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Jane Kim is a visual artist, science illustrator, and the founder of Ink Dwell, a Bay Area studio that explores the wonders of the natural world. Her art career started when she was a little girl obsessively painting flowers and bears on the walls of her bedroom. She received more formal training at Rhode Island School of Design and then Cal State Monterey Bay, where she received a master’s certificate in science illustration. She has created large-scale public art across the country, including the “Wall of Birds” at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and produced works for the National Aquarium, the de Young Museum, Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Weber State University, and more. She is the creator of the Migrating Mural campaign, a series of public installations that highlight wildlife along migration corridors it shares with people. She still enjoys painting flowers and bears, though nowadays she doesn’t get in trouble for painting on the walls. For more of her artwork, please visit inkdwell.com.
Lindsay Gearheart: How are you staying creative with the distractions and anxiety of the pandemic going on?
Jane Kim: You know, it’s really funny. I think that maybe I’m not alone or unique in this as an artist, but I think we all sort of practice social distancing anyway. It’s a very solo activity. For me at least, in some ways, it hasn’t felt like too much of a change in terms of my day to day. Obviously, how it’s affected all aspects of everything else has certainly added a level of anxiety to the uncertainty of our times right now. But in terms of being able to focus on my work or just having space for it, it’s actually been quite nice, the whole world being on this pause and feeling like we’re given permission to actually put in the amount of time and energy alone that you would want to make work. So it’s actually been in some ways a really productive period. I’ve been able to take some time to work on some personal work, and in addition, I feel very fortunate to have been able to move on some scheduled projects, albeit delayed. But nonetheless, it feels really good to be working day in and day out.
LG: I’d love for you to tell me about the moment or moments, if it wasn’t one singular moment, that you decided to make art your life’s work.
JK: That is a very long journey. When I was a little girl, I absolutely always found creativity, and using my hands and making things was my outlet. Speaking of sheltering in place, I was definitely a loner as a kid and spent a lot of time with myself and my projects. I think that it ended up becoming a place to find comfort and a language, even. And I didn’t necessarily know that that could be a career per se. I actually spent most of my childhood in music. I started violin when I was three, and it was a huge part of my upbringing and my life. Art was just really something that I did personally. When I decided I didn’t want to pursue music at all as a career, I was left with a big question mark. I thought, “Well, what I really love to do is art. Maybe that’s the way I should go.” I decided to apply to primarily art schools, and went to the Rhode Island School of Design.
I moved to California straight away after graduating and never looked back. It took a little while to get to what I’m doing now, which is very influenced by the genre of scientific illustration. I did go back to school for that six years after graduating, and this is where I find myself today, trying to use the inspiration that I draw from science illustration with inspiration I draw from something a little bit more subjective and emotional like art and bringing those two together to communicate. And that’s what it started off as, my language to communicate with the world and hopefully share the things that I value and inspire others to see the world with an abundance of nature in it.
LG: In terms of your process, how do you begin thinking about designing a large scale mural? Is it a similar process every time or is it different?
JK: You know, it’s similar and it’s different. It’s similar in that every public artwork starts by a reaction to the space that I’ll be making the work for. It’s very important that I am able to see the building and feel what it feels like to stand in front of it and to be in the space. See the colors around me, and learn about the natural history of that particular place, and then build off of that. I think that each mural ends up looking quite unique because it is very reactionary to that specific time and space. But otherwise, I would say that the process is similar in wanting to share an accurate narrative, but also one that includes how I might want someone to feel while looking at it.
LG: Because we’re in a time right now where so many people are doing things virtually, it’s interesting to think about how your work is so physical and how being in that space really makes a difference for you.
JK: Being able to see the physical animal or the landscape I’m working off of changes my ability to understand my subjects by leaps and bounds. I think that no matter what, for me at least, I certainly hope we don’t lose this as we become more and more virtual and as distance is more and more required. I hope we don’t forget the value of physicality, even just understanding the texture of something, like a blade of grass. You can read that in a book or in an essay or what have you, but actually experiencing it for yourself is so much more profound. I think public art for me has that value because you are literally sharing space with the art of work on a daily level. It’s not just going to a museum or going to a gallery and seeing it on a wall; it becomes part of the fabric of your existence.
LG: One project I wanted to ask you about was your book, “The Wall of Birds.” I think it’s interesting how that blends not only the actual artwork itself, but the background research that you’ve done and the writing that Thayer does.
JK: “The Wall of Birds” book was just such an amazing opportunity to share the full story and the full breadth of what the scope of work really is. It is, of course, a mural, but there’s so many layers to that mural. It’s in an institution that is world renowned for the study of birds, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. So it’s a reference for students at Cornell. It’s a reference for visitors that come in to understand the immense diversity of birds in the world and their evolution from fish to dinosaurs to what we know today as birds. But then the book was able to expand on that even further and bring in some of the ways that nature can open our eyes to our own understanding of self and using the birds as allegory for cultural importance, including women’s rights — there’s a section called “Ladies Choice,” and I really appreciate that chapter. It shares through the coloration of birds how color is perceived and how color in birds is created, so there’s natural history there. It’s a combination of what I hope our work at Ink Dwell can continue to be.
It was a really wonderful opportunity, because we don’t always get that chance to be able to tell that full story. Someone can just go to the lab and see the mural and be inspired from just a visual standpoint, and that’s often enough. But to be able to have all these different opportunities to show the full picture was really special. Also, Thayer being a journalist and a writer, I think it was the perfect collaboration between the two of us. While we run the studio together, my work ends up being a lot more in the forefront. But what Thayer brings in terms of his value for storytelling and connecting us to the broader world through media and through his words is so important, but oftentimes overlooked. So being able to have that as a physical object that brings both of our skills together in one piece was really wonderful.
LG: More broadly, why do you feel that public art matters in times like this when we’re all struggling with something in completely different ways?
JK: Yeah, that’s a great question, and such an important distinction. We all struggle in very different ways, so how do you connect when everyone is an individual, but we’re all going through the same thing. I think public art is so special in that way. It is still an individual experience, but everybody can have it easily and at their own pace, and without prompting. Once again, it just becomes part of your environment.
I also believe that public art can stand for a collective expression of what’s important in our time. You see public monuments to so many things, namely wars, leaders, people, and events, and there’s so few public urban monuments dedicated to nature and our environment. I think that for me, that was the hole that I was hoping to fill, to show that as people we collectively care about nature. We want to honor that and monumentalize that, and say that this was something that we value and find important enough to put in this grand level. I think that it isn’t just nature isolated. We’re so a part of nature, and how nature affects us and vice versa is something to monumentalize.
LG: I’d love to finish by talking a little bit about something we’ll be collaborating on later this year. Could you tell us about the Migrating Mural project?
JK: The Migrating Mural is our sort of flagship public art series. It’s basically a series of art installations painted along migration corridors of wildlife that they share with people. Our first series was the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, and there were six unique installations on Highway 395 in California hugging the habitat of Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. That was our land animal, and now we’re on a sky animal, which is the monarch butterfly. We’re so thrilled to be able to represent and honor this animal as it connects so much of the country, pretty much all the lower 48 states plus Canada and Mexico. The geographic range of the monarch is quite a bit more vast than our first series.
Stay tuned to the Manifest Boston blog for upcoming news around the Migrating Mural project, coming soon.
The Manifest Boston Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.