Artist turns butterflies into portraits of murdered or abused Indigenous women

By Amber Victoria Singer, Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, December 1, 2022 - 1:04pm
Updated: Friday, December 2, 2022 - 9:51am

Audio icon Download mp3 (8.68 MB)

Benjamin Timpson studio
Lisa Sette
Benjamin Timpson at work in the studio

The current exhibition at Lisa Sette Gallery in Phoenix pays homage to Indigenous women who have been abused or murdered in an unusual way: with butterflies — thousands of butterfly wings, meticulously cut and placed to create faces. Some are easy to see. For others, you have to squint. Each is a masterpiece — painstakingly created over months by artist Ben Timpson, who is part Puebloan.

A photography professor at Arizona State University, Timpson is known for working with organic material. He’s created art out of everything from dove wishbones to worms. But he didn’t just choose butterfly wings to challenge himself. They have a much deeper meaning.

“The name of the show is ‘Illuminated Lives’ to illuminate the stories of these Indigenous women who have survived or who have endured hardship — not just now, but like for the past hundreds and hundreds of years,” he said. “[R]ather than focus on the negative or the abuser like our culture usually does … I wanted to focus this project on the beauty, the hope and the life of these women.”

Timpson pieced together fuzzy portraits of unidentified women, including one from British Columbia and another from Pima County.

After the abstract unidentified women, Timpson felt more comfortable asking survivors to let him do their portraits.

Benjamin Timpson Juanita
Benjamin Timpson and Lisa Sette Gallery
“Juanita,” 2022, butterfly wings on glass, wood and electrical components

The gallery’s largest portrait is two and a half by one and a half feet. It features a woman named Juanita, a domestic abuse survivor.

“Her husband would abuse her, and then when he tried to shoot her, she blocked the bullet with her hand the bullet was deflected and moved through her hand. And she survived, and he’s now in jail,” Timpson said.

Timpson spent four to five hours each day in the studio sketching, cutting wings and gluing them down to light boxes. Each portrait took five to six months to complete — Juanita’s took a year and a half. The butterfly wings are so delicate that Timpson had to wear a dust mask so his breath didn’t blow the tiny pieces away.

You can see the portraits created with real butterfly wings in Timson’s “Illuminated Lives” exhibition at Lisa Sette Gallery through Jan. 7. A portion of the proceeds from sales will go to the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition.

More stories from KJZZ

FronterasThe Show Arts + Entertainment