The butterfly is a wonder of nature. Dolly Parton and Mariah Carey were both inspired to sing about the enchanting insects. Possibly it’s because butterflies are beautiful – I guess neither star would have crooned about caterpillars. And if you were wandering aimlessly around the narrow, bustling streets of Puerto Rico’s historic capital and you saw a wall filled with thousands of butterflies of all shapes, sizes and shades, I guess you’d stop and take a closer look. I did.
I was walking down Calle de la Cruz, one San Juan’s ancient streets, when I stumbled across The Butterfly People. Every available space on the white gallery walls was covered with framed butterfly wings. I’d never seen anything quite like it so I headed inside. Many of the displays were colour-coded. I looked at a blue butterfly selection with specimens ranging from cobalt and cornflower to the deepest turquoise tones. It was just like one of those paint colour charts you get from the hardware store, but this was entirely naturally. Some of the larger displays made me marvel at the breadth of Mother Nature’s paint pallet and exquisite design skills. Beneath the glass were fuschia, orange and lime-green specimens. It left me feeling a bit pathetic recalling my childhood excitement at seeing a cabbage white on my granddad’s vegetable patch. By Puerto Rican standards, those were clearly the ‘vanilla’ of the butterfly world.
I stood under the air conditioner, almost drinking up the chill with my thirst for cold air in the 30-degree heat. And I admired the intricate symmetrical patterns on the insects’ wings, a CD of ethereal new age music playing a spacey, chilled out version of Unchained Melody in the background. This gallery was an oasis of calm from the hot, vibrant city streets.
The woman behind the counter smiled and I, somewhat reluctantly, tore myself away from the cool overhead breeze, which was doing a good job of evaporating my perspiration. Cirene Revan, co-owner of The Butterfly People, introduced herself and I complimented her on one of the most unusual galleries I have ever seen. Cirene handed me a welcome ice-cold bottle of water and we headed onto her patio courtyard. I wanted to know all about this unique art form.
Her accent was American, but Cirene told me that she was proudly Puerto Rican. And she proved it, pausing at intervals during our conversation to acknowledge people inside her adjacent gallery by effortlessly switching into Spanish.
The butterfly business had a romantic start. “It was started 46 years ago by my parents,” Cirene explained. “They came on holiday to the island as friends and fell in love with each other and Puerto Rico.” So many successful businesses have started by chance. The Butterfly People was one of these.
“As a child I had mobiles above my crib that my grandfather made with real butterflies,” Cirene told me. And seeing my reaction she added, “I know, that’s a little strange.” The butterfly wings kept breaking so Cirene’s dad started framing them. Friends and family members loved the butterfly art and placed their orders. Soon, the word spread and a business was born.
The insects are beautifully and tastefully displayed but, at the risk of causing offence, I felt compelled to ask about how they are ‘sourced.’ Cirene had clearly addressed previous concerns. “The tropical butterflies are all farmed,” she said. “We don’t kill them. It’s just that they have a short lifespan and what you see is a result of that.” I felt hugely relieved personally and for the butterflies. Cirene sensed this and added, “We are just honouring nature’s art, which is overwhelming and humbling.”
For the past 22 years, the displays have been designed by Cirene’s French husband Resat. He waved from behind the shop counter to acknowledge us. “The art works only include the wings,” said Cirene. “You won’t see the antennae because we’re not a natural history museum. We just respect the butterflies’ beauty and always portray the insects in flight.”
The art isn’t cheap and Cirene explained why these pictures come at a price. “We buy the butterflies from farms as far away as South Africa, Papua New Guinea and Malaysia.” Her favourites come from Madagascar, but I wanted to know why an island, famed for its rain forest, could not provide specimens from closer to home. “There’s been a history of deforestation, overbuilding and pesticide use, which means we don’t have butterflies in the quantities that we’d be comfortable using,” was Cirene’s reply.
We chat more about life in the stunning, walled, old city of San Juan. “It is like living in a village,” Cirene enthused. “You know lots of people and everyone is supportive of each other.” In some places that rely so heavily on tourists’ cash, you expect fierce competition, especially when cruise ship passengers face multiple spending choices during their short time ashore. But Cirene says that Old San Juan artists really do work together. She’s spent time in New York and was keen to return to her home town.
“Old San Juan is an artists’ place. We’re collaborative, not competitive and we’re working for the common good,” she smiled. And to prove she meant it, Cirene produced a town map and started circling places of interest and scribbling names of artists and cafes that I had to visit.
Cirene and Resat have resisted offering online sales. It’s clear that they won’t undermine the impact of their art by allowing it to be viewed on a tiny screen. “We feel that this is a gallery experience and people should come and see the works on display. Once you are here, your purchases can be sent anywhere in the world using couriers.”
For some customers, the butterflies offer more than just art. They help in the grieving process. “Sometimes people have been mourning a lost loved one and they’ve seen a butterfly land near them, see the beauty and feel a connection.” The couple offer commissions, helping their customers recapture those highly personal experiences.
As I say goodbye, the gallery is filling up with customers. I wonder how many of the people studying the butterflies on the walls will better appreciate their beauty thanks to these dedicated artists.