Creative Illustrations for Monarch Butterfly Conservation

By Graduate Research Assistant, Jeanne Dodds

Photos by Ricky Osborne

Drawing and art making are powerful tools to increase the ability to focus, relax, and develop creative problem solving in areas far beyond visual art. As an artist, illustrator and teacher, my experience working with students has illuminated the understanding that drawing teaches people to see. When we look closely in the way that illustration demands, we observe and comprehend the subtle details that make our subject significant and unique.

Teaching the art of the butterfly

Teaching the art of the butterfly

We learn so much by looking closely, understanding, and representing. These were ideas I hoped to convey when planning a natural science illustration class as part of an internship with SPP for students at Airway Heights Correctional Center.

The illustration workshop was developed around the essential relationship between milkweed and Monarch butterflies and —most importantly—how creating artwork about this relationship can inspire understanding of core issues facing the imperiled Monarch butterfly and actions we can take to preserve and restore this species.

Studying the butterfly specimens

This internship project, pursued with support from SPP staff, the Endangered Species Coalition, Airway Heights, and other partners, centers on the proposal to develop a milkweed propagation site at the prison. The idea is to grow a species of milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, which is native to Washington State. Milkweed seed from plants grown in the prison would  be collected by technicians for habitat restoration at designated sites near Spokane. The project goal would be to increase habitat for the Western population of the Monarch butterfly. Milkweed is the obligate host plant for Monarchs; eggs are laid on the plant and emergent caterpillars consume the leaves of the plants, developing toxicity which makes them undesirable to predators such as birds. Habitat where milkweed has historically grown has been destroyed due to pesticide use, changes in land use patterns, and other factors. Without milkweed, the only host plant for key lifecycle stages, the survival of Monarch butterflies is imperiled.

Inspiring message from an incarcerated artist: lifecycle of the Monarch

Sharing knowledge about this symbiotic relationship between butterfly and plant by creating illustrations with students and corrections staff at Airway Heights was inspiring. The workshop participants asked insightful questions, expressing concerns about how the loss of important pollinators such as Monarchs will impact other species, including humans. They saw the intricate detail of Monarch wing scales and milkweed leaves in specimens borrowed from the University of Washington. These observations were captured in detailed, creative colored pencil and graphite illustrations.

We talked about how drawing is a practice that takes patience and that mistakes made provide opportunities to reinforce skills. At the end, we viewed all of the work in a classroom gallery walk and shared what we noticed; a key observation was how everyone approached the project in their own way, some realistically, others adding words, some representing their ideas about how to protect these species. One of the most profound observations was how drawing and educational workshops like this allow students to feel reconnected to the community and themselves. It’s my hope that this connection will extend outward toward the development of a milkweed planting project and restoration of habitat for Monarchs, a species that so eloquently represents cycles of growth, transformation, and renewal.

Jeanne Dodds is a Teaching Artist, illustrator, and photographer who explores themes of connection and discord in the relationship between humans and the natural world. She is an incoming student with the fall 2016 MES cohort, and interned with SPP to research milkweed and Monarchs during summer quarter.

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