Every winter, Monarch butterflies retreat to Central Mexico to spend the chilly months hibernating in the trees. But in the past decade, deforestation, pesticides, and climate change have threatened their journey. The great North American migration is now classified as an “endangered biological phenomenon,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Hoping to bring attention to the insect’s plight, more than 100 volunteers across North America have collaborated on assisting the creation of the Monarch butterfly’s first-ever “self-portrait.” “The Monarch Project,” as it’s called, was led by French-Canadian artist Steven Spazuk and environmental consultant Danielle Delhaes. It’s the first initiative of their Reverence art series, which they say focuses on “the traces left by living creatures.”
“The Monarch Project” started in February 2013, when students at the Escuela Popular de Bellas Artes in Mexico collected “entomograms” — prints made by butterflies. (For those curious about the word’s origin, “entomography” means a “written treatise on insects”). After charring pieces of white cardboard with a small flame, the students carried the soot-covered sheets to the Sierra Chincua Butterfly sanctuary, where thousands of Monarchs alighted on them. Unable to gain a foothold, the butterflies slipped repeatedly, their delicate feet and legs leaving behind thin, ghostly tracks.
These entomograms were then sent to St. George’s School in Montreal. Students cut them into tiny squares, which were sorted by their varying shades of gray and assembled to depict a Monarch sipping nectar from a flower. The final image resembles a Chuck Close portrait, and is also in keeping with Spazuk’s own previous soot drawings.
Ultimately, though, the final “self-portrait” isn’t nearly as fascinating as the process of making it, documented in a short video directed by Jean-Nicolas Orhon. Watching the butterflies land curiously on the cardboard, it seems almost extraordinary that something so tiny could leave its mark on the world; it brings home the enormity of what we could be losing.