Berkeley artist Ellie Fidler (1952–2022) died of pancreatic cancer on April 14, just months before turning 70. Few knew she was terminally ill, and it was typical of Ellie to disclose little about herself, even to close friends. She considered me part of her inner circle but never mentioned her monumental accomplishments early in life. And although she regularly consulted me about enhancing artwork with kanji (a Japanese script in which I specialize), she never said she had lived in Japan for a year, studying aikido and Japanese!
Starting in July, Ellieʼs art, including her last pieces, will be on display at Builders Booksource on Fourth Street
I have since learned that in the 1970s, she wove brightly colored tapestries that stretched as long as 45 feet and weighed up to 300 pounds. They created quite a contrast to the slender, hushed Ellie, who barely took up any space. A magazine article about her tapestries features a photo of her at 27; during her moment in the limelight, she hangs her head and is unreadable.
Her husband, photographer Gerry Traucht, notes that Ellie spoke in short, cryptic sentences — if she uttered anything at all: “Sometimes she would say something and there’d be this long silence, and I’d wonder, ‘Is she going to speak again?’ There were all these cliffhangers. I thought maybe she went to sleep!”
With wildly curly hair, Ellie looked every bit the free spirit, especially in her last decade, when she wore layers of quirky clothing, sunglasses with heart-shaped lenses, and rubber boots in primary colors.
One artist dubbed her the Queen of Loose, a moniker fitting both the primitive look of Ellie’s images and the way she freed her students to release pent up artistic impulses.
As for what the Queen of Loose released in her own work, Gerry explains that for a while, “Ellie was doing some pretty scary shit! There were lots of crocodiles mating with humans.” She met strange creatures in dreams and put them in artwork, including a “witchy woman that hung in the kitchen—a female shaman figure I never really cared for.” He now realizes that it was likely a masterwork and that the shaman represented Ellie herself.
She traveled to her hometown of Toronto for her sister Barbi’s wedding in 1987, and while the house buzzed with activity, Ellie stayed in the basement for hours, painting a picture that teemed with the faces of alien animals. This wedding gift was a bit daunting on a joyous occasion, Barbi recalls with a laugh. She observes, “All of Ellie would come through in her art. She was very talented, committed, focused, perfectionist, and really methodical. But free at the same time.”
A hippie existence
In summer 1969, when Ellie was nearly 17, she attended a rock concert in Toronto. She had gone with a friend, who ditched Ellie to meet guys, so Gerry spotted Ellie standing alone. He recalls, “I couldn’t understand why somebody so lovely would be there by herself.” An American living in Ohio, he was 24, but the age difference deterred neither one.
He converted a van into a live-work space, and in 1971 they headed to California. “She was a very nice Canadian girl who ran off with this long-haired poet-teacher,” he says, fondly recalling their “hippie existence” in that vehicle.
In Berkeley, they rented a Chestnut Street cottage. While Gerry did poetry readings at colleges, Ellie took weaving classes.
In 1973 they returned to Toronto so she could attend York University, all the while teaching art classes in their apartment. Gerry marvels at how she would take a basket-weaving class one week and then teach the technique the next week. Her savvy kept them afloat financially.
With their tight bond, it was as if Ellie and Gerry lived in a bubble apart from the world. “We were absolutely made for each other,” says Gerry. He adds with a laugh, “No one else would put up with me or with her.”
Movement with leaping images
They moved back to Berkeley in 1974, renting a Cypress Street cottage, and Ellie immersed herself in weaving. She would rough out an image on paper and transfer proportions to the loom, where inspiration would take her in an unplanned direction. Drawing on the techniques of Berkeley artist Sharon Wheat, Ellie didn’t use the traditional method of sending a shuttle from side to side through the warp (the lengthwise threads). Instead, Gerry explains, “She would weave specific areas like a painter. Parts would rise like a volcano here or like a mushroom there. She was doing free-form on the warp.”
Soon Ellie exclusively made soumak weaves, typically one to two inches deep. Gerry notes that although this method has been around a long time, “Ellie is the only one I know that did complete tapestries in this form.”
The author of a 1979 article in Flare magazine posed a great question: “At a tempo of one inch every two hours, how did … Ellie Fidler ever complete a six foot by 45 foot tapestry?” Ellie replied, “Easy, I worked 16 hours a day for nine months straight.” Only with that schedule could she meet deadlines for commissions and exhibitions.
Whatever Ellie created, color was paramount. Dissatisfied with the look of store-bought yarn, she created her own dyes, sometimes taking more than a week to produce them. Eventually, she accumulated around 900 hues.
Writing of Ellie’s tapestries in a 1980 Fiberarts magazine article, Leslie Cooke said, “Her colors are orchestrated and play gently or boldly, one off another. … It is language—resplendent, articulate, emotive and potent.”
Comparing Ellie’s work to a carving for its “sharp demarcation of images,” Cooke observed that the foreground shapes appear to float and even leap.
A big splash in Toronto
In “Artist Has 2 Shows,” a 1979 article in the Toronto Star, authors Susan Himel and Elaine Lambert called Ellie an “exciting young artist” and deemed her tapestries “classically beautiful and pulsating with life.” The piece highlighted her simultaneous solo exhibitions at Toronto galleries, including one at the Pollock Gallery.
To help viewers experience both shows, Jack Pollock held a reception at his gallery and had shuttles transport people to the other location. Gerry explains the significance of Pollock’s decisions: “It was a big deal to show in a Toronto Yorkville art district gallery. It was an even bigger deal for a fiber artist to have a show in an established art gallery. At this early juncture of the fiber art movement, folks were still arguing about whether it was craft or art. Jack Pollock had no such problem. Although he didn’t really show fiber art, and certainly not in a one-person show, he had no hesitation about Ellie. He believed in her art and her. He gave her a big splash in Toronto from a respected voice and a respected gallery.”
Finding a larger audience
The Bay Area greeted Ellie with just as much fanfare. In 1977 and 1978, she held solo exhibitions in Berkeley at City Hall and 24 Sather Gate Gallery. She also contributed to group exhibitions at San Francisco’s ADI Gallery and the Richmond Art Center. As the winner of a competition held by the State of California, she produced the 45-foot-long “Summer Hills” for the DMV building in Oakland.
Though her work hung in galleries from coast to coast in the United States and Canada, Gerry marketed her tapestries further by cold-calling architectural firms. To enhance new commercial structures, they commissioned Ellie’s weavings for thousands of dollars.
Sometimes Ellie shipped tapestries to clients. Otherwise, she and Gerry stuffed the van with weavings rolled up like carpets, crisscrossing North America with the dogs to hand-deliver the pieces.
Gerry marvels that although he and Ellie were “just hippie kids” who hardly hobnobbed with the elite, Ellie’s work brought them into that world. She created a tapestry for the Chicago home of Nicholas Pritzker, a member of the family that founded the Hyatt Hotel chain and the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Her work also wowed an interior designer with ties to Walter Annenberg, who owned TV Guide, among other assets. That designer commissioned one of Ellie’s tapestries for TV Guide’s headquarters and another for the Annenbergs’ home.
The designer believed he could even place a weaving in the Reagan White House, but Ellie quashed that idea. She was Canadian, so the White House held no allure for her. Also, she felt finished with tapestries.
Her father’s death in 1980, soon followed by a dear friend’s fatal accident, profoundly changed Ellie. Grief sent her into a trancelike introspection that lasted several years, Gerry observes. “There was so much going on inside her and she needed to work quickly and get it out.” Tapestries took far too long to create. She felt a powerful need to explore, to plunge into the unknown.
Aside from tapestries, Ellie wove large, otherworldly webs. Working with thin strips of Mylar (the material in helium balloons), she hung shimmering installations.
Near Toronto she decorated a barn, weaving Mylar through machinery with a possible bovine connection. She wrote on the Mylar with almost encoded handwriting, not intending to communicate so much as to make a visual impact.
In the new St. John’s Presbyterian Church on College Avenue in Berkeley, she installed a web for the set of Gerry’s poem-prelude “Opera for Dancer,” which premiered for just a night. From 30-foot heights she strung Mylar strands that gleamed like sunbeams, bouncing light onto the stage. Using Plexiglas, Ellie built small crystalline structures bearing words in silver ink. Nobody more than an arm’s-length away could read them.
Her fleeting installations “were almost like happenings, rather than a painting that will have a long life,” Gerry notes. “And she was totally into that.”
Teaching with quiet power
In the 1980s, Ellie acquired a master’s degree in textiles from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. She also studied at the California School of Professional Fabric Design in Berkeley.
She then taught art classes. It’s hard to imagine how someone so quiet could command a roomful of students, but as Gerry explains, “Once she was in front of an audience, the impassioned parts of her would take over.”
When she moved to La Jolla alone for a while, she led “Paint From Your Heart” classes. She started in a hotel lobby, expanding to a recreation center, then UC San Diego, then UC Santa Cruz. She even briefly taught the class in Denmark.
Skilled painters took that class to free up their expression, Gerry recalls, noting that Ellie’s success at liberating people came from her enormous store of empathy: “She knew what was turning around inside people.”
Her teaching style particularly appealed to those with pent up artistic energy. He says with a laugh, “They hadn’t let their crocodiles out yet!”
Ellie radiated joy through exuberant colors, a predilection that extended to home decor. Her neighbors may not have known the reclusive artist but were certainly aware of her tall pink house. Gerry notes, “This house was her nest. It had to be a deep luxuriant pink with green accents. A pink house surrounded by spectacular sunflowers, it shouts joy! And I guess a couple of our neighbors didn’t really shout joy!” All the same, smiling passers-by photographed the brilliant sight.
The whole property was Ellie’s canvas, including the rainbow-colored boardwalk lining the driveway. Sanding reclaimed boards and painting them in five colors involved considerable work, Gerry recalls, and the boardwalk had zero functionality, but it felt essential to her and made her ecstatic.
In recent years, Ellie created dog portraits on commission, calling her business Joyful Dog Designs.
At Builders Booksource on Fourth Street, she sold tea towels featuring red poppies, paintings of clustered hearts, and renderings of animals. She also held exhibitions at Berkeley cafes, such as Au Coquelet, Maison Bleue and the French Hotel Cafe.
Shortly before her death she painted “Pink Moon, Night Sky.” Gerry comments, “That night sky is so alive with something that seems to be beyond our universe. It could be the strange lights of rubies or emeralds. She’s looking beyond, to another dimension, to another universe. She’s realizing that this is the place she’s going.”
“Ellie was always in the moment, always about the feeling of things,” recalls Barbi, who experienced this while traveling with Ellie and Gerry through the Middle East in 1982. Whereas Barbi longed to beat rush hour in Cairo by hopping on the next bus, the other two wanted to sit and savor the moment. As Barbi feared, they ended up smashed against people and chickens on a bus for hours in wildly noisy traffic.
Ellie’s appreciation of the moment came through vividly in one of her last emails to me: “I ended up fire truck ambulance escorted to ER. Thursday. Doctor on phone said check oxygen levels, we have the meter, it was 85. She said call ambulance. 5 men in black in my bedroom in minutes carrying me down. It was a nice ride through Berkeley looking up, interesting actually. Quick and easy. Lots of testing, looking like pneumonia. Oxygen all the time. Woke up to trees all over somewhere in Berkeley.”
Barbi observes that Ellie’s quests for resolution and peace led her down unusual paths. For example, when she lived in Japan she attended events to commemorate Bon (a Japanese tradition), writing about them and photographing the goings-on for “Tokyo Journal.” Back in the United States, she went to Japanese and Mexican events honoring the dead. “It was a way of connecting with ancestors,” says Gerry. “She was working intuitively. That’s how she did things.”
Ellie also took classes in dream interpretation and corresponded with Robert Moss, a dreamwork specialist. Hours before she died, she read his last email: “All your adventures in dreaming have prepared you for the big journey ahead. Whenever that road opens, you will find yourself on familiar ground. You have already traveled here, in dreams you may or may not have recognized or even remembered at the time. You will find yourself welcomed by people who love you and can help you explore all the marvelous options that are going to open for you.”