain National Park ranger came and engaged the public in a conversation about outdoor ethics (see Fig. 9). Afterwards I shared my artmaking process and the story of Paradise Lost in an artist talk. Visitors could take a piece of art home with them by picking out a free handmade sticker (see Fig. 10).
More images can be found at Paradise Lost.
Abbey, E. (1988). Desert solitaire. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
National Park Service, (2020, February 27). National Park Visitation Tops 327 Million in 2019. https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1207/2019-visitation-numbers.htm