In almost every culture, the butterfly is a potent metaphor,” Tempe-based artist Benjamin Timpson says. “In Japan, for example, it’s a symbol for lost loved ones.” His own work has long embraced this wide-ranging symbolism. Between 2,000 and 10,000 cut-up butterfly wings comprise each of his illuminated portraits that honor the strength of Indigenous women who have faced violence—part of his ongoing “Metamorphosis” series.
When a DNA test revealed Timpson’s maternal Puebloan bloodline in 2017, the artist began reflecting upon how systemic racism impacts Indigenous communities—in particular women—by deracinating people from their traditions, values and support systems. He turned to a stash of humanely sourced butterfly wings leftover from another project—blue morpho, great southern white, gulf fritillary—and resolved to use their iridescent beauty to flip the script. “Instead of portraying these women as victims, I wanted to describe their strength, grace and individuality,” he explains.
As an assistant photography professor at Arizona State University, playing with light is a regular part of Timpson’s process for many of his works, including “Metamorphosis.” Women or their families provide Timpson with photos, and, after warming up with sketches, he places a scale drawing on top of his light box and covers it with glass. Cutting the butterfly wings into small squares, Timpson affixes them to the surface—finding tones and patterns that evoke the shape of an eye, the shadow of a cheekbone, the curve of a lip—in a painstaking process.
The finished composition is backed with microcontrollers and LED lights that build and fade in a 13-minute cycle. Timpson also creates a series of limited-edition prints of each piece. In tribute, a percentage of profits from all of his work goes to the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition. Luminescent and glowing, the portraits are, as the artist says, “like lighting a candle for a loved one.”