Conservationists hoping to protect a threatened wild species tend to take a standard set of actions. These can involve political campaigns, lawsuits, and media outreach. But sometimes it’s the unexpected approaches that can make the difference. Over the past several years, artist Jane Kim has been creating large-scale public murals of the monarch butterfly, an insect that’s in a state of crisis. Recent surveys indicate the that the population of the western monarch in California has plummeted to below 30,000, down from 4.5 million in the mid-1980s. Kim’s latest work is a painting in San Francisco's Tenderloin district that wraps three sides of a 13-story building and includes a 50-foot-tall monarch. It’s suddenly one of the most dramatic features in the city’s skyline. The question now is whether this extraordinary piece of public art will spur the actions needed to save the species—or become a tribute to a once beautiful butterfly.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast.
[Jane Kim, the artist who created the Monarch butterfly art installation, guides Outside Podcast host Michael Roberts as he views her mural by climbing the building it’s painted on.]
Jane Kim: All right. So, um, basically just… Humpty Dumpty on the wall for a second here, while, um...
Michael Roberts (Host): Recently, I went to San Francisco to see the world’s largest butterfly.
Kim: You’re gonna grab… So, there’s three points of attachment, there, and at the very end, all right?
Roberts: The butterfly is a monarch. It’s 50 feet tall, and it’s the centerpiece of a massive mural that wraps three sides of a 13-story building on a busy corner in the Tenderloin District.
Kim: ...Your roadblock is this, and you attach your lanyard to the roadblock like that.
Roberts: To see it up close, you need to get on the roof of the building, put on a harness, clip into a safety line, and climb over the edge onto a swing stage, one of those narrow platforms that window washers use on high rises all over the country.
Kim: And then you climb in…
Roberts [From clip]: Which one do you want me going in on?
Kim: The middle one.
Roberts: The artist who painted the butterfly—and who is very kindly guiding me on to the swing stage—is Jane Kim. And this project, which is nearing completion, is part of an ongoing series she calls the Migrating Mural. It highlights animals—and insects—along the migration routes that they share with humans.
For the last few years, Kim has focused on the Monarch, which is in a state of crisis. This is especially true for the Western Monarch, a population that spends its winters along the Pacific Coast, in California and Baja Mexico.
[ABC news clip]
Anchor: All right, some discouraging news about California’s Monarch butterflies. Researchers say that their numbers are disturbingly low. And that may be an understatement. At a recent census, they found an 86% decline in the number of Monarchs wintering on the California coast, compared to 2017….
Roberts: According to the Xerces Society, a science-based conservation group that focuses on invertebrates, there are now fewer than 30,000 Monarchs in California, down from some four and a half million as recently as the mid 1980s. The biggest cause is habitat destruction. Pesticide use and climate change make things even worse.
If the monarch is going to recover, we need to protect their remaining winter sites in California and elsewhere, and also restore historic breeding and migratory habitat.
Which makes you wonder: how is a mural supposed to help? And... if you’re going to paint a ginormous Monarch butterfly, why would you do it here, in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood in San Francisco known for... strip clubs, and crime, and drug use .. and a really large and desperate homeless population?
Kim: ‘Cause it's really easy to get lost when you're only six inches away from the wall. This massive wall. Doesn't really look like anything when you're looking at it up close.
Roberts: It just looks like a splotch of color and I don't know what I'm part of. [Laughs]
Roberts: To really understand what Jane Kim is doing, and how big works of public art might actually make a difference for the Monarch and other wild creatures, you need to know
the story of Willie, the big horn sheep that was the very first piece in the Migrating Mural.
Fifteen years ago, Kim was a young artist trying to figure out how she could build a career focused on the natural world. She had graduated from the acclaimed Rhode Island School of Design, where she’d studied fine art, but was discouraged from her interest in nature. Her classmates mostly moved to New York City, and Kim went to California, where she had a series of experiences that helped her begin to find her way.
This included falling in love with Outside magazine correspondent Thayer Walker, who was chasing ambitious adventures all over the planet.
[Clip of Thayer Walker saying goodbye before embarking on a month-long diving adventure]
Thayer Walker: I am, uh, gonna go strand myself on this island. It’s a bit nerve-wracking. I’ve got my dive mask, I’ve got my knife, I’ve got my clothes. And, um, mom? Dad? Talk to you in a month. I hope.
[Sound of diver jumping into the water]
Kim: Man, he was exploring areas of the natural world that I just wouldn't have even dreamed of. And I remember thinking: Oh my gosh, this person is doing this for his livelihood? He's making a career out of this? And, um, he's out adventuring. And, uh, I remember just being blown away on a lot of different fronts and recognizing: Wow, okay, I can do this.
Roberts: Kim decided to enroll in the science illustration program at California State University, in Monterey Bay. But while the program itself offered her a new set of skills, it was the two-and-a-half hour drives back and forth between San Francisco and Monterey that would have an even bigger influence on her work.
Kim: I would look at these billboards, and I would look at signs, or I would look at things that were geared towards, um, consumer purposes, and thought: Man, I would much rather learn as I'm driving. I wonder if there's any way that we could start creating billboards around the landscape or could we, um, have interpretive signage that...I don't know, that you didn't have to pull over to experience. And I think that's when I really started to develop the idea of the migrating mural.
Roberts: This concept—a series of murals that celebrated the cyclical migrations of wild animals—became her singular creative focus. After finishing the Monterey program, she took a fellowship at the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, spending time in Yosemite National Park, where she learned about the Sierra bighorn sheep.
Kim: Um, so I did go out and seek the expert. The bighorn sheep expert. His name is Dr. John Wehausen. Um, and he was so kind to take me out on one of his, um, adventures. And I spent two days in the field with him collecting bighorn sheep poop. It was fascinating and gratifying. I loved it. And they look like little chocolate chips, which is interesting. Um, but he told me the story of the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, and how they almost collapsed in the 90s. There were only a hundred left in the 90s. Um, we talked a lot about the need to bring attention to them because they are so elusive and most people would never be able to just see them in the wild. Um, even the bighorn sheep biologists use telemetry and radio collars to help them find the herds and collect data. Um, so they're really hard to, hard to see.
[Kim fades to background as Roberts narrates]
Roberts: Here was a perfect subject for her first mural: a beautiful endangered species that migrates back and forth between food sources at different elevations. The Sierra Bighorn had been decimated by diseases they picked up from domestic sheep. If they were going to survive, they needed people to pay more attention to them—and to care.
[Kim’s audio comes to foreground]
Kim: ...Um, there aren't actually a ton of canvases that you would be able to see directly from highway 395. There's a lot of dilapidated buildings. Um, and I spent a good majority of the time looking for suitable walls and, um, locating the owners of these buildings sometimes proved to be a challenge. Um, but more than that I also had to really build a community of supporters, um, who would help advocate the project for me.
Roberts: Kim established a company, Ink-Dwell, to run the migrating mural and launched a Kickstarter campaign, setting a funding goal of $20,000 She presented her vision in a video pitch:
[Cut to clip of Kim’s video pitch for Ink-Dwell]
Kim: It’s easy to forget hard-to-see wildlife. But through a collection of murals painted along migration corridors, the transient life of these animals can easily be seen.
Roberts: She reached her goal in just a week, eventually raising closer to $30,000.
She painted her first migrating mural in the small town of Independence, on the side of the Mount Williamson Motel.
Kim: And Mount Williamson is the name of one of the herd units that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife established. And this particular herd unit was one that did not succumb to the domestic sheep disease that nearly wiped out the entire population. So they were still a thriving population. So it seemed like a beautiful place to begin the project. And the iconic mural that I think stands out in that series is the one on the wall, where you can see the peak behind it. And there's also a silhouette of Mount Williamson in the mural and just a single male ram standing in front of this, um, this peak.
Roberts: They named the ram Willie. And he made a big impression.
Soon after the painting was completed, Kim held a fundraiser to cover the cost of five more bighorn murals … and also to support the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation, which was coordinating the recovery of the animals. The event was an enormous success, pulling in around $13,000 …. And, more importantlyl demonstrating that there were a lot of people in the area who did care about the sheep. Schools started taking field trips to see Willie. Biologists came to give demonstrations on how they track bighorn.
And then there were the visitors you’d just never expect.
Michael Fischer: The first time I saw Willie, it was 2013, and I was in a medium security prison in upstate New York. I was lying on my prison bunk leafing through an old issue of Nature Conservancy magazine.
Roberts: That’s Michael Fischer. He was about a year into his two-year sentence when he saw an image of Willie in an article about the mural. It had an immediate impact on him.
Fischer: It was instant. I mean, it was a very visceral moment for me. And I didn't know quite why, I didn't have all the details yet, but I remember seeing that photo, and I remember seeing, you know, Willie's image and kind of the colors on the mountaintops behind him. And, and I thought, I'm going to go here. I don't quite know how I'm going to get here. I don't know what I want to make it, but I'm going to go see this.
Roberts: Like a lot of prisoners, Fischer had a running list of the things he’d do when he got out. He says he knew that most of them probably wouldn’t ever happen. But seeing Willie? That was something he knew he could do. So he held onto the idea .. and soon after he was released, on a broiling summer day, he drove alone to Independence and stood there on the street, staring at the mural.
Fischer: It felt really good. I mean, it felt, it felt like I really had accomplished something. Um, if only just doing a thing that I said I was going to do
Roberts: But then, he looked around, he noticed something that seemed almost too crazy to be true.
Fischer: I mean, you can't make this up that, you know, across the street literally is the County jail. And to kind of look at the jail, and then look across the street at the mural... And think about that and, and you know, have that, you know, feel like, like I was in some kind of bad movie where I'm kind of standing in, in the midst of my own crossroads.
Roberts: At that moment, Fischer felt pretty good—like he was heading in the right direction. Then he thought about prisoners who were right behind him, and wondered if maybe they could see Willie through a window.
Fischer: I just remember thinking: God, I really hope you guys can see this. Because, you know, it could really... it could really be the kind of thing that that gets somebody, you know, through a day, through a week, or through a year.
Fischer: You know, I was kind of speaking to the inmates in that jail in my mind and I was, I was saying to them: You know, think about all the things that you know, we've suffered through, and think about all the things that we've been through. And then just remember, you know, when you look at that mural, that all we have to do now is be as brave as a sheep.
Roberts: Fischer later wrote an essay about Willie that was published by The Sun magazine. Today, he’s living in Chicago and working as a writer. He sees his experience as a powerful validation for the reach that public art can have.
Fischer: You can't really, uh, you can't do much better than painting a mural in California and having, you know, someone in prison in upstate New York kind of stumble upon it and have it really become a mental and emotional anchor. Not only while they were, while they're... while they're in prison, but also after they get out.
Roberts: We’ll be right back.
Roberts: Kim had other ideas for murals. Big ideas. At one point, she submitted a project concept to National Geographic, which was hosting a reader poll to highlight bold new ideas for saving the oceans.
Kim: So what I submitted was… Along the coastline of California, that we, um, highlight the blue whale to scale on the wall. So, you know, I would need definitely no less than a hundred-foot-wide wall, um, for the blue whale, and just drive up the coast and paint these murals of whales in different parts of their seasonal behavior and their migration.
Roberts: Her idea won the poll, though, this didn’t get her any funding—it was just an online contest. But a story that National Geographic posted about it caught the eye of Kim’s new boss, the director of the acclaimed Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, New York, where she was completing another internship.
Kim: ...And the director of the lab, Fitzpatrick, shortly after, wrote me an email and said: Hey, so you do large format murals. Do you want to have a lunch meeting at some point? And I said, sure. And during this meeting, he kind of walks me out overlooking this blank sort of drab wall in the visitor center and says: I've always wanted a mural on this wall of the evolution of birds. Would this be something you're interested in?
Roberts: The project would have her covering a four-story, 3000-square-foot wall with a bird from every living family, plus many of the species from which they’d evolved. Over two and a half years, she painted a total of 270 birds, and spent countless hours on a scaffolding, often working at night.
The Wall of Birds, as it became known, ignited her career. The National Aquarium, in Baltimore, commissioned her to create three murals for a permanent exhibit, The Living Seashore. She landed prestigious residencies at San Francisco's De Young Museum and the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Arts Museum, in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, Kim and Thayer Walker got married, and, working together at Ink Dwell, they attracted organizations to support a new series of the Migrating Mural focused on Monarch butterflies. In 2017, with support from the Walton Foundation, Kim put up a mural of a Monarch on an air traffic control tower in Arkansas. In Florida, they worked with the Nature Conservancy on two Monarch murals, including a 3,500-foot painting right across from Orlando’s city hall. They did another one in Utah.
Each of these projects required exhaustive funding efforts, lengthy negotiations with building owners, and, most of all, communities who believed that art has a unique ability to connect people with the wildlife that’s all around us, that we’re not seeing...
Kim: Yeah there’s so many people involved in it. But the bottom line is that it has to come with people who believe in what we are doing. And I think that's the key ingredient. Always. It's always about somebody who believes in this project, or in me, or in the work. Or all three.
Roberts: Kim’s art speaks for itself, but Walker has proved to be a critically important partner. Ask him what he does for Ink-Dwell, and he’ll tell you he handles all non-paintbrush affairs. His most important role, though, is being Ink-Dwell’s hustler-in-chief. He’s a natural salesman, so this works out well for everybody.
Walker: So, um, I actually grew up… In college, I ran a house painting business. And the way that we would get business was literally I'd go knocking. This is pre-internet. We would go door-to-door knocking on people's doors, handing out flyers, asking people if they wanted their house painted. So I'm like, pretty comfortable kind of cruising down the street and looking at addresses and, you know, cold calling people.
[Walker fades to the background]
Roberts: In the spring of 2019, Ink-Dwell got its first commision for a mural in San Francisco, in the South of Market area. Kim and Walker were thrilled to have a project in the city where they lived… but with dire new reports coming in about the Western Monarch population, they really wanted to do another prominent local piece.
A connection at a local arts foundation suggested they look around the Tenderloin, which had lots of big structures and could really benefit from a dose of inspiration. They found a nice four-story building, and tracked down the owner, a company called Veritas, which happens to be one of the largest property owners in San Francisco. Walker left a long-winded voice message for the head of marketing. He figured it’d probably end there.
[Walker returns to foreground]
Walker: And unbelievably, within, I dunno, 48 hours, I get a phone call back from their marketing department and saying: Hey, you know, we checked out your website.This sounds amazing. Can you come in for a meeting?
Roberts: Within days, Walker and Kim were presenting the Migrating Mural to the Veritas executive team inside a glass conference room of a downtown skyscraper. They started explaining their vision for the four-story structure, when the conversation suddenly went in an unexpected direction.
Walker: And then, all of a sudden, they turn it, turn it back around and let us… They said: Well, about half a block away, we've got this 13-story apartment tower. What would you think about that? And Jane and I kind of looked at each other and we thought we were like, well, we'd be pretty excited about that. And, uh, and then they said, well, instead of just one side, what would you think about doing the whole building? And we said, well, we think that would be pretty cool. [Laughs] Um, so all of a sudden, like they're kind of pitching us on basically taking our project and, and, and really, you know, expanding it beyond our wildest dreams for a canvas like this.
Roberts: Kim began the project like she always does: sketching out her vision on paper to create what amounts to a map of the mural. She then drew grid lines on the building itself, using pencils, turning it into a massive piece of graph paper, with 2-foot by 2-foot squares. After that, it was basically a giant paint-by-numbers task.
She began painting the north-facing wall last October. Head down Hyde street from San Francisco’s iconic Nob Hill, and you can’t miss the the 50-foot-tall Monarch, poised mid-flight above a California poppy that has stems reaching across the east wall.
On the south wall, she added four more butterfly species endemic to California, including the tiger swallowtail, which is actually quite happy to make its home in the neighborhood, because streets lined with tall buildings resemble its natural canyon habitat. But only if there are enough plants around. As Walker sees it, this underscores the point of this mural: it helps us realize what’s possible.
Walker: The great news—and I cannot overstress this—is that for pollinators like Monarchs and bees and birds and other butterflies, bugs… urban environment, there is so much potential habitat for these creatures. Gardens. Parks. Freeway divides. It's one of those things where if we just kind of start thinking about our urban landscapes in different ways, rooftop gardens and, you know, parks, and mediums, and planting the right things, planting native local wildflowers and plants, then we really actually can make a very significant impact.
And that's real. And so these are the sorts of things where, you know, I mean, we would love to do a, you know, a migrating mural on, say, blue whales. Right? But you and I can't actually go home and do something in our backyard or protect a blue whale. Well, guess what? You can actually go home in your backyard and do something to protect monarchs and pollinators. And you can do it tomorrow.
Roberts: Kim seconds all of that. Her hope as an artist is to create pieces that allow us to make an emotional connection with the wild creatures that we’ve been ignoring.
Kim: I think one of the biggest reasons why I do what I do is that if I can show a really beautiful rendering of the animal, people can start to see it. It kind of takes the blinders off. And one of the best things that I hear from somebody is after they've seen one of my works, they say something like: Oh my gosh, I see Monarchs everywhere now. And it's not so much that they are actually seeing Monarchs everywhere now. It's that they know that they can look for them. That when it flutters around them, they go: Oh, that's a Monarch. Because now they know they've been introduced to that animal. And it's like being introduced to your neighbor, right? On your street. All of a sudden, when you are introduced to them and you see them face-to-face and you shake their hand, the likelihood of you seeing them in your neighborhood again is higher than if had no idea that they existed. Right?
My hope is that more and more people understand why we made that mural as well. Which is to bring the plight of the monarch to the forefront. That's gonna help people care more and hopefully take action.
Roberts: That’s already happening. Veritas, the property company that owns the building in the Tenderloin, is working with the San Francisco Park Department and the Xerces Society to landscape two neighborhood parks with butterfly-friendly native plants.
Meanwhile, Tenderloin residents now have an extraordinary piece of art, one that’s entirely free to view… and that offers a reason to look up in a place where people tend to keep their gaze on the ground.
Kim: What I've been hearing is that it brings some joy into what can feel like a pretty, um, desperate area. Or one where you tend to shut in, and be inward, and not want to engage with your surroundings. And I think that caring about the buildings and caring about the urban landscape is just as important in forming a point of pride and showing that this isn't just some corner of the city that we should just forget about.
Roberts: It sure is a nice story... a beautiful mural that might help save a butterfly … and, along the way, brighten the lives of people in a troubled part of a city.
But the thing is, the odds of a happy ending for the Western Monarch? They’re not very good. Kim is well aware of this. But it doesn’t make her feel any different about what she’s doing.
Kim: At least if, and when… if… I don't know if it's worse to say when or if we lose the Western Monarch. This can serve as a reminder that when they were still here, someone in the community loved it enough for it to be accepted as a public artwork and the skyline of San Francisco. That's pretty darn cool. Um, and if it does go extinct here in SF, you know, driving down Hyde street and seeing a 50 foot Monarch? I feel pretty good about… at least with the tools that I have, leaving that, for the people to know that it was loved.
[Music fades out]
Roberts: Jane Kim and Thayer Walker are partners at Ink-Dwell. You can learn more about their work at Ink-Dwell.com … and you see some fantastic photos of all of Kim’s murals on their Instagram page, @inkdwell.
To learn more about what you can do to help the western monarch and other insects, go to the Xerces Society website: xerces.org.
This episode was produced by me, Michael Roberts, with music by Robbie Carver.
This episode was brought to you by the 2020 Ford Explorer, built for life’s adventures. Learn more about what it can do for you and meet Modern Day Explorers like Hilaree Nelson at outsideonline.com/explorers.
We’ll be back next week.
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.