Shelby Graham

 First Time Art Party Participant
Mother of Pearl (Detail)

Artist’s Website


Artist’s Statement

An Installation by Shelby Graham

The butterfly effect refers to the idea that each small action—even the flutter of a butterfly’s wings—has the potential to alter other events, which in turn can transform the course of history. Through a microcosm of light, photographs, hanging scrolls, magnifying glasses, and specimens for close observation, artist and curator Shelby Graham lures us into an installation of fragile wings and caustic bombs that echo the danger of (human) intervention. Wings can melt when held too close to the light that created them.

Since 2005 I have photographed several butterfly specimens at the UCSC Museum of Natural History Collections, from the collection of mathematics professor Gerhard Ringel and other collectors. In a sense, I started creating my own collection of transparent and paper butterflies that I transferred from slide film to Polaroid film to archival paper. I re-photographed some digitally and printed them onto scrolls. One way to view these paper specimens is with a magnifying glass. However, when the magnifying glass is held at just the right angle to the sun, the object is in danger of being destroyed.

This exhibition invites us to take a closer look at our impact on the environment and our relationship with delicate but complicated situations. Before moving to Japan in the early 1990s, I began photographing atomic bombs in American museum collections. In Japan I photographed atomic bomb museums and was disturbed by my observations of the physical effects of the bomb on the human body and on other melted and burned objects.

A flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which can cause a chain of events leading to large-scale alterations of events.

On Burning

In the process of creating this work, my use of the magnifying glass triggered a chain of events that led me back to the atomic bomb. My close observations revealed intricate details in the butterfly wings, thorax, and legs that I hadn’t noticed. I started observing individual specimens and then photographed entire cases of butterflies, knowing that the task of capturing them all was endless, even futile. With the magnifying glass I started burning the vulnerable paper butterflies I had created, which made me feel uncomfortable. Only then did I turn to the deliberate burning of atomic bomb images, which touched a deeper nerve, arousing issues of uncomfortable power, representation, restraint and transformation.

Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different.


Shelby Graham

Director/Curator Sesnon Art Gallery

University of California, Santa Cruz