Artists give flight to powerful Holocaust poem
The Butterfly ProjectLocal artists inspired by Czech Holocaust poem

Artists give flight to powerful Holocaust poem

“The Butterfly Project" is a mosaic that includes five panels, mesh fencing and more than 300 hand-painted butterflies.

The mosaic project includes five panels, mesh fencing and more than 300 hand-painted butterflies. (Photo by Alix Paul)
The mosaic project includes five panels, mesh fencing and more than 300 hand-painted butterflies. (Photo by Alix Paul)

Art interpreting art is nothing new. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the English Romantic poet, performed the task in “On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery.” W.H. Auden, the 20th-century titan, similarly did so with in the “Musée des Beaux Arts.” But the ekphrasis undertaken by Alix Glosser Paul and Deb Englebaugh, two local artists, hovers a bit closer for some.

“The Butterfly Project,” a work by Paul and Englebaugh, is now permanently installed at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. The mosaic, which includes five panels, mesh fencing and more than 300 hand-painted butterflies, was inspired by Pavel Friedman’s “The Butterfly,” a poem composed after the Czech Jew’s arrival at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942.

“There are a lot of layers to the artwork, and really we just wanted it to tell a story and for the viewer to be able to look at the artwork and draw elements from the poem,” said Paul, 61.

Included within the multifaceted piece are nods to imprisonment, the ghettos and camps, along with representations of European towns, train tracks and forgotten faces. Evocatively, and in direct relation to Friedman’s writing, is a yellow butterfly “symbolizing freedom and friendship,” explained the artists. “Surrounding the poem, and with high regard and special significance, are 28 butterflies painted by Pittsburgh Holocaust survivors.”

A volunteer fixes a butterfly to the installation. (Photo by Alix Paul)
Those butterflies in particular narrate a larger story, said Paul.

In 2016, the mosaicist discovered the San Diego-based nonprofit “The Butterfly Project.” Designed as a mechanism to utilize the lessons of the Holocaust to prevent hatred and bigotry, the organization invites participants to paint ceramic butterflies for public display, with each butterfly signifying one of the 1.5 million children lost in the Shoah.

Paul, who for decades has worked on similar-sized projects, was intrigued.

“It brought together all of my interests, both in community art, large-scale art, installations, art having a purpose and the Jewish component involved in it,” she said. “I contacted the Holocaust Center in Pittsburgh to talk to them about it, and it turned out fully coincidentally that it was already on their calendar.”

Paul then reached out to Englebaugh, a fellow artist and friend.

“Alix explained to me what was going on,” said Englebaugh, 59. “She gave me the background information on the project and asked if I would be interested in working with her. Because of her excitement, I got excited about it. We met with people from the Holocaust Center, and they were so accommodating. And then it took off.”

Twenty-eight handprinted butterflies by area survivors are on display. (Photo by Alix Paul)
The duo spent more than a year collaborating on the project. The process was enlightening, said Englebaugh. “When we received the butterflies from the survivors, just working with those alone, for me, it was very emotional.”

Unlike Paul, whose Jewish upbringing was marked by interactions with survivors, this was Englebaugh’s first foray into the subject of the Shoah.

“I never realized the number of children who lost their lives in the Holocaust,” she said. ”I don’t know why, but you don’t think of it as something [that] involved children. I knew that children perished but never realized how many.”

“The very different backgrounds between us lends itself well to the enterprise,” said Paul. “We work in mosaic, and mosaic is single elements that when combined create a harmonious whole.”

Along with “The Butterfly Project” and a quilt created by Louise Silk, which hangs in the front gallery of the Holocaust Center and also incorporates butterflies, 20 area schools and organizations collaborated on the art installation, said Lauren Bairnsfather, the Holocaust Center’s executive director.

The hope is that the art will spur not only art, but future activity, said the creators.

“People need to be informed and reminded of this horrific situation,” said Englebaugh of the Holocaust. “You don’t want anything like this to happen again.”

Accordingly, the installation is intentionally engaging, said Paul.

“For anybody coming into the center, it’s an educational tool, and it’s there to evoke emotion, to tell a story, and for the participants to look deeper into the piece and the mosaic surrounding the poem,” she said. “I think each viewer will see something different as in any artwork, but hopefully, it will draw an emotion deep inside of them.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz

read more: