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Artists add to Ursa Gaia Project

When walking in Morgantown’s Greenmont neighborhood, it is difficult to miss the brightly painted bear statue on Green Street.

A closer look at the pink bear reveals an assortment of plant and animal species native to West Virginia endangered by climate change, each hand-painted by local artists.

“I feel like climate change is one of the most important issues of our time,” said Kathryn Williamson, founder of West Virginia Climate Action. “To me, this is a way to talk about it that is beautiful and accessible to everybody.”

The collaborative community project, known as the “Ursa Gaia Project,” was started last fall by West Virginia Climate Action and Morgantown Art Party. Any local artists have since been welcome to paint an endangered species that interests them.

Jillian Kelly, founder of Morgantown Art Party, said the project is one of two bears in the Greenmont neighborhood. The bears were originally auctioned to a Greenmont resident about five years ago who thought they would make a nice addition to the neighborhood.

The bear on Green Street was originally painted by Michael McDevitt for the auction. Kelly said after years of McDevitt’s work being exposed to the elements, the original paint had faded and chipped and was in need of a fresh coat.

Brian Pickens poses next to his painting of the Monongahela blue crayfish he chose to add to the Ursa Gaia project. Submitted photo.

Eight local artists have since contributed their work to the bear. Brian Pickens, owner of Made in West Virginia apparel company, said he was excited to participate when Kelly reached out to him about the project.

“I feel like art of almost any kind enriches a community,” Pickens said. “It gives it a stronger sense of identity and brings people together.”

Pickens decided to paint the Monongahela blue crayfish, both for its aesthetic appearance and because he heard new populations of the species have recently been discovered.

“It’s basically a crazy blue mini-lobster,” Pickens said. “I feel like before going into this project, I knew they were scarce, but I didn’t really understand how scarce.”

Pickens said he became fascinated with the rarity of this species while he was researching it. He said he learned the species can only be found in two major areas, the Appalachian Plateau in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and along the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and Virginia. 

“More than anything, I just think it’s cool that West Virginia has its own crustacean,” Pickens said.

Anna Seraphim, a Morgantown artist, said she first heard about the project from a neighbor. She thought it was an interesting idea, and immediately began researching endangered species she could add to the bear.

Anna Seraphim poses next to the Ursa Gaia project with her painting of the flat-spired three-toothed snail. Submitted photo.

Seraphim said she enjoys making impressionist and surrealist artwork, and mainly likes to paint with oils or draw with pen. She said she learned most of what she knows from a private art tutor she had as a teenager.

“I am an animal lover, and I am passionate about conservation,” Seraphim said. “Nature is a prevalent theme in my artwork.”

Seraphim chose to paint the flat-spired, three-toothed snail. She said she found it to be a cute animal and thought it would be a unique choice that had not yet been painted on the bear.

She said she found the species especially interesting because the shell lays flat instead of standing upright, which was a feature she had never seen in a snail. Although she enjoyed getting to learn new and interesting facts about the snail, her favorite part was the opportunity to interact with the community.

“Neighbors would stop by periodically while I was painting to chat about how much they loved all the paintings and how the project beautified the neighborhood,” Seraphim said. “Projects like these give us the opportunity to collaborate to make something beautiful and it brings awareness to the precious endangered species of our state.”

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