This time of year, as many of us migrate to or from our points of origin, it's time to consider Arcata's biggest, newest and most noteworthy piece of public art about the experience of transit: the 256-foot-long, 27-foot-tall painting by Lucas Thornton, "Marvelous Mural of Marbled Murrelets," sweeping across two sides of the Arcata Bay Crossing building at Samoa Boulevard and U.S. Highway 101.
Arcata's newest work of public housing at Arcata Bay Crossing turned a blank face to the highway from the time it was built in 2015 until this summer, when the combined efforts of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Footprint Foundation, the city of Arcata and individual community members made it possible to put a bird on it. The subject is the marbled murrelet, an endangered species that haunts this stretch of the redwood coast. The artist, also locally based, is Lucas Thornton, who got his start in Duane Flatmo's Rural Burl Mural Bureau. Thornton painted murrelets from a "bird's eye" perspective, placing them against an aerial view of Humboldt Bay as seen from Fickle Hill, based on his plein-air oil study.
Choice of bird matters a lot in an ornithologically sophisticated town like Arcata. Here, it was inspired. The seldom-seen marbled murrelet is a dark, subtly patterned, densely feathered little bird whose adaptation for its baroque niche in the ecosystem is hyper-specialized and heartbreakingly perfect; heartbreaking because the unique way this bellwether species evolved now makes it highly vulnerable. While close relatives like murres nest on sea stacks and spend essentially the entirety of their lives in the ocean, the murrelet is unique: a fisher of the open ocean that has evolved to nest exclusively in the canopies of mature redwood forests, in groves where the trees are at least 200 years old. The territory where marbled murrelets could possibly exist was never vast; what with warming oceans, depleted fisheries, ongoing logging, deforestation and habitat loss, there is no reason to doubt the future will become more difficult for humans and murrelets alike.
We should care about the murrelet, in other words, and Thornton's composition makes it easy to do that by making the most of the wall's immensity. Dark redwood forest along the northerly part of the wall nearest the highway gives way to the shining surface of Humboldt Bay as the eye moves south. The scene is suffused in a light that suggests morning (no easy feat at this colossal scale). The murrelets, winging their miraculous way from the redwood forest to the Pacific, are unobtrusive — especially when you consider that the audience for this mural is a challenged one, consisting almost exclusively of multitasking drivers merging with highway traffic or navigating the exit ramp. (Highly visible from the highway, the mural is by no means easy for a pedestrian to view in its entirety).
Since July, many motorists must have glimpsed a shining expanse of painted ocean in their peripheral vision and wondered about the murrelets' exact whereabouts. I was certainly in that camp. Details, including the speckled murrelet chick charmingly nestled in the redwood canopy, continued surprising me for several weeks under a commuter's viewing regimen. Not that I'm complaining — as any birder can attest, often the birds you remember best are the ones that are hardest to see.
"Marvelous Mural of Marbled Murrelets" can be seen from the overpass and exit ramps at Samoa Boulevard and U.S. Highway 101 (but not from a static vantage point and never for very long).
Gabrielle Gopinath is an art writer, critic and curator based in Arcata.