A Journey Beneath the Surface - Sonja Drake

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Excerpts from Sonja Drakes MFA catalogue 2021 - end of year submission.

We shape the world in ways visible and invisible.

In his 2006 publication Theatre Country: Essays on Landscape and Whenua, ecologist and environmental historian Geoff Park illuminated attitudes to the depiction of the land that have historically contributed to ecological devastation in Aotearoa. In reference to land and culture, Park speaks of “places we have settled” that “are capable of unsettling us, where we know the extent of our wounding of them.”1 Park’s writing speaks to issues of concern to me and relates to key issues in my practice.

Tied to my concern with wider ecological devastation, I am interested in areas where land meets water, where water’s path flows above and below the earth’s surface, and the load water has the potential to carry. Tying into processes of colonisation, settling and un-settling, in my practice, I have been visiting and exploring several sites relevant to my settler heritage. Various geographic points of intersection relate to my ancestral lineage, dating back to the 1850s. Above and below the surface of the land, there is a woundedness. In the waterways, the aquifers, and the sea, as well as in bird, insect, and animal life, there exists a genetic legacy carrying the effects of environmental contamination on altered genetic code and epigenetic expression.

Investigating these sites from my perspective as an un-settled settler, I’ve been looking at their current condition, researching as well as imagining, to better understand how this situation has evolved since humans first arrived, around the fourteenth century. For me, a central question is how might painting function as a path to examine and illuminate environmental issues? In my practice, I question how an artwork might register a situation in the world.

Thinking about what is precious and what is valued, I’ve been focusing on three sites where urban and natural worlds meet: the first location is where my dad grew up in Onehunga; the second, the Wairau stream, is close by, where my Mum grew up on her family’s market garden in the 1940s and ’50s; and the third, the Mairangi stream, is a stone’s throw from the front of my home, where I walk every day. As well as my connections to these places through family, I have been connecting through repeated site visits over the past year.

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Beneath the Surface

Beyond Park’s text mentioned above, two other accounts of human interactions with the land have been important in my research. The first of these, To The River: A Journey Beneath the Surface (2011) by British writer Olivia Laing, is part memoir, part historical reflection, and includes insights into the botanical, geographical, and literary histories of the area as she recounts her journey walking the length of the Ouse River in Sussex. Laing writes, “I wanted somehow to get beneath the surface of the daily world.”2 Plunging into the river, she describes the feel of the water on her skin, its silty colour, the loamy smell, and deliberates on what else may be in the water—agricultural runoff, large clumps of waterweed fed by fertiliser, the outfall from a dozen sewerage works. Drawn by the current along the river’s length, the closer she comes to the coast, the more conspicuous and extreme the impact of human intervention. Laing creates a sense of deep mapping, as interweaving threads unfurl with the river’s flow.

I responded to Laing’s journey down the river because when I visit Tāmaki waterways, I am struck by the complexity of the challenges and the many elements that thread into them. Laing reflects on historical events that took place on the banks. “Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads.”3 The way this book reflects on multi-layered histories by exploring a waterway while contemplating a contemporary coming to terms with pollution gives it a universal quality that makes it relevant as a guiding inspiration to the methodology of my practice.

The second text, PrairyErth: (a deep map) (1991) by American writer and historian William Least Heat-Moon, documents another autobiographical journey of discovery, which has also been influential. Detailing his journey through Chase County, Kansas, this text incorporates various elements and encounters along the way. Geography, history, ecology, anthropology, journalism, philosophy, life tales, and wisdom learned along the road from many of the inhabitants he meets on his journey all form a part of this deep map, a term the author uses to represent his intensive investigation into place from multiple different angles. This book creates, as one reviewer noted, “a kind of collage, an object made of other, randomly arranged objects, a complex composite image revealing past, present, and future all at once in any one piece.”4 By following Least Heat-Moon’s lead and taking a longer look, inquiring into what has gone before, at a slower pace than our harried twenty-first-century way of life usually allows, I’ve been finding ways to build up a composite understanding of these places to deepen my enquiry. Immersed in the physicality of the site, I’ve been walking daily, observing what is directly before me. Engaged with water testing and journaling, a record of interactions helps me create my own deep map to “map a record” and better understand these places’ shifting and fluid nature.

Trickle Down

Trickle Down is a body of watercolour paintings consisting of notes, studies, and large watercolour works on paper. These were created in 2021 in response to visiting, researching, and experiencing sites in Onehunga, where my dad grew up on a volcanic knoll named Emerald Hill. In an effort to locate the chemical factories in this area, where my Nana had worked as a secretary and my dad had holiday jobs as a student, I came across several problematic sites. Just along Mays Road is where the former Farmers Fertiliser Company manufactured products from 1910 to 1984. Long since closed but with a continuing legacy of contamination underground, this site is number five on the list of this country’s most contaminated places.

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Returning to the writers mentioned above, just as Laing and Least Heat-Moon interpreted the past through present sites, I have traced decades of issues through the communications, reports, investigations, aerial photographs, plans, diagrams, test results, and newspaper clippings held in the substantial pile of archives the Auckland Council hold relating to this site. These documents show that contaminants were leaching directly into the groundwater from cesspits at the site. Furthermore, the high acidity of the discharge piped directly into the Manukau Harbour has broken down and dissolved stormwater pipes, resulting in an extensive underground contaminant plume leaching down into the Onehunga aquifer.

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We shape the world in ways visible and invisible. Unlike Laing following the Ouse, I trace a river I cannot see. I imagine the path along which water flows to the underground aquifer. What is carried along with it, and where does it go? Considering the impact on the aquifer and the life forms native to that environment, I think of inflow and infiltration. The underground plume of contaminants travels south and west, casting a long shadow down into and across the substrate. We don’t see into the ground or see the scale of a problem that lies deeper, hidden. Below the heavy tread of the human footprint, a pervasive imprint trickles down through volcanic scoria and fractures and boreholes in the basalt to track along the sediment layers. It is an accumulation and layering through deep time and I imagine that trickle-down path.

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My choice of medium complements this subject matter; able to be worked quickly on a small or a large scale, the fluid nature of watercolour and pencil allows a lightness of touch that can create a flow and luminosity. Watercolour tracks with gravity as water tracks through the land. The tension of a measured stroke or the splash of gesture is visible. Pigments behave in unique ways, some blending, some bleeding, some granulating as colours swim into each other as I work toward mapping these anthropological impacts.

Rolling out large rolls of watercolour paper to paint in the back garden enables me to assess compositional elements by viewing the work from the deck above. Considering the scale of aquifers and the trickling movement of water through cracks and layers of the earth, watercolour on paper at this scale allows the gestural pouring and tipping of paint, having it track and puddle in the waves that develop as the paper stretches. I employ granular table salt to push and pull the pigments about the paper’s surface. Creating watercolour paint using sediment from the site mixed with gum arabic as a binder and honey for its hygroscopic and anti-bacterial qualities brings an embodiment of site into the work.

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Te Papapa / Captain Springs Reserve is a related site in Onehunga, a bleak park dissected by an elevated railway line and encircled by old, seeping industrial buildings. I have visited many times, scrambling around in the bushes at the edge of a rambling series of rubbish-strewn ponds. It’s like a dystopian film set. The more I find out about this place, the less inclined I am to want to bring any embodiment of this site into the work. As well as pollution from the toxic underground plume poisoning the groundwater here, the neighbouring Hickson’s Timber Treatment Plant was a significant source of contamination. Chemicals used in the timber tanalising process—arsenic, chromium, copper, and chlordane—fed into an open drain, channelling directly into these ponds, and from here to the Manukau Harbour, up until it was closed in 1989 for site remediation.

There is an alignment between the agency of water following a path, carrying contaminants, and the agency of water mixed with watercolour paint that transports pigments. Sometimes toxic, the pigments seep into the paper, mutating, dispersing. Layering the stain-like watercolour, over several days I work with how different pigments behave. I’m testing and retesting methods to find the best chemistry for a particular time and place.

Environmental elements contribute to the result. Rain showers, sunshine, wind, dampness, heat or cold, birds flying over, and insects all affect the outcome traced in the drying paint. Being alive to the possibilities presented when things don’t go according to plan, a sudden rain shower or unexpected disruptions become part of the process, as these can be opportunities. Depending on atmospheric conditions such as humidity, temperature, and direct sunlight, the drying paint can form fractalised patterns redolent of chemical reactions, or dry with a soft merging movement like a gravity-drawn pool.

Parts per Million

The use of scientific and a pseudo-scientific approach, such as water sampling and testing, deepens the insights into sites with which I’ve been engaging. Specifically, I participated in the Whau River Clean event as part of Eco-Fest earlier this year. For this, two University of Auckland research scientists discussed issues and demonstrated water testing methods used to collect data for the Te Hau o Te Whau Crown Research Project into microplastics and emerging contaminants. They explained that emergent contaminants, or “contaminants of emerging concern,” are typically not yet regulated but can pose a severe risk to human and ecological health. I asked about the use of recent scientific findings into remedial measures, such as fungi or mealworms that can digest plastic. The scientists explained that these measures are not currently practical to use on a scale sufficient to deal with the problem. Rather than dealing with downstream effects, it is much more effective to use scientific findings to work with the government to implement legislative change upstream, where the contaminant originates.

While it’s clear to see how this work generates change, I am still left asking what is the role of art alongside this? Although data, statistics, and scientific findings serve a valuable purpose, art potentially has a complementary capacity to speak of something else. In relating her conversation with the head scientist in Antarctica, Joyce Campbell conveyed his affirmation of the role art can perform. Art can connect and communicate with people in a different way, a way that can engage the audience and facilitate access to the information presented through a different, potentially more open, pathway.

Furthermore, art can attract or seduce us through the senses. Visual, tactile, and auditory engagement can draw the audience in for a longer look, asking them to reflect on what is seen or felt, and potentially communicate what can sometimes be challenging to put into words. In my practice, by working from the feeling that prompted the work, I investigate how it may be possible to evoke what it feels like to be there, and by communicating the essence of the experience, to then provide a connection to the complexities suggested. 

Recognising the intricacies of the living systems in which we are all entangled, acknowledging the agency of the non-human is an integral part of reversing the concept of humans as outside of nature. Contamination of the environment affects all life forms in a multi-species entanglement of the earth’s dynamic system of which we are all part. The interconnectivity of human and natural worlds is an essential part of rebuilding human/nature relations.

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Settlement and Sediment

The Wairau stream, which flows close to where I live, is where my Mum grew up, and her parents had a market garden in the days before the Harbour Bridge. As kids, Mum would tell us about her childhood on the farm and the creek’s flooding. She would point out a concrete drain amongst industrial buildings. It was hard to imagine how it had been. The stream would often flood across the road and the lower field. The Harbour Bridge changed things, and during the 1950s and ’60s, there was extensive industrial and suburban development of the Wairau Valley, so that flooding became more troublesome.

I followed the flow of the Wairau Creek from the headwaters through to Milford beach, where it meets the sea and where concrete pipes, channels, and holding ponds have been installed to control the growing flooding problem. This urban creek is 78% channelled and piped, meaning the natural hyporheic processes of stream and groundwater transfer are not possible, diminishing chances for life in this waterway. The Auckland Council Archives and library files of newspaper clippings spoke of dated attitudes and council squabbles. The stream was considered little more than a drain. The legacy of an era when industrial waste drained directly into the creek along with road runoff, high nutrient loadings, increased water temperature, and heavy stormwater events have contributed to one of the most contaminated waterways in the country. The Milford Marina at the mouth of the estuary requires dredging every four years. The sediment is so dense with heavy metals and chemical contaminants that it is the only marina where dredgings are toxic waste. The work, Settlement and Sediment, was made in response to this site and includes watercolour paint made with sediment from the marina.

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As part of my investigation of the Mairangi Creek, just by where we live, my husband and I paddle-boarded upstream from the sea with care. We didn’t want to fall in. The stream branches into two, part way along the stretch from the sea before it undergrounds. The stream water here is at times smelly and stagnant, full of algae and black slime, flowing across the beach where children and animals play. The water-testing I did here backed up my concerns. Every coliform test showed positive, but after heavy rains, you can smell the sewage from some distance.

I added to my materials from the site with water from the stream, coloured clays, and silt deposits from the stream edge and included nature printing with leaves, twigs, and detritus to bring an embodiment of the site into the work. Working on a large format gave me the space to bring in many elements. I sought to include aspects of the tangible and sensed, the measured and tested, combining these with a sense of patterns and rhythms of life forms above and below the water’s surface.

Australian John Wolseley is an artist with whom my work connects. As an artist whose work includes an extensive embodiment of site, his practice readily intersects with the theoretical interests I have outlined above. Working primarily with watercolour, he also employs collage, frottage, and nature printing as ways to have direct physical contact with the natural world. In an interview regarding his recent exhibition Heartlands and Headwaters at the National Gallery of Victoria, Wolseley said that “my reasons for painting are a lot to do with trying to link with the matrix in which we live, to be part of nature, to get back our sense of belonging and trying to re-enchant our connection.”5 Immersing himself in the sites he investigates, Wolseley lives there for some time, incorporating all manner of naturally occurring elements. An example is dragging his paper through scrub burnt in bushfires, having the naturally occurring charcoal mark his paper, to create in collaboration with the natural environment, subverting historical approaches to the depiction of landscape.


I believe that art in general has the potential to add to our understanding of the world and that site-specific artworks can contribute to the discourse around ecological awareness. It can be easier to conceptualise the environmental situation in a given place than the overwhelming reality of an impending global ecological crisis. In Aotearoa New Zealand the reality of environmental contamination is unsettling. Through the medium of painting, I tell a story from my perspective as an un-settled settler. By working from feelings that prompt the work, listening to the land, and gathering together personal experience, histories, and research to form a deep mapping of interwoven threads, I seek to communicate my experience and evoke a sense of what it’s like to be there.

Drawn to examining toxicity in the environment, specifically in relation to my familial history, I continue to seek to understand exposures and the effects these have now and potentially for generations to come. As we know more about the impact of environmental contamination on epigenetics and gene expression, the implications on health become clearer. The effect is not limited to humanity; life on every level is affected. I seek to increase the visibility of dangers hidden in plain sight.

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To view Sonja's paintings and work click here.

  1. Geoff Park, Theatre Country: Essays on landscape & Whenua (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006), 157.
  2. Olivia Laing, To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2011),
  3. Laing, To the River, 15.
  4. Pamela Walker, “The Necessity of Narrative in William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways and Prairyerth,” Great Plains Quarterly 14 (1994): 294, https:// digitalcommons.unl.edu/ greatplainsquarterly/802/.
  5. National Gallery of Australia, “Artist Interview, John Wolseley,” YouTube Video, 10:13, 4 May 2015, https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/ exhibition/john-wolseley/.10.

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