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A photo of Judy Chicago’s “A Butterfly for Brooklyn” firework display on Saturday, April 26 (photo © Donald Woodman, courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

Last Saturday night, a crowd gathered in Prospect Park for a 20-minute pyrotechnic performance, “A Butterfly for Brooklyn,” by feminist art icon Judy Chicago in honor of her 75th birthday.

The fireworks had been installed earlier in the long meadow and arranged to form a butterfly — a metaphor for feminine liberation and resurrection that Chicago explored in earlier works like “The Dinner Party” (1974–79). The performance was first presented in 2012 in Pomona, California, inspired by a series called Atmospheres the artist staged around California between 1967 and 1974.

Judy Chicago, “A Butterfly for Brooklyn” (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

It wasn’t the kind of weather you associate with fireworks: damp, cold, and windy — like something out of Wuthering Heights. It looked like it could rain at any moment, but the show went on. Around 7:30 pm, workers began removing the plastic covering the dormant fireworks. The crowd watched excitedly, abuzz in anticipation.

“The butterfly is an ancient symbol of women,” a life-long Chicago fan standing beside me informed her companions. Others didn’t know who the artist was — they’d just come to see sparks fly. Children ran around wielding glow-stick swords. A group of Indian students complained about their green card woes. A man gulped a half-gallon of milk out of a paper bag. Proactive firemen appeared. It felt like a scene Pieter Brueghel the Elder might have enjoyed painting.

Soon, the crowd parted and began clapping for Chicago, who zipped in on a golf cart, swathed in a mauve blanket with a pointy umbrella in tow. Reaching the top of the hill, she boarded a bright orange, electric scissor lift, which cranked her up in the air. She remained there for the rest of the night, perched in her folding chair several feet above the crowd like a crow in her nest. A couple arriving just after spent a good five minutes pointing at the lift and asking each other, “Do you think Judy’s up there?”

Finally, the fireworks began. Red lights sizzled at the center of the butterfly, moving outward, turning yellow, until the entire butterfly outline was lit. Swirling neon pink smoke filled the air. People tried to take pictures to capture the glow but were sorely disappointed in the quality — fireworks never translate well as JPEGs.

“This is killing a lot of grass,” one guy sarcastically complained.

“Yeah, but it will grow back,” a sincere older woman replied, “Just like a butterfly.”

What looked like a blue rope light caught on, filling in the pattern in the wings. Swirling sparklers shot into the air. Flares ignited. Quiet pauses followed a series of eruptions, culminating in an impressive finale that garnered plenty of salacious, orgasm-related jokes from in-the-know hipsters.

At the end, everyone cheered and broke out into a heartfelt Happy Birthday sing-a-long. Chicago stood up, her frail form leaning over the railing as she peered down at her admirers. It looked like she was crying.

Judy Chicago’s “A Butterfly for Brooklyn” took place Saturday, April 26 at 7:30pm at Prospect Park (north end of Long Meadow).

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and loitering in her community bookstore.

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