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A Luxurious Look at a One-of-a-kind Work of Art

A review by Sandra Paci

The Wall of Birds: One Planet / 243 Families / 375 Million Years

by Jane Kim with Thayer Walker

Harper Design 2018

224 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14911

This profusely illustrated book tells the fascinating story behind the artist and scientific illustrator Jane Kim’s creation of a 2,500-square-foot mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. The mural depicts one member from each of 243 bird families layered over a map of the continents and oceans; some of the extinct ancestors of modern birds are also shown.

Along with a foreword by John W. Fitzpatrick, Director of the lab, and a short introduction by the artist, The Wall of Birds comprises seven major sections, six defined geographically and the seventh dedicated to the evolution of birds. The book finishes with a catalogue of the birds illustrated, information about the lab, a selected bibliography, acknowledgments, and brief biographies of Kim, Walker, and Fitzpatrick. A three-page foldout, printed on the same thick, sumptuous paper, gives an installation view of the entire mural backed by a selection of Kim’s monochrome pencil and ink studies.

Fitzpatrick’s foreword begins with a nod to some of the great natural history artists of the past before detailing the story of the mural’s creation. From the opening of the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity at Cornell in 2003, Fitzpatrick had proposed a mural project to other artists, but it was not until early 2010 that he found one courageous enough to take up the challenge. Jane Kim, then at Cornell under the auspices of the Bartels Science Illustration Program, immediately and enthusiastically agreed to carry out the project. 

The Lynx/Cornell collaboration that would lead to the publication of Bird Families of the World was already underway, and Kim’s design for the mural would include representatives of each of the 243 bird families recognized in that book, each painted life-size and in color. A paleo-ornithologist was enlisted to help choose twenty-one extinct forms for depiction. The idea to super-impose these prehistoric archosaurs, early birds, and modern birds on a background of the seven continents and oceans was Kim’s from the start. The artist’s research was as painstaking as the three years of painting were exhausting, but the effort was well worth it: Kim’s mural is the only work of public art in the world to showcase all modern bird families. 

Each geographically titled section opens with a double-page spread showing the corresponding part of the mural. The text of the first section, “Australasia—Prima avis,” begins with the first bird Kim painted, New Zealand’s North Island Saddleback. The text goes on to give insight into Kim’s working process, including such practical considerations as her decision to start with New Zealand because it was at ground level in the corner of the wall. The illustrations accompanying the text include color swatches showing the pigments used and a photo showing the artist at work.

These larger sections are divided into subsections, addressing a wide variety of topics. In “Australasia,” a subsection titled “Flightless Fancy” discusses the Great Spotted Kiwi, from the first descriptions of the species, its relationship to other flightless birds, and its adoption as a New Zealand cultural icon to Kim’s artistic choices in painting the bird to reflect its unique look and character. In “The Blank Canvas,” the artist reflects on the pressures of painting the walls of such an ornithologically storied place. “High Contrast” gives insight into Kim’s realization that she would need to paint differently from what she originally envisioned if her mural was to succeed from a distance. The next subsection, “The Vanished,” addresses the mural’s depiction of extinct species and families, a matter treated in greater detail later on in the book. Finally, “Little Brown Jobs” gives the small and drab some love, and tells the tale of how the Chiming Wedgebill, representing the family Psophodidae, almost got left out.

The next large-scale section, “Africa: The Focal Point,” uses the Common Ostrich to illustrate Kim’s belief that the eye is the key to the entire orientation of a bird’s beak, its body position, and its behavior. Here too we are treated to some fascinating facts about the bird and insights into Kim’s artistic decisions. The discussion in “An Avian Pantone” of the artist’s unique approach to avian colors is followed by two double-page spreads showing the underpainting and final paintings of the Sub-desert Mesite and the Vulturine Guineafowl, along with swatches of the colors Kim used. In “Imagined Habitat,” Kim explains her decision to eliminate habitat from the mural and instead to show the birds in natural positions that suggest their surroundings: An African Jacana steps gingerly atop invisible lily pads, a Red-faced Mousebird clutches at a thin branch we cannot see, a Yellow-billed Oxpecker digs its claws into an imagined mammal, and an African Finfoot appears in its entirety both above and below the water line. “The Serpent-bearing Archer” introduces us to the astonishing Secretarybird. “Africa” concludes with “Ladies’ Choice,” a long subsection on the subject of sexual selection illustrated by a number of double-page spreads. Kim goes on to point out the dearth of female bird artists in the history of ornithology and to point out some who have been unjustly overlooked, such as John Gould’s wife, Elizabeth, a highly accomplished artist who produced over 600 plates for her husband’s books.

Europe has no endemic bird families, and much of Asia lies at high latitudes with low bird diversity. In “Europe and Asia: Finding Balance,” Kim discusses the decision to compensate by painting mostly large species to represent those continents. Here she tells the story of how she originally painted the tail of the Great Gray Owl with the outer feathers layered atop the inner ones, only to be told a year later by a sharp-eyed enthusiast that this was wrong. (She went back and redid the tail feathers in the correct position.) In “The Assembly Line,” Kim explains the timing of the project and her working process. She spent the first year consulting references and producing rough studies and sketches, which were then reviewed with Cornell staff before she completed more detailed templates. The templates were scanned into Photoshop, scaled to life-size, and printed and taped to the wall as stencils for the final mural. These early stages made up the bulk of the work: Kim estimates that only 5% of the process was the actual painting of the final images on the wall. “Compromise and Composition” emphasizes the importance of striking a balance between scientific illustration and fine art. “Cyrano of the Jungle” concentrates on the Great Hornbill, which dominates southeast Asia in the mural.

The shortest section in the book is “Antarctica and the Oceans: The Olympians.” On Antarctica we see the odd Snowy Sheathbill and the elegant Emperor Penguin, with two species of storm-petrel overhead. Depicted off the coast of Brazil, the Magnificent Frigatebird is the only figure in the mural to incorporate an architectural feature from the wall, gripping a sprinkler head as a perch.

The formal title of the Cornell mural is “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Evolution and Diversity of Birds.” In “Evolution: The First Steps,” Kim provides a brief but useful overview of avian evolution and explains some of the choices she made in illustrating it. “First Feathers” explains how she created vivid images of extinct animals even where there was no hard evidence as to what they actually looked like. “A Parade of Ghosts” describes an earlier concept for the mural, a family tree with dozens of avian ancestors linked to twenty-three representatives of each modern order of birds. This model was quickly abandoned: Twenty-three modern birds was obviously not a sufficiently wide sample. Moreover, our understanding of the avian family tree is subject to frequent changes requiring constant adjustment—a circumstance that applies not just to extinct taxa. Classifications are always subject to revision, and there have been a number of important changes since the completion of both the Lynx/Cornell Bird Families of the World and Kim’s mural.  

The final two large sections are devoted to the Americas, where I will leave it to readers to make their own discoveries. I did find one error in the book, when a written description in the text refers to the wrong illustration. I am not judging this too harshly: The species involved is extinct, and the book is not intended as a field guide in any event. 

All in all, The Wall of Birds is an extremely enjoyable look inside the creation of this beautiful and massive mural. Anyone who travels to Cornell to see it will appreciate the incredible amount of thought and research Jane Kim and her collaborators devoted to this project. And for those who may never have the chance to see the mural in person, the book carries us along on Kim’s artistic and intellectual journey, imparting much knowledge along the way and great insight into the artistic process.

– Sandra Paci lives in New York City. She works for a gallery in the Chelsea art district, and is an active member of the Brooklyn Bird Club and the Linnaean Society of New York. Sandra is the founder of the Facebook group “Birds in Art History.”

Recommended citation:

Paci, S. 2019. A luxurious look at a one-of-a-kind work of art [a review of The Wall of Birds, by Jane Kim with Thayer Walker]. Birding 51(1): 65–66.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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