Ink Dwell studio launched the Migrating Mural project in 2012 to celebrate animals that migrate, creating impossible-to-ignore artworks as monuments to the wonders of the natural world.
This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Xerces’ biannual publication, Wings. Click to view the full Fall 2019 issue.
The stretch of California Highway 1 between Monterey and San Francisco is one of the prettier commutes I’ve ever had to make, 112 miles of open road passing enormous sand dunes, teeming wetlands, and booming surf. I drove that route often while studying for my master’s certificate in science illustration at California State University at Monterey Bay, during the 2009–2010 academic year, taking breaks from school to visit friends and family in the San Francisco Bay Area.
It wasn’t all scenic landscapes. North of Monterey, signage and billboards screamed at drivers to shop at big-box stores or to hire a personal-injury lawyer. They felt ugly and out of place in the coastal dune landscape. As I wound along Monterey Bay and through the Santa Cruz Mountains, though, I found myself wishing for signs and billboards. Not for advertising, but for education: big beautiful signs that would explain and celebrate the wonders of the ecosystem around me.
Because signs like those did not exist, I decided to create them. In 2012, I formed Ink Dwell studio with my husband, Thayer Walker, and the Migrating Mural was born, a series of public works that celebrates wild creatures along migration corridors they share with people. As a society, we create monuments to politicians, athletes, civil rights leaders, wars; Migrating Murals are monuments to the natural world, making our easy-to-overlook neighbors impossible to ignore.
Ink Dwell launched the Migrating Mural series to celebrate animals that migrate. The first subject was the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, painted on buildings throughout the sheep’s range. Photograph courtesy Ink Dwell.
The subject of our first Migrating Mural series was the endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, one of three subspecies of bighorn. They live only in a sliver of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and, due to diseases spread by domestic sheep, by the early 1990s had been reduced to roughly a hundred animals. From 2012 to 2014 Ink Dwell worked with the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to create a string of six bighorn murals along a dusty, 120-mile stretch of California Highway 395. At one point a woman in her seventies, who had lived in the Eastern Sierra her entire life, told me that she had had no idea that the sheep were her neighbors but the murals had sparked in her a new appreciation for the animals. That alone made the work worth it. Thanks to the efforts of our conservation partners, the sheep’s population is now six hundred and growing, a major milestone in the effort to recover this endangered species.
In 2017, we turned to the sky for our second series, this time focusing on the monarch butterfly. From Vladimir Nabokov to Barbara Kingsolver, butterflies are a storyteller’s delight, and monarchs captivate North Americans like no other insect. They are stunning at every stage of life. As caterpillars they look like little tri-colored sausages, chomping on milkweed and advertising, with their yellow, black, and white banding, the plant’s toxins they carry. In chrysalis form, they hang from their host plants like dewdrops, powder green with specks of gold hinting at the magical transformation inside. As butterflies they are tiny but mighty explorers, flickering across the sky for thousands of miles like a sunbeam on the wing. At a time when political discourse in our country revolves around issues that divide us, monarchs tell a story of unity. They belong to all of North America, with the eastern population wintering in Mexico and then spreading across the United States and Canada, providing a beautiful lesson in interdependence. Similarly, the Monarch Migrating Mural seeks to create common ground. It’s a sad reality in the United States that science and conservation have become politicized; we created the Migrating Mural to draw people together through a shared appreciation of compelling and scientifically accurate public art.
Visually arresting and dynamic in their composition, Ink Dwell’s monarch murals adorn buildings—and stimulate conversations about conservation—from Florida to California. Photograph of “Milkweed Galaxy,” in Winter Park, Florida, courtesy Ink Dwell.
Our ultimate goal is to bring this Migrating Mural to every state and country in the monarch butterfly’s North American range. Since launching the project two years ago, we’ve created eight monarch-focused public works across four states—Arkansas, Florida, Utah, and California—and have seen these murals bring communities together. In downtown Orlando the thirty-five-hundred-square-foot “Midnight Dream” stands across the street from City Hall and the performing arts center. While we were in production, Floridians from all backgrounds and demographics—grandmothers, teenagers, bikers—stopped to share their monarch stories and appreciation for their new monument.
In Ogden, Utah, “Monarch in Moda” anchors the city’s new arts district. Residents have flocked to it as a destination for wedding, prom, and graduation photographs, incorporating monarchs into their memories of the most important events of their lives. A few miles away, at Weber State University, “Generations” fills the lobby of the Lindquist College of Arts and Humanities, a metaphor for the generations of curious students who have attended the school in pursuit of their own transformations. Weber State was so inspired by the monarch’s story that it has pledged to plant two acres of milkweed on its campus.
For good reason, too, as monarchs need all the help they can get. Since the 1980s the population counts of western monarchs, which largely winter in California, have dropped from four and a half million to twenty-eight thousand. The eastern population has seen the size of its wintering colony in Mexico shrink from forty-five acres to fifteen since 1996. Monarch numbers have fallen so precipitously that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering it for listing as an endangered species, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Xerces Society.
Artist Jane Kim creates building-scale butterflies in stunning detail. Photograph courtesy Ink Dwell.
It was Xerces’ work, in fact, that helped us choose the monarch as a subject for our Migrating Mural in the first place. As we worked through our selection process, we kept coming across Xerces’ monarch-focused scientific and educational campaign. We were already smitten by the insect, but were unaware of its plight until we began following Xerces’ efforts. So it is with great joy that Ink Dwell is now working with the Xerces Society as our conservation partner for the Monarch Migrating Mural.
Although the boots-on-the-ground science (and suits-in-the-capital advocacy) that Xerces does for all invertebrates is crucial to maintaining a livable planet, that work is often done far from the public eye. The Monarch Migrating Mural, on the other hand, was developed specifically to draw attention and support for the protection of monarchs and other pollinators. Our hope is to channel public excitement for these projects in a manner that aids Xerces in its conservation mission—and that aids monarch butterflies in their survival.
We realize that public art won’t directly solve issues such as species conservation and climate change, but we know that it can challenge and inspire us to modify the way we think and behave. Such change is the first step toward building a healthier future.
“Monarch in Moda,” in Ogden, Utah, is among the more dramatic Migrating Murals, and has become a favored backdrop for photographers. Photograph courtesy Ink Dwell.
Jane Kim and Thayer Walker founded Ink Dwell studio in 2012 to create art that explores the wonders of the natural world.
This piece originally appeared in the Xerces Society publication Wings. Read the full Fall 2019 issue.
Learn more about Ink Dwell studio