Landscape Painter Meg O’Hara reflects on being an Antarctic delegate and featured artist at Ocean Week Canada
Meg O’Hara is a contemporary landscape painter, who specializes in acrylic on canvas creations of abstract depictions of ice. O’Hara is based in British Columbia, Canada, and is a member of the Creative Alliance for Protect Our Winters. In December 2022 she, along with 10 fellow Canadians, was chosen as part of a delegation to Antarctica to explore the country’s involvement in the Antarctic Treaty System as well as the impact of climate change on the region.
O’Hara’s painting from the trip is a part of the James Cameron “Pressure and Ocean Conservation Exhibit,” on display through Friday, September 1, 2023, at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in Ottawa, Ontario. She attended the opening of the exhibit back in June.
POW caught up with Meg to talk about how storytelling is the key to unlocking science education and her experience on the delegation to Antarctica.
Hi Meg! Before we dive in, we’d love to know more about yourself, where you come from and how you got your start as an artist.
Sure. I live in Whistler, British Columbia, and I grew up in Toronto, [Ontario]. I have an art history degree. And so I always knew I was interested in the arts. I grew up painting. My granny was an artist, a hobby artist. My dad was a hobby artist. So I’ve been painting since I was young. I actually sold my first painting when I was 16 to my granny for $100.
She’s the one who taught me to paint and I’m named after her. So I think a lot of my creativity and free spirit comes from her. Sidenote: Actually, she passed away a couple of years ago, and I inherited the painting pack. So, now it’s mine.
I grew up [in Ontario] and it was super flat. I remember seeing my first mountain, when I was like, 11, and my family was on a trip. And so I moved out west when I was a teenager, basically, to go skiing, but under the veil of academia, I pretended it was for university, but I was never a great student. I also have pretty serious dyslexia, so I don’t know what the f#@k I was thinking about going to university. I’m surprised I passed, but I did, somehow.
I’ve always had an interest in painting, but it took me a while to understand that it was a viable career and also a lucrative career option. You know, it took me a little bit to get here, but I’m here now.
Great. And how did you start to combine your creativity with an interest in climate change?
I did not have it naturally growing up; I didn’t have an interest in the Earth or the planet growing up. But I was always interested in nature and come from a big outdoorsy family. But I hadn’t pieced together that my actions had a direct role in keeping these wild places wild. That didn’t click. So I’m glad to, hopefully, be making up for it now.
I’m not sure if there was a defining moment when I realized that I could, it was a pretty gradual process. I’m a big skier. It’s my main sport. And so maybe it was the different T-bars getting moved at Whistler Blackcomb [because of the receding glaciers] or the summer ski season getting shortened. It was really gradual over time seeing the glaciers change from year to year.
I joined Protect Our Winters Canada in 2018. And really since being aligned with the organization, that’s what’s gotten me more and more interested in climate action. And now I’m pretty focused on the polar regions, the Arctic and Antarctic. And that’s really come from my work in ocean conservation, and delegate expeditions and delegations on different icebreaker ships and the work that I have upcoming. And then once I realized the importance of or the impact of climate change on the polar regions, it’s three to four times more than the rest of the world. I was like, “This is f#$ked up. And it lit a fire under my ass. And I believe we need to highlight the polar regions because they’re really at the forefront of climate change.
And, at least for the general public, they’re easy to forget about because they’re far away and out of sight.
It’s so important in my role as a science communicator, to be able to not only share the continent or share these polar regions with others, but also share stories, and share science with people so that, even if they’ve never visited the Arctic, they might still understand the value of protecting it.
If we could circle back, you mentioned coming from a fairly outdoorsy family. I’d love to hear more about that relationship with the outdoors. Was that innate? Did you have to develop that?
My family’s very outdoorsy… we’re Canadian, right? You don’t have any option; you have to be outside in sh#tty weather. There’s no such thing as weather that’s too bad to go have fun. Canadians have fun in any weather, it’s really quite the flex.
Growing up, my family would spend a lot of our summers camping, we’d go on big canoe trips. And then all winter, we grew up having an ice rink in my backyard where we played hockey, and we would go skiing all the time.
Even though I was in the city, my dad made a point of taking me into nature and making sure I could navigate. I was building fires and setting up the tent like he was. Outdoor education was really important.
I’d love to hear how you first started mixing your art with science and environmental themes.
I used to be really focused on the ski industry. All my clients were skiers or heli-ski lodges, private ski chalets. I would go to these places and just go ski and get set up in a hotel and do a painting for them. It was really fun. I wouldn’t say I was making a particularly huge impact but that’s what really got me involved in Protect Our Winters. All my clients were in the ski industry. It was a very natural fit, and then I became more and more aware that this industry is so threatened by this climate crisis. And then my focus switched from the ski industry to ocean conservation in the polar regions. And I’d say the biggest shift as an artist happened when I was an artist in residence on an ocean conservation expedition on an icebreaker ship in the Atlantic.
I was the only artist on board and it was a working ship. The whole trip was based on ocean conservation and climate action. And I was the only artist involved; everyone else were scientists, marine biologists, government representatives, policymakers. And I was just immersed in this world of academia and I was really struck by the fact that, not to be rude, none of them knew how to talk about their expertise. They had such a hard time using language that people can understand. In the first couple of days, I needed a glossary. And for context, I have dyslexia, so I was pulled out of math and science early. I have an elementary-level education in science. That’s it.
Very quickly I was like, “Oh, everyone understands what’s going on, except for me.” Until I realized that the problem was the solution. The problem was that I didn’t understand this academic language. I didn’t have formal science training. But the solution was that I could translate. I knew the right questions to ask, I wasn’t nervous, and I wasn’t shy to look silly. I had extensive curiosity. And if I was able to understand it and convey it without a formal education, I could probably translate it to other people.
There needs to be an intermediary between academia and the general population; there needs to be a communicator who can take these complex conversations and complex topics, put them in plain language, attach a story to them, and convey emotion and an actionable step for people to take. That’s where I see my art as a form of science communication.
That’s amazing. I’d love to hear, from your perspective, how important is the role of creative communicators. How important is it for you to be actively involved in trying to translate these complex topics for the general public?
It’s the creatives and storytellers who are often one in the same, right, but it doesn’t need to be a single medium. It could be filmmaking, it could be photography, it could be playwright or screenwriting.
I failed geography in high school. And this week, I was a guest at the Canadian Geographic Society. And I’m having chats with the president of National Geographic. If science had been as interesting when I was a kid as it is now maybe I wouldn’t have failed geography in high school. I think if you love something, you’re more likely to want to protect it. If we can show the beauty of the natural world and create emotion within people, that can create change.
Let’s talk about your invitation to go to Antarctica.
Antarctica was the sickest thing I’ve ever done in my career.
I was invited to a delegation with the SOL Foundation (a delegation is an expedition with a purpose). We were looking at the Antarctic Treaty System, which is how the continent is governed, and the impact of climate change on the polar regions.
I was the only artist on board and there were 10 people selected, with all nominations coming internally. You couldn’t apply and you didn’t know you were being considered. We didn’t even know that trip was happening until we got the invite.
This week was full circle because we had a send-off in Ottawa with His Excellency Whit Fraser. And he was actually there at the Canadian Geographic event this week, where I was showing my painting from Antarctica. He completely recognized me, I couldn’t believe it. I got to show the painting with him and I have a cute selfie of us together.
What were your takeaways from being on the actual trip to Antarctica?
Planet Earth is a misnomer, it should be Planet Ocean. The ocean is much more impactful and vast than our land. And people keep saying it’s otherworldly, it’s like a whole other planet. But it’s not, it is our planet. And everything that happens there has an effect on everything. Even though it is the end of the world, the effects of climate change are still visible in this place that barely anyone has visited. Hardly anyone’s been there, but the effect of climate change by humans is still visible. And it’s just way more beautiful than you could ever imagine. It’s hard to put into words how incredibly gorgeous it is and how lucky I was to be there.
Tell me about the painting and specifically where you took inspiration from and how it took shape.
I brought watercolors and a sketchbook to Antarctica. You have very little luggage so you can’t bring a full set of paints. There’s just no space; you need space for sweaters.
I did a few sketches while I was down there and Antarctica has 90 percent of the world’s ice. I was struck by the beauty of the ice—the iceberg floating by, the glacier on the shoreline, being on the continent, and walking along this deep ice. One of the interesting things is these crevasses that you can see from [all over]. All the ice there is being constantly weathered, eroded, and shaped by nature. Whether that’s the ocean, wind, animal, or temperature change, the ice is pretty much just a natural sculpture that is carved away by nature.
These icebergs and crevasses are constantly changing and they’ll never look the way they do [at a given moment]. So I painted a crevasse. And it’s basically a snapshot of how it looked at that moment, it’ll never look the same. It’s never looked that way before. And I love them because they show the contrast of white and black or light and dark. And you have no idea how deep they are. Ripping around [the boat] in the ocean and looking at all these icebergs and glaciers, it feels like you’re walking through the Met or the Louvre and looking at different sculptures because each one is unique and carved by the hands of Mother Nature. It’s incredible.
That’s a beautiful description.
When I came home, I painted this crevasse. The interesting thing too, is that the ice is freshwater and breaks off the continent, turns into an iceberg and then that iceberg melts into the ocean. Too much melt is causing a disruption in the ocean. But, it all starts with fresh water. Water on the shore. And with this crevasse, you have no idea if it’s on an iceberg, is it a crack on the iceberg? Is it a crevasse on the shore? Will it melt into the ocean eventually? That’s the origin of the story.
Tell me about Ocean Week Canada and your invitation to be a featured artist there.
I was a featured artist for Ocean Week Canada which is basically Earth Day but Ocean Week. My painting of Antarctica was part of the James Cameron “Pressure” exhibit at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, which was put on in conjunction with National Geographic, Rolex, Parks Canada, Canada, Canadian Geographic, and Canadian Ocean Literacy Coalition.
What were the highlights?
The people were incredible. Everyone there was so welcoming and kind. These are also people that, you’d read their bio, and you’d be like “Man, I can’t imagine ever talking to this person.” And then you’re chatting. I had this really great chat with the president of National Geographic. And he was so encouraging and offered to make all these introductions for me and support my career. And I was in the room with all these very impressive people and everyone’s just so encouraging and excited to see someone early on in their career.
It was like a pressure cooker for learning.
Is there something you learned that you think was the most impactful to you?
I don’t know if I have it figured out yet. But, honestly, a takeaway is to create your own luck. Luck favors the bold, right? I think pushing for something that I care about, it’s allowed me to get into these rooms and get these opportunities to ask for what I want and go after what I want. You can make yourself at home in any environment. So pick an environment where you’re going to learn a lot.
I love it. What was the reaction to your painting?
It was pretty interesting to be able to show the visual of Antarctica, and then be able to explain to people why Canada’s role in the Antarctic Treaty System and why protecting the polar regions is so important. And what ice with ocean conservation as a whole. Being able to put that theory into practice and show that art is a form of science communication was very nice to experience.
Author: Donny O'Neill
Donny grew up in the woods of rural Northwestern Connecticut, where he spent much of his time tromping through the deep New England forest that made up his backyard. He first clicked into a pair of skis at the age of 3 and has spent each and every winter since exploring the world via a […]