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Butterfly artwork focuses on immigration

If you’re driving across Arrow Highway, it would be hard to miss Sarah Barnes’ art installation.

The front yard of her home is adorned with thousands of paper butterflies seemingly pouring out of a cage from the floor. Two parents are seen kneeling at either side of the cage; the mother with her hands in the air, and the father looking down with his hands clasped in prayer. The phrase, “Families belong together” adorns the bottom of the cage.

The installation, called the Butterfly Project, is a response to news of children, mostly from Latin America, being forcibly taken from their parents at the southern border, Ms. Barnes said.

“As I was reading the news and learning about what was happening I just felt myself becoming more and more angry and in disbelief and also really helpless,” she said.

Ms. Barnes and her husband, Scott Gorman, are regular donators to RAICES (Refugee And Immigrant Center for Education and legal Services), a Texas-based nonprofit group that provides legal assistance to immigrants who are detained at the border. But as she saw the news develop, especially when Senator Jeff Merkley was denied access to a detention facility, she knew she had to take action through art.

“Something that has always helped me was guerilla art and resistance art. I’ve just always loved it,” she said. “So I thought, what would really help me was a one to one representation of these children.”

She ordered 2,400 butterflies—one for each child in captivity, although Ms. Barnes noted the number has since grown—printed on cardstock, four to a page. She emailed around 30 people who might want to be a part of the project to ask if they wanted to help out. Many of them said yes.

She also enlisted the help of her friend, local artist Marcella Swett, to draw the parents kneeling at the ends of the cage. It was Mr. Gorman’s idea to have them kneeling, and it could be interpreted as either praying, grieving or even celebrating their future release.

The butterflies are strung from the roof of her home down to the cage. They look as if they are flying upward and escaping from captivity.

It’s beyond symbolic, she said. It’s a literal representation of how these children are being imprisoned.

“The idea that a solution to our broken immigration system is systematic torture of children sanctioned by the government, that’s mind blowing,” she said. “We’ve really crossed the line.”

She has spent about a month working on the project, and all the butterflies should be installed at the end of the week. In addition to the friends who helped out, Ms. Barnes also brought butterflies to the Cheese Cave for people to color them, and friends have told her that they brought the butterflies to their children’s birthday parties so kids can color them as well.

Just like that, an entire community became involved. Ms. Barnes estimates that over 100 people have worked on the project alongside her.

“They’ve almost all said that they needed it, and it has helped them in some way,” she said. “Several people have said it’s inspiring.”

As the art piece began to take shape, Ms. Barnes said she has received honks from passing cars and support from drivers. Not a single person has said anything negative about the piece so far.

Still, in the back of her mind, she was afraid detractors would either vandalize the piece or, worse, do something to her and her family. But then she looks back on what she teaches her own children: never live your life according to what a bully thinks.

“I’ve tried to take my own advice on that,” she said, “This is not for people who support putting kids in cages. This is not for them.”

A couple of Sundays ago at Claremont United Church of Christ, where Ms. Barnes and Mr. Gorman go to worship, a pastor there spoke about spirituality and resistance, and brought up the term “sympathetic magic.” Sympathetic magic, Ms. Barnes explained, comes from Native American rain dances and the idea of bringing about change with their bodies and thoughts.

This is how Ms. Barnes sees her artwork.

“It’s my sort of manifestation of my hope that at the very least we’ll stop doing it,” she said.

But the topic has begun to fade away from the news cycle, as other stories from the White House take its place. The Trump administration has missed deadlines to reunite families. Children have been shipped to different locations across the country, sometimes hundreds of miles from their parents, and the hope of reunification is slim.

Knowing this, Ms. Barnes doesn’t know how long she plans to keep the installation up.

“I just want to leave it up until everyone is reunited, but I don’t want it to be permanent,” she said.

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com