Ecotones by Sonja Drake: an exhibition about Wairau Creek

Detail of Trickle Down, watercolour on Fabriano Watercolour paper 300gm, full work is 4200 x 1500mm.

Sonja Drake’s exhibition Ecotones features watercolours, prints and artists books inspired by her explorations of Wairau Creek’s history and ecosystem. The exhibition first opened last year in the Angela Morton Room at Takapuna Library - but closed a week later when the country when into lockdown. We are thrilled to hold an encore for Ecotones, now on show in the Angela Morton Room until 10 August.

Sonja has been drawing water samples from local waterways, testing the water, tracking temperature, weather and tidal effects, and sketching, on her walks along Wairau Creek, as she has sought to understand the shifting and fluid nature of this ecosystem where urban and natural worlds meet. 

Being immersed in the physicality of the site means she has been able to reflect on what is valued and what is precious. She has also studied the history of the stream from the recent colonial time, the pre-colonial history of the Tangata Whenua, and the history prior to human habitation - traces of which are contained in the creek sediment and enfolded in the eroding sedimentary layers of the sandstone cliffs, once under the sea. The river embodies a steep transition between our modern, urban environment and natural ecologies. While this situation has greatly dampened the mauri of the stream, signs of life are still present, the eels, rhythms of water movement, plant life and schools of small fish in the estuary.

Sediment Life, watercolour and graphite on 600gm Saunders watercolour paper, 760 x 575mm.

Sonja lives close to Wairau Creek, it’s where her mother grew up, and where her grandparents had a Market Garden in the days before the Harbour Bridge was built. Tracing connections to sites relevant to her own settler heritage and including elements of those stories adds a layer to her artwork. As well as a market garden growing fruit and vegetables for their store on Hurstmere Road, Takapuna, her grandparents had 14 cows for town supply milk and 200 Khaki Campbell ducks that her grandad would lead down to the Wairau creek each morning to free-range about on the stream. “I’ve been interested in the area for a long time, and remember Mum telling us when we were kids about their farm, and the flooding of the creek. She would point out an unpleasant looking concrete drain amongst industrial buildings, it was hard to imagine what it had been like,” Sonja said. 

Looking back further, to before the time of European colonisation, she said that the valley was largely covered in subtropical vegetation. “I have read about the Mahurangi Purchase, a complex land transfer that happened between 1841 and the 1860s and involved everything on the east coast from Te Ārai Point to North Head and down the spine of old Rodney County. But the early history is made more complex because of several land transfers that happened in the 1810s-1830s during the Musket Wars, concluding with a group other than the original inhabitants selling most of the land to the British.”

Pōhutukawa Roots, watercolour paint & pencil on Fabriano watercolour paper 300gm, 210 x 297 mm.

A recent ecological survey predicts that the original vegetation pre-human settlement was subtropical, made up largely of kauri/taraire, kohekohe, tawa forest in the upper reaches, kahikatea-pukatea-tawa forest along the stream and tributaries, and a stretch of wetland and estuary closer to the coast. Sonja’s uncle remembers as a child collecting a sugar sack full of kauri gum on their farm in the 1940s and ’50s. The underlying geology of relatively impermeable siltstone and sandstone, overlaid in areas with volcanic deposits from the explosion of the site of Lake Pupuke 40,000 years ago, contributed to marshy valley floor.

Family photo of the artist, on the farm on Porana Road, around 1945.

Sonja’s grandparents’ market garden was situated between Wairau, Archers and Porana Roads. Her mother would talk about playing in the creek at the bottom of their farm, the Wairau Creek, which in times of heavy rain flooded the lower field into a pond. “Mum and my Uncle loved to build tree huts and dig ‘caves’ around the farm, which my Grandfather found handy to fill with the household rubbish, as was the way in those days. Grandma didn’t really want to return to farming, having grown up the oldest of eight children in Taupiri where she had to get up at 5 am to do the milking before going to school. During the Depression my Grandfather had to leave his job where he worked at the foundry on College Hill, he was becoming ill from the toxic fumes, but it wasn’t an easy time to find other work and he was keen to farm. Thinking about the Second World War looming, Grandma sold her baby wear business on Karangahape Road to buy the land. Being involved in a primary industry meant my grandfather would be in the Home Guard.” 

Wairau Creek Mouth, digital image of the artist.

PAK’nSAVE now sits where the flood-pond would form. The creek runs in a concrete channel along the roadside, and Kings Plant Barn up the hill is where Sonja’s family’s farm cottage once was. Flooding that already occurred naturally was exacerbated by the hard surfaces and additional run-off resulting from the surge of industrial and suburban development in the Wairau Valley in the 1960s.  In an effort to control the flooding, concrete pipes and channels, as well as holding ponds were installed. An extensively modified waterway, a council survey estimates it is 49% channelled and 29% piped. A common practice in the day, urban streams were seen as little more than a drain. The hyporheic zone is an active ecotone between the surface stream and groundwater. Exchanges of water, nutrients, and organic matter occur, this is where the cycle of life starts in a stream. The concrete barrier between the stream and the earth leaves little room for stream life. Renamed the Wairau Storm Water Drain in its upper reaches, a large pond has been put in at Wairau Park to retain excess silt, contaminants and water to prevent flooding, and a wetland development just downstream in the same area was opened in 2016 to help remove contaminants and encourage stream life.

Beach Feathers, watercolour paint on Fabriano watercolour paper 300gm, 210 x 297 mm.

Most of the time there is very little water in the concreted drains, maybe 2 inches, enough to support the brown gold algae clinging to the bottom. The ‘stormwater drain’ officially becomes a creek again in Milford, near where it flows down a drop of about a metre into the mangrove estuary and on through the Milford Marina out to the sea. The build-up of sediment is a natural process in estuaries as they age, but the effects of deforestation and urbanisation speed this process by at least 10 fold. The Milford Marina needs dredging every four years to retain the depth needed for the boats. The dredged silt is classified as toxic waste due to the high levels of contaminants, the worst levels of any marina in the country, and needs to be dumped at a designated toxic waste disposal site. Heavy metals and chemicals flowing from the large industrial catchment add to the chemical load from the boatyard and antifoul paints. Sewerage contamination also plagues Wairau Creek. The ageing infrastructure of pipe networks and historical incorrect connections are costly to diagnose and expensive to remedy once discovered. Safeswim, the Government funded water safety site, have a permanent alert where Wairau Creek meets the sea, it’s never safe to swim there.

Sonja has been walking every day, observing the local Wairau Creek and the Mairangi Bay waterways, and from this study, she has developed a large body of artworks for the exhibition in the Angela Morton Room. Photographs and historical documents accompany the images. 

The Ecotones exhibition is open daily until 10 August 2022, in the Angela Morton Room Te Pātaka Toi Art Library, Level 1, Takapuna Library.

Instagram: @sonja_drake_art

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Wairau Creek Mouth, digital image of the artist.


P. W. Williams. Impact of urbanization on the hydrology of Wairau Creek, North Shore, Auckland. Journal of Hydrology (New Zealand). Vol. 15, No. 2 (1976), pp. 81-99 (19 pages).

Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 29:59-81, 1998. The Functional Significance of the Hyporheic Zone in Streams and Rivers.

Green, M.O. (2006). New Zealand’s estuaries: how they work and the issue that affect them. NIWA Information.

Predicted Original Vegetation (LENZ) North Shore Ecological Survey, April 2005.

Summary Report. Climate Change and Infrastructure Design. Case study: Wairau Catchment, North Shore City. Prepared for North Shore City Council NZ Climate Change Office August 2004 48232/046/R090.