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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.


The City Rises

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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

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“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.

The Plan

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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.