Feathered Friends Large And Small Flock On Cornell's 'Wall Of Birds'

Oct 28, 2018
Originally published on October 28, 2018 2:19 pm

At the Cornell Lab of Ornithology there is an epic mural called simply The Wall of Birds. It's 100 feet wide and 40 feet tall, and it's the only mural in the world representing all 243 families of modern birds, along with depictions of their evolution over their 375-million-year history. And you don't have to go to Cornell to see it — the mural's birds are now available in book form.

The artist who created this masterwork is Jane Kim — and it's such a masterwork that she's been nicknamed "Michaelangela." She says all the birds are life size, "so there's anything from an eight foot ostrich to a five foot cassowary to the tiniest spatuletail hummingbird." There are also extinct species, representing the evolutionary history of birds.


Interview Highlights

On being a science illustrator

To me it's a field of art that communicates science through visuals. It can be anything from an illustration in a textbook to an illustration in a magazine, or a diorama in a natural history museum. Or simply a large-scale piece of public art that communicates about the natural world.

On reconciling scientific accuracy with artistic expression

Currently I think they are still thought of as two different disciplines, one ... relying solely on accuracy and the other being much more interpretive and about the emotional experience. But I think when the two come together, it can be an incredibly impactful and powerful experience of both information and human experience.

On being inspired by the work of John James Audubon

I have a background in printmaking, and of course all of Audubon's work was hand-colored etchings, and so the detail in his work was something that captured my attention the most. And the details of the birds — observation is really something that captured my attention, and this wall required so much of that. I think ornithologists are the most keen observers out there in the world.

This story was produced for radio by Ned Wharton and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

At the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there is an epic mural called simply "The Wall Of Birds." It is the only mural in the world representing all 243 families of modern birds along with depictions of their evolution over their 375-million-year history. The artist that created this masterwork is Jane Kim. And it's such a masterwork, she's been nicknamed Michelangela. She has a new book out now about the project, which took about 2 1/2 years to complete. She joins us now from KWCR at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.

Hi, Jane.

JANE KIM: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So describe this project to us.

KIM: The wall is about two stories. And it's a hundred feet wide, 40 feet tall. There is a world map. And on this world map are 243 modern families of birds. They're all lifesize, so there's anything from an 8-foot ostrich to a 5-foot cassowary to the tiniest spatuletail hummingbird. There are also extinct species on the wall. There is a parade of animals that were chosen to represent the evolution of birds. That's what you would see. And you would have to crane your neck and stare up at the ceiling because it's so tall and shallow - an amazing experience to see.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, it sounds extraordinary. And the challenges of doing something like this must have been enormous. But before we go there, you are a science illustrator. And for those of us who may not know what that is, explain what it is.

KIM: To me, it's a field of art that communicates science through visuals. It can be anything from an illustration in a textbook to an illustration in a magazine, a diorama in a natural history museum or simply a large-scale piece of public art that communicates about our natural world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And there must be so much tension between the precision required by science and the interpretation that often defines art. You kind of have to bring those two things together.

KIM: Yeah. And currently, I think they are still thought of as two different disciplines - one being, of course, relying solely on accuracy; the other being much more interpretive and about the emotional experience. But I think when the two come together, it can be an incredibly impactful and powerful experience of both information and human experience.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: John James Audubon is, of course, the person that many of us think of when we think of illustrations of birds. You write that you were inspired by him in your paintings.

KIM: Absolutely. There were many inspirations (laughter) that I drew from Audubon. I have a background in printmaking. And of course, all of Audubon's work was hand-colored etchings. And so the detail in his work was the thing that captured my attention the most. And the details of the birds - observation is really something that captured my attention, and this wall required so much of that. I think ornithologists are the most keen observers out there in the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, my favorite is the great hornbill.

KIM: Yeah, I think the great hornbill is sort of the consensus among the favorites. I don't know - something about the way that it looks like it's just about to turn its head and snap and speak at you, this regal coloring. It kind of flowed out of my brush in a way that was unexpected.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this mural is such a wonderful work of science but also of art. And in this book, you write that diversity and science have become alarmingly divisive but birds bring everyone together. Was that the hope with the mural?

KIM: It is about unity. And it's about finding subjects that we can all share together. And birds are worldwide, and we have them whether you're in an urban place or in the countryside.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jane Kim, science illustrator and the artist behind "The Wall Of Birds" - her book is out this week.

Thanks so much.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.