Historic flooding in the fall of 2015 led to widespread damage to low-lying areas of the Charleston, South Carolina area. One location with significant damage was Cypress Gardens, a beautiful and historic botanical preserve. It has closed indefinitely for repairs. One impressive feature of the preserve was the Butterfly House. Three years later, members from Cypress Gardens, students from Howe Hall Art Infused Magnet School, and preservice teachers from the nearby College of Charleston collaborated to create the Butterfly Project.
Historic flooding in the fall of 2015 led to widespread damage to low-lying areas of the Charleston, South Carolina area. One location with significant damage was Cypress Gardens, a beautiful and historic botanical preserve. It has closed indefinitely for repairs. One impressive feature of the preserve was the Butterfly House.
Three years later, members from Cypress Gardens, students from Howe Hall Art Infused Magnet School, and preservice teachers from the nearby College of Charleston collaborated to create the Butterfly Project. This group effort consisted of a mural painted by kindergarten and first-grade students and STEAM lessons designed and instructed by preservice teachers.
The preservice teachers asked the younger students what they already knew about butterflies. Many students began drawing butterflies with a hotdog-shaped body and wings that looked like the letter B. Students were then shown images of butterflies and observed that these insects have more body parts than they originally thought. It was pointed out that they were researching like scientists and getting additional information to make their drawings more accurate.
Students discovered that a butterfly has a head, abdomen, thorax, forewings, and hind wings. It was also pointed out that butterflies are symmetrical. The preservice teachers demonstrated this by drawing a line right down the center of the butterfly, pointing out that one side matched the other in equal halves.
Next, students were introduced to the work of Heather Hansen. Her work is kinetically constructed as she creates symmetry designed with her body and charcoal. Hansen combines her love of dance, performance art, and visual art. With charcoal in her hands, she moves gracefully across a large canvas as pattern and unity emerge. Students loved watching the video of Hansen and how she uses her body to create.
Students were informed that they would try Hansen’s technique outside with chalk. With their newfound knowledge of butterflies and symmetry, students were armed with a piece of chalk in each hand to make sure their drawing was the same on both sides. They worked in groups of four, taking turns creating the forewings, hind wings, and patterns on both sides. After the drawings were complete, students worked together to create patterns on the butterflies’ wings.
Artists Are Scientists
Throughout these activities, we explored the idea that artists are scientists and scientists are artists. Students described scientists as people who work in a lab and wear suits and special gear to study rocks and butterflies. One student stated, “A researcher is a [person] who searches stuff and gets information about it.” Students also told us that artists are people who wear clothes with paint all over them and paint things. Another student said, “Artists look at something and then paint it.” We discussed how artists and scientists are similar because, in order to do either job well, they must observe and understand.
Students embraced this idea and began to think of themselves as artists and scientists for the duration of the project. One student proudly exclaimed, “[I am an artist and scientist] because I always look at new things and find out what it is.”
The Mural & Plywood Butterflies
After students learned about the life cycle of a butterfly and the various body parts, they were given the task to design a butterfly mural. Students, along with the Cypress Gardens preserve administrator, agreed that it was important to show a monarch butterfly and the milkweed where they get their nutrients and lay their eggs. It was amazing to see the accuracy in students’ drawings. This was vastly different from their earlier drawings. Their sketches were so amazing that in addition to the 6 x 12' (1.8 x 3.7 m) mural, their artwork inspired us to create twenty-four 2 x 3' (0.6 x 1 m) butterflies cut from plywood.
Students worked in teams to create the mural while adhering to the rules of symmetry they learned previously. We discussed the work of two artists for inspiration: Heather Galler and Romero Britto. Students were motivated by these artists’ choice of a vivid color palette, bold black lines, and imaginative patterns. At the preserve, the plywood butterflies will be placed throughout the garden, sprinkled between the flower shrubs or strategically placed on lattice work.
Through the collaboration of the preservice teachers and young students, Cypress Gardens has a full STEAM unit based on butterflies as their new exhibit. A math lesson and four additional lessons are linked to QR codes and embedded on the mural for other teachers and parents to discover and use in their classrooms.
Tracey Hunter-Doniger is an associate professor at the College of Charleston. HunterDonigerTL@cofc.edu; Alison Dargis and Deidra Johnson are preservice teacher candidates at the College of Charleston.
Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.
Art teachers encourage a love of nature through various lessons using a STEAM approach, unusual materials, visits to an aquarium and an alpaca farm, and more. Students illustrate fantastical reimaginings of nature photographs; demonstrate a knowledge of color and value blending with bilateral insect drawings; team with a botanical preserve to create a butterfly mural installation; collaborate on a large-scale ceramic school garden; and more.