Tyberius Larking writes an ode to his Aunty, Jillian Kingo Bilney Larking and about his love for butterflies.
Butterflies are not my dearest friends. Nor are they my constant companions. We don't have loads in common.
But we see an awful lot of each other. Never purposely, but inexorably, we crosscut each other's lives. Our bodies don’t ever touch, but they come close. Very close. Butterflies and I, we're drawn to common ground.
As of today, they are subjects in almost every illustration in my portfolio. They are the minutiae of daily life. I draw breath, so I can bring them up in conversation.
In my childhood bedroom, magazine cutouts of peppa pig gave the walls pizazz. But the pièce de résistance was a painting my Aunt Jillian dedicated to me. A portrait of butterflies with hot pink wings, with yellow frills. They were so bold and boldly outlined. So accepting of themselves. Which is to say, they broke free of social conventions. Butterflies can’t be as fragile as they’re made out to be, I’d thought. These ones aren’t fragile at all. Jill certainly wasn’t. Nobody could make a fool of her.
Despite her tough exterior, she was soft in the soul. Good deeds came in droves. Jill was always in the driver’s seat. She was always there to pick us up from the beachfront, our bathers squelching. Straight to your doorstep, she’d deliver her signature potato salad.
Even though I saw her work in galleries more than I saw her in the flesh, I spent some unforgettable summer holidays with her family. My cousins and I stuck our noses everywhere. We scavenged. We pined for treats. Those outback skies were chock-a-block with fire and dust. The stars could not sit still. All night, they swapped seats and mingled. Catching crayfish wasn’t my forte. Sunday school wasn’t my style. I had stubborn dreams and stubborn fears. I remember believing, I will be this person forever.
Little towns struggle to produce the same amount of noise annually as cities do in minutes. Port Lincoln offers only a fraction of the sensory input Adelaide does. It was a real culture shock. There were sometimes no hearts beating. Even the seagulls had less to say. But there was always the croak of Jill’s foot easing on and off the pedals. From Jill, I learned how to slow down. Kick my feet up, but put my hands to work. Slow gets those creative juices flowing. Slow hands hold a paintbrush steady.
Butterflies are cold-blooded like reptiles. At rest, a butterfly isn’t metabolically active enough to generate the heat mammals can. It takes them hours of meditating in infrared rays to get their muscles going. Jill rarely spread her wings. Never let herself bask and take up space. Never let herself receive the sun’s love, get toasty. She came to stay with us in Adelaide earlier this year. One of her more recent paintings hangs in the hall. When she noticed it, she screwed up her face and quickly turned away.
Butterflies have upwards of 17,000 lenses in each compound eye. In addition to the spectrum we visualise, they can translate ultraviolet light. Although nearsighted, they see what they need to see; flowers, sugar purée.
Scientists call migratory groups of butterflies, kaleidoscopes. In order to survive these migrations, they pig out on nectar. They burn through it. And they burn through more of it.
There’s no doubt in my mind. Jill’s painting. The one in the hall. The hall that connects us to the front door and to the slow world outside. Jill’s painting could feed a kaleidoscope all winter.
All animal life begins with the embryo. Every embryo, no matter the organism, is a ball of cells rapidly dividing and specialising. Humans, for example, all have a set of standard organs. A lot of what makes us “human” is installed during this embryonic development, and then grows bigger and more complicated.
Some animals, though, radically develop, more than once in their lifetime. They scrap the draft and start over. Assume a completely new and unrecognisable design, with new functions. Metamorphosis, we call it (it’s a real mouthful).
Starfish metamorphose from a bilaterally symmetrical larva into a radially symmetrical adult. Lady bugs derive from fierce black worms. And butterflies, well, you know the deal. Butterflies exist on every continent except Antarctica. They experience complete metamorphosis. This isn’t just “rearranging” as such. It is liquefaction. In fact, this begins earlier than you’d imagine. In some cases, with the help of radiological imaging, we can peer inside a caterpillar’s body and see tissues breaking down. Zoom closer, through the soup and there they are already: four itsy bitsy wings taking shape.
During a primary school cultural reconnection scheme, paint and pallets were supplied. Spare no detail, the Elders had said. In this arena, metamorphosis was front and centre. An injured emu received a makeover and it wound up a platypus. A girl to my left didn't resonate with my platypus, so she worked it into her mangrove. Her ponytail fluttered over my folklore.
“Can one of youse paint me? Young and sexy,” joked a woman behind me. Startled, I swivelled round to admire the staples plotted on her bald head. Her saggy eyes- there was something slowly floating in them. Nothing much bigger than a staple. It could have been my reflection. Or our canvas.
In some circumstances, what can't be repaired, can instead be wiped clean and regrown. Detangling was one of Jill’s love languages. If you had a dreadlock, she’d get a piece of the action one way or another. Before school, she’d soothe her younger daughter’s hair with a leave-in that smelt of Christmas candles.
All butterfly wings have scales wrapped in tiny inflexible hairs. In many cases, strands are similar lengths, so the scales are rectangular. But they can be round or even kite-shaped. Iridescence is where it gets spooky. Rather than simply absorbed and emitted, wavelengths are refracted strand by strand. If you’ve seen opal or blown bubbles, you’ve seen iridescence. Many butterfly wings exhibit this property. I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen this clearly. For a few years now, I’ve dabbled in macrophotography. Believe me when I say, it’s not often a butterfly slows down to our speed. Iridescence looks to my eyes, like ghosts melting out of an ice cube. Jill had ghosts couch surf from time to time. Yes, they drove her up the wall, but a guest is a guest. All her guests were offered a shoulder to cry on. And acrylic.
One student asked if our pictures would be assessed afterwards. And, if we were competing, there’d have to be chocolate up for grabs, wouldn’t there? To hell with sportsmanship. What if I put in the effort, and someone ruined it? What if afterwards, they couldn’t tell who did what. If our contributions were allowed to overlap, a dreadlock is what you’d get. I thought, not a Venn diagram.
If I didn’t defend my region, my designs wouldn’t be mine enough. How would I prove myself as an artist? To them, to Jillian. Maybe I’m the fragile one.
In mere hours, I was a total pariah.
Eventually, an old man with a moustache called me over. Loading a bowl with rabbit stew, and thrusting it to my chest, he asked softly, “Now what you actin’ like that for?”
In that moment, I wanted Jill to scalp me. Jill, I thought, paint over this. Camouflage me.
I couldn’t list everything I saw Jillian paint growing up. We’d be here all day. A pregnant belly. Eggshells. A gritty brochure from a netball carnival.
To continually honour her, I've made revision and consultation compulsory in my illustration process. Sure, for someone who’s art packs such a punch, she’s shy. But she does not shy away from critique. If she were a caterpillar, she’d cope very well with the pain of transforming. She gives every challenge her undivided care and cause. Even now, Jill reaches for unfamiliar materials. She recently made a number of treasures from wood chips, like accessories for a hanging mobile. She is a beacon of innocence. And omniscient all the same.
I hear this echoed by every butterfly I talk with. When the time comes, you can’t hesitate. Hack yourself out of that chrysalis if you have to.
I’ve had to do this myself more than once. You get stronger though, less fragile. You learn to be slow, and you learn to share your skills and tools with others.
Someday, I’ll hold a paintbrush as steady as Jill does.