Travelers journeying along U.S. 395, their eyes inevitably drawn to the imposing escarpment of the Eastern Sierra, now have a unique opportunity to glimpse the seldom-seen bighorn that dwell in the most rugged terrain of the mountains. At the south end of the town of Independence, motorists encounter the first in a series of four “Migrating Murals” planned for the highway corridor, which tells the story of the migratory and endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep and the need to protect them.
Each of the life-sized portraits will be a monument to the unique subspecies of bighorn found only in the Sierra Nevada, thanks to the vision of San Francisco-based artist and science illustrator Jane Kim. A highly successful online fundraising campaign took place this fall, raising more than $20,000 in just a few days, allowing Kim to paint the first bighorn mural. The artwork adorns the walls of Paul and Henietta Kenn’s Mount Williamson Motel in Independence showing the life stages of a ram from the Mount Williamson herd, depicted befittingly in the shadow of the towering peak.
“Animal migrations are one of the most remarkable behaviors of the natural world, yet they often go unnoticed, even when they take place near centers of human civilization,” Kim said. “The purpose of the Migrating Mural is to expose the public to endangered, elusive and transient animals that otherwise go unseen. It highlights animal migration routes while beautifying human migration routes and catalyzes both wildlife conservation and public art.”
Three additional bighorn sheep murals, planned for the communities of Olancha, Bishop and Lee Vining, comprise the first chapter of what Kim hopes will become a national community art, education and conservation program. In Kim’s words, she aspires to create “art that inspires people to love, appreciate and protect the earth, one work of art at a time. “
The artist and illustrator contemplates future murals for other sensitive species. “Our planet is home to incredible and wondrous life,” she said, adding, “I feel most excited, both visually and intellectually in nature. Combining that with my passion for art leaves me with unrefined excitement and sharing even a fraction of that with the rest of the world is the best gift that I know how to give.”
A hike with Sierra Nevada bighorn expert John Wehausen inspired Kim to choose the wild sheep as the species to be featured. In a recent report, the artist shared the story of how the bighorn came to the forefront. “I only found out that bighorn existed in the Eastern Sierra while doing a fellowship in Yosemite National Park. I contacted bighorn expert John Wehausen and he invited me to go out into the field with him for two days and track the sheep. From that point on, I was really hooked – just being able to hike the terrain they occupy and see them through spotting scopes was like getting in on a big secret.”
Kim, whose background is in fine arts, explained the evolution of her artistic passion. “Any time I saw interpretive signs at a park or flipped through a science journal or a beautifully illustrated field guide, I thought to myself, ‘I want to do that.’ I flirted with the idea enough times that I finally decided to apply to a very special Science Illustration graduate program at the California State University Monterey Bay. It completely changed my life.”
The life-sized portraits are expected to be completed in the next year, bringing more attention to Sierra bighorn and the need to recover from precipitous loss in population. The project, already covered by National Geographic, will be featured in the February issue of O Magazine. A night of Sierra Nevada bighorn art, education and history, “500 and Rising: Celebrating Sierra Bighorn,” followed by a guided field trip the next day, is planned Feb. 16-17 at the Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop. Proceeds will support next mural, which will be painted in Bishop in April.