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All aflutter in Newton: Public art project brings awareness of butterflies

Artist Jenn Houle's monarch butterfly on display on the front lawn of Newton City Hall.Walker D. Armstrong

With the start of summer, flutters of butterflies are beginning to grace Newton once again.

“I couldn’t imagine a world without monarchs,” said Kim Devore, a Newton resident who raises monarch butterflies as a hobby. “And the whole life cycle, there’s a little bit of magic in there.”

But this season, along with monarchs, an entirely different group of butterflies has sprung up around the Garden City as well — taking the form of public art.

The Newton Office of Cultural Development commissioned six artists in April to paint wooden butterfly depictions to be placed in various parks throughout the villages, including one on the front lawn of City Hall.

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“We always try to do what we can to be sure everyone has access to art and culture — and what better way than public art? You just have to go outside and find it,” said Paula Gannon, director of Cultural Development, in a speech at a public reception at City Hall on June 21. “That’s why we’re so excited to bring you a project called Flutter.”

Aptly named — a flutter is the collective noun for a group of butterflies — the initiative is meant to serve as a symbol for “transformation and change,” said Associate Director of Cultural Development Danielle Moriarty.

“Since the last two years have been so hugely transformational for all of us, it was only fitting that the theme of this public art initiative for the summer would be butterflies,” she said.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said in an e-mailed statement she thinks the butterfly installations are “a joyful experience to all this summer.”

“With lives of transformation, the butterflies celebrate what Newtonians have experienced in the last few years. A city that is vibrant and thriving has art woven throughout its landscape, and Flutter is doing just that,” Fuller wrote.

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Jenn Houle, whose butterfly was on display at the reception outside City Hall June 21, said the inspiration for her painting came from a series of ecologically minded pieces she has been working on. It features a brightly colored monarch butterfly with plants that sustain the creatures’ life cycles painted on the wings.

“I make work that thinks about our connection to the natural world,” Houle said. “I’ve been painting a series of works on paper that I’ve called ‘Sun Eaters, Pollen Seekers,’ and it’s about the relationship between native plants and the pollinators that live off them.”

Already delicate by nature, butterflies are seeing a population decline because their primary means of subsistence, milkweed, is quickly vanishing, said former president of the Newton Conservators Ted Kuklinski.

“People say, ‘I don’t see any monarchs around anymore, I used to see them a lot when I was a kid,’” he said. “The reason is because there’s no milkweed around — the host plant for them — because people say, ‘Oh, it’s a weed, let’s get rid of it.’”

Kuklinski said he and the Newton Conservators have been planting milkweed in the community in an effort to spur the population and attract monarch butterflies.

“Last fall we had our first Monarch Milkweed Festival,” Kuklinski said. “It brought together a whole bunch of people around the community who had been raising monarchs on their own, growing milkweed, and protecting the caterpillars when they hatched.”

Ngoc-Tran Vu, a Dorchester-based artist who participated in Flutter, said she was attracted to the project because it was “interactive and community-based.”

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“I was drawn to it because it was a day-long project in the community,” Vu said of the live painting event held May 14 at the Family FunFEST for Flutter artists in Newton. “I just thought it was cool, the shape of the butterfly, that just brings so much joy — especially during these heavy times.”

Vu, who said her background is in depicting and addressing social issues, said she wanted her butterfly to reflect this tone.

“I really wanted it to be both joyful but also thinking about critical issues happening,” she said.

Walker Armstrong can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.

The butterflies of the artists who participated in Flutter. Their butterflies can be found in parks throughout Newton. Walker D. Armstrong
Newton resident and former president of the Newton Conservators, Ted Kuklinski, attending to the pollinator garden at Newton City Hall. Walker D. Armstrong
"There's a little bit of magic in there," said Kim Devore, a Newton resident who raises monarch butterflies. Devore brought milkweed and a caterpillar in a chrysalis to the reception at City Hall June 21.Walker D. Armstrong