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Wild about animals, Santa Ana artist spotlights endangered creatures in murals and paintings

Growing up, Jonathan Martinez never dreamed about being an artist, let alone one who focuses exclusively on endangered wildlife.

But not only is wildlife art how this 29-year-old makes his living, it’s also how the Santa Ana resident — who didn’t see many animals in his childhood — is changing lives.

His art definitely is hot right now. Martinez has landed commissioned work with foundations. He’s got some sponsorships with art supply companies. He’s selling paintings and drawings to buyers around the world. He’ll soon be consulting on art lessons with teachers at Santa Ana Unified.

His art also, literally, is blowing up — in the form of larger-than-life murals in cement-oriented places like Santa Ana, Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Martinez just finished a 40-foot by 25-foot nature scene on a wall at Esperanza Elementary, on the edge of downtown Los Angeles. That was painted on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation.

The work, visible from a street that borders the school campus, is the first of possibly 80 wildlife murals planned by the partnership between Martinez and the Federation’s SaveLACougars campaign. The goal is to raise awareness of and, hopefully, protect and expand, the dwindling population of mountain lions living in the Santa Monica Mountains.



One star of the Esperanza mural emerges from the lower right corner: P-22, the name biologists have given to the famous male cougar who roams the Hollywood Hills near Griffith Park.

In Martinez’ rendering, the big cat is joined by a soaring red tail hawk, a burrowing owl, and native California plant life. The plants were inspired by the bit of natural habitat on the schoolgrounds.

The mural pops with Martinez’ signature bright colors — shades of green, yellow, teal, and fuchsia. Martinez fuses a graffiti artist’s spray paint sensibilities with a portrait style to create a direct connection between human and creature — the kind of love for animals that could be while growing up in a city.

“There’s something about his use of color, and his passion that stares right out of the eyes of the animals,” said Beth Pratt, the self-described “Cougar Lady” who is California Regional Executive Director of the National Wildlife Federation.

“He captures the soul of the animal.”

Pratt, who instantly loved the artwork on Martinez’ @art.ofthe.endangered Instagram page, said that among all the artists her group works with, Martinez is unique for focusing exclusively on images of endangered animals. Another of Martinez’ images, also of a male cougar, greets visitors to the website The animal in that painting, P-56, was killed earlier this year near Camarillo.

“It’s almost like they are saying, ‘Hey humans! We need you to save us,’” Pratt said.

City kids can love nature

Those who follow his work say Martinez also is a role model for young people — such as the children who attend Esperanza or schools in Santa Ana — who share his background, growing up with limited access to nature. Those kids can be inspired by Martinez’ artistry, and by his story.

Martinez grew up in Santa Ana — attending Hoover Elementary, Sierra Intermediate and Santa Ana High — after his parents immigrated to Orange County with their two boys from Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City, when he was 7.

Santa Ana, then and now, was urban. But Martinez remembers a show on PBS he liked to watch as a little kid, the one with the lady who would sit and paint flowers and animals, all the while explaining how to do what she was doing. He says it sparked a love for nature.

And though he didn’t know it at the time, that kind of exposure set him on a path. In third grade, he drew a coloring book as part of a class assignment. It featured creatures — snakes, jaguars, monkeys — he’d seen only on Animal Planet and Nat Geo.

Still, Martinez didn’t try his hand at an art class until his senior year in high school. And, even then, it was a lark. When he graduated he had no idea what he would do with his life.

By the time he got around to registering for classes at Fullerton College it was so late in the process his only options were electives. At the urging of a counselor, he took intro lessons in painting and drawing.

“It kind of seemed like I knew what I was doing with the assignments,” Martinez said. “The next semester, they bumped me up to advance classes.”

Martinez said being around other students who took art seriously, and the guidance of a couple of instructors at Fullerton College, helped him realize art could be a career — if he put in the work.

One assignment called for him to create a series of paintings on one theme. He chose bears: pandas and grizzlies. He could use art to express his love of animals.

Martinez set a goal: He’d sketch an animal a day and learn about that creature’s life.

When he finished two years of college, Martinez decided to pursue a dream of using his art, in a public way, to make a difference for endangered animals.

“I just wanted to put my message on a wall.”

Art, fashion, jobs

Martinez said his parents supported his passion. His father, an installer for DirectTV, and his mother, a florist and wedding planner, backed him even though they worried that art would be tough way to make a living.

Until he started to gain a following, Martinez worked full-time at a clothing shop in downtown Santa Ana, GCS, which specializes in hip hop and graffiti art and streetwear.

He hung out with graffiti artists, honing his spray paint technique. He begged family and friends to let him create murals on their fences and walls. He emailed art galleries to show them his portfolio.

Martinez’ work soon got into stores and art shows. His popularity on Instagram — he was up to 100,000 followers before he got hacked and had to start over — turbocharged his exposure. (He’s back at more than 30,000 followers.) He began landing commissions.

Sam Ruiz, co-owner of the downtown Santa Ana restaurant Cafe Cultura, met Martinez through an employee who went to grade school with  Martinez. Initially, Martinez created a small piece for the restaurant’s interior. Then, earlier this year, he completed a three-story mural on the backside of the restaurant’s historic exterior, at Fourth and Birch Streets.

Ruiz wanted something that reflected both the restaurant and the community he serves. Martinez delivered. The dominant feature of the mural is the same kind of eagle seen on the Mexican flag. Other images include the wild parrots of Santa Ana, as well as a sugar skull with egg yolks for eyeballs. The eagle is badass; the background vibrant.

Ruiz said that Martinez’ blend of colors and images “is what is attracting the younger audience to his work; to think of wildlife as cool.”

Ruiz gave to Martinez, too — helping to teach him how to navigate the business side of being an entrepreneur; what to charge, how to make sure he gets paid, reporting his income.

Ruiz said he’s proud of Martinez. “To think a young kid from Santa Ana is getting this far is amazing.”

Thinking bigger and bigger

All of this landed Martinez at the two-story mural he completed last month at Esperanza Elementary. It took about two weeks, at a cost of $7,000.

The location is special.

Esperanza is in the heart of Los Angeles’ impoverished and densely populated Westlake District. The area is book-ended, as school Principal Brad Rumble tells visitors, by MacArthur Park on the west and downtown Los Angeles on the east. Gritty concrete surrounds much of the campus, but Principal Rumble said he’s made it his mission to introduce native plants that attract native species wherever he can “sneak in the nature.”

Even as he stands in a staff parking lot, Rumble points to a dragonfly buzzing nearby and then to a Black Phoebe, a flycatching bird. He’s turned a strip of the asphalt into an oasis dotted with Palo Verde trees, Cleveland sage, salt bush, and California buckwheat.

But the contrast is never far from view. The landscape hides a haphazard row of homeless tents on the public sidewalk that borders the parking lot fence. An outdoor classroom — with rough-hewed wooden benches and more native flora — has replaced what once was a pure concrete courtyard.

Still, the gem is the natural wildlife preserve that the Los Angeles Audubon Society created in the school’s southwest corner, near a playground for Esperanza’s youngest students.

What is known as the Little Street Native Habitat serves as a place where Esperanza students, mostly children of Latino immigrants, learn about nature. They come to the garden, document the insects and birds that come to visit. Environmental science is a big part of the curriculum.

And, now, there is a mural.

“Everything painted on the mural,” Martinez said, standing in the middle of the habitat, on a hot Thursday morning, “is found here.”

Well, everything except for the cougar. But Rumble points out that the kids learn about P-22 on field trips to Griffith Park.

Scouting is underway for the location of Martinez’ next collaboration with the National Wildlife Federation. A time to complete it is already set: the annual P-22 Day in October. The celebration this year will be all-virtual.

Not so Martinez’ next larger-than-life mural, another tribute to P-22. “Cougar Lady” Pratt said it will be somewhere in the Griffith Park area, the mountain lion’s turf.

More wildlife murals may appear on other buildings around Los Angeles County. And, with luck, Martinez will get a chance to fulfill his bigger dream — to paint the animals he’s trying to protect over an entire building.

Martinez isn’t thinking small.

“I’m talking, like, skyscrapers.”

Source: Orange County Register

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