Artist Benjamin Timpson Draws on Loss and Transformation with New Exhibition “Illuminated Lives”
In 2017, Benjamin Timpson was grappling with domestic violence inflicted on his cousin and the revelation of his family’s generationally concealed Puebloan ancestry. Those two events coalesced and sparked the beginnings of “Illuminated Lives,” a series of portraits of indigenous women intricately constructed with butterfly wings, now on display at Lisa Sette Gallery. Timpson has always been awed by the artistry of nature. “The symbol of the medium is the meaning of the composition,” he says. “The butterfly symbolizes hope, change, metamorphosis and resurrection” while raising awareness about the disproportionate violence indigenous women experience. Timpson partnered with the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition, pledging 5% of every sale to benefit the organization.
Timpson recently spoke with us about his current exhibition, process and what’s next.
What inspired this exhibition?
It is inspired by the love of nature through the face of our women—the beauty, pain, loss and struggle that is so evident. It started as a missing and murdered indigenous women series, and it still is, but at the same time, I realize there’s a much deeper part about all women, strength, nature and sustainability. I want to show survival under some of the harshest conditions—because sometimes our hearts get crushed, compressed and suffocated. And sometimes diamonds come out of this impossible situation.
Indigenous women are at the center. How did you find your subjects and broach telling their stories?
It’s a really sensitive issue, and I take that absolutely seriously. It started with my cousin. When my cousin was in a domestic violence situation and she had to be hospitalized, I couldn’t believe it.
I was already cutting up these butterfly wings in square shapes. I was just in the studio sitting and I was like, I know what I need to do. It just hit me: You need to talk about these women’s stories with this medium. It is the medium, the symbol for this story.
I did a lot of research on the situation at-large in our country currently, and it’s kind of mind-blowing how many cases are unsolved, how many bodies we just find in the deserts and along sides of freeways. I started with “Banff County Jane Doe,” and then I did “Pima County Jane Doe.”
I start by contacting the person, the survivor, the mother, the friend, and we just talk. I’m true to my word. I ask them for their blessing for the portrait. Through talking with these women and these people, it is almost a chain reaction for the next portrait. It’s word of mouth and communication and connection.
I kept doing research, and I found Caroline Felicity Antone (a Tohono O’odham person and founder of a nonprofit dedicated to protecting indigenous girls). I contacted her; I just cold-called her. She loved the idea. She sent me some photos, and I just kept texting her for the next six months; we’re still friends now. She introduced me to Juanita, who is the last portrait I just did.
Why were butterflies the medium you used for these works?
I’ve always searched for the meaning behind every feather, gust of wind, chance encounter or tiny ant crawling across the sand. How can I find the symbol that is from nature and incorporate that natural phenomenon into my existence and pass that forward into the next person? Butterflies are the most powerful natural symbol we have for beauty, mystery, enigma, love, rebirth, infinity, and I’ve been working on that idea for, like, 25 years to try to create a circle between the medium, the composition and the message. The symbol of the medium is the meaning of the composition. The butterfly symbolizes hope, change, metamorphosis, resurrection—and that is why I use the butterfly to construct a portrait.
Animal and insect parts have shown up in your work before. Why is nature so important to you in your work?
Nature is the absolute artist. It really is art in its purest form. No painting, no sculpture can ever do justice to what nature is doing intrinsically, so it’s been at the core of my inspiration ever since I can remember.
What impact does having these natural elements have on the works and the audience?
I want people to respect and actually see nature, because in the city you don’t see nature, and you don’t see it alive around you. I want people to actually see nature and how beautiful it is. It’s infinite.
For the viewer, I hope for empathy—to see through these women’s eyes, to feel their lives and somehow carry that love with you into the future for all living things, and to be kinder. All I can do is hope to educate and inspire change and the love of nature.
And, how do you source the butterfly wings?
I use humanely sourced butterflies for all the work. Every company I work with knows about the project; they’re incredibly supportive. They come from sustainable butterfly farms around the world. It’s extremely important to know where everything you use comes from, your own supply chain.
Why did you choose the name “Illuminated Lives” for this exhibition?
It’s called that because I want to tell their stories through light and time and nature. So, using the light and the actual original collage. Time: the light goes on and off. And then nature, through the symbolic aspect of the butterfly.
People will see the original compositions, framed in light boxes, and large-format photographs of the composition—what’s the impact of showing both?
In the show, the original collages, all their light cycles are going to be on at different times. It will almost act like a light symphony, where as you walk around and see one, it’s going to be different by the time you get to the end of the room.
The photos are there to magnify the detail and the beauty of nature that’s lost on our human eye. The photo is really important to show that scale shift and to keep that play going back and forth between the viewer. You can see the fur and the actual platelets of the wings themselves in each piece of the butterfly. As you walk in closer, it shifts from being the portrait to these high-resolution squares of the natural world of butterflies.
You’ve worked across various mediums. Why do you prefer photography?
I love the photographic medium, and it’s in every other medium now. Our entire culture travels through photography now. It’s all around us, and I think that’s important, especially when we started to lose dark rooms. My dad was a photographer, too. He taught me photo from an early age. I remember being in a dark room really early on and just having the love and magic.
What is your process like as an artist? Give us a glimpse into a normal day for you.
I wake up early at 5:30, I focus on the studio and the current compositions. It’s like three to eight hours every single day. The portraits take thousands of hours of focus and concentration with fragile pieces from nature that are priceless. It’s like a ritual. It’s a form of meditation for me.
I go into the studio, I put my mask on—because the butterfly wings are so fragile—I put my headphones on and then I just get to work looking at the portrait, finding the organic pattern, lining that up, using tweezers and affixing it to the glass. You can’t work fast.
Who is an artist that you admire or bounce ideas off of?
I pull from everywhere. I’m always searching for that communication in art through other artists. Whenever I go to an art museum, it’s like I know these people.
I bounce ideas off my students. I’m really open with them. I show them works in progress, because students are honest with you. That started even back when I was teaching elementary school. I found out the power of the honesty of your students.
What’s next for you?
I want to continue this project; it’s a slow, evolving project. I don’t know if it will ever technically end. I want to keep learning and working on this project.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.