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Kala Hagopian turns nature’s canvas into beautiful eco-murals
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Kala Hagopian turns nature’s canvas into beautiful eco-murals

These works featuring wetlands, flora and fauna connect visitors in West Philly and John Heinz Wildlife Refuge to environmental education.

Growing up in rural Vermont, Kala Hagopian immersed herself in nature. The fields and forests of the Green Mountain State drew her in, serving as a source of inspiration and exploration. 

Given the chance to develop her high school curriculum through an independent study program, she naturally turned her attention toward the world around her. She studied wetlands and vernal pools with the support of professional mentors in her community. In a sign of things to come, she integrated painting and fine art into her studies, illustrating the ecosystems she encountered and developing her naturalistic style along the way.

Years later, the results of those early forays into Vermont’s flora and fauna are evident across Philadelphia, where Hagopian’s murals bring wild plants and animals to vibrant life amid the urban landscape. On the formerly blank walls of delis, pharmacies, and cafes, her meticulously painted murals burst into view with a riot of color, urging Philadelphians to engage with the environment and actively support its health.

Kala Hagopia
Kala Hagopia art at Philadelphia Airport

“We are all part of a larger ecosystem,” Hagopian says. “Our relationship with nature is so important—something many people forget in the day-to-day grind, especially in an urban area.”

In her work, Hagopian aims not just to beautify public spaces, but to inspire the type of connection she found in the natural landscapes of her youth. She recently installed the 17th piece in her ongoing Eco Mural series, each of which shines a spotlight on a different animal, insect, or ecosystem, from luna moths and barn swallows to channel-billed toucans and leafy seadragons. Through QR codes that appear alongside every mural, she directs passersby to her website, where she describes the wildlife that she’s made into her subjects, as well as the ways that climate change and environmental degradation threaten their existence. With each mural, she also offers visitors resources to further explore her subjects and how they can be protected.

“It’s so easy to forget what’s right around us and the importance of connecting with nature and preserving what’s so perfectly here—and what we’re actively destroying,” Hagopian says.

Kala Hagopia

Hagopian began making murals in 2012 and launched the Eco Mural project in 2018 by donating several pieces to her West Philadelphia community, often painting with her young son, Kai, carried on her back. The first mural, a shot of aquamarine on the side of One Stop Deli celebrating the diversity of life in the Kauai Coral Reef, was inspired by the six months she spent living in Hawaii and connecting with the local wildlife. A handful of murals in the series depict flora and fauna from other areas, but most feature subjects that can be found “right here, in our parks and backyards,” she says, like the eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies and honeybees that struggle to survive in the face of habitat destruction.

“It’s really important for people to realize this wildlife is right here, all around us, and we are impacting it every day,” Hagopian says. “And it’s impacting us.”

Genevieve Coutroubis, executive artistic director of Philadelphia’s Center for Emerging Visual Artists, says the universality of Hagopian’s work makes it a powerful presence in the community. The two have been working together on projects for much of the last decade, beginning with a series of collaborative murals made with seniors at the New Courtland Center on Broad Street. Hagopian’s subject matter offered the projects a way to engage people across generations, Coutroubis says.

“It’s the most natural thing to bring people together because it’s something we all experience, something we all yearn to experience. And it’s in turmoil,” she says. “Especially for the younger generation, it’s a really important part of their future to be discussing and engaging with.”

Kala Hagopia

Nate Hommel, University City District’s director of planning and design, has worked with Hagopian to install a mural that envelops a kiosk on the Porch at 30th Street Station (Eco Mural 13: Luna Moth), as well as a swallowtail mural in a pedestrian plaza at 49th Street and Baltimore Avenue. Her work is “vibrant and bold,” he says, and it raises questions and curiosity in those who see it, particularly children.

“It just gives you a tiny spark of joy when you see something colorful like that,” Hommel says. “It makes you happier when you pass by it.”

Hagopian has made it a point to emphasize community engagement with her art, developing partnerships with institutions like Bartram’s Garden and John Heinz Wildlife Refuge—where her murals bring life to the visitors center, lunchroom, and kayak trailer—that allow her to promote environmental education. When she unveiled a mural featuring 20 wild plant medicines, including mugwort, mullein and mallow, she worked with local schools, Bartram’s and John Heinz to create coloring books celebrating the diverse plant life in the mural. From the art the children made, she then made a foraging guide that can be used to identify medicinal plants in the Philadelphia region. 

Kala Hagopia

That project helped inspire a series of works focused on women and wild medicine, including a pilot installation at Penn Medicine OB/GYN, aimed at exploring women’s cultural roots and the botanical medicine they cultivate.

“People’s connection to nature is so integral to healing,” Hagopian says. “Even if it’s not about medicinal plants, our connection and interconnectedness with nature is so important.”

As she continues to follow her curiosity, Hagopian says she wants to be fully engaged in learning about the ecosystems she has made her subjects, just like when she was younger. She’s partnering with local experts who can amplify the messages in her murals, like herbalists Melaney Gilchrist and Colette Condorcita, who helped her design interactive workshops about the medicinal plants she’s painted. She plans to work with Mycopolitan Mushroom Co. on fungi-focused projects as well. The more her projects expand, the more people she can engage in connecting with their own curiosity about the natural world around them—and the threats it faces.

“There’s a lot to be said for personal exploration,” Hagopian says. 

Photos: Kala Hagopian


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