HER GREEN FINGERNAILS GRIP A LIVE OAK BRANCH, hoisting the emblem of hope 16 stories into the Houston skyline. This bold, beautiful monument to Tree Equity that brings life to the side of a Holiday Inn is first in a series of five unique, high-profile murals across the country. It calls attention to the need for Tree Equity and the role planting and protecting trees play in saving lives, improving health and creating career opportunities in low-income communities.
Funded by American Forests’ partner Bulleit Frontier Whiskey, this dramatic art is the first ecosystem mural unveiled in the United States to draw attention to the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and its #GenerationRestoration campaign.
“We create these really massive, big artworks in the heart of the city to stop people in their day-to-day and to make them think, ‘How can I take action?’” says Audrey Decker, co-founder of Street Art for Mankind, a nonprofit that curates and produces murals around the world. Street Art for Mankind is collaborating with the U.N. Environment Programme to produce 50 murals intended to amplify the goal of reversing climate change and biodiversity loss. “We really truly believe that it is ‘we the people’ that can truly make a difference.”
Martin Ron, the Argentinian street artist who designed the Houston concept and named it “Ecosystem Restoration,” identified a local woman as a hand model and painted the mural over a week. On the same day as the mural’s unveiling, Bulleit volunteers teamed up with Trees for Houston and American Forests to plant 85 trees in an area devastated by Hurricane Harvey. The new trees will help mitigate future floods and provide shade for hiking and biking trails intended to bring area residents more access to greenspace.
The mural also illustrates how far we’ve come in our relationship with nature in cities, says Ian Leahy, vice president of urban forestry at American Forests. In his early years in the field, “There was a feeling that cities were a lost cause, that we had to protect nature from people.”
But Tree Equity is built on the opposite notion. “We’re telling that story of bringing nature into your life, even when nature is already there,” Leahy says. “It can be there, but you don’t necessarily notice it.” Leahy hopes that through stunning and relatable visuals, the murals will resonate with people across a variety of cultures — many of them being the very groups who were left out of the mainstream conservation movement.
The mural initiative is the latest in a series of impactful American Forests efforts supported by Bulleit. The partnership launched in 2020 when Bulleit committed to planting 1 million trees in large landscapes, a goal that they reached three years ahead of schedule. Since then, Bulleit has set a new goal of planting an additional 1.5 million trees. And it has expanded dramatically into funding Tree Equity priorities in cities.
“Bulleit is looking for ways to touch and engage our communities. That’s why supporting Tree Equity makes so much sense for us,” says Allison Fleischer, of Brands and Culture for Bulleit, who leads the partnership with American Forests. “Partnering on a project around Tree Equity and ecosystem restoration just felt like kismet.”
The partners are still finalizing some of the remaining cities, where murals will go up over the coming months.
Next up: New York in the fall.
“New York City is a huge opportunity,” says Fleischer of Bulleit, whose parent company Diageo is headquartered there. “New York is where the U.N. is located. It’s a huge tourist destination. It’s the world’s stage.”
Michele Kurtz writes from Washington, D.C., and serves as American Forests’ senior director of corporate partner communications.