John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Inside one artist's mission to cover the city with blue bugs.
If you've been in Indianapolis recently, you might've noticed some of Tasha Lewis' beloved pets out on the loose. The 22-year-old sculptor has been surreptitiously moving her colony of fabric butterflies around to different public places, transforming doors, newspaper boxes and even a Robert Indiana statue into sudden insectoid orgies.
Lewis uses an old photographic method called cyanotype to build her winged critters. By coating fabric with a chemical and exposing it to sunlight, she's able to make exoskeletons realistic enough to make you lunge for a net. A little magnet sewn into the back of each creature allows it to cling to iron railings, staple-covered phone poles, the metal plate in somebody's head, etc.
Lewis launched her project this year after graduating from Swarthmore College, and in the past few weeks has been toiling over the grindstone to “build up the swarm,” she says. “I have 400 butterflies now, and I hope to just keep going until I get to 1,000.” I spoke with Lewis recently about her curious quest to wallpaper the Midwest with six-legged “transient public sculpture.” Here goes:
How'd you get the idea for this?
At my senior show at Swarthmore (“Naturae Curiosa”), I had a curiosity cabinet that had butterflies. [Having them escape] was like a symbol of set organization gone awry. I like that these butterflies could be, like, this hoard, this contagion that could cover things around the city. I don't need to be in a gallery to be in the art world. I want to show people that you can do art out in the public.
What exactly is cyanotype, anyway?
It's a photographic process from the 1840s. It was first used to create botanical sun prints, like the outline of a leaf. The process is coming back into vogue with alternative photographers. It's becoming more mainstream to do tintypes and cyanotypes – things that do what Instagram, does but for real. There's a variability and chance that people are getting back into.
Have you talked with any Indianapolis graffiti artists about your 3D “tagging”?
You know, I don't think they exist. Unfortunately. We're pushing public arts in terms of commissioning sculptures, but I think we're still developing as an arts city.... At the end of the month I'm planning on going up to Chicago to hit up the Bean and the big Picasso sculpture. Chicago has a lot of iron from the '50s and '60s, more than in Indiana, where mostly we have a lot of aluminum stuff that the magnets don't stick to.
How long do the swarms stay up?
Only about 15 minutes. It's usually just me and my mom going to a place and sticking them up one by one. I'm hoping that I can start doing more workshops with people or do an install with a community.
And what's been the public reaction?
I was at park doing this once and a bunch of kids came up to me, and it was so cool because they thought it was so magical. A lot of adults look at it and go, 'Hmmm, that's cool. I don't know why you're doing this.'”
All images used with permission from the artist's "Guerilla Sculpture" Tumblr.