The Monarch Butterfly is one of the most beautiful and iconic of all the butterflies, and its transformation from caterpillar to winged insect is the subject of renowned nature photographer Theresa DiMenno's latest exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science's Cockrell Butterfly Center.
Before moving onto DiMenno's work, a note from a frequent museum visitor; if at all possible get yourself to the HMNS before 10 a.m. This isn't usually a problem with me because I have a five-year-old who views sleeping past 7 a.m. the way libertarians view socialized medicine; intellectually acknowledging possible benefits but emotionally jihadist against the concept itself.
The HMNS in the morning is a thing of wonder. It's so quiet it feels reverential, and visitors get a much more direct experience from the still-fresh and unhounded volunteers. My daughter and I basically received two personalized tours of the Hall of Ancient Egypt, learning things that definitely aren't on the placards. Even the Welch Hall of Chemistry, normally somewhat cold and empty, was more fun this time around as a volunteer did one-on-one experiments with the kid. Trust me; it's worth a few hours less sleep on a Saturday.
Even the Cockrell Center was more full of life, with one staff member handing out preserved butterfly specimens for kids to hold and feel the lightness of. The butterflies also seem way more active in the morning, and after walking amongst them we went to check out Delicate Balance.
The DiMenno exhibit, running through December 1 at the museum, is dedicated to the life cycle of the Monarch. It's a relatively small series of photos, but they are captured in such a wonderful way that they tell their own little short story.
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Anyone who attended school has doubtless seen plenty of sped-up footage of the cocooning and emerging of butterflies. It's pretty standard stuff, but I don't think I've ever seen it presented with the startling attention to color and detail that DiMenno puts into her work. True, they lack the emotional oomph of movement, but the crisp pictures feel almost more real than seeing it in action in addition to allowing you time to adequately study the process with a slow eye.
It's in the colors that she truly excels as a photographer. It's a little strange how she manages to use the blurred backgrounds to add a dreamlike quality to the metamorphosis. Focused with intense scrutiny on her butterfly subjects, the backdrops turn into a swirl of vortexes in color. It's soft enough to not distract, but ethereal enough to feel like an art film. Not to mention that it only adds to the natural vibrancy of the Monarchs themselves in sharp contrast. As caterpillars and even pupae, they have a rare beauty about them not usually found even in the prettiest of insects.
Though the small showing isn't exactly worth a trip to the HMNS on its own - especially considering admission to the Cockrell Center is still an extra charge - it's definitely a peasant way to end the stroll through the artificial rainforest if you happen to have a fancy to take one. For all the wonderful, cartoonish exhibits upstairs that teach children about the lifecycles of insects, none of them do it with quite the artist flair that DiMenno manages to create.
Delicate Balance runs through December 1 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Drive.