Erika Huddleston

Artist Erika Huddleston holds a painting of Waco Creek at Bell’s Hill Park.

The natural beauty of Waco Creek doesn’t appear on anyone’s Top 10 Waco tourist sites.

This unruly stream that rambles through South and Central Waco has long been overgrown with brush and marred with litter and old rubble. It has been paved or diverted in places. But mostly it has been ignored.

It took an out-of-town artist to make Waco Creek visible again.

Erika Huddleston has spent the last couple of months sitting and painting along Waco Creek for an exhibit that will open Nov. 9 at Art Center Waco.

Huddleston has been studying the creek’s history, talking to neighbors and city officials and using her training in landscape architecture to create a digital map of the creek from the Brazos River at Baylor up past Floyd Casey Stadium to New Road. When her project is over, she hopes Waco residents will have a new knowledge and appreciation for this piece of urban nature.

“One thing I’ve learned in my time here is that nobody knows where Waco Creek flows,” said Huddleston, who has done art projects on creeks in Austin and her native Dallas. “I’ve talked to 15 to 20 people in Waco, and not one person knew. At the same time, every person I’ve talked to who’s a guy said, ‘Oh, I played in Waco Creek when I was a kid.’ It’s incredibly important in our history, but people have only been accessing the parts they know.”

The project has already taken her to the neglected creek section behind Common Grounds, as well as to the mouth of the creek at Baylor and to Floyd Casey Stadium. In the coming week she will be working at a detention pond near a strip center on New Road.

On a muggy morning earlier this month, she was hunkered down by the creek at Bell’s Hill Park, near Clay Avenue and 23rd Street. Leaning against a gnarled willow with a canvas in her lap, she surveyed the scene: vine-laden branches of elm and pecan trees, the seed heads of chest-high switchgrass drooping over the creek, minnows darting over the limestone creek bed. A bit downstream, the water deepens where it falls over chunks of concrete, and ropes hang down where kids have swung into the swimming hole.

Then, a city crew with chainsaws and trimmers moved in, shattering the morning silence. Motors whined, and steel teeth went to work on the tall grass and vines. For Huddleston, it was just another example to note in her journal about the ever-changing nature of creeks.

“I’m glad they cut it down,” she said. “Before, you couldn’t’ see the water.”

Erika Huddleston

Erika Huddleston paints Waco Creek at Bell’s Hill Park. Her Waco Creek work will be on display for an Art Center Waco exhibit opening Nov. 9.

Huddleston said her work explores the unpredictable nature of creeks, how they disrupt the regular grid of the city.

“Creeks that flood in the city are a good reminder of that,” she said. “I think it brings a lot of reality to city dwellers. When you have everything controlled and planned, to have this crazy creek running through the city, I like to play that up.”

Waco Creek has its own history of disruption, with a record of damaging floods as recently as 1989. The city in 1962 built a giant drainage tunnel at Clay Avenue and 13th Street that swallows most of the creek’s flow before it gets to Baylor University.

Huddleston got to know Waco through a former college roommate who lives here, and she was soon enchanted by the cliffs and valleys of Cameron Park. But she decided on Waco Creek as a subject because it was less explored.

It was through mapping the creek that she discovered Bell’s Hill Park.

“It’s a gorgeous old park,” she said. “I chose it because Waco Creek runs through it, and I was trying to find places along the creek that were accessible to the public. It’s huge. You’ve got baseball fields, a playground, an old theater stage. The stone work is so beautiful.”

Erika Huddleston

In addition to painting for an Art Center Waco exhibit, Huddleston is digitally mapping the creek, studying its history and talking to people who live along its path. “One thing I’ve learned in my time here is that nobody knows where Waco Creek flows. . . . It’s incredibly important in our history, but people have only been accessing the parts they know.”

After a couple of days at Bell’s Hill Park, Huddleston was well on her way to a semi-abstract painting that included the limestone and earth banks, leaves floating on the water, and a lone dragonfly.

Many Wacoans would be hard-pressed to find Bell’s Hill Park. It’s at the end of a dead-end street in South Waco, with no sign to announce it. The park is confined on one side by the rusting remains of the old Central Texas Iron Works complex and on another side by the Union Pacific Railway. The creek bisects the park and cuts off the old ballfields from the new playground and concrete walking trail.

City parks planner Tom Balk, who has met with Huddleston on this project, said he shares her enthusiasm for Waco Creek and Bell’s Hill Park.

Parks officials have discussed the idea of bridging the creek at the park and eventually extending hike-and-bike trails along the creek and the abandoned Cotton Belt Railroad right of way, Balk said.

Huddleston’s could help build support for the creative development of Waco Creek, he said.

“I think it’s great in helping the public think differently about creekways,” Balk said. “Erika is helping us ask the question of, ‘What do these creeks mean to people who live here?’ ”

Claire Sexton, program coordinator at Art Center Waco, said Huddleston’s work is a fascinating way to think about urban nature in a very specific place. Sexton moved here two years ago from Brooklyn, New York, where green space was scarce and treasured. She too enjoys the abundance of parkland in Waco.

“It’s fun to have someone who’s from Texas, though not from Waco, who has spent some real quality time here,” she said. “Sometimes it really takes a fresh eye to see what we have.”

Erika Huddleston

Erika Huddleston paints Waco Creek near Bell’s Hill Park. Her Waco Creek paintings will be on display for an Art Center Waco exhibit opening Nov. 9.

Erika Huddleston

Erika Huddleston paints Waco Creek at Bell’s Hill Park. The Dallas native is working to bring attention to the often forgotten waterway that cuts through the city.

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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