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« In Which There Is A Lamb On That Building »

Animal Movement


Dotting the roadside of US Highway 395 - or the 395 because this is California - there will be a series of paintings on the sides of old, sometimes abandoned buildings.  Each of these paintings show the same image: a young, tawny brown lamb, leaping forwards.  A chartreuse colored arrow flanks his side, as the little creature looks out hesitantly, apparently across traffic. The hope of the artist is that cars barreling by might pause for a moment to acknowledge that before their wheels scraped the pavement, cloven-footed mammals traveled this pathway for centuries. 

Jane Kim has started this series, called Migrating Murals, to mark the paths of an endangered migrating animals. This series of repeating lambs is her first project. Kim will place these paintings on building that the animals would most likely traverse in their migration, making their journey visible to drivers and passerby. 

The painting has the soft precision of a scientific illustration and the complex expression of a living animal. These paintings have a mystery; they catch a glimmer of something invisible and transient. The most interesting thing about this leaping lamb is the movement implicit in its gaze.

What was your introduction to endangered migratory animals?

JK: Migration in general, I find it phenomenal way of survival.  So many animals rely on - including us - movement.  It's hugely important to respect that tradition and part of their survival year to year. Place and people can be connected by a shared animal different times of year.

Kim's mission is to make their transition both interesting and visualizable for American motorists. Kim's murals are an entirely new side of public art activism, a realm that is overwhelmingly urban. Not only is this across rural areas, but it also represents an entirely silent population - transitory animals. 

The migration of animals is something often invisible; it's not easy to cordon off a proper habitat for so many creatures, let alone a generous pathway set aside for their movement from one of these areas to another. These paintings not only serve as an awareness measure regarding the animal's crossing, they are part environmental history market.  It's a lovely piece of public art that attempts to give a permanence to something that is otherwise both invisible and fleeting.

Tell me about the incorporation of movement into these murals with the animals?

JK: The idea was born on a car ride, one of my favorite things in the world is long-distance driving. I'm not sure why but driving is my most preferred method of transportation - I guess maybe I feel like it's the thing that we have that sets us apart. It's on road trips that I do my best thinking. During one of these trips, wouldn't it be cool if we had murals to understand animal migration, while also traveling ourselves.  

To fund and support these murals, Kim partnered with the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation as well as the California Department of Fish and Game, to work on Chapter 1 of the Migrating Mural series - a year-long project involving four murals illustrating the life of the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. 

Kim selected the sheep as her first subject because of a close experience she shared with these creatures in 2010. She became a science visualization fellow at the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, where she lived in the part there for an entire summer.  She knew about Rocky and desert bighorns, but had never heard of this third sub-species. Sierra Neveda bighorns are marked by their distinctive horns - curling horns that splay outwards (Rocky Mountain sheep's iconic horns are circular, and come inwards as they spiral). Kim cold-called the most well know bighorn sheep biologist in the world, and took her to a spot where she could spy some through a telescope "pea-sized images."  

As of January, Kim has completed two murals in one of the four sites on the pathway in Independence, California. Olancha, Lee Vining, and Bishop - all in California - are next on the roster.

Kim's paintings come at a time of resurgence for big horn sheep - the 2012 count ended with more than 500 Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep; in the early 90s, there were as few as 100 sheep left. The latest number is remarkably close to recovery population goals for the series. It's now feasible that within a decade, they could be downlisted from the endangered species list - a rare occurrence for any animal. 

Next she wants to paint an animal even more estranged from our visibility: blue whales.  While they are the largest animals that have ever lived on earth, Kim says "they are secretive animal. As big as it is, it is so hard to see in the wild. I would like to show the world the way they would never see."

Maggie Lange is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find her website here and her twitter here.

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