Can art save the monarch butterfly? The Peninsula’s fine art muralist has an angle.

The ever expansive art projects by Jane Kim’s Ink Dwell Studio will stop you in your tracks…and that’s the point.

Epic wingspan: Jane Kim adds the fine detail to the sixth installment of her monarch butterfly Migrating Mural. The work—located in Ogden, Utah—spanned more than 3000 square feet. (Image courtesy of Ink Dwell Studio)

Drawn-to-scale cassowary birds. Murals requiring multiple installments. Three-year projects that other artists wouldn’t touch. When it comes to Jane Kim’s big-picture approach to her artwork, it is quickly evident that it involves some…well…very big pictures.

“The scale at which we work has definitely increased,” she explains.

This understatement is sizable in itself, not only because Kim is currently referencing a 2500-square-foot mural that she completed at Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology in 2015, but also because even that one is not— technically—her biggest. That designation, as her husband (and business partner) Thayer Walker points out, goes to a mural they designed in Orlando, Florida, which was closer to 4000 square feet in size.

“Even at that early stage I immediately thought—’This is gonna be an amazing book.’ Kim’s husband envisioned the book incarnation of the Wall of Birds at the beginning of the three-year project. It was published this past October via Harper Design. (Image courtesy of Ink Dwell Studio)

Even still, the Cornell project was clearly their largest in terms of both scope and ambition (not to mention stress): a massive and complex painting which depicted the evolutionary trajectory of the planet’s bird population by showcasing 270 avian species along their native continents, as well as “a ghostly parade of extinct ancestors.” The effort took close to three years to finish and at times required that Kim complete a finely-rendered bird per day. Walker—a longtime contributing writer to Outside magazine—expanded the project by encapsulating the entire venture in a book, The Wall of Birds…, which was published on a Harper Collins imprint this past fall.

Sitting in their art studio at Pillar Point Point Harbor in El Granada, Kim and Walker banter over the hindsight headaches surrounding the scope of the Cornell project while one of their employees—illustrator Fiorella Ikeue—quietly sketches out some new work. Their studio, Ink Dwell, is located just north of Half Moon Bay in a corner space of the otherwise generic Harbor Village mini-mall. Of course, Kim has a knack for transforming dull spaces dynamic, and their headquarters—adorned with all manner of artwork, books, plants, exotic rocks and other organic objects—clearly conveys Ink Dwell’s naturalist identity, which looms large around all of their work.

Jane Kim and Thayer Walker at their Coastside headquarters—Ink Dwell Studio—near Pillar Point Harbor, in El Granada. Walker articulates his role as “non-paintbrush-related affairs.” (Photo by Charles Russo)

“We cover a variety of verticals,” Kim says, “but the thing that has set us apart is our public art and conservation murals. I think that was always an important part of how we could bring impact and beauty in an everyday place, for everyday people.”

In this regard, Kim and Walker often discuss Ink Dwell’s projects as much like conservationists as art curators, about the impact as much as the beauty. So while it would be easy enough to solely view their high-profile national commissions and mentions in National Geographic as the rare manifestation of a thriving local art studio, their massive murals—such as the monarch butterfly series they are currently producing—ultimately anchor off of a more meaningful mission of advocating for nature through public art.

After more than a decade of suggesting his Wall of Birds idea to artists, Professor John W. Fitzpatrick, the Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, found an enthusiastic collaborator in Jane Kim: “Where other artists had said ‘Wow, great project, wish I could do it,’ …Jane, in a heartbeat, was saying ‘I wanna do this, I wanna do this, I wanna do this!’ So it was full buy-in within a moment’s notice.” The final mural contained 270 species of birds (including their prehistoric relatives) upon a space exceeding 2500 square feet. “Jane walks the line towards fine art with her graphic design,” Fitzpatrick says. (Imagery courtesy of Ink Dwell Studio)

Graphic exploration

You may recognize Jane Kim’s artwork from its quietly robust presence in a variety of places, both in the Bay and beyond: perhaps it’s the illustrated Nature In the City poster hanging in your child’s elementary school classroom or maybe even the huge aquatic-themed mural at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Better yet, if you live on the Peninsula, you’ve probably noticed her depictions of local fauna (…plus a dog) adorning some of the walls in downtown Redwood City, which all exude an unusually fine-art sensibility, even by the high standards of public art in the Bay Area.

“Jane’s pure graphic art ability is captivating,” says Professor John W. Fitzpatrick, the Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “You can look at her murals close up, down to the brush stroke level, and just be amazed by the craftsmanship of her work.”

Fitzpatrick had been searching for more than a decade to find a willing artist to produce his Wall of Birds idea before Kim jumped at the opportunity the very first time he mentioned it to her. The results (nearly three years later) fully surpassed his expectations: “It is a remarkable mural—in artistic composition, scientific accuracy and educational value.”

A pair of paintings from Kim’s “Flora from Fauna” in downtown Redwood City (note the chrysanthemums, which were historically grown as a major industry within the city during the early part of the 20th Century). (Photos by Charles Russo)

Ironically (though not surprisingly), Kim’s initial artistic interests in nature were met with a degree of derision while she studied at the Rhode Island School of Design.

“It was kind of a drag because a lot of professors and a lot of peers would sort of scoff at the topic of nature,” Kim reflects. “It wasn’t exactly edgy or controversial enough, so it was a passion that got dampened.”

Far from deterred by the experience, Kim reflects on her education there as a key factor in an artistic evolution beyond the obvious application of her talents.

“I am so grateful for the education I got at RISD,” she says. “It definitely shaped my work for the better: more conceptual and outside-the-box than your traditional scientific illustrator, and that was an asset.”

Jane Kim’s piece “RGB(ird)” at the Woodson Art Museum. As she explains the painting on her Instagram account: “Blue does not exist as a pigment in the avian world; it is a structural color created by light refraction. The way we read the blue of a bird is a function of our own dynamic perceptions.” (Image courtesy of Ink Dwell Studio)

In then gaining hands-on experience with a lengthy and ambitious list of internships, residencies and illustration programs (including CSU Monterey Bay, Cornell, Yosemite, the Smithsonian and others), Kim honed her own unique style of fine art naturalism. One commission in particular, with the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco, impacted not so much her artistic technique but her sense for presenting it in a public setting.

“Walking around and watching people interact with that exhibit was so much more gratifying than anything that I had been doing prior to that,” Kim explains. She had been inclined towards embracing the opportunities and interaction of public spaces since college, but actually seeing it play out in tangible ways committed her in a new way.

Not long after, she came up with a concept for a unique set of mural projects that seamlessly merged her artwork, natural world interests and sense for public presentations.

Installments of Ink Dwell’s monarch butterfly Migrating Mural, including two located in Florida—Full Sail University (top left) and a space near City Hall in downtown Orlando. (Images via InkDwell.com)

Art as awareness

Scientific reports about North America’s Western monarch butterfly species have revealed crisis-level drops in population upwards of 99% since the 1980s, to the point where they are now under consideration for endangered species classification by the federal government. While there is debate surrounding the exact cause of the decline, there is agreement on the need for urgent and rapid conservation efforts along the butterfly’s extensive migration route.

Around the same time that she met Walker, Kim developed an idea for a multi-installment mural series spanning miles of a particular species’ habitat, which could raise awareness for present-day ecological crises, like the monarch collapse, by way of employing her art to stoke awareness directly within the relevant regions.

“Jane came up with the concept of the Migrating Mural in 2010,” Walker explains. “When she shared it with me I could very quickly see how we could scale something like that conceptually and highlight different animals in different places.”

Installments of Ink Dwell’s Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep Migrating Mural in California’s Eastern Sierra’s along Highway 395. (Images via InkDwell.com)

Their initial project addressed the decline of the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, a species which fell to drastically low numbers in the 1990s, with barely 100 animals left in the wild. The duo got the project rolling with a Kickstarter campaign before gaining enough momentum to produce six installations corresponding with the creature’s native habitat along more than a 100-mile stretch of California Highway 395 in the Eastern Sierra’s.

The mural series was well-received and soon garnered attention by the likes of the Sierra Club and National Geographic. For Kim and Walker it was a successful synthesis of Kim’s visual art in conjunction with their shared environmental awareness: they were beautifying the urban component of the landscape while at the same time advocating for conservation of the natural world that surrounds it. In addition, the project led to fundraising opportunities (such as Ink Dwell’s partnership with DODOcase for a limited-edition iPad case) that could more directly contribute funds to these causes.

Soon, Kim began describing Ink Dwell as “a studio that helps raise awareness for the natural world … one work of art at a time.” The Migrating Murals came across like Exhibit A of those efforts, and soon led to their next incarnation of the series, which tackled the Western monarch crisis and resulted in a series of huge murals spanning multiple states across the nation, including California, Utah, Arkansas and Florida.

Going big: Kim working on the monarch mural at Lindquist College at Weber State University, in Utah. (Image courtesy of Ink Dwell Studio)

This summer, Ink Dwell will create a new installment of the monarch series in the Bay Area with a mural in San Francisco on Howard Street. Kim, for her part, seems to have settled into how to apply her art.

“Art plays such a critical role because it helps with nature blindness,” she says. “It helps to slap you out of some kind of flatlined state and kind of wakes you back up. And we’re seeing that with the monarch murals and how they reawaken people’s appreciation for that animal.”

Kim’s wide sweeping Migrating Mural project works to serve as a counterpoint reminder to the issue in the face of a constantly moving news cycle. From his perch at Cornell, Fitzpatrick certainly sees it as such: “Jane’s mode of communication — in this day and age when we are bombarded by media — is unique in its ability to capture attention and move it towards the natural world. And she knows that you don’t do that by 8.5 x 11 sketches.”

Jane Kim at Ink Dwell Studio on the Coastside. (Photo by Charles Russo)

To see more of Jane Kim’s work and check in on Ink Dwell’s latest projects, check out InkDwell.com

Or follow Ink Dwell on Instagram

Ink Dwell’s book, The Wall of Birds: One Planet, 243 Families, 375 Million Years, is available now via Harper Design Publishing

Learn more about the decline of the Western Monarch population and the conservation efforts surrounding it, at the Xerces Society.

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Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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