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Large-Scale Art Makes Tiny Creatures ‘Impossible to Ignore’

Human-sized butterflies will be arriving across the U.S. over the next year. The first have already alighted on an airport tower in Springdale, Arkansas. And they’re on a mission. “Over the last two decades, monarch numbers have dropped more than 80 percent,” says Thayer Walker of Ink Dwell, the art studio behind the pollinators’ appearances,...

Human-sized butterflies will be arriving across the U.S. over the next year.

The first have already alighted on an airport tower in Springdale, Arkansas.

And they’re on a mission.

The first installment of the latest Migrating Mural, on an airport tower in Springdale, Arkansas. (Photo courtesy Thayer Walker)

“Over the last two decades, monarch numbers have dropped more than 80 percent,” says Thayer Walker of Ink Dwell, the art studio behind the pollinators’ appearances, “from one billion counted in their wintering range in Mexico in 1996 to only 140 million in 2016.”  The decrease has been so dramatic that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering listing the monarch butterfly as an endangered species.

The monarch project is the latest in a series of Migrating Murals designed and executed by Ink Dwell under the pencil, paint, and leadership of co-founder Jane Kim. Readers of this blog may remember our first post about Jane’s project, back in 2011, when the Migrating Mural was chosen as the viewers’ choice winner among several innovative ideas highlighted at the Summit at Sea symposium. The idea of large-scale art inspiring awareness, interest, and dedication to conservation clearly struck a chord online. And now it’s doing the same in person.

“Monarch butterflies and other pollinators are beautiful animals vital to the health of our planet, but they’re small and easy to overlook,” she says. “Public art of this magnitude makes them impossible to ignore.”

The initial drawing of what will become a Migrating Mural. (Photo and Art by Jane Kim)

Raising awareness is just one piece of the puzzle though. To get more deeply involved with on-the-ground conservation efforts to protect monarchs and other pollinators, Ink Dwell teamed up with The Nature Conservancy in Florida.

“The recent rapid decline of monarch populations indicates that our natural systems are in need of urgent protection,” says The Nature Conservancy in Florida’s Executive Director, Temperince Morgan. “As human populations grow here in Florida and around the world, our demands on the planet grow, as does the need to protect the health of these natural systems so they can continue to provide us with clean air, water, food, energy, and access to a high quality of life.”

Foote and her colleagues hope that the Migrating Mural will help draw attention not just to the importance of pollinators, but to the challenges they face and the work being done to research and protect them. “The Nature Conservancy is using sound science and innovative collaborations to deliver solutions to these urgent issues,” she says, specifying those issues as “climate change, habitat loss and degradation, and unsustainable development––including harmful agricultural practices.”

Working at a larger scale, Jane uses Water Brush paint brushes that hold paint within themselves, allowing her to paint much more continuously than when dipping a brush. (Photo courtesy Jane Kim)
Jane’s murals begin as much smaller-scale pencil drawings. They are then worked up into full-color paintings and then scaled up either by hand or other process. For the monarch Migrating Mural, several techniques were used.
“All the imagery was digitized from an original 36″ x 74″ painting Jane created in our Half Moon Bay studio,” explains Thayer. “The milkweed plant and the two biggest monarchs are die cut aluminum sheeting and installed as separate pieces and mounted on a metal frame to give the image depth and relief. The rest of the imagery is die cut vinyl that is adhered directly to the towers aluminum siding.”
Another distinction to the monarch mural is the size not just of the images, but of the number of images and the geographical area they cover. “The bighorn Migrating Mural was focused on a 120-mile stretch of California Highway 395,” says Thayer, “but our goal this time is to create a network across North America. We will be creating installations in Arkansas, Florida, Utah, and California in our first year.”
This illustration shows a digital composite of a building at Full Sail University and Jane Kim’s concept art for the mural. (Illustration by Jane Kim)

Full Sail University, in Winter Park, Florida, has been a major partner this time around. With the Springdale airport tower complete, Ink Dwell will start production there the first week of January, aiming for completion the week of January 22.

Students at Full Sail will then work on film, music, and mapping projects centered on the Migrating Mural. The university will also take action for pollinator conservation themselves, landscaping the campus with pollinator-friendly wildflowers.

Another digital composite shows Jane’s plans for the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History in California. (Illustration by Jane Kim)

After another mural in Utah in the summer, there will be one more installation this year at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History in California in the fall. Here, Jane will illustrate the story of the monarch’s winter “hibernation,” as Pacific Grove is one of the most famous places in the United States to see the butterflies’ massive congregations. The monarchs cluster by the thousands on the region’s eucalyptus trees, in groupings very poetically called “kaleidoscopes.”

Poetically and irresistibly. Jane liked the term so much, she named the Springdale tower piece Kaleidoscope.

[Updated 12/3/2017]

2011 Post About Jane Kim’s Idea

Post About the Bighorn Migrating Mural


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Author Photo Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley. Learn more at