Sunday, August 30, 2015

Inspiration Series: The Beauty of the Butterfly

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, 
but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
-- Maya Angelou

The butterfly is a symbol of transformation, even of spiritual rebirth.  We can start as a lowly, unassuming caterpillar but emerge from the chrysalis as a beautiful, winged creature.  But what happens in between?  It turns out that we don't entirely know.  And maybe we don't really want to know.  Because what happens in the chrysalis is that  the caterpillar turns into goo.  Yes.  Soupy goo.  And while that is really intriguing, from a scientific standpoint (Wow!  How does that goo become a butterfly?), it is kind of, well, unappealing.

That's the problem.  We love to see the transformation, to celebrate the amazing potential for change, but we don't want to know the process, particularly if it shatters our illusions.  Millions of people watch the The Biggest Loser for its displays of dramatic weight loss, but I'm betting that fans would probably rather not be confronted with the show's brutal treatment of contestants.  We'd rather just applaud the transformation from fat to thin than be confronted with the realities of what that entails.  Shape magazine, for example, features "success stories" of weight loss, but refused to include a photo of one woman in a bikini, presumably because her belly skin showed the aftereffects of extreme weight loss.  They'd rather hide that part of her story, to present an idealized version of her weight loss.  We'd rather imagine that the transformation from obese to skinny is flawless and simple -- a modest effort of diet and exercise, and the perfect trim body is revealed!  But it's not true.  Radical transformation is often grueling, and it leaves its mark.

When we focus solely on the before-and-after, ignoring the process of transformation, we create a fantasy that change is easy to achieve.  This creates false hope . . . and crushing disappointment for those who expect to transform seamlessly and effortlessly.

We'd rather believe that someone is a "natural beauty" than acknowledge the time and money and pain that is often involved in achieving cultural beauty standards.  Historically, women have been encouraged to endure dangerous, costly, and time-consuming procedures to become beautiful, but then also to pretend that they look this way naturally.  Don't admit to coloring your hair or getting cosmetic surgery.  Don't complain about the pain of high-heeled shoes or bikini waxing.  Don't acknowledge the hours of effort that went into your hair and makeup and clothing.  Oh, I just rolled out of bed looking like this.  We demand not only that women transform to be beautiful but also that they then lie about it.

When I discuss social change movements with my students, they are often unaware of the long-term, difficult struggles that were necessary to enact change.  My students will say that the United States government "gave women the right to vote," rather than acknowledging the decades of struggle by committed suffragists who marched, were harassed and arrested, facing harsh treatment in prison.  Women like Alice Paul, who went on a hunger strike in jail and was painfully and dangerously force fed, are simply erased in the narrative that the government somehow spontaneously recognized the error of excluding women from equality under the law.  Change is difficult.  The process of social change can be ugly and brutal.  But to ignore the realities of history is to deny the work and suffering of those who fought for social justice.

Transformation can be wondrous.  But let's honor the process of transformation, as well.  We can start with these CT scans of the development inside the Vanessa cardui chrysalis.  Yes, the inside may be unpleasantly gooey, but seen from another angle, the developing butterfly is lovely.

Life is not a series of static before-and-after photos.  Life is a process of change and development.  Let science and history and psychology reveal to us the real truth of change, in all its complexity, both beautiful and ugly.  I want to know the changes the butterfly went through.  I think we all need to know.

Notes on making these pieces:

I started with the quote and a photograph of an Owl butterfly I took when we visited the Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  The quote was an obvious fit with the photo, so that part was easy.  I did a bit of clean-up of the photo in Photoshop (cropping, fixing contrast, and using the filmgrain filter, which brightened the greens and made the colors pop more).  The photo and the quotation were printed on my Epson C88+ printer, using pre-treated fabric sheets.

I got three of the pieces started, but not finished, before my studio renovation, so they sat in limbo for about two years.  I have been eager to get back to these and finish them, but then had a bit of trouble getting started sewing after such a long hiatus.  So they have had a long mellowing process.  *grin*

(Note that you can click on the photos to enlarge them.)

Beauty of the Butterfly #1 (approx  5.9  x  8")

I started with this piece, which includes improvisational crazy piecing and raw-edge applique (using fusible web) onto a base of Timtex stabilizer (which was the base used for all the pieces).  I did some hand-embroidery to frame the appliqued fabrics, including back stitch (which I haven't done in a while) and french knots.  As with all the pieces, the quotation was fused and then edge-stitched using decorative machine stitching, backing fabric was added, and the entire piece was machine edged with a zig-zag stitch.

Beauty of the Butterfly #2 (approx 5.75 x 8")

For this piece and the next one, I explored sliced strata:  sewing strips of fabric together to create a striped unit, which is then cut at various angles and sewn back together with additional fabric strips as inserts.  I was inspired by Rayna Gillman's work (although only in general approach -- the final pieces don't look like her work at all).  I added machine stitching (with metallic thread) and some hand embroidery (using ArtFabrik's hand-dyed thread).

Beauty of the Butterfly #3 (approx 8.38 x 6.25")

This piece used the sliced strata, but with a a portrait orientation to emphasize the verticality of the insert strips (well, diagonality, I guess, since they aren't truly vertical).  I also mounted the butterfly photo on a separate piece of Timtex, added fabric binding, and then sewed it down to the main piece.  I wanted to try framing the photo separately as its own piece, rather than embedding it within the larger piece.

This separateness was enhanced by bead embellishment -- I created a picot edge using gold beads around the "framed" photo, and added seed beads, bugle beads, and glass leaf beads on the surface of the "frame."  Doing the edging proved more difficult than I expected because I did the beading after the photo was sewn down to the main piece.  Hand sewing through two layers of Timtex and four layers of fabric was challenging (I broke one needle and bent another), and I had to bring up the needle at an angle to get to the edge.  Next time, I might do some of the beading before mounting the piece (although it can be hard to machine stitch without hitting the beads).  I also found carrying the edging around the corners challenging (this was my first attempt at a picot edge) -- I might explore other options for the corner treatment in future pieces.  

The beading around the photo needed to be carried into the larger piece, as well, so I included some seed beads on the strata. I like the dimensionality that was created through the separate photo framing and bead embellishment.

Beauty of the Butterfly #4 (approx 6.15 x 8.25")

Here I went back to improvisational crazy piecing, but using the leftover strata pieces and trying to create greater value contrast with the bright green insert strips.  The fabric pieces crossed over the photograph to connect with the diagonal lines of the grass in the photo.  Unfortunately, that also cut off part of the butterfly wing.  So I printed out the butterfly photo on organza and fused the organza butterfly over the photo.  It creates an interesting effect -- the photo is a bit blurry, but also has more depth.  (The artist Wen Redmond uses organza to enhance photos on fabric, which gave me the idea.)  I added machine stitching and hand embroidery (seed stitch and french knots, using ArtFabrik's hand-dyed thread).

Beauty of the Butterfly #5 (approx. 6.5 x 8.25")

For the last piece, I wanted to go in a different direction, so I created a landscape -- or really, a grass-scape, I guess.  I was inspired by Laura Wasilowski's Craftsy class on fused collage landscapes (although I didn't strictly follow her process, nor does the piece look like her work).  I used hand-dyed fabric from Cherrywood -- my first time using their fabric, but certainly not the last.  I love the rich color and depth of their fabrics.  After prepping the fabric with fusible web, I cut out grassy shapes freehand and layered the pieces to create a field of different green grasses. I used a gray for the sky to blend in with the photo background, and fused a cloud shape from the gray fabric and one from the organza photos I had printed to create a cloud-shadow.  Then I did lots of machine stitching -- I edged the cloud shapes and did lots of "grass-stitching" in the green shapes to create texture.  I really like how it came out!

If you would like to be eligible for this week's Inspirations giveaway (for the card pictured at the top -- Beauty of the Butterfly #2), just leave a comment on this post by Sept. 6, 2015. Be sure that I have your email address so that I can notify you if you are the winner. I'll do a random draw and announce the winner during the following week.


  1. Thanks for posting your photo on FB in QuiltArt. More importantly, thank you for writing about transformation in relation to women, and then about your process making your pieces of art. I enjoy doing free style piecing and "liberated patchwork" but haven't yet used the technique to express myself as you have.
    I would be honored to hang your art quilt in my home, and if I win you can reach me at villagequilteratgmaildotcom :)! I'm going to add your blog to my blog reader.

    1. Thank you for reading and for your nice comment! I'm glad you enjoyed the post, both the musings and the notes on making.

  2. I saw your posting on the Yahoo Janome 6500 group and decided to follow your link as I like to see what others are doing. Your Memories of My Mother blog drew me in and I immediately connected emotionally to your posts as my older sister was visiting this week and we had some very tense discussions on who my mother "really was." Then I discovered your mother was from Wisconsin, where I'm from, and that your grandfather was an M.D., as my father was, (born in 1913) and both attended Marquette University Medical School in the 40's. They probably knew each other. Eerie. I wish I had known your mother. I was born in 1953 so I was just a bit younger. but we would have had a lot in common.
    Love your butterfly quilt art. I'm a newbie quilter but plan on "growing my wings" and getting into quilting art soon. My best to you.
    Ann, Milwaukee

    1. I'm pleased that you enjoyed my Memories of My Mother posts. What a coincidence that we are both connected through family location and profession! Interesting. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Wow so beautiful. I'm new here. I read about the butterfly. I'm a quilter who is going to do a crazy quilt in memory of my mom who recently passed. I also deal with P.D. and quilting helps me keep focus...:)

    1. I'm so sorry to hear about your loss -- your memory quilt sounds like a wonderful testimony to your mom. Thanks so much for visiting my blog!

  4. Stunning work, and your essay is so thoughtful and helpful. It spoke to my heart. So much food for thought here. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much! What a lovely compliment. Thanks for reading and commenting, Cathy.

  5. This is a really neat idea. I like the combination of techniques.

  6. Your quilt art is beautiful and inspirational! It reminded me of the quilts that my maternal grandmother and aunt gave me as a girl. I also love that you quoted Maya Angelou. I saw the quote a few days later on an office wall...I like to think that the "Universe" reinforced the message. Thank you for sharing your work. I admire you for it and find myself encouraged by your commentary about beauty : - )

    1. Thank you for reading and for your nice compliments! You are fortunate to have received handmade quilts from your grandmother and aunt -- what a wonderful tradition.