Artists for the Earth

Artist Paul Villinski transforms discarded objects into butterflies

The son of an Air Force navigator, sculptor Paul Villinski grew up “surrounded by planes and pilots with clouds in their eyes.”  As a boy, transfixed by flight, he spent hours building model airplane gliders and longing to fly.

Unable to become a fighter pilot, he eventually found his way into art.

As an artist in New York, he became fascinated with found objects on the street: discarded work gloves, liquor bottles, belts, furniture and vinyl records. In these objects, he imagined stories of lives lost, damaged, cast off — but also found inspiration.

In his own unique recycling project, thrown away objects were granted a second, repurposed life.

The work gloves, like joined hands, are sewn into a quilt or a giant pair of wings; old vinyl records are soaring birds above a turntable; discarded wood is a flying machine suspended from the ceiling. 

Nightfall, by Paul Villinski, is made of work gloves. Photo provided.

The works represented not only his love of flight, but from family history, the community in recovery from addiction.

In the early 1990s, he found his favorite discarded object: crushed beer cans. 

Recycling in the United States is riddled with challenges — and the public often confuses what can and can’t be recycled. But aluminum is typically the easiest to convert and most-profitable solid waste in the recycling bin.

This doesn’t mean that streets are free of discarded cans: In 2017, 2.7 million tons of aluminum ended up in landfills.

Villinski began repurposing the aluminum he found into butterflies — which stood as a symbol of transformation, a constant theme throughout his work.

At first, his interest was just that: symbolic. But over time he began to study their biology and existing efforts to save them.

Monarch butterflies, once an American staple, are now endangered. Their populations reached a historic low of fewer than 29,000 in 2017 — down from 1.2 million two decades earlier.

My Back Pages, by Paul Villinski. Photo provided.

In 2011, Villinski began working with Dr. Rudolf Mattioni, a leading expert on butterflies and moths. On Mattioni’s advice, Villinski took a trip to Peru’s Amazon rainforest to a lepidopterist field station to study them. Afterward, Villinski began rearing different species in his studio.

In the 2014 exhibit at the Morgan Lehman Gallery, his statue, Self-Portrait, was made of steel rings and covered with transparent tulle. Inside he placed the live butterflies he’d bred. In fact, his Butterfly Laboratory was part of the exhibition.

And his 2017 sculpture, Lepidopterist, was recently featured on a United Nations Earth Day stamp. The figure, a torso covered with butterflies, features a seminal metaphor in the artist’s work.

In a recent interview with Earth Day Network, Villinski spoke about his work.

Earth Day Nework: Did you say ‘I can transform these found objects into something else’ from your artistic point of view, and then said, ‘aha, I’m doing something environmental.’ Or was it already there?

Paul Villinski: What happened is the work, very early on, got identified as a kind of expression of environmental consciousness. I was very happy to have that happen because I had been thinking about issues of conservation and environmentalism since I was 15 years old.

EDN: When you were raising the butterflies you realized finding the right plants they need is really difficult. What do you see happening outside the laboratory and their ability to survive?

PV: What is threatening or destroying so many species of Lepidoptera is mankind’s wholesale destruction of their habitat. For example, the wondrous migration of the Monarch butterflies to and from Mexico is threatened by the industrial-scale use of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, which eliminates the monarch’s host plant, milkweed. When the female monarchs cross into Texas and the southern states, they’re often unable to find milkweed on which to lay their eggs.  Climate change also is a factor: the monarchs “warm up” and depart Michoacán earlier than usual, the milkweed hasn’t grown and there’s an inadequate supply of food plant for their larvae.

EDN: You have said, “Ultimately what happens to the butterfly is going to be our fate as well.”

PV: One of the things that drives me is this feeling I have that human beings have simply forgotten that we are part of the animal kingdom. We have cleaved ourselves apart from the environment. And that to me is something I need to find a way to address in my work — to remind people that there is no difference between us and other animals. We are all one.

We have cleaved ourselves apart from the environment.

Paul Villinski, Artist

EDN: You see the human being and the butterfly as sharing “commonality.” But can you say the butterfly shares similar characteristics with man?

PV: I’ve come to feel that we humans are much more like butterflies than we may realize: that we are as fragile, and our lives as ephemeral as these delicate creatures, and that we are as utterly dependent on the health of our natural habitat. At the same time, we are capable of the same sort of resilience as the monarchs winging their way on the impossibly long journey from Canada to central Mexico.

Earth Day Network’s Conservation and Biodiversity campaign dedicated each Monday in May to spreading awareness of this beautiful species. Learn more about how citizen science can save the butterflies.

For more, check out our Artists for the Earth campaign, as well as our annual theme, Restore Our Earth.