October 1, 2022 – January 7, 2023
Opening Reception with Benjamin Timpson
Saturday, October 15, 2022 from 12:00 – 3:00pm
The artist Benjamin Timpson’s use of deconstructed and intricately overlapped butterfly wings as a medium of portraiture presents his subjects as woven from the complex materials of memory, nature, metamorphosis, and survival. In 2017, after a DNA test confirmed his family’s generationally-concealed Puebloan ancestry, and a close relative was badly beaten by her boyfriend, Timpson began making portraits of Indigenous women, a population that is disproportionately affected by violence and homicide.
Timpson’s portraits of those who have been affected by violence is both a means of increasing awareness of this problem, and a way to return agency to the women he portrays: in the transcendent meanings and shifting patterns of the wings of a butterfly, Timpson’s subjects are both ephemeral and radiant with lived humanity.
“The butterfly is universally known as a symbol of metamorphosis. Its life cycle is like the physical manifestation of so much of our mythology in cultures all over the world, and images of butterflies are ubiquitous. But most people don’t get that close to butterfly wings. When people stand in front of a photograph with the pattern and structure of the wings blown up ten times, they’re mesmerized.” – Benjamin Timpson
Butterfly Wings on Glass:
Working from photographs given to him by the subjects or their family members, or found in databases of missing women, Timpson uses magnification and precision tools to arrange compositions of the responsibly-sourced wings against arduino-controlled light boxes, and also develops stunning large-format photographs of the original collages. Timpson, a photographer who has been experimenting with positive/negative images and transmitted light for over two decades, has become familiar with the wings’ singular physical qualities–the microscopic structures that emit light and color, and the differences in these structures from species to species. The resulting compositions are both enigmatic and uncannily specific; an organic delineation that shifts depending on the viewer’s position as well as the light in which they are seen.
Timpson’s light boxes operate on 13-minute cycles of increasing illumination as the microscopic wing structures present dramatically shifting hues and iridescence throughout this cycle. In addition to persuading viewers to slow their examination of his work, or to return for a second look, Timpson believes “the illumination also acts as a candle–as you would light a candle for a loved one.” Titled with the names of their subjects, the deeply personal nature of these portraits is juxtaposed with the universality of the butterfly as an object of human fascination, and as a connection between humans and the natural world.
The miraculous workings of the natural world, and the way that it can provide examples of transformation and survival, is integral to Timpson’s project: If nothing else, I hope that people come away from these images with an increased respect for nature, this incredible basis for life. As an artist I’m working to create a poetic loop, seeking a continuous cyclical interaction between the medium, the symbolism of the medium, and the composition.
Timpson worked with representatives of the Osage Nation after learning of the women who were victims of the “Reign of Terror” Osage Indian murders, an atrocity that occurred in the 1920’s that led to the launch of the FBI and that is the basis of the 2017 book by David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon, and upcoming film by Martin Scorsese. These representatives also aided Timpson in researching the colors of Rita Smith’s luxuriant Pendleton serape, which was designed and woven by Native women.
One of Timpson’s subjects and his frequent collaborator is Caroline Felicity Antone, an activist who has connected him to survivors and their families from Native communities throughout North America. Antone is a Tohono O’odham person and founder of a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Indigenous girls and locating survivors and family members. Timpson and Lisa Sette Gallery share the proceeds from his pieces with Antone’s organization.
“I met Juanita through Caroline Felicity Antone… in January of 2021 I went down to the Tohono Oʼodham reservation and met Caroline and Juanita in person. It was so good to have lunch with them and listen to them speak in their language. Juanita told me her story: her husband abused her for years and it culminated when he shot her–he pulled out a gun and she put her hand up to block it…the bullet went through the middle of her hand.
The first conversation can be hard. You have to acknowledge it–what happened will never be undone. But these survivors move forward through the pain to a rebirth, and serious strength and power come from that experience. My role in this process is a minor one: I see this strength in the spirits of the survivors I’ve met.”
When Timpson contacted MMIW activist Rosetta Peters about making her portrait, Peters immediately sent him an 1880’s photograph of Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull), sitting for a portrait with a monarch butterfly prominently displayed in his hatband. It was an image that Timpson had never seen before: “When Rosetta sent me that, and connected it to the symbolism in my work, it felt as though this project had come full circle,” remarks the artist. Exemplified in the life of a butterfly, cycles of connection and collaboration across generations and geographical space have become an essential part of Timpson’s process.
“When I gave Rebecca Plentywounds a portrait of her sister, she thanked me for this image and told me she was going to hang it up forever. I feel like that’s what artwork is for–to carry this object forward with you on your journey, to be a marker of your culture and time.”
While Timpson’s portraits are intended to bring attention to the results of cultural violence and exploitation, the artist’s works and the relationships he’s forged along the way ultimately represent vivid connections between families, individuals, and cultures, and a ritual reclaiming of the symbolism of survival and rebirth.