The Monarch Project
Jun 08, 2021
Last year my husband and I planted milkweed in the garden, along with lots of other plants: coreopsis, California poppies, and Mexican primroses, among others. Fairly soon afterward, we began to notice Monarch butterflies hanging around…and then we had caterpillars. So we became involved in monitoring the Monarchs in our yard, cheering when a butterfly emerged from a chrysalis and crying when we found caterpillars killed by parasites.
I discovered the Monarch Joint Venture, a nonprofit organization building a national partnership of federal and state agencies, other nonprofits, community groups, businesses, and academic programs to conserve monarch butterflies and other pollinators. They envision thriving monarch populations that sustain the monarch migration into perpetuity and serve as a flagship for conserving other plants and animals. And since the Monarch Butterfly is a critically endangered species (despite the abundance of fat, healthy caterpillars in our yard), I decided to help out where I could. As it happens, the director reached out to me for a donation for the Silent Auction when she found my Etsy shop and noticed that I give 20% of my profit from butterfly-related products to the MJV, and we got to chatting – and then she sent me a box (Hurray!!) of pamphlets for me to use in my next collage painting.
I’ve long admired botanical paintings – how they capture the essence of a plant or insect and give crucial information at the same time. A vision of a multi-panel piece came to me. The central panel would be a collage of a native Californian milkweed plant with caterpillars and a Monarch. There would be 3 panels on the left that would describe the life cycle of the milkweed and 3 panels on the right that captured the Monarch's life cycle.
Seeing this in my head was one thing... Making it a reality was another! The Monarch Project was born
I did a lot of planning and research. I looked up articles online about milkweed first and found excellent material from both an excellent blog post on the Monarch Joint Venture site and the Xerces Society, which has a downloadable comprehensive guide to milkweed. I also checked out Wikipedia. And read books and observed our milkweed, caterpillars, and butterflies carefully.
I made yard from twisting the milkweed floss from our garden plants after I read about Native Americans creating cloth from the floss. (They also made clothing from the stems' fiber, but that requires boiling and caustic chemicals that I didn't want to try.) I immediately knew the milkweed yarn would be perfect as the roots.
Then it was time to start sketching. I brought a milkweed plant in a pot into the studio and sketched it several times. And I decided it would make a cool stencil, so I designed one and had my Cricut machine cut it (I LOVE my Cricut!).
I had originally planned the central panel to be 11 x 14, but I only had 12 x 16 panels on hand, so that's what I used. The side panels are 5 x 5 each. I printed out articles on the 2020 Western Monarch count and its dismal findings -- Washington Post, NY Times, and LA Times. I used those articles along with some of the pamphlets sent by the Monarch Joint Venture to cover the panels with a background of the text. Then I whitewashed it to soften the effect. And added the sketch of the whole plant and butterfly.
Once I had the sketches, it was time to do the underpaintings. First, I added the milkweed stencil into the background of the central panel to suggest a milkweed stand (we don't have a stand, yet...but working on it!):
Then I took more of the MJV flyers, local maps, and sheet music...
And added layers of color and pattern with my original stencils...
Then it was time to collage. I matched the paper to the underpainting, tore the paper, and glued it down with gel medium (not ModPodge -- ModPodge is too liquidy and makes the paper wrinkle.)
It took a couple of weeks to get it all done. Once each side panel was completed, I added handwritten notes about the subject as a way to synthesize my knowledge. Many naturalists wrote notes on their drawings, and this was my way to pay homage to those inspiring scientist-artists. Check out the milkweed seed pods on the finished panel. I used some mulberry paper fiber, but also real milkweed fluff and a seed or two.
The borders were made by painting deli paper which is translucent, ripping it up, and gluing those haphazard strips around the edges.
Once all the panels were finished, I was inspired to hang them together on a larger board so they could be displayed as one piece. I decided not to use the working title: The Monarch Project as the final name. It is called: The Dance of Life: Monarchs and Milkweed.
You can see this piece in Studio 23 (Southwestern Artists Association) in Spanish Village in Balboa Park. It is on display through July 4, 10am to 4pm daily.
I scanned each panel and arranged them digitally to create a poster which you can find in my Etsy Shop. Cards are coming soon!
20% of the profit from each sale goes directly to the Monarch Joint Venture.
Monarch season is well underway here in San Diego and we have already seen at least 15 butterflies enter the world ... and suffered the loss of at least 7 to parasites and infections.But as long as more make it than don't, the numbers will improve. And the more people that create pesticide-free oases in their back yards and patio container gardens, the more the butterflies (and other pollinators) will thrive. It's gratifying to know that it only takes a little effort to make a real difference.