How San Diego City College Audubon Club Found Community Through a Mural

Inspired by the Audubon Mural Project, this summer students in an Audubon campus chapter came together to paint dozens of climate-threatened birds—each in their very own frame.
A mural of many portraits of birds painted on the wall of a dark garage.
Comprising 37 different species, the San Diego City College Audubon Club mural is located in the mural garage of the university's humanities building. Photo: Fedella Simonson

Two years ago, Lisa Chaddock had never even heard of the Audubon Mural Project. Now Chaddock, a San Diego City College geography professor and San Diego City College Audubon Club advisor, can say she co-led a group of students to complete their very own bird mural, one that encompasses 37 different species. 

The idea to create an avian mural on campus first came to Chaddock in September of 2020, when she received an email from Audubon promoting the Audubon Mural Project, a public-art initiative that paints murals of climate-threatened birds across the Manhattan neighborhoods of Harlem and Washington Heights in New York City. “I looked at that and said, we could do that here,” Chaddock says. In fact, a mural would be the perfect pandemic project, she realized: Students could plan it via Zoom and then paint safely outdoors while gathering in person.

Inspired, Chaddock recruited her former student and San Diego City College art professor Terri Hughes-Oelrich to help lead the project. Chaddock’s class had stoked Hughes-Oelrich’s passion for environmental rights, so when Chaddock approached her about working with students and staff to create a climate- and bird-inspired mural on campus, Hughes-Oelrich readily  agreed. 

After receiving the college's approval, the San Diego City College Audubon Club—part of the nationwide Audubon on Campus network—began hosting weekly virtual meetings to discuss the mural’s design. The group eventually narrowed their ideas down to three options they put up for a vote: portraits of endangered California Least Terns against an old map of San Diego’s Mission Bay, a native landscape with a diverse array of resident birds, or a gallery of framed portraits featuring climate-threatened birds and plants native to San Diego. The portraits took the poll. 

As for the mural’s location, the college gave the group the choice of two spots in the campus’s mural garage,  located in the humanities building. The club chose the space near an existing mural that honors the local Kumeyaay community—members of a tribal nation that extends from San Diego into Mexico—because they have a tradition as “Bird Singers,” Chaddock says.

Once the concept and location was decided, Chaddock selected the 37 birds the mural would feature by visiting Audubon California’s website and reviewing a list of climate-threatened species. “I went through and pulled all of the birds that are specific to San Diego that were on their list,” she says. “I have a feeling that list will get longer.”  Among those chosen were the California Scrub-Jay, Anna’s Hummingbird, and the Tricolored Blackbird, all species identified as vulnerable to extinction from climate change in Audubon's 2019 Survival By Degrees report

In April 2022 the school approved the students’ design and soon after Chaddock put out a campus-wide call for any staff and students to join the Audubon club’s efforts. Professors and students from across campus answered, with many masked students working on several portraits. “Over time the same students would come and paint and get to know each other,” Hughes-Oelrich says. “It develops more of a community.”

Karina Ornelas, former campus chapter president and now San Diego Audubon’s conservation outreach coordinator, says that Chaddock and the mural project provided her with mentorship and a chance to learn more about birds. But  the avian enthusiast believes the importance of the mural extends beyond its conservation message. “The mural project is so important because it allows students to make change and educate the surrounding community," Ornelas says.  

Ornelas also contributed to the project by coming up with the idea to add QR codes to each of the paintings. The mobile phone-friendly barcodes that saw a resurgence during the pandemic allow students to learn more about the species and their threats. “Everyone agreed it was a great idea,” Chaddock says.  

Samantha Hughes, a San Diego City College student and an active member of the campus chapter, was another student who regularly contributed to the mural and found the experience of working on the mural with both professors rewarding. “With Terri, I got to see how art could be used in a different way,” says Hughes, who also works as a restoration assistant for San Diego Audubon. “She taught me some techniques that I could use while I was painting. I got to see how art can inspire people.”  

For Hughs, a Chula Vista native and first-generation Mexican-American, the project was also a great opportunity to spend time with other students. “Being a part of the mural helped me connect with more people on campus,” she says. 

Creating a space for folks to reconnect and form new relationships was exactly what Chaddock had hoped to achieve with the mural. “People were smiling and were so happy to be together painting in person,” she says. “We had been planning for over a year. Getting back together to paint the mural gave us a sense of how important our work is, and how much we mean to each other.” 

Beyond being a good pandemic project, Ornelas says the mural also provided a sort of solace for her and others. “I think that painting is very healing for people who are first-generation and people of color,” Ornelas says. “Usually we don’t have time to relax, paint, or have fun. We are at work and school.”  

Diana Braithwaite, the program manager for Audubon on Campus, believes the San Diego City College mural is a stepping stone to even greater things to come. “I am excited for other Audubon on Campus student groups to become involved in the mural project, and create their own murals highlighting birds at risk due to climate change,” she says.

For Chaddock, to see the mural finally compete after all this time and hard work was especially rewarding. “The pandemic shut down all of our other projects,” Chaddock says. “We went through the pandemic together. We painted this mural together. We are family.”