One of the things that Audubon has been telling people for years is that birds and nature are everywhere, even in the most desolate urban environment. Few have embraced this concept as thoroughly as the L.A.-based artist who goes by the name Elkpen. Through murals and other site-specific works, Elkpen reveals the natural world hiding in plain sight among the hard concrete streets and buildings of Los Angeles. We had the chance to talk with her recently about how the natural world became so intertwined with her art:
Where did you learn all this stuff about native birds and other wildlife?
Most of what I have learned about birds and wildlife I’ve done on my own beginning with guide books that led to more reading, both books and online. A 1927 edition of Birds of America really piqued my imagination. I just could not get over the language of how birds were talked about, and then I searched out other old guides. The formal language was a clear expression of the distance between us and nature, yet the impulse of the books was helpful, and that really moved something in my brain. I have always enjoyed the natural sciences, plants and animals and the outdoors. The influence of my mom and stepdad, who spend a lot of time outdoors and have been taking us camping and canoeing since we were kids set the compass early, though, primed the engine.
Did it precede your desire to depict it in your art?
Well, I have always been drawing, and the wildlife drawing came fairly late. Though for as long as I remember I have been interested in the topic of conservation. About 10 years ago that following a fluke landing of a job for the Bronx Zoo, I was working as a cartographic researcher at the time and got a freelance job doing the graphic material for their tiger exhibit, that I started really drawing animals and birds. I guess that experience tilted me towards an “interpretive” bent in thinking about wildlife and imagery. Once I started on the bird signs I saw that what I wanted to do was illustrate the neighborhood, like a child’s encyclopedia illustration, add little notes and arrows to point out what is in view.
What got you into depicting urban wildlife, particularly birds?
When I moved to a blighted part of Hollywood in 2005 and saw a surprising number of birds in this underserved community, and I had the idea to bring bird identification to the street. I was very preoccupied with the idea of whether being able to name something helps engender care for it.
I see birds as a kind of gateway experience for learning more about wildlife. They are like the ambassadors for a much more hidden wildlife. Being in this crappy urban spot, I really had this kind of philosophical epiphany: Everyone would rather see beauty. Birds are beautiful and they’re here. But the urban environment is busy shoving all sorts of other things in front of us. Why not draw attention to the “underseen”?
Do you ever have challenges convincing people that all this wildlife actually exists in urban L.A.?
I do not have trouble convincing people that this sort of wildlife exists in LA. In fact, doing the bird murals, I was very moved when locals, including the homeless, stopped to tell me their experience of seeing birds. I think keeping work site specific helps this. I think it makes a difference not only in terms of content but also the surprise of coming across something unexpected in the neighborhood. I also think my cartoony style kind of breaks the ice. I spend a lot of time thinking about the text in my signs. In some cases of course it’s really straightforward, but a lot of the time I work on crafting an idea or sentiment in the most ordinary language that contains a sense of wonderment and simple fact. I have described my practice in the past as trying to find a street vernacular to talk about things that are not yet part of the street experience. I’ve also heard from people that the handmade quality of much of what I do makes it appealing.
How do you think people respond to your art, particularly the murals? What kind of feedback do you get? Do you think there’s a larger audience out there?
I get a lot of positive feedback from my work, which continues to surprise me, and is motivating too. The birds of Hollywood mural on Fountain may be one of the most successful things I have done so far in terms of response and I have been kicking myself for years that I do not do more neighborhood murals of neighborhood birds. I’d love to do something in Koreatown, for example, with Korean letters, or over in Boyle Heights which is so mural rich. I’d like to do something on the water towers in Griffith Park identifying what birds you see on the trail, or maybe chalk notes on the rocks along the trail with ID signs. I suppose much of my work, unlike the Fountain mural is temporary, so can only be seen by so many. But an original impulse for me was to engender local pride and I think this is a strong connecting factor for the public.
Does the art help get past all the noise that keeps people from noticing nature?
It’s a big deal that folks by and large are not thinking a lot about wildlife. That obstacle makes me very committed. I am going on the assumption that folks love birds and wildlife, they just need to be reminded of it in a way that inspires wonderment, pride and care.
A few years ago I came across this idea called the Pigeon Paradox, from Conservation Biology, April 2006. It sums up what I am doing:
“We are faced with the potential extinction of thousands of species and with radical changes to many of the world’s ecosystems in the next 50 – 100 years. Paradoxically conservation may increasingly depend on the ability of people in cities to maintain a connection with nature. We term this concept the “pigeon paradox” because …under the status quo a great deal of future conservation will rely in part on our interactions with urban ecosystems and the organisms, including non-natives such as feral pigeons, that call them home. The paradox lies in the dependence of conservation action worldwide on people’s direct experiences with urban nature.”