Buttons were created to spread messages. Simple or complex, silly or serious, there’s a button for seemingly every idea that exists. Given that range of expression, it’s inspiring to discover customers who have created entirely new ways of using buttons. In that spirit, Busy Beaver was honored to work with Natural Resources Defense Council and their inaugural Artist-in-Residence, Jenny Kendler, on a fine art installation raising awareness about declining biodiversity and its effect on monarch butterflies.
Jenny’s work explores intersections between human culture and perceptions of the natural world, all the while maintaining a sense of wonder and play. Her previous pieces include an installation of neon-colored mushrooms made from biodegradable materials that were designed to be discarded in the woods and encourage actual fungi growth, and a piece replicating how spiders build webs by creating a composition of tiny mirrors all within the artist’s own arm span.
For her latest piece, “Milkweed Dispersal Balloons,” Jenny was inspired by NRDC’s work studying population decline in pollinator species such as butterflies, bats, and bees. Monarch butterflies, the subject of the piece, migrate 2,500 miles each year, spanning several generations over the course of the journey. Monarch caterpillar’s only source of food is native milkweed, a plant whose numbers have decreased dramatically due to climate change and the overuse of weed killers. Because of this scarcity, monarch populations have themselves dropped as much as 90% in recent years.
To raise awareness of the monarch’s plight, Jenny created a mobile butterfly “food cart.” The cart distributes biodegradable balloons filled with milkweed seeds and participants who are encouraged to become “agents of seed dispersal,” popping the balloons to release the seeds in their neighborhood and supporting monarch populations for years to come.
Milkweed seeds are a material Jenny had worked with several times in the past. She explained, “In a prior solo show, I piled milkweed seeds on shelf fungus that appeared to grow out of the wall. In a fortuitous moment, someone opened a window during the gallery opening, and a bunch of the seeds lifted into the air all at once — floating around the room for some time before setting in people’s hair and on their shoulders. Seeing how delighted people were by these floating seeds, I had been keeping them in mind for future projects.”
As she was designing “Milkweed Dispersal Balloons,” Jenny needed an element to attach the balloon to the participant so they could bring it home with them, as well as a way to pop the balloons and release the seeds. The idea to use buttons was a natural solution to both problems, and in addition to being practical, buttons also created an opportunity to add another visual element to the piece.
Jenny explained, “I came up with the idea of using macro photographs that I took of a monarch butterfly’s wings. I had also been thinking about a tasteful way to physically represent the butterflies themselves in the project, and the holographic surface of the buttons, suggesting the tiny sparkling scales of butterfly wings, were a perfect fit.”
After the balloons are popped and the seeds disperse, the button gives participants something permanent to reinforce their experience. Jenny said, “What I love about the buttons is that they were able to become much more than just ‘practical’ in the end: they became limited-edition photographic works which the participants can keep long after the performance of the piece, and wear as a badge of solidarity with monarchs and the natural world.”
“Milkweed Dispersal Balloons” was performed at Marfa Dialogues in St. Louis in July and there are plans to bring it to locations around Chicago in the next few months. For more info on the project can be found on NRDC’s website, and for more on Jenny’s work, check out the recent feature on her in the Chicago Reader.