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Eighteen Ways of Looking at a Butterfly

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A gallery of 18 butterfly drawings by Kathleen Griffin that show the evolution of the project.


One Butterfly Down, 16 to Go

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“You imagine, when you start a project like this, that one day you’re going to turn a corner, and it will all come together.”  – Kathleen Griffin

Somehow the emails from Humankind got lost in outer space the last few days so I am just finding out now, the first butterfly is out of the mold. For anyone who is just coming to the Blog, Kate Kaman and Joel Erland at Humankind are doing the butterfly fabrication in Philadelphia.

These emails mark a dividing line. The first butterfly is here, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of them come. But the first one is here. This is no longer an idea, it’s a physical reality. It’s been three and a half years since the start of this, so it’s kind of a big deal. I used to feel like each drawing I did pulled the reality of the project closer, then finally the drawings became drawings and models, then a drawing made a foam prototype, then another one, then a pattern. Then engineering drawings planned out a steel armature, then cut a steel armature. And now, well, I have a thirteen foot butterfly that can withstand winds of over 100 miles an hour. So I guess I’m entering the portion of the project where actual butterflies start pulling the project closer. Each thing, step by step.

You imagine, when you start a project like this, that one day you’re going to turn a corner, and it will all come together. That it will be unstoppable, locked down and sewn up and you will be able to just sit back, relax and enjoy it. But that isn’t at all how it actually is, it’s so many millions of tiny steps that it can feel eternal or doesn’t ever move forward in a measurable way. It’s just like when you’re in a band- first you think that if you ever get signed you will have made it, then you realize that getting signed is only the beginning. Each step in this project is one of a thousand, so when something tangible happens, it feels like a really big deal.

Today there is a butterfly, and tonight when I go to sleep it will be in a world that has one of my giant butterflies in it. And that is what I set out to do in the first place.

I wanted to live in a world where golden butterflies could appear and carry off the buildings, that the things in my head were as real as the cars I pass in the street or the letters that come in the mail.

So, the first butterfly has arrived. And yes, it is bigger than my car.

Photo: The Artist and Her Wings

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Photo By Rose Billings, courtesy of Black Tie Magazine


The Artist as Model: Kathleen Griffin poses with her large-scale wing drawings at Couture Fashion Week, an event hosted by Black Tie Magazine at the Waldorf Astoria in September.

Do It Like Michelangelo

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“First, you draw a picture the size you would like the sculpture to be, then poke a million tiny holes into the contour lines of the drawing…”


On October 1st I got an email from Kate at Humankind – the molds are done, the first  butterfly should be out of the mold and ready for gold leaf in about a week. It feels a little miraculous. But it goes like this, step by step by step by step.

A finished butterfly makes this no longer a thick pile of plans and drawings, but a physical reality. The first butterfly will be here waiting for the rest to come. Now, I should talk about how the first butterfly got here.



The sculpture itself, which is what this is about, it basically made the same way sculpture ever was. At least the beginning part. I didn’t make figurative sculpture like this when I was in school, I mostly learned to do this from a picture someone showed me when I was 19, from a picture in a book of how Michelangelo did it, in a certain way.

First, you draw a picture the size you would like the sculpture to be, then poke a million tiny holes into the contour lines of the drawing. Then, you take your only pair of silk stockings that don’t have holes in them out of the drawer, cut their leg off, fill them with chalk or charcoal, wrap a rubber band around the top of the little wad of  chalk and silk, and then dust the chalk through the drawing, and onto a carvable object. Next, you carve the object out of the drawing.

This is how I make a giant butterfly and by extension, all the large drawings that go with it, dusting through the stencil that I made from a drawing. I carve the butterfly out of foam and then either apply a layer of oil cray to work the detail into or as in this case, a layer of wax that I carve the detail into and then smooth out with mineral spirits.

I began this process two and a half years ago in my studio in Astoria. I drew out the first set of wings when the butterfly was ten feet in wingspan. Then I poked a thousand holes in it with a small nail.

The first night I needed to begin dusting out the butterfly wings, it was already late, a long studio day preceded by hours of poking a nail through the drawing.  Cooper, my sculpture assistant/intern at that time, was over helping me. He received a master lesson in practicality that evening, as I, with a lamenting sigh, realized that we had hit a wall, that I didn’t have any cheese cloth or similar fabric in the studio portion of my apartment, A.K.A., my living room. A trip to my lingerie drawer was going to be necessary. Coming back into the room with one sheer black leg, staring at it for a minute, I looked at Cooper, and he laughed, understanding that this was not its anticipated destiny, but that the path of the artist sometimes called for action and sacrifice.

I think in the case of Michelangelo, he substituted marble for foam, and I’m not sure what he used instead of silk stockings, probably some oil cloth but you never know.

After that I spent the next month carving the butterfly out of foam with the occasional help of  Cooper and Samuel. A few months later I brought the first prototype to Binghamton University for a lecture and show I was doing there. In the gallery I began to worry that the butterfly might be too small. By the time I got him back to New York I was almost certain, so I brought him to the site of the ruins and placed my carved foam butterfly in all his detail, in front of the Ruins, to try and understand what he might look like flying above the Ruins.

After about an hour, I had to face facts, I thought he was too small. Back to the drawing board – new drawing, new carving.

This finally ended up happening once I moved to Brooklyn, after I had given up my studio in Astoria. Then I took the new drawings again dusted them out on the foam, cut them out and began carving again. The carving was done with a small exacto knife primarily. Because I had already made a butterfly and put and intense amount of work into it, I was committed to making sure that in return for all that wasted effort, the new butterfly would be better. I took the now roughed out foam down to Philadelphia, and there with Kate and the old butterfly as a reference, put in another 20 or so hours, carving him. Once roughly finished, he sat in her studio for almost another year, waiting for the steel armature to arrive. At that point he was cut up and adjusted to make sure he actually matched the plans. Based on the shape of the steel he found his final form, slightly taller than the original heliconius butterfly he is based on.

Once I was happy with the foam, I began brushing a thick layer of wax onto him. This gives him his super smooth surface as well as fills in any undercuts my carving would make in the mold and generally unifies the detail. I thinly apply the wax, rub it in with mineral spirits and the pattern for the butterfly is done.

At that point, I pass him off the Kate and Joel. They make the open face molds, using rubber for the actual mold and epoxy resin for the mother molds. For anyone not familiar with mold making, in many cases, as in this one, it is advantageous to have one of your molds, the primary, made out of rubber, which holds all the detail but is flexible enough to allow for a rigid material to be pulled out of it without getting stuck. After this is cast, a mother mold is made around it. This is a rigid mold that holds the structure and form of your pattern, so the rubber mold doesn’t flop around. Once this is done, the mother mold is used to lay up the epoxy and fiberglass in layers, after a few layers are put down the steel is set into it and then submerged inside the layers of epoxy resin and fiberglass. This allows the final butterfly to look exactly like my original foam and wax prototype while still being able to withstand 110-mile-an-hour winds.

Ta Da! Then, it is on to gold leafing.


-Kathleen Griffin


Photos: Making the Prototype

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As detailed in the previous post, here are some images of the making of the first butterfly protoype at the Humankind workshop in Philadelphia. Thanks again to Kate and Joel from Humankind, along with Charles P. Connelly, Jr. of Skycraper and everyone at Bermco for all your hard work – and all the work that is to come!

Philadelphia Freedom – Making the Prototypes

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August 20:

I arrive at Humankind in Philly to work with Kate and Joel. Kate and I will be finishing the butterfly patterns in foam and then wax and then they will be laying them up in epoxy resin around the steel, which was constructed by Bermco Steel and overseen by  Charles at Skyscraper. We have to see if the existing 13 foot patterns can be altered enough to work with the steel now that it is actually cut, or if we have to make a new pattern. I am hoping for the former because I already have about 20 hours of work into the existing patterns.

Going to Kate and Joel’s is more of an art vacation. They have a gigantic shop and an amazing house. They have built a tiny kingdom inside an old warehouse, complete with split staircases, a giant mermaid aquarium (still under construction),  a roof garden where they raise bees and a giant pet bunny in the backyard. It is definitely an artist’s house. I would move in, if they would let me. And the shop is collasal, covering two floors.

After about an hour we know the current pattern will work. I begin to meticulously cut the texture into the wings as Kate goes to work on cutting out a trace of the steel. We have decided to make the wing with a 1/2 inch tolerance for fluctuations in the steel armatures. I am going to have to make the wings a little taller than my original design but other than that it should be okay. About four hours later we are ready to start applying the wax. The goal is to smooth out the details a little, take out the under cuts and give it a smooth surface, so that when the resin comes out of the mold it will be easy to gold leaf.

At 4 p.m., Joel replaces our water with beer and by 9 p.m. he is ready to feed us on the roof.

We spend the evening looking out at the Phili skyline as Kate explains to me the finer points of raising bees.

I am loving the refuge, inside a studio that makes it all seem so easy, with artists who can literally build anything. I find myself thinking, “It’s hard to be an artist and rare – a life based on beauty and its endless pursuit. It’s a vocation, and we live it, whether it be in building giant things or in raising bees and making mermaid aquariums, it is life as we hoped it could be and as we imagine it can be. In resistance to the ugliness, and grind.”

I work another day and a half and by Wednesday at noon the wings are done. Sadly I bid farewell to them and their bunny. I briefly consider throwing the bunny in the car but figure for the good of the project, I shouldn’t steal their pets. In about three weeks the mold will be done and they will be pulling the first butterfly out of the mold, like a Monarch from a cocoon.

Photos: The First Two Butterfly Wings

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The wings in the workshop in Philadelphia, where they were fabricated. These are the first wings to be produced and serve as a prototype for the rest of the fabrication.