For two Laguna Beach artists, incorporating these stunning insects is about more than simply creating artwork.
By Ashley Ryan
The Real Deal
There are quite a few artists that paint butterflies, but few that paint with them—which is exactly how Ken Denton, also known as The Butterfly Man, came up with the idea for his colorful creations. “I thought, what if my butterflies became paint and I could paint a mosaic with them?” he recalls.
His framed mosaics, which feature actual insects from butterfly farms across the globe, have been a staple at Sawdust Art Festival for nearly 50 years. But his introduction to the world of butterflies was more scientific than artistic.
“I started off as a kid collecting everything—lizards, snakes, you name it. And, of course, butterfl[ies],” Denton says. His collection continued to grow, even after he began creating, but his background really helped him develop pieces that are both beautiful and lasting.
“You can go to any good book on museum preparatory work and see the basics of how to preserve, what they have to do in museums,” he notes. “I’ve just applied that technique, which is called preparatory science, over to the arts and crafts world.”
Don’t be fooled: Denton’s method is a lengthy process that is certainly scientific in nature, down to the chemical smells created by his process. After visiting and forming connections with the staff at the farms—which he has visited all throughout the Amazon, Oceania and Southeast Asia—the butterflies are mailed to him, and the work begins. Denton first puts them in a freezer to ensure they are sterile, then they are slipped into a relaxing container to soften. Next, he dries them in special drawers before using chemicals to cure them.
“It’s never the same across the board,” he says, noting that there are a number of spots along the way that can cause problems if you’re not familiar with the species you’re working with.
Denton also makes his own frames, sterilizing them as well, before precisely placing each butterfly within and sealing them up. “Any place at all on a frame where you can get your business card in, an ant or a silverfish or a carpet beetle can get in and eat the butterfly,” he explains.
None of Denton’s artwork uses wild-caught butterflies, as he buys exclusively from farms that raise caterpillars, take care of them until they transform, mate them and allow them to live out a full lifecycle. Once they’ve died naturally, they are sent to buyers like him.
“If you’re a little egg and you hatch in the middle of the Amazon on a leaf, your chances of becoming a full grown caterpillar and making a chrysalis and then hatching out as a butterfly and flying around in the air are probably one in a thousand,” he says. Denton makes it his duty to educate his clients on the process so they feel comfortable with where his pieces come from.
Some of his pieces feature big, brilliant blue morpho butterflies, while still others are flurries of reds and oranges, yellows or even vibrant greens or muted browns. In addition to the eye-catching mosaics, he has crafted other unique items, such as an American flag made out of red, white and blue butterflies as well as the “Butterflies Not Included” CD, which features photos of every California species.
For years, he traveled the country, selling his artwork at trade shows, state fairs, craft festivals (including those organized by the Laguna Craft Guild) and numerous other events. Now, he sticks exclusively to Sawdust, looking forward to the summers he spends with other artists, locals and tourists. He has even donated the majority of his personal collection to museums like the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
His storied career has taken him to jungles around the world, which he says is one of his favorite parts of the artwork he creates. “It all started with collecting—wanting to get things I hadn’t collected before,” Denton adds. “[I’ve] met some wonderful people, saw some great places I never would have seen. All of that because of the butterfly business.”
(aka The Butterfly Man)
A Learning Process
Although Linda Ames does not use actual butterflies in her pieces, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there in spirit. In fact, that’s one of her favorite things about incorporating them into her sterling silver jewelry. “They’re absolutely beautiful and have such an incredible desire to survive and it’s really heart touching,” Ames says of the insects. “They have some very strong spiritual meanings—the monarchs, especially.”
Her experience with monarch butterflies started shortly after she moved from Portland, Oregon, to Laguna Beach in 2000. “I was walking back from the beach and there were shadows on the ground and … I looked up and I found that they were monarch butterflies,” she says. Not having many butterflies in Oregon, she sat down to watch them and formulated an idea.
On and off since then, Ames has been raising her own monarchs, right in her living room. After purchasing a mesh enclosure, she searched for their eggs on the bottom of milkweed leaves, grew her own milkweed to feed them and gave them a safe place—free from any predators—to eat as caterpillars, tuck up in a chrysalis and transform into bold orange-and-black butterflies.
“It’s all part of connecting with whatever it is you’re trying to spotlight,” Ames notes. “And then, they become more than just a sterling silver image.”
Time spent raising monarchs inspired the artist’s Circle of Life series, which now features hollowed out discs affixed with everything from hummingbirds and dragonflies to turtles and sea lions, in addition to butterflies. The discs themselves have intricate detailing that represents the wildlife she features—things like flowers and leaves for the insects and hummingbirds or kelp, sand dollars and sea stars for the marine animals.
But these tiny details aren’t carved directly onto the silver. Instead, Ames uses a process called lost wax casting. The technique is incredibly involved, starting with carving the circles, wildlife and details in soft wax—her favorite part, due to the artistic talent it takes. Then, she adheres the pieces to a “tree” in a special container called a flask, which is filled with investment, or a type of plaster, that creates a shell in the shape of the items she has carved. Placed in a kiln, the plaster hardens while the wax melts away (hence the name). Ames then pours liquid sterling silver—heated to 1760 degrees—into the mold to form her necklaces and earrings.
Using this technique ensures that each piece is one of a kind. “To me, they’re all special,” she says. “It’s just not in me to produce a whole bunch of pieces that all look the same.”
Although she has found success creating artisanal jewelry, metalworking is not where Ames got her start. She has also done painting, glassmaking, printmaking, watercolor and more. Currently, she is learning photography and hopes to eventually learn to sculpt. “As an artist, … I’ve always believed that your art form is the journey that you want to express and share with people,” Ames notes.
Her personal journey takes her to both the summer and winter Sawdust Art Festival shows, where she has displayed her creations for nearly 20 years. Ames is also a regular at the Laguna Craft Guild shows, which have resumed each Sunday at Main Beach. Interested parties may also commission custom pieces through her website.
Linda Ames Jewelry
In December, Laguna Outreach for Community Arts announced new membership benefits to thank supporters for their help. The local arts nonprofit, which has been a prominent fixture in Laguna Beach for more than 25 years, is made up of professional artists, educators and enthusiasts who believe in the importance of creativity. Supporters will now receive priority registration for all LOCA and Senior Art Escape classes, as well as special members-only pricing and free access to LOCA art talks. Discounts for a number of local organizations are being granted as well, including admission to venues such as Laguna Art Museum, Festival of Arts and Laguna Playhouse, plus coupons for 10% off at Laguna Art Supply to pick up any necessary materials for crafting your own visual art. Each member will also be invited to an annual celebration for the nonprofit, once events can safely be held. Sign up or renew your membership on LOCA’s website. (locaarts.org) —Ashley Ryan
Covered with Creativity
Originally hailing from China, Qi Qun Pan, who is a resident artist at Avran Fine Art, has been creating abstract artwork for roughly three decades, combining techniques from the Eastern and Western worlds to develop his own approach. Despite having no formal art training, the Los Angeles-based painter has found success, most recently in the form of a scientific journal cover: His “Untitled” mixed media original was featured on the cover of the January 2021 issue of American Journal of Critical Care; another of his works, titled “Giving Thanks,” graced the cover of the March 2021 issue. A publication for the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, AJCC features original, peer-reviewed research articles including everything from brief reports and systematic reviews to clinical trials and methodical studies. (Avran Fine Art: avranart.com) (AJCC: ajcconline.org) —A.R.
Avran Fine Art
As part of the Professional Mentoring Program with Laguna College of Art & Design—which Avran Fine Art has participated in for four years now—the gallery is teaching student Melanie La May about the process of becoming a resident artist, mentoring her virtually while also displaying and selling her artwork at Avran through April 9. (949-494-0900; avranart.com)
The Grace Galleries
For one night only, on March 28, The Grace Galleries will host a special charity event in support of the Laguna Beach Animal Shelter. Held outdoors from 2-5 p.m., the event will feature live music, live painting and an art auction as well as a pastel-colored dress code. (949-690-0318; thegracegalleries.com)
JoAnne Artman Gallery
A special exhibition titled “Yes, Masters II: A Manthology” offers unique pieces by Danny Galieote, Greg Miller and Michael Callas, all of whom are leaving behind their usual styles to create new, one-of-a-kind takes on classic pieces of artwork through the lens of themes like identity and individualism; it will be on display through April 16. (949-510-5481; joanneartmangallery.com)
Laguna Beach City Hall
More than 50 little pieces of art are currently being showcased at City Hall, ranging from oil paintings and wool/silk pieces to digital photography by Veronica Gray and a monotype by Hedy Buzan. “Art That’s Small at City Hall” will run through April 15, with awards announced virtually on April 1; appointments are required for viewing the exhibit. (949-497-3311; lagunabeachcity.net)
Laguna Plein Air Painters Association
Each spring, Laguna Plein Air Painters Association hosts “Waterworks,” a celebration of watercolor paintings crafted by plein air artists. Typically held in residence at Forest & Ocean Gallery, the group is currently showcasing its exhibitions virtually; this juried event will feature an auction of the finalists’ pieces from May 3-9. (949-376-3635; lpapa.org)
Las Laguna Gallery
In “Sky’s the Limit,” a group show that will run throughout the month of April both online and within the Laguna Beach gallery, artists from a variety of mediums will present their favorite artworks, as the open-call exhibit does not have a set theme. Select artwork will be displayed in person while all pieces will be viewable digitally. (949-505-0950; laslagunagallery.com)
MFA drawing and painting students from Laguna College of Art & Design will be the center of attention at “2020 Hindsight: An LCAD Gallery Exhibition,” which will highlight themes like passion, resiliency and dedication in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, tumultuous political events and unrest across the country; the exhibit continues through April 23. (949-376-6000; lcad.edu)
Pacific Edge Gallery
Following a gallery reception for resident artist Sandra Jones Campbell, who celebrated her 20th year at the gallery in 2020, in March, the gallery is hosting a show titled “Curtains Up” through April 10 that will feature new works by the expressionist artist, who offers quick glimpses at “moments of personal apprehension” in social settings. (949-494-0491; pacificedgegallery.com)
The Signature Gallery
View new pieces from contemporary impressionist Cara Pabst Moran, daughter of Charles H. Pabst, another resident artist at The Signature Gallery. Her latest additions include paintings like “Shimmering Surf,” “Merry Melody” and “Dandelions,” all of which are colorful and reminiscent of spring. (949-376-4244; www.thesignaturegallery.com)
Sue Greenwood Fine Art
Stop by to explore a group show through April 18, with new works from large-scale artist Danny McCaw, figurative painters Marianne Kolb and Jennifer Pochinski, contemporary portrait artist Stephen Maffin and sculptor Cathy Rose. (949-494-0669; suegreenwoodfineart.com)