A symbol of hope: Thousand Butterflies Project promotes community care in Evanston youth


Photo courtesy of Angela Lyonsmith

Butterflies decorated by Evanston kids on display at Studio 3.

Nixie Strazza, Reporter

Through the Thousand Butterflies Project, Evanston students are using butterflies — a symbol of rejuvenation in many cultures — to foster connection and community care.

Since last summer, Evanston-based nonprofit Kids Create Change has hosted butterfly-making tables at community events, art festivals and block parties around the city. There, students can drop by to decorate paper butterflies with markers, stickers, sequins and personalized messages.

Co-Directors Angela Lyonsmith and Melissa Raman Molitor said the organization, founded in 2020, aims to foster the sociocultural awareness and the emotional development of young people through the arts.

The project is an ongoing display in Studio 3, the in-house gallery and open art space of Kids Create Change, inspired by the Japanese tradition of folding one thousand cranes to be granted a wish.

Lyonsmith said the Thousand Butterflies Project is far more than an arts-and-crafts activity.

Though subtle in nature, Lyonsmith said she believes shared art projects facilitate necessary discussions between young people and expose them to life experiences different from their own.

Students have connected their creations to social movements like Black Lives Matter, pro-immigration initivaties and LGBTQ+ rights. Some have adorned their butterflies with inspirational quotes, including one from late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“Art has come up again and again as a meaningful way to combat the difficulties of this last year,” Lyonsmith said. “I don’t just mean the pandemic, but the pandemic of social injustice as well.”

Loyola University Chicago Prof. Carolyn Tang Kmet said the project was a perfect learning opportunity for her seven-year-old daughter Mackenzie, who raised monarch butterflies over the summer.

“I think art gives her the ability to speak her mind even if she may not have the vocabulary for it yet,” Kmet said.

Children stand around a table decorating butterflies at an outdoor venue while two adults facilitate the activity.
Kids create butterflies at ETHS Kits, Cats and Kids Block Party on Sept. 9. (Photo courtesy of Angela Lyonsmith)

The hanging butterflies are also a part of the Terrain Biennial 2021, a series of more than 250 public art installations around the globe. Established by the late Sabina Ott in 2013, Terrain Biennial aims to bring accessible art to unexpected places and broaden the audience for contemporary art. 

Cortney Lederer, a project manager and School of Art Institute in Chicago alumnae, serves on the Terrain Biennial committee and said she’s looking forward to seeing the lasting effect of the project. 

“What’s so impactful about Kids Create Change is to have youth involved in creating public art — and public art that speaks to self care and the healing process and community care,” Lederer said.

Earlier this year, Kids Create Change received the Racial Equity and Community Partnership Grant through Northwestern’s Office of Neighborhood and Community Relations. The incubator portion of the program gave $5,000 to new organizations looking to create a fairer and more equitable Evanston, with an emphasis on racial equality. 

Dave Davis, NU’s executive director of Neighborhood and Community Relations, said he was immediately inspired by the Kids Create Change mission statement when the group approached him last year. 

“There’s simply a lack of arts-driven spaces that truly center and amplify the stories, and voices and art of BIPOC young people,” Davis said. 

Lyonsmith said the organization is excited to ramp up programming with in-studio workshops and classes, but they remain cautious due to a lack of COVID-19 vaccinations among children. 

Studio 3’s inaugural exhibition featuring the work of artist and vocalist Michaela Marchi will debut Nov. 6. Through music, photography and fashion design, Lyonsmith hopes that Marchi’s work will continue to inspire kids to interact with complex social issues. 

“We are trying to instill and teach in developmentally appropriate ways how we can be better human beings,” Lyonsmith said. “That starts with the very basic capacity of being able to share and listen to each other’s stories.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @NixieStrazza

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