For artist Kathleen Griffin, the butterfly flies in the face of nature.
“Nature tells us that the bloom falls off the rose,” she says. “But the butterfly tells us that if you go into your darkest moment, you’ll come out with more than you thought you could ever be. You’ll come out as your own butterfly.”
In February of 2009 – the winter of everyone’s economic discontent – Griffin was “driving down the FDR for the billionth time in my life, feeling sad and overwhelmed,” as she writes on her blog butterfliesofmemory.com. Approaching the Queensboro Bridge, she glanced at the Smallpox Hospital, a protected ruin on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island in the East River. When Griffin was growing up in New Fairfield as an art-loving child in the 1980s – “you couldn’t keep paper in the house,” she says – she and her mother would make a similar journey. And Griffin would imagine the building to be a castle with herself as its queen.
Now with adult cares, she looked to it for comfort and instead had a vision – butterflies.
“I see a swarm of shining yellow butterflies over the building, carrying it off, magically transforming the ruins; completing, perhaps, an idea I started as a young girl. It was like a dream that had always been floating just above the spires of the old Smallpox Hospital, waiting for me.”
That dream is set to become a reality. Griffin is in the midst of creating one of the largest public installations in New York history, a $1.2 million “Butterflies of Memory” project that would make her vision concrete, rivaling Christo’s “The Gates,” in which the Bulgarian artist installed 7,503 saffron-colored vinyl flags along 23 miles of Central Park in 2005. If all goes according to plan, the Smallpox Hospital would be festooned next summer with a steel structure reinforcing the Gothic Revival building and supporting 17 sculpted butterflies that would appear to alight on the former hospital, poised to take flight and carry it off. The butterflies – each measuring 13 feet, weighing 250 pounds and valued at $100,000 – would be made of new steel, epoxy and 23-karat gold leaf and feature three different wing positions. There would be 26 butterflies in all, with some being changed out and displayed in other areas and venues.
To date, one has been completed as a sample. It was made of new steel that comes from Montreal. The steel must be new rather than recycled, because it must withstand winds of 110 mph at 70 feet. The butterfly was fabricated at HumanKind Design & Fabrication in Philadelphia. Griffin estimates it would take her five months to fabricate the remaining butterflies there, as all the engineering work is complete. When a sculpture is actually being made, she’s on site, working round-the-clock. She has a team of 90 people on the project, including architects, engineers, volunteers and The Lionheart Gallery in Pound Ridge, where she recently exhibited related drawings, photographs and models.
An installation of this magnitude is about a lot of paperwork, permits, meetings and fundraising. To keep herself grounded in her art, Griffin – who attended Hartford Art School and has a master’s degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence – does a lot of drawing and painting at home. She divides her time between Ithaca in upstate New York and the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
She’s heartened by the response to “Butterflies of Memory.”
“People don’t ask what it’s about. They get it. People say, ‘It’s about me.’ They are the butterflies.
“They’re so beautiful and so simple. They become that flick of memory. Their time span is so small that we don’t perceive them in that life and death moment but rather celebrate them in the present.”
The time of the installation will be brief, too, about 2½ months, after which the steel pieces may be recycled.
“I also wouldn’t want it to be permanent. I think there’s real power in the tenuousness of large-scale art.
“This piece is also about memory and it contributes to art as long as you remember it.”
For more, visit butterfliesofmemory.com, kathleen-griffin.com and thelionheartgallery.com.