- A public art project is bringing new bird life to uptown Manhattan in John James Audubon’s old neighborhood in New York City.
- The Audubon Mural Project is an ongoing collaboration between the National Audobon Society and Gitler &____ Gallery. So far, 80 murals of 101 bird species have been painted, spanning 133rd to 165th street on Broadway. The project will eventually end at 193rd street, at the end of Audubon Avenue.
- In this Q&A, Avi Gitler, co-producer of the Audubon Mural Project and founder of Gitler &____ Gallery, talks about the impetus for the public art project, which focuses on birds threatened by climate change, how he has enlisted the participating artists, and what he hopes public art about climate change-threatened birds can achieve.
Naturalist and painter John James Audubon published Birds of America in the 19th century. Audubon had set out to paint every bird in North America, and the book contained 435 life-size water colors made from dead specimens, though he tried to make the illustrations look as alive as possible.
Now, a public art project is bringing new bird life to uptown Manhattan in John James Audubon’s old neighborhood in New York City. The Audubon Mural Project is an ongoing collaboration between the National Audobon Society and Gitler &____ Gallery. So far, 80 murals of 101 bird species have been painted, spanning 133rd to 165th street on Broadway. The project will eventually end at 193rd street, at the end of Audubon Avenue. There’s also an Audubon Sculpture Project in the works, which will be completed next year.
Avi Gitler is the co-producer of the Audubon Mural Project and the Audubon Sculpture Project, both of which are focused on birds of North America threatened by climate change. Gitler is the owner of Gitler &____ Gallery, which is located between 149th and 150th streets on Broadway, in the Hamilton Heights area of New York City. Gitler was raised in Hamilton Heights, a place that he has great affection for.
These public art projects did not start with a grand plan, Gitler says. In 2014, an artist painted a flamingo to bring attention to Gitler’s newly opened gallery. The gallery owner and an artist-friend made a connection to the life of John James Audubon, who spent the last decade of his life in Hamilton Heights and is buried at the nearby Trinity Church Cemetery. Gitler and cohort decided to focus the public art projects on the species featured in the Audubon Bird and Climate Change report to bring attention to the 314 American birds that are threatened by climate change.
Gitler and I spoke on the phone and at his studio in the Spring of 2018 about the impetus for the public bird art projects, how he has enlisted the participating artists, and what he hopes public art about climate change-threatened birds can achieve. Ever since the mural project started in November 2014, Hamilton Heights, a neighborhood that Mr. Gitler and I live and work in, has changed rapidly. Our conversation has been edited for brevity.
Nandini Velho: Is it true that you were not big on birds before the Audubon bird project?
Avi Gitler: I don’t consider myself as the best representative for the cause. But I guess that is the power of the project. I’m obviously not a good reference point because I am doing the project the whole freaking day. But I was not a birder, I am learning slowly and I now have binoculars and a couple of field guides, the Audubon bird app, and an online guide to bird-watching. I bet you, I may be the first person in human history to get into birding from street art.
NV: How did the Audubon mural project come into being?
AG: This project was totally unintended. I have not studied art or sustainability. But I always loved art and I started an art business. I traveled all over the world and met interesting artists from across the world. Initially I used to do pop-ups, but then started my present gallery.
I wanted to bring some attention to the gallery when it opened in 2014. So I asked an artist to paint the shutters next door. He suggested that he would paint a flamingo. That flamingo made me make a connection to the life of John James Audubon. Next I spoke to my artist and friend Tom Sanford, who said we should do a tribute to John James Audubon. Tom made a connection to his friend who worked at the National Audubon Society. We then conceived this idea of painting 314 birds from the Audubon Bird and Climate Change report. There was no grand plan but we were off to the races.
NV: Can you tell us about the mural and sculpture project?
AG: There are essentially two projects that are related to each other. The first is the Audubon Mural Project, that is three and a half years old. We are going to depict 314 American bird species that are threatened by climate change as per the Audubon Bird and Climate Change report. We’ve kept the murals tight so that people can explore them organically on their own.
The [Audubon Sculpture Project] is our sister project and very much in the spirit of the first project. We will have 12 bird sculptures. These are birds that are present or pass through New York city. These birds are also on the 314 climate-threatened bird list. We hope the sculptures will create a new medium and reach a wider audience. Nicolas Holiber is the artist who is making the sculptures. So far he has built the bird skeletons and he will soon attach bits of wood that resemble feathers.
Our plan is to unveil these sculptures on April 26th 2019, on the birthday of the great naturalist and illustrator John J. Audubon, who wrote Birds of America. We’re hoping to expand and make this more than a public art project. We are exploring the possibility with local schools on how they can teach nature, sustainability, and art to children.
NV: So who is your team and how do you undertake something of such a scale?
AG: It’s basically two of us working full-time at the Gitler &____ Gallery. Jonathan Heller works full-time at the gallery and almost every day he is doing something related to the mural project. But we are certainly not a two-person team. We have many people from the National Audubon Society, New York City Audubon, and Broadway Mall Association who are our co-producers and liaison for these two projects. A company called Marjam literally gave us a ton of screws, 2,000 pounds, for the sculpture project. Our 12 sculptures are built from recycled wood from a Brooklyn-based company called Big Reuse. These organizations help in different ways with updating the website, getting insurance, managing accounting, running tours, donating materials, and much more.
NV: How does your team get artists onboard?
AG: This is public art so people also know about it just from its existence. The project is fairly well-known by artists who paint birds and we got some good press early on. And if you are an artist who is interested in birds and art, probably at some point someone would have told you about it. So word gets out. Word of mouth works well in the art field. Many artists reached out to us from all over the country and world. We actively look for new spaces to paint and get legal permissions for it. And then we match up those permitted spaces with appropriate artists. We try and pair an artist whose flavor matches either the space or a combination of what the store owner or landlord may have requested. The design is done by the artist. I think a lot of artists like the project and the fact that it has a cause, is cohesive, and we have a good reputation as art producers.
NV: Has anyone vandalized these murals?
AG: The vast majority of our murals are fine. Next to the gallery there were five murals that were tagged recently and I was a bit upset about it. After a week a young kid who I knew came into the gallery and said, ‘Hey did you see what I did?’ I had to explain to him that adding graffiti to our birds was not cool. I had to tell him that there is a code on the street among street artists and taggers that you don’t touch other people’s art. He apologized, saying ‘I didn’t know that.’ There’s a much better example though. There are two black-billed magpie murals on the corner of 150th Street and Broadway. There’s a space between the murals. The space regularly gets tagged and the landlord comes and paints over it but nobody touches the birds.
NV: What’s the next plan for you and the project?
AG: I have a personal goal to complete the murals by June 2020 and hopefully we’ll have the money to complete it. On completion, I hope to raise money for a fund to preserve the murals, but I’m careful about the use of the word preservation. If a landlord says ‘I want this mural to stay forever,’ that’s great. But I’m also open to the idea that it was wonderful while it lasted.
Right now I’m going to Upstate New York over the weekend. You know one of the first things I’ll do when I arrive is sit on the porch and listen to any interesting bird sounds. I don’t know what the metric or quantifier of birding is but I’m into it. I took a group around last week and they were totally into it, so I know what that constitutes. But if you live uptown how can you not be interested in birds now?
Nandini Velho is an Earth Institute Fellow at Columbia University.
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