Art has potential for making unlikely bedfellows

Imagine an engineer, an artist, and an environmentalist working together to clean up an old mining site. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

Imagine an engineer, an artist, and an environmentalist working together to clean up an old mining site.

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

But for Vancouver-based visual artist, Haruko Okano, it’s a dream partnership.

Two years after completing an artist residency in Dawson City, Okano has returned to the North in search of unlikely collaborators in the resource and environmental industry.

Okano, who uses the natural world as a pallet for her art, sees opportunities for artists to help solve environmental problems.

“The (resource) industry can stretch and break the idea of working with artists, and artists can stretch their idea of art,” said Okano.

She points to the Elevated Wetlands project in Toronto, an art installation that also functions as a water filtration system for the polluted Don River.

Tainted water is pumped through large, sculptured plant beds where it is cleaned then released back into the Don River. It’s esthetically pleasing to the eye and runs entirely on solar energy.

The project was spearheaded by artist Noel Hardings and resulted in a partnership between him, the auto industry and a higher education institution.

“If those kinds of disparate industries can work together there, then why not here?” said Okano.

This type of art is effective because it sends an important message about the environment without being overly confrontational, she said.

“It’s not about me pushing it into your face, saying, ‘Are you doing your recycling?’ It goes beyond written and spoken language.”

Okano thinks there is potential for art to flourish in environmentally ravaged parts of the Yukon, such as the mine tailings ponds outside of Dawson City.

She explains how oyster mushrooms, for instance, could be used to extract polyvinyl chlorides from the ground. This fungus converts and neutralizes chemicals on contaminated building sites.

“The amazing thing is that the mushrooms remain edible,” she said.

But she knows that an idea like this, which has been put to the test in New York City and on Vancouver Island, requires developers to have an open mind.

“Engineers aren’t rushing to work with artists now; there’s still lots of understanding needed,” she said.

Wednesday evening, Okano and Whitehorse artist Joyce Majiski will be hosting a roundtable on environmental art. They’ve sent out invitations to conservationists as well as people in the resource industry, hoping to spark a discussion about how art can influence nature and vice versa.

Okano has been making art since the early ‘70s but in the last 10 years focused much of her creativity on the natural environment.

She incorporates organic, recycled and biodegradable material into her work to create thought-provoking art.

In 2003 she was part of the Three Rivers project organized by CPAWS-Yukon in which a group of artists was invited to create a visual response to endangered land and animals in the Peel region. Okano built a boat made of moose skin that floated above a bed of sand.

“The idea behind the sand was that the more people that walked over the sand the more they obliterated it. It showed the potential for the same thing to happen to the Earth,” she said.

Okano will host another evening talk at Arts Underground on Friday, showcasing past samples of

her environmental art as well as describing the process she uses when working with natural material.

On the weekend she facilitates a workshop in Golden Horn for artists to collaborate with one another on an environmental art project specific to the Yukon.

The work will eventually be showcased at the Yukon Arts Centre in November.

Okano’s visit to the North is part of the LLAMA Project (Look Listen and Make Art), a collaborative venture that links artists from around the world. The current project, Voz/Voice, involves an artist exchange between Mexico and Canada. This past winter Okano and Majiski spent time in Mexico touring small towns, meeting other artists, giving workshops and making art.

When Okano left the town of St. Augustine, Mexico, she used large, hardened seed pods to tell a narrative of the surrounding people and land she had immersed herself in.

“Wherever I go I like to leave behind a piece of work as a response to my environment.”

She’s already planning to leave behind an art piece made from harvested wood at the Ted Harrison retreat she’s staying at before she leaves the Yukon at the end of August.

Haruko Okano’s roundtable discussion, Convergence, happens Wednesday, 7 p.m. at the Old Fire Hall.

Artists wishing to sign up for the weekend workshop can contact Arts Underground.

More information about the LLAMA project can be found at

Contact Vivian Belik at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dawson City RCMP are reporting a break and enter on Feb. 25 after two masked men entered a residence, assaulted a man inside with a weapon and departed. (Black Press file)
Two men arrested after Dawson City home invasion

Dawson City RCMP are reporting a break and enter on Feb. 25.… Continue reading

Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn speaks to reporters at a news conference in Whitehorse on Dec. 21, 2017. New ATIPP laws are coming into effect April 1. (Chris Windeyer/Yukon News file)
New access to information laws will take effect April 1

“Our government remains committed to government openness and accountability.”

City council meeting in Whitehorse on Feb. 8. At Whitehorse city council’s March 1 meeting, members were presented with a bylaw that would repeal 10 bylaws deemed to be redundant or out of date. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Out with the old

Council considers repealing outdated bylaws

A bobcat is used to help clear snow in downtown Whitehorse on Nov. 4. According to Environment Canada, the Yukon has experienced record-breaking precipitation this year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon will have “delayed spring” after heavy winter snowfall

After record levels of precipitation, cold spring will delay melt

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted online. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

A rendering of the Normandy Manor seniors housing facility. (Photo courtesy KBC Developments)
Work on seniors housing project moves forward

Funding announced for Normandy Manor

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

Most Read