I am thrilled and grateful to be the 2022 recipient of the Artists for Conservation Rob and Sharon Butler Art Explorers Project Grant! This grant will allow me to develop a series of paintings that I have been thinking of for quite some time. Thank you, Rob, Sharon and AFC!
About the Project
The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to reevaluate the value of nature and the emotional balance it provides us. It was a reminder that our communities include not just human residents, but all species that reside beside us. These “naturehoods” hold astonishing biodiversity that thrives, regardless of the human condition.
Mandalas are symbols of wholeness, characterized by concentric layers of shapes and images. They are tools to focus attention and contemplation. Creating nature mandala art is healing/transformative and helps people regain their sense of self by reconnecting with the natural environment.
The focus of this project is to create a series of mandalas showcasing communities within four different ecosystems found throughout Metro Vancouver: Wetlands, Forest, River and Marine. Each mandala will include endangered species and species at risk in each of those habitats. I will be documenting my journey, discoveries and process for the project on this blog — starting with visits to various areas throughout Metro Vancouver. It’s quite a large area!
The Metro Vancouver Regional Park system holds incredible diversity and protects diverse natural landscapes and habitats. Park staff also host several informative, educational programs and various activities throughout the year (see calendar here). These parks are part of a larger system that includes regional park reserves, ecological conservancy areas and greenways. All of these places are located on the shared territories of many Indigenous peoples, including 10 local First Nations: Katzie, Kwantlen, Kwikwetlem, Matsqui, Musqueam, Qayqayt, Semiahmoo, Squamish, Tsawwassen, and Tsleil-Waututh.
Wetlands will be the first ecosystem mandala I focus on, followed closely by the Forest. Not only will I be searching for species in each environment to sketch and photograph for reference, but I will also be looking for shapes and patterns that will work well for mandala designs. After I create sketches and a “short list” of species to portray in each mandala, the design and painting process begins!
Please visit often for updates and progress!
Wetlands are distinct ecosystems that are flooded by water, either permanently (for years or decades) or seasonally (for weeks or months). The water in wetlands is either freshwater, brackish or saltwater. The main wetland types are classified based on the dominant plants and/or the source of the water. For example, marshes are wetlands dominated by emergent vegetation such as reeds, cattails and sedges; swamps are dominated by woody vegetation such as trees and shrubs. Examples of wetlands classified by their sources of water include tidal wetlands (oceanic tides), estuaries (mixed tidal and river waters), floodplains (excess water from overflowed rivers or lakes), springs, seeps and fens (groundwater discharge out onto the surface), bogs and vernal ponds (rainfall or meltwater). Wetlands are reservoirs of incredible biodiversity and can be important carbon sinks, depending on the specific wetland. They need to be considered in our attempts to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
I could do a whole series focusing just on different types of wetlands! For this project, I will focus on marshes and estuaries. The severe drought conditions throughout Metro Vancouver (currently at the highest rating of 5) are very concerning not only for wildlife and habitats, but also for the long-term ecological affects it will have on the region.
Minnekhada Regional Park is located in northeast Coquitlam, British Columbia, alongside Pitt-Addington Marsh and the Pitt River. It is over 200 hectares in size and is made up of wetland marshy areas, dense forest, and hills. I made a trip in August to witness the Western toad migration – when tadpoles transform into toadlets and make their way to new homes high up in the forest. I was delighted to see these tiny amphibians on their epic journey, along with blue dasher dragonflies. Both are listed as species “of special concern” due to a combination of threats including loss of habitat, increased urban development, pollution, and changes in water levels. Species of Conservation Concern are those that are scarce or infrequently encountered.
Western toads use three different types of habitats during their life cycle: breeding sites along shallow bodies of water, ideally with sandy bottoms; terrestrial habitats in the forest or grasslands during the summer; and hibernation sites during the winter, where they stay in underground burrows up to 4 feet deep. The toadlets are so small! Some were the size of my thumbnail! It was incredible to find them all over the trails, climbing up very steep terrain making their way into the forest. Minnekhada is a perfect location for them. The photo and sketch below are of toadlets climbing up sword fern fronds during their journey to higher ground.
Blue Dasher Dragonflies. There are 87 species of dragon and damselflies in British Columbia. Of those, 23 species are considered rare or endangered. Dragonfly populations have adapted and survived for more than 300 million years and rely on still or slow-moving water for survival. They are natural residents in wetlands and can be spotted flying around lakes, marshes, and bogs. The Blue Dasher is one of a kind – it’s the only member of its genus and the largest member of the skimmer family. They are voracious predators of insect pests and important food sources for many other species. One dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitos in a single day. The Blue dasher below was an agreeable subject, coming back often to its perch and sitting still while I sketched it.
Wetland Mandala Design
I have visited various wetlands throughout the Lower Mainland over the last few months to sketch, make colour notes and take reference photographs for this mandala. The design itself has gone through a number of iterations. Showing the selected species in a way that provides an interesting and interconnected design has been both a joy and a challenge! I have learned so much during this process, not only about wetlands in general and the important species who live there, but also about conservation organizations and volunteer groups doing incredible work to save these ecosystems in our area.
The final design I have decided to move forward with is below. A keystone species for wetland environments is the beaver, so it has been placed in the centre. Endangered species include the Western toad, red-legged frog, Western painted turtle, blue dasher dragonfly, and the northern water shrew. The great blue heron has been recently added to the vulnerable/species at risk conservation list. The broadleaf arrowhead, also known as wapato, is a plant of cultural importance to First Nations communities of the Lower Mainland. Cattails are important for wetland ecosystems. They create wildlife habitat, shelter for birds, food and cover for fish and for the insects they eat as well as helping stabilize the soil. Other species I have included are: the sandhill crane, marsh wren, rough-skinned newt, spirea, anise swallowtail butterfly and various water insects/invertebrates. This final design is based on a triangular format. Triangles represent balance, harmony, equilibrium and strength and I feel it works well for this mandala both symbolically and from an artistic point of view. Now, on to the painting process!