Street Art Is for the Birds

November 19, 2014 | Bucky Turco

A new street art campaign is being rolled out in Manhattan, but in a refreshing break from the norm, it isn’t for a brand peddling a crappy product under a banner of cool. Instead, the mural series is being commissioned by the National Audubon Society to bring awareness to the hundreds of species of North American birds — 314 to be precise — that are climate-threatened or endangered.

It’s the perfect, modern-day homage to John James Audubon, the ornithologist and painter for whom the society was named after. The idea was conceived not by an ad agency or even the Audubon Society itself, but by Harlem gallerist Avi Gitler and artist Tom Sanford. Gitler, inspired by his proximity to the palatial Audubon Park —once a 14-acre farm where Audubon lived his final days — commissioned a series of birds paintings on the steel security grates that business owners pull over their storefronts at closing time. He then met Sanford, a resident of the neighborhood, who had been struck by the Audubon’s recent Birds and Climate Change Report.

(Photo: Mike Fernandez/National Audubon Society)

“It was an obvious decision to do the murals,” Sanford told ANIMAL of the project, which has exploded into an ambitious effort to depict all 314 threatened species of birds. Artists such as Boy Kong, Peter Daverington, Graham Preston and Taylor McKimenshave, among others, have begun painting the portraits, which so far include the tundra swan, bald eagle, and rusty blackbird. Sanford’s contribution includes painting a cerulean warbler on Audubon’s shoulder.

The location of the bright storefront murals, only visible when businesses are closed, are in Upper Manhattan neighborhoods considered by the Audubon Society to be “JJA territory.” “We want to branch up and down the Broadway corridor,” said Sanford, noting that one block already has seven murals. Though it’s not the ideal time to see birds in real life, the best way to see the paintings is by walking outside at night. “During the day you can’t see them, they come out at night,” said Sanford.

Even if people aren’t able to draw the connections between the illustrations, Audubon, and the study, they’ll be able to appreciate the celebration of nature. After all, as Sanford put it, “The most I know about birds is from watching the Owen Wilson movie, The Big Year.”

(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)