Experience the Butterfly Effect During AgeAlive’s Active Exhibit Creation with Artist Zahrah Resh

A picture of artist Zahrah Resh's first paper butterfly garden.
Photo: courtesy Zahrah Resh

By: Gregory Teachout

An eight-year-old boy approached artist Zahrah Resh in the Cancer Pavilion of the hospital. She had been creating bright, handmade paper butterflies and installing them in the Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion for twelve hours a day, all week. Her goal had been to transform the lobby of the Cancer Pavilion into a garden teeming with paper flora and fauna, and maybe win Grand Rapids’ prestigious Art Prize competition in the process. 

The boy asked for a butterfly to take to his dad. “You know, butterflies are your ride to heaven, and my dad needs this one,” said the boy. As part of her butterfly garden concept, cancer patients--and eventually doctors and nurses--would write messages of hope, longing, and uncertainty in the creases between the butterflies’ wings. The messages were tucked away, suspended among thousands of others. The butterflies provided a means of expressing things that were impossible to say otherwise.

Resh’s artistic practice had begun as a solitary, personal urge. For Resh, art had been about creating beautiful artifacts as an act of expression. But the patients kept approaching her. The things they said were shattering. 

“If this is heaven, that’s where I want to be,” said a cancer patient in his eighties. The experience changed her.

“I don’t know how to say ‘goodbye,’” said a husband about his wife.

“When I did Art Prize, it was like, $250,000 prize, yeah, I’m going to win that,” says Resh. “But it’s turned upside down. The cancer patients were just so thrilled to have that garden built. It’s a very healing and transforming project. It transformed me. I forgot about the $250,000. One patient came up to me when we were installing it and said, ‘Now I know what happy feels like.’”

Now, Resh is using the concept in partnership with MSU’s AgeAlive program, the MSU Broad’s Art Lab, and the Hannah Community Center to deliver her unique vision of participatory art to local residents. 

AgeAlive is a program within the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine, led by Dr. Clare Luz, dedicated to providing resources on aging well and building intergenerational experiences, both on campus and in the local community. Resh is honored to be this year’s AgeAlive Artist-in-Residence. 

As part of her Residency, Resh will be hosting an event at the MSU Broad Art Lab July 23-28, from 12pm-4pm each day, called “Create a Butterfly Garden with AgeAlive.” The event is free and open to the public.  

Community members of all ages are strongly encouraged to stop in and paint, fold, and write messages on butterflies to add to the “Garden” that will be installed at the Hannah Community Center lobby in early September. The garden will be officially revealed at an event on September 5, from 5:30-7:00pm in the HCC lobby.   

Resh is also hosting a special butterfly garden workshop as part of the Art Lab’s regular Thursday evening Studio (in)Process events on July 25 from 6-9pm.  

Resh is passionate about AgeAlive’s efforts to provide means of expression for people of all ages in part because she identifies as a “late-blooming artist.” Her parents wanted her to be a banker like her brother or an attorney like her sister. She went to MSU and earned her bachelor’s degree in business. But her interests always gravitated toward art: she is excited about the bass guitar her husband gave her for her 50th birthday, and about the stage play she plans to write when she finds time. Now that she has shed her identity as a “solitary artist,” she is eager to meet new people in the community and create with them.

As an artist who also works closely with the local Boys and Girls Club, she knows the cathartic power of art is just as vital for young people. “Art teaches you problem solving and creative thinking,” says Resh. “It relieves your stress. And the kids just love to paint. They just want you to acknowledge them. When I say, ‘Look how beautiful!’ I think they love me forever for saying that. They just want to be noticed and be accepted for what they do. It really affects me.”

Stop by the MSU Broad Art Lab or visit the Age Alive website for more details on how you can participate in the newest incarnation of the butterfly garden, get involved with AgeAlive, and meet Zahrah Resh. 

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MSU WorkLife Office and the College of Osteopathic Medicine are proud to support the mission of AgeAlive.