Palisadian-Born Chris Muhl Makes Art for Elephants

Muhl worked on his first piece for 1,800 hours over the course of two years
Photos courtesy of Chris Muhl

By EMILY SAWICKI | Contributing Writer

Chris Muhl wants to raise awareness for the plight of African wildlife and inspire a love of nature—and he’s using stunningly intricate artwork to do it.

The 37-year-old, Oregon-based artist, who grew up in The Highlands and attended St. Matthew’s Parish School, said his inspiration was sparked after reading a National Geographic article about wildlife biologists working for the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya.

“They take in wildlife, mostly baby elephants, [and] nurture them,” Muhl described, calling it “the most incredible thing I’d ever heard about.”

Soon, Muhl was captivated.

“I went back to college and studied, at first wildlife, and then moved a little bit more to environmental science and management,” Muhl explained. He then began studying maps, cartography and spatial data analysis.

“I work part time now—to make ends meet—on wildfires, doing data collection and producing maps for the teams that go out every day,” the artist shared. When he’s not making maps, Muhl uses the same skillset to create his artwork.

“A lot of the elements of cartography are similar to drawing and painting,” he said.

Muhl just completed his first large-scale drawing—entitled “My Life for a Trinket”—in a series he is calling “Drawings for Africa.”

The drawing is a mixed-media project, “integrating large graphite drawings of African wildlife with graphic design, 3D printing, wood block art and other art forms,” according to Muhl.

The first drawing, which took two years—1,800 hours of work—to complete, is of an African elephant. It measures 35.5 inches wide and 50.5 inches tall.

Muhl employs some of the same software he uses to make maps to create his drawings. Beginning with a photograph, the artist measures distances between points on the photo using a computer and charts them on a large sheet of paper—a total of around 4,900 measurements. Then, he fills in the intricate textures of the animal between each point—each wrinkle and shadow, about 205,000 in all.

The African elephant piece measures 35.5 inches wide and 50.5 inches tall.

“That approach, for me, was really important because it allowed me to bring so much texture into the drawing, so that when you look really closely at it you can see a lot of shapes,” he described. “That, for me, brings so much life into the drawing, and that’s what I’m trying to do with the artwork, is convey an animal in such a way that people can really connect with the essence of that creature.

“Bringing out the wrinkles—wrinkles are often associated with age and longevity and wisdom,” he continued, “really accentuating those features, to me, brought out the power and magnificence of the elephant.”

Though the focus on African wildlife came to Muhl from a magazine article, his interest in art began here in Pacific Palisades, where his mother was an art teacher for about two decades.

“There was a studio attached to the house growing up and I was always surrounded by my mother’s artwork, and encouraged to explore art and artistic expression, so that’s really where my inspiration came from when I was really young,” he said.

Inspired by the nature around him, Muhl said his mission goes beyond rescuing wildlife—he also wants to bring back into focus “how exciting, how mysterious wildlife and wild places are.”

“I want to, through art, help people rediscover that sense of wonder for nature,” he said. “I just feel it’s too easy to overlook.”

Muhl now plans to create a series of unique, full-size wood block prints of the drawing. He will sell the prints, and pledges to donate 10% of proceeds to the foundation that first inspired him—the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

In all, the series will include five similarly intricate drawings of African wildlife; the next subject will be a rhino. He expects each one to take a year to complete, if he is able to work on them full time.