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Eco Mural 11: Collaboration with John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, Philadelphia, PA

John Heinz Video
John Heinz Mural Process

John Heinz Mural Process

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John Heinz Painting Timelapse

John Heinz Painting Timelapse

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Since Hagopian Arts began the Eco Mural Project in 2018, it has been our mission to educate about the environment and utilize artwork to motivate folks to act in service of nature. As the Eco Mural Project expands, our dream is to partner with passionate environmental organizations to amplify our voices and add beauty to the facilities of environmental groups. We could not have found a better first collaborator in John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum.


John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum


Located in West Philadelphia, John Heinz serves both as a state funded zone of protection for some of Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable wildlife, and as an educational hub for students and residents across Philadelphia County. John Heinz Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum was founded in 1972 after lobbying by concerned citizens as the last local marsh was threatened by industrial expansion. When settlers arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1600s, a process of draining and filling the marshland to create grazing land for livestock reduced the size of marsh from approximately 5200 acres to just under 350 by the 20th century. John Heinz was founded to protect this last remaining swath of marshland and an additional 1000 acres of woods, meadow, and mud flats that surround it. John Heinz is uniquely historic as it is the first Environmental Education Center and Urban Refuge in America. Congress set out three mandates by which the center must be managed:


  • To restore wetlands, wherever possible

  • to promote environmental education

  • to provide wildlife-oriented recreation opportunities for visitors


Today, John Heinz is a much beloved jewel of nature on the edge of West Philadelphia, offering spectacular views of the marsh, 10 beautiful miles of trails, and a robust educational curriculum that brings in over 17,000 students from the School District of Philadelphia yearly.


Over 150,000 people visit the refuge every year to hike, kayak, birdwatch, participate in educational programs, fish, and engage in other outdoor activities! Tinicum marsh is uniquely biodiverse due to the varied habitats that meet at this relatively small area. John Heinz is labeled an important bird area by the National Audubon Society: over 300 species of birds use this marsh as a migratory stopover, with over 80 using it as their sole nesting site.


This unique and treasured green space is an invaluable spot to learn about Pennsylvania’s wildlife heritage and exemplifies the importance of maintaining magical spaces like this for our future generations.


Tidal Marshes


John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge protects a large freshwater tidal marsh, which is an invaluable intermediary ecosystem that is unique to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.


Historically, mud flats and shallow marshes have been treated as low quality land and have been drained and filled to be replaced by grazing for livestock. Tinicum marsh is a highly valuable wildlife area that offers a glimpse into what was once a sprawling, complicated series of tidal marshes and estuaries that dotted the East Coast of North America.


Tidal marshes are watershed filters, catching nutrients and minerals that are brought in from oceans and high elevations from rivers, and act as storm breaks between the coast and the interior. These marshes provide land that can flexibly accommodate large swings in water level, becoming shoreline stabilizers and preventing coastal erosion.


Due to the high concentration of nutrients and minerals that refresh with each tidal cycle, marshes have an incredible level of biodiversity. Tidal marshes serve as spawning grounds for small “feeder fish,” which exist low on the food chain and provide sustenance for a long chain of predators within the marsh. The abundance of these fish provides a perfect nesting ground to millions of birds year-round, and the diversity of hardy flowering plants supports a robust population of pollinators and insects. Since prey is plentiful, entire ecosystems of birds, amphibians, rodents, and small mammals coexist in an interlocking chain of predation all centered around this unique ecological feature.


Often the most biodiverse and important ecosystems are also extremely delicate. Because tidal marshes are ecological filters, they collect the pollution and industrial runoff that flows through rivers and from the oceans. Marshes are frequently drained and filled for agriculture and aquaculture across the world to utilize the nutrient dense topsoil, but the damage done to nationwide bird, amphibian, insect, and mammal populations is undeniable. Without proper nesting, spawning, and feeding sites, populations of animals that may only visit the marsh for a short time have their life cycles irrevocably disrupted. Many animals who spend their time year-round can be affected by one or two small changes to the marsh: if the water cannot support feeder fish, or if the hardy plants are unable to flower and reach their full life cycle, the chain reaction can be devastating.


The murals at John Heinz Wildlife Refuge seek to encapsulate the complicated and interlocking chains that make up the marshland ecosystem, offering imagery of animals that are keystone species and depend upon the health of the marsh. We aim to show healthy human interaction with the marsh, with images of families enjoying the apple trees native to the area, engaging with flowers that dot the shoreline, and kayakers enjoying the beautiful waters without disturbing wildlife.


The Murals


Hagopian Arts created two large scale murals for John Heinz: a mural wrapping around the kayak trailer which sits prominently at the entrance to the refuge’s trails, and a mural to fill the visitor center lunch room where thousands of students eat and learn each year. Adding Eco Murals to the John Heinz center not only complements the refuge’s natural beauty but also expands upon its educational resources by emphasizing art and the ability of all its visitors to contribute to conserving our planet.


The Kayak Trailer


The kayak trailer features five windows into John Heinz’s diverse species that visitors may witness as they explore the refuge. The panels on the front depict a bald eagle soaring over the marshland, a belted Kingfisher snatching prey from the shallow waters, and our founder and lead artist Kala Hagopian’s son, Kai, reaching for beautiful Marsh Mallow flowers among the frills of blooming wild rice and accompanied by a Marsh Wren.


On the back, a Red-Winged Blackbird flutters up from a fall time meadow, and a kayaker glides on the glittering water of the marsh’s streams. Painting imagery of humans safely interacting with nature along with the biodiverse array of species harbored by John Heinz offers an example of the shared vision of John Heinz and Hagopian Arts: that humans and nature can coexist in a mutually beneficial way, and that those interactions become invaluable life experiences.


The Bald Eagle is a wonderful example of successful conservation. Bald eagles became nearly extinct in Pennsylvania during the 20th century due to hunting, overfishing of its natural hunting grounds, pesticides, and clear cutting of New England forests. In the 1980s the bald eagle was put under protection through the Endangered Species Act, and through strategic protection of its migratory routes and monitoring of its populations, the bald eagle population was stable enough to remove from the endangered species list in 2007. Bald eagles depend upon a healthy forest in which to perch and raise their young, and on clean water to support robust populations of fish.


Belted Kingfishers can be found across North America, breeding in the north during the warm months and heading south for the winter, following large bodies of water where they can fish. They depend upon robust fish populations along streams, marshes, and lakes where they can perch and scan for their prey. Overfishing, industrial runoff, and environmental degradation pose major threats to the ability of these birds to hunt and reproduce successfully.



The Lunchroom


The lunchroom at John Heinz is called the “pollinator room,” so we've chosen to feature the invaluable pollinating butterflies and bees native to the marshlands, woodlands, and prairies of Pennsylvania, and the flora that they pollinate. These insects are keystone species in Tinicum marsh’s ecological chain: they ensure the diversity and reproductive success of the plants that grow in the wetland, serve as food for fish, rodents, and birds alike, and thus begin a chain of predation that feeds every mouth in the refuge. Pollinators not only protect and maintain their native habitats, but they also preserve the genetic biodiversity of a huge proportion of crops necessary for human survival. Many plants, like the apple trees portrayed, would not exist without our pollinating insects. The pollinator room aims to depict these key animals and plants to exemplify the value they give to human life. They are incredibly important for students to learn about, and it is an honor for their education to be highlighted by our murals.


The lunchroom has four panels. The first is a pair of monarchs sipping nectar from a butterfly weed and below them a fritillary butterfly on common milkweed. The next panel depicts a father and son enjoying the native apple trees next to a large goldenrod flower, offering an example of humans enjoying native wildlife in a nondestructive manner, and passing that on to their children. Nestled below the goldenrod, a swallow tail butterfly alights onto a Coneflower bloom. The third panel features a Cuckoo wasp on milkweed, accompanied by some black-eyed Susans. The final panel is of a rusty-patched bumblebee collecting pollen from some lush blueberry flowers.


Monarch butterflies are beautiful and prolific pollinators. They are particularly special because of their monumental migrations that span thousands of miles. Millions of monarchs fly up to 3000 miles south from North to Central America, and some fly across the country to the west coast. Monarchs huddle together on oyamel fir trees to wait out the winter in their thousands, forming spectacular displays of orange and black.


The best way to assess the health of monarch populations is to observe their numbers as they overwinter. Unfortunately, herbicides, pesticides, clear cutting of oyamel fir trees, and environmental degradation has forced their populations into a noticeable decline. Scientists believe that the most significant factor causing their decline is the large-scale extermination of the monarch's preferred flower, the milkweed. Milkweed is viewed as a garden and farmland pest and is the target of widespread commercial eradication. Loss of overwintering habitat is a major issue for monarchs as well - logging of oyamel firs in Mexico, one of the largest sites for overwintering monarchs, is increasing yearly despite government efforts to protect well known sites.


Despite not being on the American endangered species list, Western monarchs have declined by an estimated 99% since the 1980s, and Eastern monarchs have declined by about 80%. Protecting monarchs is of paramount importance for the survival of entire chains of native flora that they pollinate and for all the fauna that depends upon pollinator dependent plant life. Humans are part of that chain of dependency: experts warn that the collapse of pollinator populations like the monarch butterfly will have devastating effects on our food chains for generations to come.


The rusty-patched bumblebee is a unique bee native to the eastern United States. It is currently listed as endangered due to widespread habitat loss and uses of pesticides and herbicides in farming. The vast majority of prairies meadows and grasslands that make up the rusty-patched bumblebee’s habitat have been leveled to make room for monoculture farming, devastating their habitat and removing nearly all flowering plant biodiversity. These bees are incredible pollinators and are keystone species due to their invaluable role in maintaining native plant life. In addition to losing their primary source of pollen, rusty-patched bumblebees nest in the ground and are susceptible to habitat degradation and pesticides leaking into the topsoil.

Hagopian Arts worked on the John Heinz murals beginning in December 2019 until the final phase of installation in June of 2021. Thanks to the help of the wonderful folks at John Heinz, Friends of Heinz, The Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, and PPA Project Stream, Hagopian Arts was able to bring the project to life despite the setbacks of the global pandemic.


Please visit our Honey Bees and Pollinators page to get a detailed look into why pollinators are so incredibly important to the the preservation of our ecosystems.


Thank you to the folks who made this mural possible:


Friends of Heinz Refuge (FOHR)


John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

With special thanks to Kelly Kemmerle, Brianna Amingwa, and Lamar Gore


Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts (PPA) and Philadelphia Cultural Alliance

Project Stream Grant

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