Lone Pine, California, is a lot like the name might suggest: a sparsely populated high desert town that the Census Bureau still classifies as “frontier.” Sitting between the Sierra Mountains and Death Valley, it was once a tiny hub for gold miners, and by the 1920s, the setting for some of the earliest Westerns.
Now, it’s the temporary home of San Francisco artist Jane Kim, who is in the middle of covering the side of a building with a painting of bighorn sheep–the latest in her Migrating Mural series.
Kim decided to start painting wildlife murals on a road trip. “I was looking around at the landscape thinking I’d like to be able to see murals of animals that occupy and live in the habitat I was driving through,” she says. “The Migrating Mural was born just in passing.”
At first, she planned to paint the murals along highways that also happened to be migration routes. But she eventually decided to focus the first set of paintings on the bighorn sheep, which migrates along mountain paths that humans rarely see. She learned about the sheep during a science visualization fellowship at an institute near Yosemite.
“I’d had no idea that there were bighorn sheep in the Sierra Range at all,” Kim says. “The more I studied and researched them, the more I fell in love with them.” Of the three subspecies of bighorn sheep (like their better-known Rocky Mountain cousins) the Sierra Nevada are the only ones that are struggling. Their range is limited to a small area, and the population was nearly destroyed by domestic sheep disease.
“Living in California and not wanting to see these animals disappear, and realizing that they had almost disappeared, is what made me become attached to them,” Kim said. “And maybe I’m just biased, but I also think they’re the most beautiful out of the three sheep.”
Kim launched a Kickstarter campaign last year to help fund the first of her four bighorn murals, all along Highway 395 in the Sierras. Each mural depicts a different herd. The current mural, at the southernmost point in the route, shows three glacial cycles, representing the fact that the sheep have been in the area at least 300,000 years. It will include petroglyphs from a Native American artist, since humans and sheep also have a long history. At the top of the mural, four bighorn sheep will cross the silhouette of the nearby mountains.
While Kim hopes the murals can help bring more support to sheep conservation efforts, she says the first step is just for people to realize that the sheep are there at all. That’s starting to happen. “A friend got a call from a woman in Independence, which is where the first mural went up, and said that she had lived there all her life and didn’t know that Sierra bighorn were in the mountains until the mural came up,” Kim says. “The message has definitely been getting across, and I think that’s the biggest success for me.”
Kim is raising funds for her work and for a local conservation organization through the sale of custom iPad cases and art prints. She’s also starting to think about her next series. Whooping cranes might be up next, she says, so that she can return to her original plan to follow migration routes; the cranes travel from Texas to Canada, across the entire center of the United States.