The Audubon Mural Project Brings Birdsong to Life in Washington Heights

An eye-catching and abstract new mixed media mural by artist Jessica Maffia is the first of the public-art project to focus on sound.

It’s a bright and brisk Monday afternoon at the corner of West 173rd Street and Broadway, on the northern end of Manhattan. Cloud-shaped mosaic panels decorated with recycled clear and emerald glass pieces rest on a folding table set up on the sidewalk. Artist Jessica Maffia has assembled a small team to help install the panels on the adjacent brick wall, which she painted just a few days ago to match the orange of a robin’s breast. Passersby seem transfixed by Maffia’s intricate tile work even before the group has mounted the mosaic on the building.

A woman wearing a black fleece jacket stops in front of the table, strewn with tools and tape, and gently places her palm flat against a section of one of the cloud panels. It’s a particularly enticing patch of smooth, grouted green fragments. She smiles before walking away. A young girl in a bright pink parka grips her mother’s hand and peers into the reflective, mirror-shard border of the cloud. “Beautiful,” she says. “So shiny.” Things are already going according to plan. Maffia intends for the mosaic to be interactive—for people in the community to be able to see themselves in it.

Maffia’s tribute to the American Robin is part of the Audubon Mural Project, a partnership between Gitler &_____ art gallery and the National Audubon Society that has so far produced more than 100 bird-themed public artworks—an initiative that has now expanded from New York City to as far away as Washington State. All of the murals feature birds that have been identified by Audubon scientists as threatened by climate change, with the goal of beautifying urban landscapes while raising awareness about imperiled bird life.

Many residents of Washington Heights and Harlem, the neighborhoods where the project is concentrated, and where famed avian illustrator John James Audubon once lived, have become familiar with the bird murals. But they haven’t seen one quite like this. Maffia’s installation is abstract, the first that doesn’t depict a bird. Instead, the mural focuses on sound.      

Each “sound cloud” contains a spectrogram, or an illustration of a sound wave. One shows part of an American Robin’s song, and the other displays a portion of the bird’s call. Maffia scavenged almost all the glass used for the mosaic from the ground at Highbridge Park, just a few blocks away. The mural also features three-dimensional concrete hands, painted robin’s egg blue and cast from the real-life hands of local people engaged in environmental stewardship or environmental justice.

The project represents a first for the artist as well. Maffia’s previous works include collages that were used as the art for two Childish Gambino singles, “Summertime Magic” and “Feels Like Summer,” and a solo exhibit of photorealistic pencil drawings at a fine art gallery in Chelsea. A series of her photographs cataloging nature along Manhattan’s Broadway was shown recently at the Queens Botanical Garden. But the Audubon project pushed her into new territory. “I have never made a mural before,” she says. “I’ve never made anything permanent, public, outdoors. I’ve never made a mosaic.”

Maffia’s growing love of birds, which blossomed into a daily birdwatching habit during the pandemic, has driven her recent art. As an artist-in-residence on Governor’s Island in 2018, sponsored by New York City Audubon, she created a series of photo transfers that combined images of a Northern Goshawk with self-portraits. For her ongoing work “All the Birds I’ve Ever Met in New York City 1983-present,” Maffia uses photo scraps to make collages of each of the estimated 100 birds she has encountered throughout her life. (Maffia was born and still lives in New York City.)

Gitler invited Maffia to participate in the Audubon Mural Project when they met in 2018, but it wasn't until she encountered the Trumpeter Swan mosaic, on West 163rd Street, that she felt inspired to make her own contribution. Her art studio and apartment are nearby, and she walked by the piece often. “I was like, ‘Oh my god this is beautiful.’ It made me want to make a mural, and it made me ready.” She reached out to Carlos Pinto and John Sear, who created the swan mural, and they offered to guide Maffia through the process of creating a mosaic.

When posed with the choice of a climate-threatened bird for her own mural, Maffia selected the American Robin for its ubiquity. In her art practice, she prefers to focus on everyday things, “and see what’s kind of miraculous about them.” Although robins are common across North America, including in New York City, they’re one of the hundreds of bird species imperiled by climate change, according to Audubon’s Survival by Degrees report. If global warming continues apace, and reaches 3 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, American Robins may be pushed out of nearly a quarter of their summer breeding habitat. According to Emily Williams, an ornithologist who studies robin migration, some shifts are already visible.

It’s this science that led Maffia to exclude a direct representation of the bird. “I think the absence of the bird speaks strongly to the theme,” she says, given that climate change may displace birds from their current habitat or threaten the resources they need to survive.

The link between Maffia’s mural and its message may not be immediately apparent to passersby. But Avi Gitler, who coordinates the Audubon Mural Project installations, welcomes some conceptual work. “I’ve been surprised at how few artists have taken a more avant-garde approach,” he says. Pinto, too, thinks “it’s good to expose people to this level of abstraction. It awakens their curiosity.”

Most of the people walking past certainly seem drawn in. “It’s something different,” says Zaida Almon, who lives on the block. “She took the garbage and made something beautiful—cleaning the neighborhood and making art with it.” Others have questions: Maritza Melendez, another neighbor, asks me what the mural will show when finished. I explain the concept of visualizing sound. In response, Melendez reflects and makes connections to her own experiences hearing bird calls. She describes recognizing the calls of pigeons, crows, and birds of prey. “It’s interesting for sure,” she says. “I hope they’ll have something to explain it.” And there will be. The final addition to the wall will be a plaque with an artist statement written by Maffia.

Both Sear and Pinto are on site for the final day of installation to help Maffia attach the panels to the wall—the culmination of the mentorship they’ve offered throughout the process. During a short break from drilling in screws and applying sealant on the street corner, Sear points at a bird in the blue sky. “What is that—a hawk?” he asks. “It’s a Red-tailed,” Maffia responds. The entire team pauses to watch the Red-tailed Hawk circle overhead. It sends a flock of pigeons scattering, before perching atop the steeple of the United Palace theater. The whole scene happens twice: once in the sky, and once again reflected in the mirrored edges of Maffia's mosaic—a good reminder to look up, at the clouds and the walls, for birds and for art.