Thursday, August 23, 2007

Butterflies are Free

What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly. ~Richard Bach

I never knew my maternal grandfather. He passed away several years before I was born, so my grandmother, who lived with us, had always been a widow to me. Having settled in Montreal, she met and married her love, a Polish-born man who knew a fair number of languages, and developed his career as a court interpreter. I remember hearing stories of how he would come home from work exhausted at the end of the day. Granny would be anxious to get out of the house and check out one of those new picture shows at the local movie theatre. His disappointing but understandable reply was an incredulous "Why on earth would I want to do that? I see more than enough drama all day long in court."

Granny was a native-born Russian who moved to Canada when she was just a few months old. She was a short, stocky woman who walked with a limp from an injury she sustained in a car accident sometime before I was born. In her later years she struggled with failing sight and hearing, but maintained her strong sense of humour. She loved to watch wrestling (wrasslin') on television and she could often be seen feigning her horror by holding her splayed fingers over her watchful eyes, while loudly expressing her disgust for the brutality that she opted to see.

She was fiercely proud of her family, and she experienced hardships that no parent should ever know. She had five children and was pre-deceased by three of them - one in infancy. Surviving such losses is unimaginable to me, yet Granny was content to be surrounded by her remaining family in her declining years. She became a great-great-grandmother before her death in 1973.

My mother viewed herself primarily as a care-giver for my sister and me, Dad and Granny. She had a selfless, giving nature and she was happiest when she was doing for others. For a number of years, she worked in our family-owned business - a small but busy variety store. Mom could be found behind the cash most days. She also handled the bookkeeping for the store and prided herself on her excellent math skills, a gift I did not inherit. Mom had a way with words as well. Her vocabulary (or Vocal Berry as she often referred to it) far surpassed her education, and she was proud of her ability to spell exceedingly well. Mom could read music and played piano quite beautifully. Though her piano now sits in my living room, her musical talent sailed right over me and landed squarely on my younger son's hands and into his guitar strings.

Toward the end of Granny's life, my mother found a hobby to help dissipate some of the stress she felt from caring for her ailing parent. She learned how to paint. I don't believe that she took more than a year or two of art classes, but she quickly discovered different techniques and soon developed her own style. She put her oils away shortly after my grandmother's death, and despite our encouragement, she never did pick up her paintbrush again. There would be many times over the following years that she might have benefited from its therapeutic effect but it was not to be.

While walking yesterday, I saw several Monarch butterflies flitting about, one of which obliged me by pausing just long enough to be captured in a couple of photographs. As it turned out, one of these images was quite similar to a favourite painting that Mom did, which hangs on a wall not far from my computer. My mother evolved as an artist during the difficult period of my grandmother's decline. Much like a butterfly emerges from a cocoon, Mom was transformed. There is no telling what talent or beauty might free itself from darkness.

Mom has been gone for over fifteen years now but her colourful artwork continues to brighten the walls of family and friends. Below are a few of the paintings that are hanging in my own home.

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This Monarch paused on a purple thistle just long enough for me to focus and snap the shot. It's the same creature that appears at the top of this post. I rotated this image by 90ยบ so that it seems to mirror the butterfly in my mother's painting above. Is it life imitating art, or the reverse?

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This is one of her first paintings. She used a palate knife to create this stucco effect, a technique with which she continued to experiment on many of her pieces.

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Mom got most of her ideas from photographs. She'd mark pages in magazines which had images that she felt she'd like to paint one day. She preferred nature scenes over most.

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Another favourite subject was children. Mom loved the work of artist Edna Hibel who is known for her series of Mother's Day limited edition plates, each depicting a mother and child. Since imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, she reproduced the above plate entitled "Colette and Child" on canvas in 1973.

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This painting of a young girl and her dog was styled after a photograph found in a magazine - quite possibly National Geographic.

I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. ~Charles Dickens


Nita said...

Hilary, hi, thanks for stopping by my blog earlier. It sounds like you were lucky to have such talented women as your mom and grandmother in your life. Your mom was a gifted artist. You may not have your mom's music talent, but I think she shared her artistic talent with you.

Crabby McSlacker said...

Wow, what a moving post. And that butterfly photo you took is such an amazing take on your mom's painting--both of them beautiful!

And I actually have a favor to ask, is there any chance I could get your email? (Promise I won't spam you; I'm not that well-organized.) If that's okay, please send me an email at crabbymcslacker @ (but leave out the spaces). Sorry to be so mysterious; the favor is not actually all that interesting but I hate to get turned down in public!).

Hilary said...


Thanks for stopping by and for leaving such warm words. I've bookmarked your blog and will be returning often.


I'm always happy to see you show up. I feel like I should be making coffee and a low-fat snack. I did cheat a bit by rotating that photo, but yup, it was fairly startling when I made the connection. Thanks for your kind words. That email is on its way.

Frank Baron said...

Very nice homage to Mom and Granny. They would be proud of you. :)

Hilary said...

Yo, Bro!

Thanks. ;)

Unknown said...

Great art. I really enjoyed all that your post had to offer.

Hope you've had a great weekend!

Sylvia C.

Hilary said...


Thanks for dropping by. You have some lovely photos on your own site.

Anonymous said...

ohhhhhhh. so beautiful. she was quite the artist. you're so lucky to have her paintings. you made my morning. :)

Hilary said...

Thanks Twizzle. I do indeed feel very lucky to have some of them. Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Very nice article Hilary, all through it I kept thinking of my all time favourite song that's tied to butterflies and life. It's from a famous 70's album. Can anyone guess the album or band?


Wrapped up in some powdered womb, I guess I'm losing touch.
Don't tell me this is dieing, cause I ain't changed that much.
The only sound is water drops and I wonder where the hell I am, some kind of jam.

Cuckoo, Cocoon have I come through too soon for you?

There's nothing I can recognize, this is no where that I've known.
There's no sign of life at all, I guess that I'm alone.
But I feel so secure, that I know this can't be real, but I feel good.

Cuckoo, Cocoon have I come through too soon for you ?

I wonder if I'm prisoner locked in some Brooklyn jail,
or some sort of Jonah shut up inside the whale.
No, I'm still Rael, but I'm stuck in some kind of cage.
What could save me?

Cuckoo, Cocoon have I come through too soon for you.

(Hint "Rael" is a characters name.)


Hilary said...

Thanks for stopping by, Al. I'd take a guess about the butterfly song, but I'd just be wingin' it. I'm pretty sure that it's not Moth-ly Crue. ;) Perhaps someone else will take a stab at it.

Frank Baron said...

Dang, I'm usually deadly with 60s and 70s tunes but this one's not ringing any bells.

I guess Googling would

Anonymous said...

Frank, It should come to you like Revelations!!!!!! (Hint, Hint)


Hilary said...

Hey now Al, don't go causing a mass Exodus! ;)