The Butterfly Effect: Creative Connections in the Work of VLM
June 2023, by Meg Burns, Curatorial Administrative Assistant, Blanton Museum of Art
In both her day job and her expansive artistic practice, Virginia L. Montgomery (VLM, b.1986) is keenly attuned to the symbols that populate our world. Working as a graphic facilitator, VLM is responsible for translating the key ideas and insights of a conversation onto a large visual mural or infographic. It is not uncommon to find VLM working at a giant white foam core board just offstage during presentations at SXSW, TED Talks, or innovation conferences. Here, symbols serve a utilitarian function, summarizing complex thoughts and recording proceedings for future engagement in legible pictographic shorthand. “The value in graphic facilitation is that it provides meeting attendees an opportunity to really engage with the content. And more importantly: actually remember it,” she says.
Within her videos, sculptures, sound designs, and performance pieces, VLM’s symbolic language evolves into something surreal, cryptic, and often nonhuman. “My artwork is much more of a space for my own subconscious to run amok,” the artist says. A disembodied ponytail whips around a pristine hotel room; a DeWalt power drill buzzes circles into walls; honey drips down the screen; brilliantly colored luna moths emerge from their cocoons. The reference points for some of her motifs are recognizable—the ponytail, for example, recalls VLM’s own blonde hair, professionally pulled back and facing the audience during graphic facilitation sessions—while others are purposefully vague or undefined.
While her creations are allowed to develop a life and meaning of their own, VLM nevertheless builds these worlds with deep intentionality. Each action taken in VLM’s films has been mapped and planned, often sketched out or storyboarded to guide her production. The artist herself is implicated in her work, often acting on screen as her corporate alter ego, the Business Witch. Other times, she is present as a disembodied, French-manicured hand holding a power drill or reaching for a pastry. VLM transforms her corporate labor into creative output, reclaiming her own agency in the process.
Sequestered at home in Texas during the pandemic, the artist began obsessively hand-raising native species of moths and butterflies. For VLM, “moths and butterflies are fantastic living embodiments of how symbols can be communicated or stay stagnant over thousands of years.” The bold eyespots on butterfly wings evolved millions of years ago as both warning signs for predators and enticements for potential mates. In global cultures, the butterfly has held important roles in creation stories, mythology, and contemporary tradition. VLM’s lepidopteran companions carry all of these associations, in addition to the traces of her careful tending.
The “butterfly effect”—the idea that one small action, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, could enact large-scale change—inspired Butterfly Birth Bed (2020), one of three videos on view at the Blanton as part of the exhibition Day Jobs. In 2017, VLM was home with her family in Houston during Hurricane Harvey’s devastating collision with the Gulf Coast. She helplessly watched her childhood home flood with storm waters. Faced with the ever-present threat of increasing environmental disaster, VLM contemplated how her work might compel a better future into existence.
In Butterfly Birth Bed, a circular drill bit threateningly pierces images of Hurricane Harvey, causing the storm to spin again. A tiny replica of VLM’s own Shaker bed rests between the cloudy images. Hanging between the bed posts are chrysalises from which beautiful black and orange butterflies have begun to emerge. The newborn insects flit atop the swirling clouds, slowly flapping their wings as if to quell the hurricane. Butterfly Birth Bed feels almost like a spell casting, an invocation of the power of interspecies connection and care in the face of unthinkable crisis.
VLM’s work is more easily experienced than described. Her installations aim to fully engage the viewer’s senses with captivating visuals and ASMR-like sound recordings. Whether interrogating the absurdities of creative labor or raising familiars like her moths to intervene on behalf of climate justice, VLM and her exquisitely-crafted worlds refute the limitations of the present and propose creative solutions for the future.
Check out VLM’s Butterfly Birth Bed, Innovation Porthole (2015) and Pony Cocoon (2019), on view in the Film & Video Gallery as part of Day Jobs through August 27, 2023. Click to listen to a full-length interview with the artist about her day job and video works via YouTube.
1 Interview with former Blanton Mellon fellow Francesca Balboni for the Blanton’s audio interviews with artists in Day Jobs, March 22, 2021. The full-length interview can be heard via YouTube.