In 1997, I received an illustration assignment for a series of note cards. I ended up illustrating six butterflies, a honeybee, and two flowers. Of those paintings, only the four butterflies were published.
Whenever I painted anything, the first thing I did was search out reference. Because I liked insects and butterflies, I had a few books and photos. While looking at my files, I came across a clipping. It mentioned that there was a lady who wasn’t too far away from where I lived. She specialized in renting insects. I called her and set up an appointment. This would be perfect, because an actual insect would be much better reference than any photo in a book.
The house was on a residential street; I tapped on the screen door. I was about to leave when I heard a lady yell to me that she would be there soon. I waited, and it took about ten minutes. The door swung open and there was a huge woman in a wheelchair; she was gasping from the effort of coming to answer the door. I had never seen anyone as large in my entire life. I would estimate that she weighed perhaps, five hundred pounds. She beckoned me inside.
As I entered a dim room, I was still blinded by the incredible colors and reflections that surrounded me. Every available space on the walls had insect specimens on them. There were glowing iridescent beetles, enormous moths, shimmering, metallic looking butterflies and scores of frightening spiders and scorpions. It was such a dazzling display!
I was fascinated. I followed this woman as she struggled to push herself in her wheelchair toward a back room. When she caught her breath, she warmly shook my hand and introduced herself as Cathy. With great effort, she pulled out a few trays from different cabinets. When she needed to go into the other room to get more, it was with a lot of difficulty. I was very patient, because I was observing the spectacle before me – I had never seen such a beautiful display of insects.
Insects had always fascinated me, so this was truly engrossing for me. I had given her a list of butterfly species that I needed to illustrate, and Cathy opened up one of her trays to remove an insect.
She gently lifted out the specimen and pinned it onto a board. She used tweezers and deftly adjusted each antenna and leg. We talked while she worked. She enjoyed sharing information about butterflies. I had already known that the powder on their wings was very important; touching a live butterfly wing can end up killing the insect if enough of the powder comes off.
We discussed how many insects I would be taking home. She charged me $30 a specimen, which was lower than her usual fee. The insects were very delicate, and I left her house taking great care not to damage then.
After I illustrated six butterflies, I was asked to illustrate a honeybee. I called Cathy and asked her if she had any. We set up another appointment.
Just like the last time, it took her a very, long time to answer the door. She shared that recently she had been ill and her face was ashen. I felt very sorry for her, and asked if there was anything I could do. We talked for a long time about many things. She created artistic displays using butterfly wings, and her passion was evident. I enjoyed being with her.
Since my next illustration was of a honeybee, she showed an array of bees. I had no idea there were so many types! It was difficult for me to know which one my client wanted illustrated. Cathy generously said she’d give me a few extra for the same price. Although it was rare for me to feel squeamish, I did when looking at the huge stingers on some of those bees!When my project was finished, I called Cathy. However, I did not reach her and my calls were not returned. A few days later, I received a call.
The woman on the phone told me that the “Butterfly Lady” had died; Cathy was 54 years old. I was asked to kindly return the specimens, which I did.
I was invited to a memorial service for her. However, I was not prepared to face all the sadness. I wondered what demons plagued this ill, housebound woman, who was far too young to succumb to death at only 54 years of age. I spoke at length to the woman sharing the news with me; Cathy had a lot of friends and family that would be there.
If I listed regrets in my life, this would be there. I wish I had gone.
At my art blog there are more images and stories about my butterfly illustrating experiences!
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