Please go to "Theme Options > Posts Slider Settings" in your admin panel and enter "Total slides" value.

Enter the Drawing

Kathleen Griffin Backstory, Blog Leave a comment  

“The architecture takes it a step further, it is the container that holds how that motion plays out. A great building rarely seems to forget its drawing.” – Kathleen Griffin

No. 14

Earlier this month, I met with with Rick Bell and Julie Trébault of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). We talked for a while about Butterflies of Memory, and it brought up issues of both the architecture and drawing of the butterfly. This piece was conceived of over such long period of time, and there are so many day to day technical elements that sometimes the more conceptual and artistic elements can get forgotten. But these points are very important. How the sculpture functions as a drawing – starting and finishing there, how it draws and creates line in the landscape and how its scale pulls us into the drawing.

But I should explain more where I am coming from. In my studio process, I go between drawing and sculpture, primarily. I approach drawing as a conceptual thinking space, focusing on the delicacy of the line employed, the physical materials involved and how the two push and pull on the drawing. The lightness of the material creating a flexibility in the thought, a temporal moment like thought itself. The point of the pencil as the point of the thought, held just barely in position by the placement of that graphite and how it touches the paper.

So drawing then becomes a kind of physical meditation. Drawing and redrawing the butterflies is, for me, thinking them into existence, thinking them into this space. The drawings are all part of that visual meditation.

Also, drawing is an impossible thinking space, unrestricted by anything else. It is captured thought, it is a measurement of it, crystalized. So much more than painting. So much lighter.

Then there is sculpture. If you ask me casually what I do, when I am not thinking too much, I will tell you I am a sculptor. More often than not I say artist, and this is why: all of this thinking and drawing, all this creation of conceptual place, hopefully develops ideas enough that they can come and join us here.  We do not go to its place, it comes to us.This poetry in reverse, it is my end point. For my work, that is also about impossibility and wonder, making things that seem impossible, a physical poetry or idea, who lives with us, almost in opposition to the world as it is, demanding more, expanding this space, to hold it. Living in the wonder and impossibility of those pure ideas, feeling unrestrained in those possibility, held for a  moment between disbelief and wonder. Where poetry is physical and surrounds us, where we are inside the drawing.

This is what leads to my concern for material and, as often as possible, locking meaning inside that material – to refuse the illusion and transformation of a picture plane, of drawing or specifically painting or television or the computer, but to create something real. A boat that really is filled with 2,500 pounds of candy, butterflies that actually are gold, that do fly above our city.

But in the case of this piece, the piece is so large and so far away, depicting a creature that is in and of itself so temporal, the piece itself will be temporal in that it becomes a drawing again. A butterfly more than perhaps any other creature is so temporal it almost refutes our three dimensions, remaining an idea too, a two dimensional expression. The gold on the butterflies like the gold leaf in the drawings, and it is a drawing in the landscape as well, pulling us into it, a larger drawing of the city. For a moment to look at it will be to be part of that drawing and the 60,000 pounds of steel on the building will be the same as the hard pencil lines that I lay against a ruler. A push-pull and the butterflies are here with us or we are in the drawing with it. It is this vibration that I greatly look forward to. To see if it gets pulled off. To see if it also feels like a drawing just as it seems impossibly real and among us.

I have always read with a great jealousy the work of  writers and poets whose work pulls us into the delicacy and place of their words. This will be the first piece I will have made whose scale is large enough to pull the viewer into its reality, and still as sculpture remain in ours. I am very excited about this.

And then the architecture takes it a step further, it is the container that holds how that motion plays out. A great building rarely seems to forget its drawing. And the Ruins are not a random choice, they come with an intense variation of histories. A building that has lived a large and full life.  The meanings also change, as those stories play out. The meaning of the  building becomes the content or realization of that first drawing and the realities of those stories. This piece works with that architecture, imaging its content both as it is and could be, playing with and altering its story, flipping that relationship of drawing again. They become so many things twisting together it becomes simple again, it functions again, and as that drawing or poetry, we read into its meanings.

So, We Keep Moving Forward

Kathleen Griffin Backstory, Blog Leave a comment  

Kathleen Griffin on the site of the Small Pox Hospital ruins

So this is the hell or high water mark, where time is crunching and stakes are raising and winning is not enough.

The project is moving faster and gaining steam, I have a series of fantastic new team members and planners. Amazing foundations are actually seeking me out, to become part of the project. But this is the time where failing is about not winning fast enough, so I think that I will be running until three days after the project is up.

This is the time where the stakes raise and the partners raise and the numbers on both sides of the budget, in and out, go up. We are through the times of stitching things together with buttons and string. I meet with my business developers at least once a week, in a second floor office on 5th Ave., my business meetings do not include champagne anymore as often as they did this past fall and I am refining and rewriting – it is business.

John Babashek, our project manager, and I go over and over our important letters and financial business. Just last week we were contacted by the James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation about working with them and having them join our project. Today I met with Rick Bell and Julie Trebault from the AIA New York Chapter about how to promote our partnership and a summer art show at the Center for Architecture. Friday I am going to Philadelphia with Bullet Magazine to meet with Humankind and check out the butterfly. We are building the structure that can lift the structure, so that I do not get sued, and so that I get everyone what they need so things are done right and well.

As Charles, of Skyscraper likes to remind me, there is no turning back now, we’re like the British: “If you stop moving forward, we will shoot you.” So, we keep moving forward.

The City Rises

Kathleen Griffin Backstory Leave a comment   ,

Drawing by Kathleen Griffin

“Of course, we are people who ride in steel boxes daily, where the smell of our humanity is not uncommon to us… you are the city that inspires me. You rise to everything that meets you.” – Kathleen Griffin


So, I am hoping that you are doing well after the storm. Just as it’s effects where unequal, so too where the responses, and I guess I mean that in a good way.

I was out of town last week so I spent days checking in and re-checking in with friends about their status and whereabouts and dozens of people reached out to me – webbing together a story at a distance. Some were basically skipped, though mostly no one had power, one even had been out dancing on thursday night (yes that was Brooklyn). Several were out of their houses for the week or had their homes and all of their possessions totally destroyed by the storm surge, that was also Brooklyn.

Two friends have restaurants downtown that were in chaos and one friend is a florist who literally lost all of his flowers. Yet both of them, after seeing the destruction, gave the most right back, going to help cook at shelters. In so many cases, equal to the hardship and tragedy was the response, friends sent texts of where they were volunteering or pictures the lines of people they were feeding, volunteering as EMT’s, others who had lost everything had so much strength and perspective, just happy for the safety of their family and the hope of insurance. Another friend who was in a hotel for the week was equally strong despite the real hardship of being displaced from her home.

And every call seemed to include the things that people had done or given to someone else, they had been all day helping a friend with a business, cleaning up someone’s flood damage, collecting clothes, getting food deliveries in dry ice for a boyfriend.

Yes, there were stories of fist fights and jackasses, but that, like most New York crisis made me really proud of the strength of our city – our character. Of course, we are people who ride in steel boxes daily, where the smell of our humanity is not uncommon to us. But I just wanted to say, that as always, you are the city that inspires me. You rise to everything that meets you.

Only Forward, Like the Shark

Kathleen Griffin Backstory Leave a comment   , ,

“I have a saying in these meetings, ‘only forward, like the Shark.’” – Kathleen Griffin

I am sitting across a desk at Skyscraper, watching Charles Connelly, Jr. He has been on the phone with Canada for an hour, finding us the right sized steel part to conform the the current engineering drawings and making sure that the changes we had to make can be completed exactly. Apparently, one of the steel parts they made last year is no longer being made right now, and it’s important that this gets solved today because it is one of those things that could drag out in back and forth. We are trying to have our engineering drawings and rigging plan stamped and submitted next week.


Cheng Gu from Weidlinger has just called back and approved the change.

I have a saying in these meetings, “only forward, like the Shark.” We are in the final aspects of structural and fabrication planning for the giant steel structure that will hold up the butterflies. This is, in many ways, the most critical aspect of the project and we are slowly, slowly honing in, as the drawings go back and forth and get new layers. I presented the first version of this plan two Januaries ago, and there has been a thousand small alterations since, as the butterflies have changed size, and the expectations for wind-loads increased. The steel has been thinned down and then thickened up again. Certain pipe sizes have stopped being made and we are back to refitting the steel. Through all of this I have sat looking at lists and drawings. Looking at them like foreign maps, that I only partially understand. Numeric expressions of bolt pads and the inside and outside dimensions of pipes that sleeve onto one another, I, of course, understand metal and how to build things, but the numbers and hardware connections when all translated into codes and numbers can scare the hell out of me. Before this I had a much more physical understanding of building, as something that is done as part of a process. This is totally conceptual, everything must be perfect long in advance of even thinking of starting. The one thing I understand is that in these 30 page books of numbers is that there can be no mistakes, if anything does not fit exactly on site, if any hardware connections don’t line up, then the piece will not work.

There to navigate me through this is Charles. He, in contrast to myself, seems to thrive on going over the plans and numbers meticulously again and again. At this point I think he has every page memorized. This is what lets me sleep at night. My trust that he has this all under control.

I guess I should explain how this fat book of numbers came about. At first I just had a pencil drawing. Which describes an idea, but not a reality. My renderings of the building came from observing it, so there was a giant gap between my eye and the numeric expression of the building. So I worked with our model maker Samuel Langkop on some architectural drawings of the building. He built the actual model of the building from those plans, that was accurate to reality. Or at least more accurate. We then presented those models to Maria Wilpon, our principal architect and later to Weidlinger Associates, our structural engineers. From there, we started designing possibilities of what the suspension system that lifts the butterflies might look like.

There were a whole bunch of ideas presented, some had cables, some had three arms and were more unit-like. Samuel built all of these in model form and we got to play with them like a tiny doll house, placing them in different places in different numbers. He and I worked on that phase for weeks, often times over beer at Cafe Bar in Astoria. When we roughly had chosen a placement, sizes, distances and a number of actual arms and butterflies, Samuel then converted that back into an architectural drawing that we represented to Maria and Weidlinger. Weidlinger then chose a design and translated that into specific metal parts and weights. They added in the math.

Since then those drawings have been presented and we have to figure out a bunch of things, like how exactly that structure attaches but more specifically gets put on the building and with what? And how we will do this without damaging existing drainage or putting cranes too close or too far away? Then a detailed list of each exact piece of metal and its assemblage are made. Another book is assembled of the cranes themselves. This is all put together and sent back to Weidlinger who stamps it and sends it back to SkyScraper, who will be overseeing both fabrication and installation.

It is very exciting but sometimes scary – not for anyone else, they are all used to this, but for me, the first timer. So, it is that final book which is getting wrapped up this week.

Step Two: Do a Lot of Bad Drawings

Kathleen Griffin Backstory, Blog Leave a comment  

“This piece lingers in a border space, something that is real and yet still feels like you are only seeing it and then finishing it or making it real in your head. Like a piece of poetry made real, crystallizing for a minute.”

I began drawing butterflies about six years ago. They just started popping into my head. It was strange how they would come, I knew they were an important idea for my work, but it would seem that just as I was understanding why, the idea would disappear, and I was left  with the feeling of having forgotten something important. I found myself struggling to remember the idea. So I began to draw butterflies. At that time I was still living and working in Birmingham, Ala.

A year later when I moved up to Ithaca, New York, the butterflies were still appearing.

I threw away the first year’s worth of my butterfly drawings, because they had no substance, they were just drawings of butterflies, the insect. This is the strange thing about drawing, sometimes you know you are just creating a space for an idea to grow, it becomes more of a muscular activity. I was deeply involved in other work at the time, so the butterflies were sedentary.

By the second year, it was clearer that the butterflies were about the pulling of memory. In the drawings they began pulling on things, on buildings, people and objects, tearing them down, carrying them away, lifting them up. Sometimes the drawings were dark and the butterflies destructive, other times they were a rescue or transformation. On my studio wall in pencil, I wrote “the butterflies of memory come in their outrageous beauty, they come to tear the buildings down.” I began to think about architecture and the second construction inside it, the second building, the one created from memory. The building that can linger long after the first one falls.

I started making butterfly sculptures and moquettes, but nothing I was happy with. They sort of lingered in my drawing room as piles of drawings began to build up. It was in these drawings that I worked out how the butterflies functioned conceptually, and why even now I think of this piece as much in terms of drawing as I do sculpture – in part because of the scale and visual distance created by the size and location of the piece, but also because of how the piece is meant to function visually.

This is not at all typical of my sculptural work, which is usually acutely concerned with it’s material reality and physical presence. This piece lingers in a border space, something that is real and yet still feels like you are only seeing it and then finishing it or making it real in your head. Like a piece of poetry made real, crystallizing for a minute. I think the piece will seem very unreal when it is up, the sunlight flashing and flickering on the gold, heightened by the fact that it’s temporary. You will see it and then it will be gone, and you will wonder if you imagined it. It will only continue to exist as long as it is remembered.

The Plan

Kathleen Griffin Backstory Leave a comment   ,

A preliminary drawing by Kathleen Griffin

Preliminary drawing by Kathleen Griffin

“An image in time, an experience, a moment that flickers so brightly that it cannot last.”


The Plan

“The Butterflies of Memory” is a temporary public sculpture on the site of the collapsed Smallpox Hospital Ruins on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan. Seventeen giant gold butterflies, each thirteen feet in diameter, will fly between 18 and 36 feet above the Ruins, visually carrying off the building. Installed in the summer of 2013, “Butterflies of Memory” will be viewable from Roosevelt Island, the Midtown Waterfront and the FDR highway, thus bringing an image of inspiration and beauty to over 2 million New Yorkers.

The butterflies themselves will be made of fiberglass and tubular steel, which will then be gold leafed. The structure that lifts them into the sky intended to look like lines drawn up in tension will be triangulated steel tubes that sleeve into one another, thickening as they move back to the building.

I believe that it is the third largest public art piece ever to be constructed in New York. In the tradition of the Gates and the Waterfalls the piece will be temporary. An image in time, an experience, a moment that flickers so brightly that it cannot last.

Preliminary 3D Rendering

Kathleen Griffin Backstory Leave a comment  

A 3D Rendering of Butterflies of Memory

A 3D rendering of “Butterflies of Memory”, based on the initial drawn concept.

The Ruins

Kathleen Griffin Backstory, Blog Leave a comment  

Here’s how it starts:

It’s February 2009. I’m driving down the FDR for the billionth time in my life, feeling sad and overwhelmed. I’m broke and living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Astoria, using my living room as a studio. I had come two months before to New York with a plan, and with solid work in place. But everybody I knew had lost their jobs. I remember that January being the longest month. I had been teaching, and doing production design, but it all kept falling through. Or you work on a project and receive a fraction of the pay you were promised or the check bounces. But my sister was in New York, and upstate was lonely…

Around 70th Street, as I approach the rust-colored supports of the Queensboro bridge, I start thinking about the Ruins – the collapsed Smallpox Hospital on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, in the East River. I peer left, out the car window, past oncoming traffic, to see the building that I have loved since I was a little girl. I look to it for the comfort it has always provided me, and instead, I have a vision: Butterflies.

There has always been this connection for me. As a child I the early 1980s I’d visit the city several times a week from New Fairfield, Conn. with my mother – a Bronx native. On the ride home we’d get stuck in rush hour traffic, and for me this only heightened my anticipation of leering at the Ruins. I saw the stone structure as an old castle, and I would imagine that someday I would renovate the palace and live there – the Queen of Roosevelt Island. Being a little girl, I always thought it was a castle.

My mom was only 33, and I was six or seven, and we’d have these adventures — a return to this magical place, had crummy cars breaking down, and whenever the car broke down, someone would rescue us. New York in the 80s was wild. We’d go to a diner and they’d give us free donuts.

Later, when I tell my friend from graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design about my project, she laughed.  I always mentioned the ruins on road trips from Providence, she said. I have imagined them a thousand different ways over my lifetime.

But today, 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 Small Pox Hospital, waiting for me.