Visual Arts

Find A "Confluence" of Art and Nature on Bayou Greenway Trail

"Confluence" nears completion along the Bayou Greenway trail.
"Confluence" nears completion along the Bayou Greenway trail. Photo by Anthony Rathbun, Houston Parks Board
A 223-foot-long mural, painted along the Bayou Greenway trail under the University of Houston-Downtown’s One Main Building, that tells the 12-month story of Houston’s migratory birds. It might sound like a tall order, until you realize the person behind said mural is the same person responsible for a 3,000-square-foot wall depicting all 243 families of modern birds.

But, says artist Jane Kim, co-founder of San Francisco’s Ink Dwell studio and muralist behind the so-called “Wall of Birds” at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there’s always a wildcard.

“Man, Houston weather, I still can’t figure that out,” says Kim with a laugh. “In the morning we’ll start off with fingerless gloves, hats, puffy jackets, because it’s only 50 degrees out, and then half an hour later we’re peeling off all our layers and baking.”

Luckily, this month Kim and her team conquered the city’s weather challenges to put the finishing touches on “Confluence”, the newest addition to Houston’s public art scene. Commissioned by Houston Parks Board and hosted with Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the mural, named for the way birds change color seasonally to attract mates, now graces the stretch of bayou at the confluence of White Oak and Buffalo Bayou.

The process of bringing Kim to Houston, however, actually began years ago when she met Laura and Tom Bacon – “Very big bird fans,” says Kim – who saw the “Wall of Birds.” If you’re wondering the connection, Tom Bacon is Chairman Emeritus of the Houston Parks Board and serves on the Administrative Board at Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Kim says she approached the project by asking, “What’s the story here in Houston?” And the story in Houston, according to Kim, is our migratory birds, which flood the city every spring and fall.

click to enlarge Artist Jane Kim works on the installation of her mural "Confluence." - PHOTO BY ANTHONY RATHBUN, HOUSTON PARKS BOARD
Artist Jane Kim works on the installation of her mural "Confluence."
Photo by Anthony Rathbun, Houston Parks Board
With that in mind, Kim designed “Confluence” as a mirror image of six male birds, each from a different species at different times of the year, though Kim admits “Confluence” doesn’t necessarily read as a mirror image because of the different colorations on each side. On the left side of the mural, six species are depicted in their spring breeding plumage. On the right, six in their fall non-breeding plumage which, because they winter in Central and South America, we’re often not lucky enough to see.

“I thought it would be a great way to show that nature moves beyond what we see presently, that there’s another story that’s happening elsewhere,” says Kim.

Despite her deep dive into the city’s migratory birds, Kim is quick to point out that she’s no expert. She says she worked closely with Houston Audubon to pick the six species featured on the mural, searching for the ones that have the most contrast between their breeding and non-breeding plumage.

“My expertise falls definitely in my paint brushes and my ability to paint,” adds Kim.

In painting the birds of “Confluence,” a familiar old adage proved itself true yet again: Everything is bigger in Texas. Unlike the birds drawn to scale at Cornell, Kim says those of “Confluence” are “larger than life,” and it was a challenge to make “big, bold birds” while maintaining a level of scientific accuracy.

“I don’t want to do an interpretation of one of these species,” says Kim, whose background is in both fine arts and scientific illustration. Though not depicted in their natural setting, Kim says it is important to her to accurately capture the components, subject matter, and actual character of her subjects for one simple reason: She wants people to be able to recognize these birds when they’re out and about.

“I think that, if anything, the best compliment that I get is when someone says, ‘Oh, I can see the waxwings all the time now.’ That’s a really special gift that I feel I can give through this art, and if it opens somebody’s eyes to be able to see that out in the world then I feel like the work is done,” says Kim. “I’ve done the work that I would like to do.”

click to enlarge "Confluence" nears completion along the Bayou Greenway trail. - PHOTO BY ANTHONY RATHBUN, HOUSTON PARKS BOARD
"Confluence" nears completion along the Bayou Greenway trail.
Photo by Anthony Rathbun, Houston Parks Board
Kim hopes “Confluence” will help spark that curiosity to learn a little more about these birds, which can be overlooked despite being part of the “fabric of your outdoor and indoor experience.”

“I think that it can be very easy to take [nature] for granted because it’s always been there,” says Kim. “It’s super easy to just tune it out.”

If the weeks-long installation of “Confluence” is any indication, Kim is already finding success. She says that regulars in the area are prone to stopping, some expressing “how much this mural has meant to them and feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to pick up trash around this bayou now and really take care of this stretch of walkway.’”

“I think all of that ties into what I ultimately hope people get away from it,” says Kim. “It’s not necessarily the story or the science, but just that they care they care about their surroundings.”

Kim adds, “I think that that’s a really cool role of art, to be able to show people things they might not otherwise see.”

Though deserving of a break following the installation of “Confluence,” Houstonians can rest assured that Kim says she “will never ever tire of representing birds” and, in fact, is a bit sad that they weren’t able to depict the city’s resident birds.

“I’m crossing my fingers [that another project] will actually pull through some time in the future,” says Kim. “We do have some birds here in Houston that are very special that are here year round.”

In the meantime, Kim says she’s putting out good vibes, and you can too as you drive, bike, walk and jog to see “Confluence.”

“Confluence” is located under the University of Houston-Downtown’s historic One Main Building along the Bayou Greenway trail. Parking is available in the UHD Academic Building Visitor Parking Garage, 201 Girard Street.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.