MSU AgeAlive and MSUFCU Team Up to Bring Butterfly Art Exhibit to East Lansing

When artist Zahrah Resh entered the Grand Rapids ArtPrize competition in 2017, she never saw her artwork as more than a hobby. The only thing on her mind was the $225,000 prize awarded to the winner.

When she registered, she was given the nearby Spectrum Health Hospital as her meeting place. Resh imagined a garden of patient-made paper butterflies and installed it in the lobby of the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

She kept her mindset of collecting votes and earning money by opening the exhibition. That changed when she sparked a conversation with a man visiting the garden.

“This man got a really bad diagnosis from his doctor and he has about 18 weeks to live,” Resh recalled. “He was smiling and he said, ‘This is what I imagine heaven would look like, and I think if heaven looks like this, I’m glad to go’.”

He was far from the only one who expressed their love for the exhibit. 10-year-old boys, daughters of dying mothers and exhausted nurses all came to the garden to recharge in its beauty. It changed the way Resh viewed his artwork and showed how it could impact people.

“It’s worth over $225,000, to make people feel good,” Resh said. “Now I see that I can do things, that I have done something. It makes me very proud of myself.”

Resh didn’t win the $225,000, but she got a call from AgeAlive, an organization based at Michigan State University that connects college students with older members of the East Lansing community. They asked him to bring his exhibit to East Lansing.

As for the exhibition venue, Michigan State University Federal Credit Union donated its headquarters lobby on West Road.

This year’s edition of the garden opened on March 10, with Resh building it as ‘Artist in Residence’ at AgeAlive. It contains over 1,000 butterflies created by AgeAlive participants, MSUFCU employees, and other community members.

AgeAlive director Clare Luz said the garden serves two purposes: supporting cross-generational friendships and uplifting the community.

“It’s a way of bringing generations together, through community butterfly-making events,” Luz said. “We encouraged people to make butterflies together and write messages on them, sort of life-affirming messages or messages of hope. So it’s a good way to bring people together.

MSUFCU’s 50+ Affinity Group saw the project as an opportunity to engage their employees in a good cause and create a visually appealing environment in their lobby.

“It’s very unexpected for a lot of people when they come in,” said MSUFCU Chief Marketing Officer Deidre Davis. “Then they stop, and so many times we get reactions like, ‘Oh wow! What’s going on?’.”

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The message of the exhibition is subjective to each person who visits it.

Resh sees the garden as a place of strength. She said the butterflies people make represent resilience – a conclusion she came to when setting up the cancer center.

“In their illness, they see beauty, they see possibilities,” Resh said. “I really thought about it, because butterfly means strength, right?”

Luz, on the other hand, sees the garden as a way to celebrate the individuality of people coming together to form a whole.

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“Each butterfly is unique and you bring them together to celebrate unity,” Luz said. “It’s pretty universal that people, when they see it, it’s immediately uplifting.”

Davis takes the uniqueness of butterflies as meaning itself.

“Everything here has its own personality, its own look and its own attraction,” Davis said. “It’s a way to bring everyone together so we can celebrate everyone’s unique attributes.”

The community will have more time to celebrate the meaning of the exhibit as a new facility opens in MSU’s Horticultural Gardens on April 30. This will be the first outdoor edition, with the butterflies sporting a special coat allowing them to brave the elements.

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Reggie S. Williams