Artist Jane Kim spent three years creating a colossal mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. Arranged across a map of the world are birds painted life-size, from a Great Gray Owl soaring over Europe to the Common Ostrich, the world’s largest living bird, gazing with big bright eyes at the viewer. Each is part of a sprawling narrative on bird diversity and 375 million years of their evolution.
The 2,500 square-foot “Wall of Birds” was completed in 2015. Now a new book from Harper Design, called The Wall of Birds, chronicles its creation. Kim describes the breadth of the project in the publication:
Nothing quite like this had ever been done: a mural depicting all 243 modern families of living birds, five modern families that had gone extinct by human hand within the last thirty thousand years, twenty-one prehistoric ancestors, and a ten-foot caiman to remind people of the mind-bending reality that the crocodile family is more closely related to birds than it is to other reptiles. All told, I painted 270 life-size animals, from the thirty-foot-long Yutyrannus to the tiny Marvelous Spatuletail hummingbird, which weighs as much as a penny.
From the sketches and studies, based on feedback and consultations with the experts at the Cornell Lab, to the final paintings, Kim estimated she “easily painted or drew an average of one bird a day.” Some were longer; the wood duck of North America took three days to get its colorful feathers just right. The Wall of Birds also includes narratives on her process, such as the “avian Pantone chart” of custom mixes like “Hornbill Yellow” and “Cassowary Black.” Rather than depict birds in their habitats, they are captured in poses representing their behavior, whether the underwater paddling of an African finfoot, or the boisterous black-capped donacobius of South America that’s frozen mid-song. The watchful stance of a great blue heron was inspired by a pair Kim observed nesting outside the Cornell Lab while she had a science illustration internship there in 2010.
The book delves into the unique challenges of the mural, such as making sure that the artwork wasn’t completely dominated by the more showy male birds. For a representative of the saddle-billed stork, Kim chose a female with luminous yellow eyes (males have brown eyes) standing elegantly on one leg. Incorporating or avoiding the architectural features already present on the Cornell Lab interior wall was another obstacle. A magnificent frigatebird is perched on a sprinkler with its red balloon of a chest puffed out; a stairway was used as a timeline for bird evolution, from fish to reptiles to the feathered vertebrates. The examples selected in collaboration with paleo-ornithologist Julia Clarke include the extinct carnivorous terror birds of South America and the Pelagornis with a startling 20-foot wingspan.
Although each living bird is in vibrant color, the extinct animals are illustrated like ghosts. The five modern families that vanished due to hunting by humans are in gray scale. They include the towering North Island giant moa once abundant in New Zealand, and hunted to extinction in the 15th century, and the five-foot-tall protochicken Sylviornis neocaledonica that roamed New Caledonia before the arrival of the Lapita people led to its extinction around 2,500 years ago.
An online interactive version invites a closer look at the details of the “Wall of Birds,” while the book has a fold-out panorama of the complete artwork. The publication was coauthored by Thayer Walker, Kim’s husband with whom she cofounded Ink Dwell. The studio is focused on art that engages with the natural world, such as a mural of migrating monarch butterflies on an air traffic control tower at the Springdale Airport in Arkansas, and an examination of coastal ecosystems, from sand dunes to the offshore food chain, in the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
The mural commission at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology was timed with the centennial of its founding in 1915. “The Cornell Lab has embraced the intimate relationship between art and ornithology throughout its hundred year history,” writes John W. Fitzpatrick, director of Cornell Lab, in the book’s foreword. Cornell Lab’s founder Arthur A. Allen, for instance, was a color photography pioneer and highlighted painting and illustration alongside scientific articles in the institution’s first journal, The Living Bird. The “Wall of Birds” continues that mission of using art in science communication, offering a new way to better understand and protect these animals.