The poster girl of the gulf clean-up

When Olivia Bouler saw birds coated in oil she began selling her art to save them. $180,000 later, David Usborne meets her

Saturday 17 July 2010 00:00

Only two things are holding back Olivia Bouler, an 11-year-old from Long Island with a passion for birds and a talent for drawing them.

While she can finish a picture, she says, in "seven to five minutes", her wrist gets tired after a while and she has to rest. And then there are all the pesky media intrusions.

This week has been the maddest, with a two-day trip to Washington DC with her family where she cast a vote for her local congressman on the floor of the House of Representatives and had face-time with the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, to discuss oil and how America can stop drinking it.

But the project that has really consumed her and her family since late April has been selling her art to raise money for the Gulf clean-up effort.

Her parents are clear this was all her idea. She saw the first images of the BP blowout and spill on television and was immediately gripped with worry for the birds in the Gulf. Maybe if she drew a few pictures someone would give her money and she could donate it. And so, as any little girl with lots of initiative would do, she wrote to the National Audubon Society and asked if they would be interested.

On Thursday night, Olivia was in the trendy Meatpacking District of Manhattan for a rooftop party at the red-hot fashion shop Ports 1961.

Sitting at a quiet corner table before the throngs arrived to offer silent bids on three of her original drawings, a composed Olivia insisted that when she embarked on this she was hardly thinking six figures in terms of what she could raise. "A hundred dollars would have been over the roof," she said. "I think about now I am going to Pluto."

Well, why shouldn't she? All these weeks later Olivia's artwork has raised nearly $180,000, all going to Audubon, which has taken the lead in the Gulf rescuing birds that have become coated in oil.

Olivia says it is the birds that interest her first – she sees ornithology in her future – and the art second. So far, roughly a hundred different species have been represented in her drawings, some black and white but mostly in crayon colours. "I have to look up some of the birds now in a book," she concedes.

The drawing seems to come naturally to her. (Some at Ports unkindly speculate that the lines on her pelicans and herons especially seem a little too expert for someone so young. If the media have seized on Olivia, it is because hers is also the only positive story to emerge from the BP mess. Ten days ago, she was ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. She has appeared on Larry King Live on CNN (she managed to produce nine pictures while on the air), the Today Show with NBC and news bulletins for CBS, CBC of Canada and the BBC. "There is word of Jay Leno," her mother, Nadine, whispers a little conspiratorially. "But we will see where that goes."

After Audubon agreed to accept donations in exchange for Olivia's pictures, local media on the Gulf Coast got wind of what she was doing and everything else followed. She has a Facebook page with 29,000 followers. AOL created an Olivia page on its artists' profiles section and as of yesterday morning it had received 142 million different hits. That is a lot.

As the Boulers arrived at Ports they learnt that BP had managed for the first time to stem its leak. "Finally," was Olivia's first response. "I was afraid that somehow the whole well would collapse in on itself and everything would spew out and there would be no way to stop it."

The plugging of the well did not mean the end of the battle, she noted. "It's ultimately good but what we have to do now is the cleanup and restoration." And if we "can go off topic", she also wants to underscore "to get off oil". This, she confirms, is what she wanted to tell Mr Salazar. The problem, she says, is that Americans are afraid to quit oil "because it's off their routine".

Olivia herself discloses that her father, James, is an architect who specialises in green buildings, so her inspiration is not altogether her own. Her parents are a little shy about being depicted as having pushed their daughter into the spotlight. That said, Nadine admits that she wouldn't mind doing a publishing deal with the Audubon Society on behalf of her daughter for an ornithology book for youngsters.

It seems a plausible dream. The Audubon Society, after all, could hardly be more delighted to have met the young girl. "This is new. To have this kind of ... response, it's very unique," spokesman Delta Willis said. "I've never seen an outpouring like this. It's a beautiful gesture."

With only six weeks of the summer holidays left – she starts a new school in September – Olivia meanwhile has lots of work to do. Of the 500 original drawings that were promised to donors she has done just 200. Perhaps better she skips Leno and the fancy Manhattan parties and gets out her crayons.

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