Butterfly mural seeks to educate kids on imperiled monarchs

Monarchs, the distinctive black-and-red butterflies that brighten Ridgefield’s gardens and parks every summer with their technicolor hues, are having a tough time.

That’s the impression Victor DeMasi, a teacher and muralist at the Ridgefield Guild of Artists, gave to students July 20. The fragile creatures are the subject of a mural completed by kids in his summer art class, which he hopes will raise awareness of the monarchs’ plight.

“This is about the butterflies migrating to Mexico,” said DeMasi, who teaches a six-week art camp for kids at the guild. Monarchs, he said “are having a very difficult time. Their population has really declined in the last 25 years.”

He said the project intends to “build an awareness of conservation” for the kids, “but at the same time have fun.”

The mural depicts a sky filled with bright red-and-black monarchs, their wings edged with white polka-dots, being released by young girls in black silhouette. Two small dachshunds leap and play about at their feet.

Ruby Saloom, one of DeMasi’s pupils, said the monarchs were fun to draw — but are “more [fun] to paint” because of the bright colors.

“I kinda like the white dots along the edges, they’re all different sizes,” the rising eighth-grader told The Press. Part of the allure is the fact that the insects are “bi-symmetrical,” Ruby said — they’re exactly the same on both sides.

‘Perfect storm’

DeMasi paints a grim picture for the butterflies

“You ever see the movie ‘Perfect Storm’?” DeMasi asked. He suggested it was an apt metaphor for the monarchs current plight. The problems facing the butterflies, which range across most of North America, including parts of Mexico and Canada, are threefold, he explained.

The first issue is deforestation at the monarchs’ southern migratory destination — “they go to an area of about a hundred acres in the mountains of central Mexico, and the Mexicans have been cutting down the forest there,” DeMasi said. “The forest is such that it gets very cold in the winter, but it doesn’t freeze for a long time.” Cutting large areas of forest has caused “localized climate change,” that throws off that delicate temperature balance, he explained, meaning temperatures drop and the butterflies die.

The butterflies’ food supply is also in danger. As caterpillars, the young monarchs feed exclusively on milkweed, a toxic weed that makes the caterpillars and butterflies likewise toxic to many predators. “In the Midwest [of the United States] they basically cleared all of the conservation strips between the fields, and that’s where all the milkweed was growing,” DeMasi said. “There’s almost no monarchs left in the Midwest.”

As for Connecticut, open areas and meadows have given way to lawns, he said, further shortening the caterpillars food supply.

The caterpillars’ food supply is also competing with an invasive species, black swallow wort, in the same family, which the monarch larvae are unable to feed on when they hatch, DeMasi said.

Mary Harold, the guild’s vice president, noted that the camp is now in its ninth year. “I think it’s a fabulous camp,” she said, noting that DeMasi is “a real professional.”

“It’s an ability to turn fun summer camp into maybe something that has a little more lasting information,” said DeMasi. “Keeping ’em busy so they’re not on the streets.”