For all their splendid colours, intricate patterns, and exquisite shapes, I find the most beautiful aspect of butterflies is how all those characteristics occur in such fragile, short-lived bodies. They remind me of a favorite line written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Beautiful and Damned:
“There’s no beauty without poignancy and there’s no poignancy without the feeling that it’s going, men, names, books, houses—bound for dust—mortal—”
Fitzgerald’s reasoning is precisely why I’ve always found butterflies with tattered wings more arresting than their flawless peers. I am forever preoccupied by memento mori and, like some people experience pareidolia, I perceive reminders of our impermanence everywhere. Thus a butterfly’s frailty revealed by injury makes it achingly lovely. This is also why I gasped when I first saw the Broken Butterflies of Dutch artist Anne ten Donkelaar.
Inspired by The Butterfly Workshop, a children’s book written in 2011 by Gioconda Belli, Donkelaar creates new creatures by piecing together fragments of butterfly wings and bodies she’s collected.
“This children’s book is about a character called Arno, one of the ‘designers of all things’ who secretly wants to create something that is as beautiful as a flower and can fly like a bird. Arno works in a space where butterflies are designed and made, and this idea of a utilitarian workspace for beautiful creatures really appealed to my imagination.”
“I had my own collection of damaged butterflies, so I decided to repair each one differently according to their needs. So in a way, I now have my own workplace with butterflies and give the butterflies a second life. I design body parts and give the insects new names, names that reveal something about their recovery.”
Some of Donkelaar’s butterflies are patchwork specimens of myriad species. Others have their missing parts restored via pinned threads or with the addition of the most delicate prostheses in the form of dried leaves, feathers, spindly sticks, twigs, and stems, roots, beadwork, and confetti. Sometimes missing wings are replaced with embroidered or watercolor wings. Some butterflies become kites. Others once again achieve lift via tiny propellers and hot air balloons or attached to the bodies of other insects.
However they are repaired and created anew, Anne ten Donkelaar’s exquisite Broken Butterflies, already beautiful in their fragility, also speak to me of our own capacity to recover and remake ourselves after difficult or traumatic experiences. Damage need not be our undoing. We are our own designers.