John James Audubon Takes Flight in Harlem

Peter Daverington, Bald Eagle, Audubon Mural Project. Photo: Camilla Cerea, courtesy the National Audubon Society.

Street art inspired by John James Audubon’s iconic The Birds of America watercolors is taking over the Northern reaches of Harlem. As reported by the New York Times, the National Audubon Society is teaming up with a local gallerist and his landlord to paint avian-themed murals on a planned 314 roll-down gates and windows in Manhattan’s upper reaches. The aim is to promote the society’s climate-change-awareness campaign.

Audubon, who spent the last years of his life in northern Manhattan, when the area was marked by forests and streams, is buried at Trinity Cemetery “uptown,” between 153rd and 155th Streets, just east of the Hudson River. Minniesland, the two-story house the naturalist and painter built in 1842 at what is now 156th Street and the river, was torn down in 1931.

The murals project is the brainchild of Avi Gitler, a Washington Heights native who runs Gitler & _____ gallery at Broadway and 150th Street. Hoping to bring attention to the neighborhood’s art scene, he convinced his landlord, an art collector named Alex Friedman, to offer up storefronts owned by his real estate firm, Sugar Hill Capital Partners, for a mural project. An artist Gitler recruited, Tom Sanford, connected the gallerist with Mark Jannot of the Audubon Society.

Today Audubon’s presence in the neighborhood is minimal, but the entrepreneurs saw a chance to revive a history that exists mainly in street signage. Per Jannot’s suggestion, the murals depict the 314 species of North American birds who face climate change–related threats to their habitats or migratory patterns.

The first five murals, a bald eagle by Peter Daverington, a tundra swan by street artist Boy Kong, a rusty blackbird by Taylor McKimens, a mallard by Graham Preston, and a cerulean warbler by Sanford (sitting on Audubon’s shoulder), are already on view at Sugar Hill–owned 3621 Broadway. “It helps enliven the community,” Friedman told the Times, “especially at night and in the early morning, when the hustle and bustle of the city is gone.”

The Audubon Mural Project is featured on the society’s webpage, and is currently enlisting additional businesses and property owners to get involved. A mobile app with an audio tour for visitors is potentially in the works.

So far, local residents are responding positively. “The art is fresh, and so’s the message,” 35-year-old Stefen Reed told the Times.

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