Mural spans wall and 375 million-year avian history

Jane Kim painting
Shailee Shah
Jane Kim stands on a lift and paints details on her mural, "From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Evolution and Diversity of Birds."
Great Hornbill
Courtesy of Ink Dwell
Great Hornbill

On Dec. 15, science illustrator and artist Jane Kim completed the only known mural in the world with paintings that encompass all families of birds on one wall.

The giant colorful work spans a 70-by-40-foot wall and represents species from each of the 243 modern bird families, five extinct modern bird families, 21 extinct evolutionary species and one black caiman. The mural is aptly housed in the visitor’s center of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity.

The mural, titled “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Evolution and Diversity of Birds” – words borrowed from Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” – shows life-sized birds drawn to scale and laid over a world map. The placement of each bird was largely based on where it was most often recorded on eBird, a real-time online citizen science Web platform for recording bird sightings that is administered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Some birds were placed in locations where they were endemic, such as the cuckoo roller found only in Madagascar, and a few were placed for aesthetic reasons.

“It really is a celebration of the diversity of birds, highlighting their 375 million-year history,” said Kim, who runs Ink Dwell, a science illustration and art studio, with her husband, Thayer Walker.

In the mural, extant birds are painted in color, while extinct species are shown in gray scale. Kim used subtle storytelling cues in the mural, such as having all the New World birds looking toward Old World, while the birds in Africa face the New World. East of Africa, the Old World natives face the Americas, but from the other direction.

“The birds beginning in the Old World are looking back on the New World and at a certain point it shifts because it’s circular. It’s a narrative I had in the back of my mind as I was placing the birds,” Kim said.

And then there’s a black caiman, most closely related to alligators, in the bottom of the mural.

“The order Crocodillia and birds are each other’s closest living relative,” Kim said. “That is a cool bit of information, that alligators have more in common with birds than with lizards.”

The seeds of the project were planted in 2011, when Kim worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as a Bartels Science Illustration Intern. It was during that tenure that lab Director John Fitzpatrick led Kim to the visitor center’s then-blank wall, and asked, “Doesn’t this scream ‘mural’ at you?” Kim said.

It took two years of discussions following a concept sketch by Kim before she was given the green light to begin preliminary work in 2013. In August 2014, she came to the lab and began painting full-time until completion this mid-December.

Pat Leonard and Krishna Ramanujan
Science illustrator and artist Jane Kim discusses her mural "From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Evolution and Diversity of Birds," which graces a 70-by-40-foot wall in the visitor's center of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity.

One of Kim’s concerns over the process involved maintaining a similar feel and style across all the illustrations.

“It was 16 months of continuous painting,” she said. But in reflection, she added, “I think the whole wall does look consistent.” After she started the first paintings, working on details up close, she stepped away and noticed, “I could barely see anything I painted,” she said. “I had to make all the birds look vibrant from all distances, and I recognized pretty quickly that I had to amp up the contrast of the paintings.”

Another challenge was simply getting used to using heavy machinery, such as scissor lifts and boom lifts and even scaffolding required to paint on a wall that’s 40 feet high. “The machinery, that was scary,” she said. “I had to wear a harness at times, that was very different from other projects I had ever worked on.”

The “So Simple a Beginning” mural faces another wall-sized mural of bird silhouettes by James Prosek, also commissioned by the Lab of Ornithology.

Kim had help from two full-time artists and five Cornell student interns – Emily Waldman, James Walwer, Nola Booth, Emma Regnier and Luke Seitz.

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Melissa Osgood