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Over 4,000 black butterflies installed at the Dubuque Museum of Art

Artist Jill Wells stands in the lobby of the Dubuque Museum of Art, between two walls decorated with patterns of black butterflies.
Andrew Clements, Carter Larson, Tobias Tyler
/
Good Vibes Media, Tobias Tyler Photography
Artist Jill Wells stands in the lobby of the Dubuque Museum of Art on day two of the installation of BLACK THREAD.

Over 4,000 black butterflies adorn the lobby of the Dubuque Museum of Art in a new, immersive exhibition created by Des Moines-based artist, mentor and activist Jill Wells.

The long, winding patterns of winged insects along the walls and ceiling aren't sporadic. They trace the paths taken during the Great Migration, a period from roughly 1910-1970 in which six million African Americans moved away from the mistreatment they experienced in the rural south to industrial cities in other parts of the country.

"It's a very immersive experience," Wells said. "The walls of the museum become the spaces of those sections of the map to be broken down, so the butterflies move across those certain segments from the south to the north, so each wall takes you along that journey."

Artist Jill Wells stands on her tiptoes while assisted with putting up a string of black butterflies.
Andrew Clements, Carter Larson, Tobias Tyler
/
Good Vibes Media, Tobias Tyler Photography
Artist Jill Wells is assisted with putting up a string of black butterflies.

The exhibition, titled BLACK THREAD, will open on Jan. 15. — Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. It's the first of the museum's new annual series that will highlight BIPOC and African American artists.

Wells' exhibition coincides with the research of Ricki King, a forensic genealogist and historian based in Windsor Heights who documents the lineages of Black families in Iowa. Both with ancestral ties to the Great Migration, the two worked together to research and contextualize migration narratives and personal histories through their practices.

It took Wells two full days to put up the installation. The ribboned paths of the butterflies, made of flexible plastic, end on an old sewing machine once owned by Wells' maternal grandmother, where they weave two flags: the African American flag and a black and white version of the American flag.

"BLACK THREAD is designed to raise questions about freedom, about family stories, knowledge of self, transformation, and then there's a component that goes into the larger conversation behind this movement of six million people, when we're looking at labor and the U.S. economy," Wells said. "That's where the sewing machine comes in to play."

"You have a full sensory experience that I feel makes it more immersive and accessible to as many people as possible."
Jill Wells, artist and activist

A book is written in Braille as part of the BLACK THREAD exhibition
Andrew Clements, Carter Larson, Tobias Tyler
/
Good Vibes Media, Tobias Tyler Photography
A Braille book written for the BLACK THREAD exhibition by Instructional Materials Services Librarian Karen Cunningham and Instructional Material Braille Transcriber Jerry Cole with the Iowa Department for the Blind.

While exploring, visitors can gently touch the butterflies. Those who wish can listen to immersive audio descriptions provided by the Iowa Radio Reading Information Services. The Iowa Department for the Blind has also created a Braille version of the experience that can be followed along as well. A virtual tour is available online.

"You have a full sensory experience that I feel makes it more immersive and accessible to as many people as possible," Wells said.

BLACK THREAD will remain open through Feb. 12. A conversation between Wells and King being held on Jan. 15 has sold out, but the public is invited to attend the opening celebration to follow at the museum.

Editor's note: Dubuque Museum of Art is an underwriter of IPR.

Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.