Artist creates life for butterfly preservation

By Guy Chapman – Navarro County Gazette

Corsicana became home to a unique botanical nursery this past July in an exhibition that combined the themes of migration, the depletion of the monarch butterfly populations, and their subsequent rejuvenation.

The natural display, titled The Staff of Asclepias, was an environmental sculpture created by visiting resident 100W artist and musician Erik Deluca, which concurrently featured in Corsicana’s Anteroom Gallery and the Sweet Pass Sculpture Park in Dallas through August 1. The exhibit is a collaboration between 100W, Southern Methodist University’s Pollock Gallery, RISO BAR and Sweet Pass Sculpture Park. 

The Staff of Asclepias is dedicated to the preservation of the monarch butterfly, a Texas insect petitioned for protection in 2014 under the Endangered Species Act. Deluca, originally a native of Rhode Island, became fascinated by monarch butterflies during his 100W residency, and selected the downtown Samuels Building to cultivate a milkweed nursery.

The Samuels Building has a long history with Corsicana’s history, being the former home of Samuel’s Men’s Clothiers and part of Corsicana’s once-thriving Jewish merchant community. Most recently, the building is under ownership by Nancy Rebal, a co-founding residency artist who uses the space for creative projects.

Deluca worked with longtime resident Babbette Samuels, a honored member of the city due to her work with education and preservation of the arts and Corsicana’s Jewish legacy. Samuels introduced Deluca to the Hebrew Cemetery on W. Second Avenue, where he planted the exhibit’s full-grown milkweed.

Milkweed is a symbiotic essential to the continued existence of the monarch butterfly. During their annual migration from Mexico to Canada, a round trip journey taking four generations to complete, monarch butterflies use the asclepias plant, also known as milkweed, as a food source and for laying eggs. The perennial is exclusive for supporting the birth and development of monarch caterpillars.

Once a staple around crop fields and fence rows, the growth of milkweed has been diminished due to advances in agricultural pesticides. 

The development of Deluca’s project took place through four waystations, or “acts:” The first took place on the second floor of the Samuels Building, where the plants sat on a 6 X 11 table bathed in LED lighting. The growth of milkweed seeds takes 7 to 15 days for full development.

From there, the healthy and mature plants were relocated to the Corsicana Hebrew Cemetery for planting. While it can take up to a year for milkweed plants to flower, a second waystation has been established at the Sweet Pass Sculpture Park in Dallas for its third phase, where 300 milkweed  had been planted by visitors, accompanied by a horizontal white LED light sculpture inspired by the Greek god Asclepius suspended above the ground. As a nod to Samuels’ favorite film, Fiddler on the Roof, an acapella rendition of the song Sunrise, Sunset each dusk and dawn.

The fourth phase returned to the Anteroom of the Samuels Building, where visitors could view a small display of milkweed from the window. At night, purple LED light bathed the plants, creating a distinctive glow for passersby. As with the third phase, the acapella rendition of Sunrise, Sunset plays toward the street at the start and end of each day.

While the public exhibit has ended, the first generation of milkweed cultivated at the Samuels Building will continue to thrive and grow at the Corsicana Hebrew Cemetery and the Sweet Pass Sculpture Park.

While final consideration for the monarch butterfly inclusion as an endangered species is still pending, a listing decision through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is due by December 2020.

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