Migrating Mural Shines Light on Endangered Bighorns


The Migrating Mural is the invention of conservation artist Jane Kim. Kim’s work has been commissioned by the likes of The Nature Conservancy, the Smithsonian, and Yosemite National Park. But the Migrating Mural is different: The idea is to paint on derelict buildings and barns and put up works in places where animals, often endangered ones, actually do migrate. Stage one, in partnership with the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation and the California Department of Fish and Game, chronicles the passage of the increasingly rare bighorns (only 400 exists, when there were once thousands) along U.S. Highway 395. Kim will paint four huge pieces from Tioga Pass (above, at a pending location), down through Bishop and Independence and Olancha.

The long-term goal of the Migrating Mural is to chronicle huge migratory passages with regional artists painting public works in public spaces where people drive, shop, live. The North Pacific blue whale migrates from Baja to Alaska and you can imagine works that link that path. Or, Kim can. As well as the passage of whooping cranes from Texas to Canada…

Stage one is underway, with a Kickstarter page and a show in Berkley on October 4. But even with decent mojo, Kim knows the Migrating Mural is pushing a big rock up an even bigger hill.

Americans have rarely thought about art this way. It’s public. It’s not “owned.” It’s not shown at a wine-and-cheese gathering. What is a conservation artist anyway and, well, why?

I was in an Artist in Residence program through Recology, San Francisco’s Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center, a.k.a, the Dump. My job was to make art out of trash and to share this practice with the elementary school tours that came through weekly. One of the pieces that I made included collecting signatures and graffiti drawn by the kids on construction scrap that I had reclaimed. Work like this helped me realize an important distinction between visual art that looks good and visual art that looks good while driving conservation.

Painting endangered animals is of course noble, but also really challenging. How do you paint Sierra Nevada bighorn when they’re so rare you might not ever see one?

I have to give a shout out to Albrecht Durer and his famous rhinoceros. He drew this based on a written description and a brief sketch by an unknown artist. He created this without having seen the animal yet having the skill to re-create it just through someone else’s observation. Obviously it is not accurate, but it’s pretty darn close considering! And for this project I have actually seen bighorn. It’s very unlikely that you can see the sheep up close and personal, but observing their movements and behavior even through a spotting scope is so helpful. The California Department of Fish and Game’s Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program has a wonderful collection of photos and have given me permission to use them as reference. You’ll also recognize the art on their website.

What about the actual painting; your work is HUGE, so how exactly can you scale something that large, especially in a short amount of time?

The sketches are first drawn on a very small scale (8×10-inch). Then I scan the images at a very high resolution. The scan is enlarged to the size that I need it. Finally, the enlarged image is printed onto plain paper and cut out to make a stencil. I then use this stencil to create the mural. I used that process to create my recent mural for Bamboo Sushi, the country’s first sustainably certified sushi restaurant. I painted a Bahamian marine food chain starting with the tiger shark as the apex predator over GPS coordinates to a newly protected marine reserve that Bamboo Sushi helped implement with The Nature Conservancy.

That’s obviously very cool, but not the same as making art for a very public audience — with a very public message. Can you speak to that distinction?

Well something like the Migrating Mural has that potential as a monument to wildlife. This kind of work…you’re making it for its end goal and not as a work for its own sake. In this case, the art is not the product. The product is the effect it continues to have.

And what are we talking about in terms of the larger picture? What’s it cost to do this more broadly, with the blue whale and the cranes?

We could do the whole thing with a $150,000 budget, create an annual competition, and turn it into a big win all around. The animals get attention, the locations gain beautiful art and a new economic driver, and the financial partners get the tax deduction and a ton of positive attention.

Turn that switch then. What are a few things readers can do?

Go to the Migrating Mural Kickstarter Project and share this project on Facebook and Twitter. Also, become a member of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation.

Bamboo Sushi photo courtesy Cathy Cheney. Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.

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