NY Times Editorial: Public Art Takes Flight

In his final years, John James Audubon, the celebrated 19th-century painter of bird life, lived in rustic uptown Manhattan in a house by the Hudson where some of his final paintings were of urban rats that caught his eye. But birds remained his forte. And as Audubon lies in his grave up from the river at West 155th Street and Broadway, Avi Gitler, a local art gallery owner, will not let his legacy rest.

A Townsend’s warbler by an artist known as ATM on the door of a C-Town supermarket.

For three years, Mr. Gitler and a crew of artful spray-painters and some who stick to their brushes have been splashing giant-scale paintings of endangered birds all over the neighborhood. Gleaming with avian beauty, they appear in vivid colors as multistory murals on the sides of apartment buildings, as epiphanies in alleyways and as scattered nocturnal flocks that burst into view when shopkeepers roll down security gates where they are painted.

“There’s something beautiful about this fish crow perched where Audubon breathed his last,” said Mr. Gitler of a gorgeously alert bird glaring four stories high above a gas station on West 155th Street that now occupies part of the old Audubon estate. Working closely with the National Audubon Society, Mr. Gitler counts 80 bird paintings already in place out of 314 birds the society lists as threatened by climate change.

A tour of the Washington Heights and Harlem neighborhoods with the aid of an Audubon map amounts to a new sort of bird-watching. It takes a search to track down the Williamson’s sapsucker, bigger than life, down by the West Side Highway. The black-billed magpie is visible all day now on the Broadway gates of the defunct New Happiness Chinese Restaurant. Elsewhere, Audubon himself is rendered in flesh tones and with mutton-chop sideburns, staring curiously at a cerulean warbler on his shoulder with neither his rifle nor palette at hand.

The artists are spray-painting professionals, paid modest fees, and not graffiti vandals. Louise Jones set up last week with her eye on the mammoth task of painting two grosbeaks on a stone-hard canvas 70 feet tall and 100 feet wide — the wraparound sides of a church on West 149th Street off Amsterdam Avenue. Ms. Jones is so accomplished at her special art that she arrived as a fully certified operator of a powered lift-boom she uses to extend her eye and hand 100 feet high.

“That’s a woman up there?” a pedestrian asked Mr. Gitler.

”That’s exactly the sort of artist I get excited about,” he said, delighted to have seen Ms. Jones studiously consulting an Audubon field guide supplied by her husband, Gabe, before she ascended alone with her muse and spray can arsenal.

A parallel art for Mr. Gitler and Audubon officials is persuading potentially sceptical building owners and community leaders that the birds are creative reflections of a lively neighborhood. A recent tour found residents notably appreciative, at least by the usual standards of New York grumbling.

“Birds are everywhere around here — beautiful!” said a 17-year resident, Pat Arnao. “Why would something like this bother me?” she asked, gesturing toward the first eye-catching grosbeak impressions Ms. Jones had up. Trained in the fine arts, Ms. Jones said she began painting small murals for friends. Her enthusiasm got bigger and so did her art. “Now I like scraping the treetops,” she said.

Mr. Gitler likes the night-painting commissions, when shop gates are down and spray painters create fresh creatures from the Audubon list with Fauvist zest. “It’s night and people hang out and watch.”

You can view this online here.