by Alan R. Cohen
My awareness of the Audubon Mural Project grew from an accidental encounter with what is now my favorite piece. As I was preparing a tour of Lower Washington Heights that would end at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, I was looking for the most interesting route and noticed a brightly colored facade in the distance. From afar, I could see it was iridescent with shades of blue and purple, but I had no clue what it was. When I approached the mystery, I was delighted to find Tri-colored Heron, a nearly five-story-high depiction of three herons competing for food. At the bottom on the piece was stenciled audubonmuralproject.org and the artist’s name, Iena Cruz.
Tri-Colored Heron, by Iena Cruz
The fun of being a tour guide includes the endless opportunities to learn more about the city and to pursue multiple, divergent, and interesting paths. Tri-colored Heron gave me one such path to follow. Upon visiting the project website, I realized that two of the murals on my M4 bus ride north to my apartment in Washington Heights are part of the project. As the bus goes north on Broadway at 155th Street (just past Trinity Cemetery), you can see the four-story-high Fish Crow, with splashes of yellow and orange against a terra-cotta background, on the south-facing side of an apartment building just past the gas station.
Fish Crow, by Hitnes
If you look to the east as the bus approaches the same intersection, you see another mural. This magnificent piece depicts the Swallow-tailed Kite and twelve additional bird species painted within the outline of the kite.
Swallow-tailed Kite and Others, by Lunar New Year
Now that I was officially obsessed with the art, I had to find out more. I learned that the project serves two major purposes: to call attention to endangered birds while simultaneously beautifying the neighborhood.
The National Audubon Society has long been concerned with environmental threats to bird populations. Data published in 2014 revealed that at the current pace of climate change, 314 of the 588 North American bird species studied face changes to their natural habitat so major that if the species cannot adapt, they would decline significantly or possibly face extinction by 2080. Detailed reports from the scientists and an executive summary are available on the Society’s website (http://climate.audubon.org). The National Audubon Society wanted to find ways to sound the alarm and spur action.
Around the same time, a native of Washington Heights, art collector and gallery owner Avi Gitler, was determined to bring art to Upper Manhattan. Realizing that there were no serious art galleries north of 125th Street, Gitler decided to open his own gallery on Broadway between 149th and 150th Streets. The space is a relatively small storefront, easily missed by the casual passerby. To call attention to his gallery, Gitler thought that murals on a roll-down gate might do the trick. In cooperation with his landlord, Gitler began with two adjoining stores. Given that his new gallery was a stone’s throw from John James Audubon’s former estate and Audubon’s final resting place in Trinity Cemetery, birds seemed a fitting subject for those first murals. An artist Gitler recruited, Tom Sanford, connected him with Mark Jannot, an executive of the Audubon Society.
John James Audubon Contemplating the Cerulean Warbler,
by Tom Sanford
Through this serendipitous chain of events, the mural project was born. Gitler is the curator of the art. Artists from all over the world, including many locals who want a little publicity, apply to paint one or more of the endangered birds. As of this writing, more than 82 of the 312 endangered birds have been painted. Other birds are being added as permission and funding allow. Through Gitler, the Audubon Mural Project provides the funding. The costs for the smaller projects, which often are completed in one evening, are just for the paint and maybe a small honorarium to the artist. The larger projects—those on the sides of a building or sometimes multiple buildings—can take a week to complete and require the rental of cherry-pickers or lifts to serve as platforms for the artists, and they can consume a lot of paint.
Gitler gives the artists wide latitude for depicting their chosen bird(s). The only requirement is that the piece be representational. While abstractions or swaths of color might be interesting art, only murals that look like a bird are allowed. Accordingly, some artists choose to present their bird realistically, painting the shape and coloration of the bird fairly accurately. Other artists may depict the bird’s form accurately, but not its color. Some artists go for a cartoon-like representation, while others tell a story by bringing in the bird’s habitat or diet.
Bald Eagle, by Peter Davington
Pinyon Jay, by Mary Lucy
The mural project began with five murals painted in 2014 on the block that houses Gitler’s gallery. Currently the murals can be found from 134th Street on the south to 165th Street on the north and from Riverside Drive on the west to Edgecombe Avenue on the east. Most of the murals on drop-down gates are located on Broadway. Amsterdam Avenue has a fair number, and the side streets throughout the neighborhood have some “must see” murals as well. To find the most murals, you need to go birding when the gates are down—in the evenings or on Sundays. However, many murals are always on display on sides of buildings. Much like actual bird-watching, you never know which birds you’ll see. Some birds have been covered due to construction projects. One mural of a hummingbird, on a panel secured to a building, was stolen (it is reportedly being repainted). Yet other birds, newly painted, seem to suddenly appear as if blown in on the winds of a storm.
Together We Rise, by ANJLNYC
(depicting the yellow-billed magpie and American pelican)
According to the staff at the gallery, local police have been impressed with the effect of the murals on the neighborhood. Not only have the murals drawn many “birders,” including families, to the area, but graffiti (that is, unauthorized street art) is on the decline. While tagging continues on unadorned surfaces, the murals themselves have not been tagged or defaced. Whether the murals will result in action to curtail or slow climate change is an open question, but it seems clear that the project has brought beauty and interest to this part of Upper Manhattan.
Black-billed Magpie, by Andre Trenier
The Audubon Society offers a tour of thirty murals on Sundays. Or, if you’d like me to share my favorite murals and give you a bit of history of the neighborhood as well, contact me for a custom tour (email@example.com).
Townsend's Warbler, by ATM