In St. Pete and beyond, mural campaign raises awareness for Florida Wildlife Corridor

The great blue heron is center stage in Ernesto Maranje’s mural on the facade of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation offices in St. Petersburg.

The artist perches high in a cherry picker with paintbrush in hand, bringing out the shapes and patterns of iconic Florida animals in the wilderness, among them a black bear, gopher tortoise, otter, alligator and swallow-tailed kite.

“The main character here is the heron, and it’s larger than life and it’s a very abstract silhouette of a bird, and their silhouettes are extremely beautiful,’’ he says. “I wanted to start the composition off with that, then have all the animals surrounding it.’’

Maranje’s work is one of a series of murals planned around Florida as part of a campaign to call attention to the Florida Wildlife Corridor, an 18 million-acre collection of wilderness, national forests, state parks and private lands running from the panhandle to the tip of the peninsula, allowing wildlife to roam, find food and mates and stay healthy. Some 10 million acres are conservation lands, but 8 million acres are privately held, and conservationists hope to raise money to buy the tracts.

It helps their effort that the corridor is also vital to the humans in the state. The watersheds in the corridor upstream help prevent outbreaks of red tide and blue-green algae bloom that can decimate the tourist industry, says Jason Lauritsen, chief conservation officer for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation, which launched the mural project. He notes that 114,000 jobs and an annual $30 billion economic return, including a $9 billion eco-tourism industry, depend on the corridor remaining intact.

Art is just one of the vehicles used by the foundation to recruit citizens allied in the effort to prevent aggressive development from severing some of the more threatened strips of land – some just beyond people’s backyards – that connect the corridor. The foundation office is a building in The Factory, St. Pete, a collection of artists’ studios.

“The Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation since its origin has used artists as a key means to tell the story,’’ says Mallory Dimmitt, CEO of the foundation. “We wanted to inspire Floridians for the protection of the corridor and we want to capture their imagination through our outings, through our treks, but also through all the media and communications we put out.’’
Ernesto Maranje works on his mural on the facade of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation office at The Factory, St. Pete.

The mural project is part of that progression.

“And now we’re focusing in on communities where we want the corridor to make a difference,’’ Dimmitt says.

More than a dozen areas around the state are at a higher risk than others, Lauritsen says, “and if we lose those places it’s going to be a considerable impact for those communities around there. And murals are that sort of open window for folks to just take a peek and start to appreciate and hopefully frame how they see their community, how they see it fitting in.’’

Murals are going up in areas where the corridor is threatened and also in places where decision-makers will see it, such as Tallahassee, says Maureen Vicaria, program and partner manager for the foundation. The most recent mural, featuring manatees and other wildlife and painted by artist Kelly Quinn of Canvas of the Wild, went up in downtown Crystal River a few weeks ago. The foundation had also earlier created a film focused on the Nature Coast, which they are showing to various groups to promote the corridor, Vicaria says.

“We recruited three local girls, 14 and 15, and they told the story through their eyes,’’ she says. For the video, called “Home Waters,’’ the girls made the trek from the Dunnellon, Rainbow Springs area to Homosassa Springs. The film will be available to the public in January through WEDU streaming, she says.

“We’re trying to reach a younger audience and have ambassadors telling the story of connectivity to their peers,” Vicaria says.

In October, the foundation sponsored a mural in the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance SHINE Mural Festival. “Wild Ride,’’ by artist Alyssa Marie, shows an alligator with a baby on its back. It’s on the wall of a pet store at 3001 Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. The artist created sections, like a paint-by-numbers format, for citizens to fill in. The event was scheduled over four days, but it created such a draw the mural was finished in 18 hours, Vicaria says.

Maranje, 39, who lives in Sunrise and grew up in Hialeah, was serving in the U.S. Coast Guard when he took up painting in his late twenties. He has painted murals in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Ukraine, Greece and Spain and for a number of public art projects in the United States. Though the animals in the mural look realistic, Maranje’s process, he explains, is more of an abstract approach.

“I start creating environments, and the environments get created with brush strokes, color,” he says. “And little by little, I notice different passages and pathways that kind of start coming out of these clusters of brush strokes. At the beginning there is intention, but there’s also a lot of spontaneity. And then as I observe it I can see the pathways or small little corridors in the image, and I elaborate on them. I use them to kind of move the eye around the piece.’’Ernesto Maranje with his mural at the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation offices.

All the animals are moving in the same direction, he notes, “an obvious direction that relates with the corridor and need for movement. They’re all just kind of trucking along together, getting where they need to be.’’

For more information, go to Florida Wildlife Corridor
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Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.