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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Ryerse

The Mercy Butterfly - from Concept to Completion

It was back in February when I first heard about Mercy Hospital of Joplin's desire to have a butterfly "decorated" for their garden in commemoration of the the devastating 2011 tornado and consequent new building. The city of Joplin Chamber of Commerce promoted the butterflies as symbols of hope around the city, with a total of 22 butterflies being erected around the area. The butterflies are made of steel with a powder coat and were created by Josh at Forged Waterjet Fabrications.

When I read the description of what Mercy was hoping for, I knew that this was the project for me, even though I had not yet had "public art" experience. All those mailboxes I have created were the perfect experience for learning the best process for this metal, outdoor piece. It took a solid day and the help of my husband to complete the application. I had not put together a resume in years and I had never made a maquette, but that is what a talented husband and the internet are for! Knowing that Mercy wanted their logo represented in the design meant I spent a total of about 6 minutes deliberating about the design. It was really clear in my imagination from the very beginning. I printed the design specs, did my best to represent mosaic with colored pencils, and cut it out and attached it to a candy stick for the photograph. It was clear as a bell in my mind, but I was not sure if it would be clear to the jury committee.

Fortunately, about a week later, I heard back that I had been chosen for the job. No matter that the deadline coincided almost exactly with The Little Craft Show! I had total confidence that I could do the work in the time allotted. It turned out that transporting the butterfly was a major challenge. It was just big enough that I could not fit it in my van. I had to wait for almost 2 and half weeks before it could be delivered it to me. By the time we arranged all of that, I had about 3 weeks to complete it. I spent one of them just looking at it, trying to imagine the logistics of the angles, how much movement the wings would actually have, how to start and how much orange china I would need to find (the red, blue and green seemed easier to round up!) It was one thing to draw it on paper and a whole other thing to execute on a nearly 6 foot surface, top and bottom, with a significant angle and awkward base. My first reaction when it was delivered was to tell the marketing department that it was a total waste of time to mosaic the bottom: it sat so low, you would need to crawl under it to see any of the design. But they were determined, so I pressed ahead.

I was convinced that if I could get the basics of the logo placed on the butterfly, I could get the rest of the wings completed, and so that is where I began. I used solid colored dishes to create the cross and then used a mix of solid and pattern for the rest of the wings. The cut-outs were trickier than I guessed because I couldn't fit my fingers into some of the spaces. I can't recall how many nights I worked, but I am grateful for those steady hours I got to work when Whimsy was in bed and I could get "in the zone."

Thank you Natalie for the promo picture!

Obviously, I always work in my Stitchfix clothes and my Noonday jewelry

Once all the pieces were adhered with silicone, I let it rest for a few days and went back in with a silicone polymer grout. It was at this point that things got a LITTLE crazy. About a year ago, I was able to purchase huge bags of grout at a discount because the bags were ripped. As I worked on some other projects for The Little Craft Show and The Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, the grout started acting very unpredictably. It appeared to be solid but when it was poked or scratched, fell apart like wet sand. I was mystified and freaked out and headed off to Google to try to figure out what had gone wrong. It turns out that grout exposed to the air too much will absorb moisture in the air, and complete its chemical process of bonding. It seems fine, but ultimately cannot further react with water and falls apart. It was a tough time for a chemistry lesson, and I was horrified to discover the butterfly was showing signs of expired grout.

I found myself in the driveway with a hose and a tiny poking tool, testing all of the grout and picking out any soft spots with the help of the water. It was a miserable and frightening time, while I chided myself for my lack of experience, lack of knowledge, lack of talent! To top it off, I had just three days before I needed to deliver it for installation. Soaking wet and scared, I worked steadily for the whole day and was relieved to find that only one segment seemed to have the "bad" grout. I was able to apply a fresh application with a new, never opened bag, which set up beautifully. I had plenty of time to obsess over the inevitable shrinkage by the grout in some of the negative space of the logo, and to add a 20 year impregnating sealer that will keep the grout solid and clean.

Then came the fun of transporting the butterfly. My friend Donny offered his truck and I strategized how to pack it, secure it, and get it there safely. After contemplating a full foam enclosure, I opted for the simplest version of all: three bungee cords and a piece of foam to protect Donny's brake light on the top of the cab. I spent a solid hour imagining any scenario I could think of that I might encounter en-route, jumping up and down in the bed of the truck to test the movement that could cause the grout to pop from its crevices. It was a proud lady who pulled into the loading dock of the hospital an hour and half later with the butterfly safe and sound. I know all of my crafting and cake decorating friends know the terror of transport. It seems so simple, but movement can be a real challenge after all your hours of creation and care.

The butterfly was on display at the hospital gallery for a week so people could see it up close, and then Josh was able to create a taller base for the ultimate installation. What a relief! It is now tall enough to be visible, but I didn't have to work on it with a 5 foot base! How funny would that have been?!

Finally, the hospital asked me to come and speak at the dedication and unveiling. I should have been more nervous about this than I was, but I wrote my talk on the drive there. My notes kept slipping up and down on the screen of my phone, but this is what I tried to say:

Hello. My name is Vanessa and that does mean "butterfly." You can find me online as The Mosaic Butterfly or Vintage Butterfly Mosaics. Butterflies are a big part of my identity. So this project spoke to me right away. Which kind of makes me feel like my whole life might have ended up differently if my parents had gone with their first idea: Tonya.

Butterflies are all about transforming something ugly into something beautiful. They are a symbol of hope and life and fresh starts. As soon as I heard about this project, I had a clear idea of what it would look like and months later, it is just the way I imagined it. I use broken dishes to create my art.

Everyone has dishes. They are such an ordinary part of every day life. You could probably look closely at the butterfly and see a bit of a dish you had or your mom or your grandma had. They have memories attached to them of being together, having a meal, living your lives.

You don't need me to tell you that life is unpredictable. My oldest daughter is here today and so is my youngest. 16 and Surprise! 19 months! Sometimes the unexpected is good but often it is frightening and devastating. It is my hope that when people see this butterfly, they will be reminded that you can pick up the pieces and go on. That life can be beautiful again after it is ugly.

I am always interested in what brings real comfort to people when they are hurting. I pay attention to rituals and traditions that people have relied on in the past to face difficult times. There is a Jewish tradition when someone dies that is called "sitting Shiva." You go and sit quietly with someone who has experienced loss. You don't fill up the space with nervous words and cliches. You just sit quietly and be there for them. I find that imagery so beautiful. I hope that when people see the butterfly, they have a sense of someone sitting quietly with them. 

The poet Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is just out of reach. But if you sit quietly, it may a light upon you."

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my work with you. I hope it brings hope, happiness and healing for years to come. 

The hospital staff and president were so kind and excited about my work and I was so grateful that Robb, Mattie and Whimsy could be there with me ... especially since it was Whimsy's nap time and she was a total wildcard! The hospital was having a bbq, but we decided to take our cranky baby and go.

As I sit and think of it, my friends supported me so much and helped make this happen. Donny's truck, Hannah babysitting Whimsy, Natalie taking photos for the hospital's marketing department, and ALL the people who listened patiently while I had minor and major freak-outs ... I needed all of them! It was an excellent learning experience for me as I uncovered some of the unexpected parts of creating a piece of public art.

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