Decades of research in a drawing
River Canary is Tara Okon’s response to the discovery that decades after we thought Wales’s rivers had been cleaned up industry’s legacy is having adverse effects on the health and development of wild birds.
Tara, whose ink drawings have a geometric complexity reminiscent of her artistic hero M.C. Escher, uses a similar tessellation style to tell contemporary stories. “I read about the impact of pollution on the dipper in an article by Professor Steve Ormerod, and something clicked.”
Ormerod’s 35-year study of dippers showed that decades after the worst industrial and mining effluents had been cleaned from rivers like Tara’s local Taff, there is a lingering legacy. The addition of newer chemicals creates a cocktail with surprising results. Tara has noticed there are now more dippers on the Taff compared with years ago. But Steve and his team at Cardiff University have found that urban dippers hatch fewer female chicks than those nesting in rural rivers nearby, while urban chicks are underweight compared with their rural counterparts.
Tara explained that in River Canary she wanted to create a piece that reflected these trends: at first sight, the dippers and fish are part of a repeated pattern. On closer inspection, healthy insects and fish transform themselves into urban waste, clean water darkens and the birds diminish in size from top to bottom of the picture.
Artist consulted scientist to get the detail right. “There are several types of mayfly and other insects, so I checked with Steve to make sure I was drawing the right species for the Taff” explains Tara.
Tara studied graphic design but never worked in the profession. “I worked in many places before becoming the Learning Officer at the RSPB’s Newport Wetlands seven years ago.” she said. “I continued to draw as a hobby but eventually just stopped. Then, when I was convalescing with a broken wrist last year, I read Steve’s article, and decided to pick up my pens again.”
Tara has now set up a Facebook page as The Incidental Illustrator, well worth browsing for new works in progress and an insightful look at her sketchbooks and working methods.