Leanne Hodges’ new mural within Whaler’s on the Point Guesthouse is a celebration of sea otters and a motivator for those who see it to start thinking about the environment.

Mural in Tofino hostel celebrates sea otters

“This is a celebration of the sea otter as a keystone species in the kelp forest environment,” Hodges said.

Leanne Hodges is hoping her freshly painted mural at Tofino’s hostel helps transform visitors into freshly inspired environmental stewards.

The Cowichan Valley artist has strong ties with the West Coast. She collaborates regularly with local conservation organization Clayoquot Action and was selected as the poster artist for 2017’s Pacific Rim Whale Festival.

Her work with Clayoqout Action caught the attention of Tofino’s Whaler’s on the Point Guesthouse and she was asked to create a mural for the guesthouse’s common area, which overlooks Tofino’s harbour.

Hodges told the Westerly the mural took about three weeks to come together.

“Conceptually, it’s a lot of labour just to lay it all down and it takes a while before it starts to pop,” she said. “It’s really starting to show its form and its narrative so it’s just a matter of cleaning it up and finishing it off.”

She hopes the piece, which portrays sea otters sustaining the West Coast’s oceanic vibrancy, helps visitors connect with the nature they’re admiring.

“This is a celebration of the sea otter as a keystone species in the kelp forest environment,” she said.

“What I’m designing here in this space is the kelp forest and the biodiversity it brings to the coast and how we suffered greatly from the loss of the sea otter over the years and that diminished biodiversity because the urchins came in and starting eating the kelp.”

She noted sea otters, which eat sea urchins, are making a comeback on the Coast but not everyone is stoked to see them return, particularly those who make their living harvesting urchins.

“Now the rub is, the sea otter is controversial because they’ve become so prolific they are in competition with the human hunter…they now are wanting to cull the sea otters,” she said.

“But we’re not getting that we’re in this huge global crisis. The oceans are suffering and if we start removing the beautiful interconnectedness of nature’s web we are going to suffer more because kelp is barely hanging on with the acidification in the oceans and we can’t mess with it anymore.”

She cautioned that if human attitudes towards the environment and their connection to it don’t change, her work could end up portraying the past.

“I am just so worried that I’m going to end up starting to paint paintings and put those little murder outlines where there were starfish, where there were Cassin’s auklets, where there were sardines and whales and everything, because they’re just crashing,” she said.

“I hope it’s an early warning that we start to value what we have and we do whatever we can to save it.”

Hodges said she enjoyed putting the hostel’s mural together and hopes to see more large scale projects pop up on her horizon.

“I’m attracted to things that are large scale, that are installations, that are murals, because I’m looking at doing work that’s impactful…When I go back into the studio and scale down to 2 foot by 3 foot canvasses I’m feeling cramped,” she said.

“What I feel I’m not doing at this moment but want to do is larger installations, environmental pieces…It really aligns itself with the expressiveness and the impactfulness that I’m trying to create; to evoke awareness in people’s minds about the beauty of these wilderness areas and the wildlife that are inextricably linked.”

Hodges found her love of art at a young age when she happened upon her mother’s painting class.

“The earliest memory I have of being impacted by art and wanting to get at an easel I was probably just about 4 years old,” she said. “I have this vivid memory of walking into where she was doing a painting class and it was like I walked into a cathedral…I was like, ‘That’s where I want to be.’”

She suggested her early work was very nature-inspired but she was knocked off this artistically creative path when her passions were not as well nurtured as they could have been.

“What artists are doing today to use nature to create art forms and messages, narratives about minimizing our impact on our environment, I was doing that when I was a young girl,” she said.

“Sadly, I didn’t have the guidance to say, ‘Look at what you’re doing; it is a creation’ and to expand on that. I ended up going through the elementary school standards of art, and what that means in that context, and I found myself working inside the lines when I wanted to work outside of them. I never really got my head around that until I was much older.”

She said she has enjoyed witnessing a new generation of artists expressing conservation through “artivism” and inspiring environmental change.

“I love what the youth are doing. They’re using their creative energy now to really speak about their angst and especially what it’s doing to the environment because that is their future,” she said.

“What I don’t see is artists painting a lot about fish farms, mining and forestry; what we’re painting about is nature and its importance to us spiritually…I definitely believe the artist, the musician, spoken word poet, videographer; we’ve all got huge tools to reconnect society back to nature.”

She said this reconnection is important because she fears humans are on a dangerous path.

“We are suffering as a culture under nature deficit disorder. We are diseased as a result of our constructions we have made that separate us from nature,” she said. “Innately, there’s this desire I’ve had since I landed on this planet; my spirit wants to reconnect people to nature.”

She hopes to see the art world create a collective push to communicate the environment’s importance.

“I had this lucid dream the other day…technology crashed and the artist became the important communicator again. All of a sudden, we were collaborative and communal through art and having this dialogue and narrative that we’ve lost due to technology,” she said.

“You see everybody sitting around texting like mad and they only glance up to take a picture and then they put it back on Facebook. They’ve lost their connection and it’s through this false construct that they try and convey what they need in order to be whole in this world.”