Raising awareness for the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep one painting at a time
Many who drive the Highway 395 corridor between Olancha and Lee Vining may never be aware that a highly endangered species makes it home in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Artist and science illustrator Jane Kim hopes to change that with her Migrating Mural project, a series of murals depicting herd units of the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep in Lone Pine, Independence, Bishop and eventually Lee Vining.
Kim holds a degree in fine art as well as a graduate certificate in science illustration. The latter degree “changed the trajectory of my career as an artist and allowed me to merge the two areas I really love,” she said.
A Bay Area resident, Kim came up with the idea for the Migrating Mural during a long distance road trip in spring of 2010. “I was wondering what else was around here,” she said. Then, during a science fellowship with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute in Wawona, she discovered the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. “I had no idea they existed before that fellowship,” she said.
The Fellowship, and subsequent conversations with Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation President John Wehausen, convinced Kim that bighorn sheep would be the perfect species to launch the Migrating Mural. “I fell in love with the animals,” she said.
One Kickstarter campaign later, Kim had the funding to complete the first two murals in Independence. Kim began by depicting the oldest Sierra Nevada bighorn ram, as well as the life stages of that ram, at Paul and Henrietta Kenn’s Mt. Williamson Motel. “There are eight to twelve herd units in the Sierra,” Kim said. “Mount Williamson’s is one of the native herd units that survived through near decimation.” The herd therefore serves as an iconic reminder of our ability to preserve and recover endangered species.
A second funding campaign through the Mountain Light Gallery in February supported two murals in Bishop. The event, a partnership with the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation called “500 and Rising,” celebrated the recent 500 count of bighorn sheep, which represents two thirds of the recovery goal for the bighorn population. Kim subsequently painted a mural depicting the elevation migration of the Wheeler Crest herd on the Bishop Gun Club, and bighorn seasonal foraging habits, from sage in winter to columbine in summer, at Sage to Summit.
Mural number five, which Kim and assistant Danza Chisholm-Sims are working on at the Lone Pine Airport, was funded through a private donation. The mural “represents how long the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep has been in the Sierra,” Kim said. She noted that molecular dating puts the origin of bighorn sheep in the area at about 300,000 years ago. The mural captures four bighorn sheep traversing a glacier, backed by the silhouette of Mount Langley. “On the mountainside, we’re getting a local Tribe member to paint petroglyphs,” Kim added.
This particular mural has presented a challenge to Kim and Chisholm-Sims, as it requires painting on corrugated siding. “The time it’s taking to paint is one and a half times as long,” Kim said, noting that were the siding to be stretched out flat, it would greatly increase the surface area. Where most other murals have taken two to four weeks to complete, this mural will take six to seven, Kim estimated. “This is also the largest mural I’ve painted so far,” she said.
Kim relishes the chance to adapt the style and images of each mural according to the building she chooses to paint. “The design is dependent on what the structure looks like,” she said, “and at the same time, I’m trying to tell a story about a sheep’s specific unit or biology.” She noted that the Sage to Summit mural is a good example of a melding of building and story, as its depiction of bighorn sheep foraging from sage to columbine near mountain summits perfectly suits the building the mural graces. The stucco surface, which made detailed renderings challenging, and the bright colors already on the building allowed Kim to depart from her previous style. “That mural was a bit more stylized and graphic,” she said, “but I thought that it worked super well with the building.”
As for locating canvases for each mural, Kim said that most building and business owners have been receptive. “It’s been awesome,” she said. “Some people have said no, but always for a good reason. And when the murals go up, people stop every day to ask and learn about the project.”
Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation President John Wehausen offered his praise for the project. “It’s easy to forget hard-to-see wildlife,” he said. “[The Migrating Mural] exposes the public to endangered, elusive and transient animals that otherwise go unseen.”
Kim aims to bring the Migrating Mural to Lee Vining, tentatively to the Mono Basin Visitors Center, in spring. “We’re working with the Forest Service,” Kim said; “fingers crossed.” The Lee Vining mural will depict the bighorn sheep’s place in the environment, with silhouettes of other animals within different zones of the Sierra’s ecosystem, she said, including a mountain lion stalking the sheep. With this mural, the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association has become a full-time partner of the Migrating Mural project. “They’ll be helping the project gain momentum and exposure, raising funds, and developing ongoing educational opportunities with the murals in mind,” she said.
Once completed, Kim hopes the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep Migrating Mural will “show proof of concept” for a much larger Migrating Mural project. “With the Migrating Mural, I’m trying to create a program that would be ongoing for various [endangered] animals,” she explained. Some of these animals could include the Whooping crane or North Pacific blue whale, “animals that have a much larger geographic range.” That growth in range would allow the project to grow in breadth and vision, Kim said.
Through partnerships with environmental, public and private sectors, Kim anticipates she could establish a foundation, endowment or grant that would allow her to bring new artists onboard. “I would absolutely love to see that happens in the future,” she said.
For more information on the Migrating Mural project, visit www.facebook.com/InkDwell, or inkdwell.com.