Ottawa artist raises hope in a Monarch butterfly

Three years ago, Leah Mowers received some very tough news. Her daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

“I can’t begin to describe the fear and shock we felt, ” she said.

Mowers and her family supported her daughter three years following her diagnosis. Today, her daughter is doing very well. She recently graduated from Ryerson University.

Leah Mowers, meanwhile, continues to make art. Mowers is a respected Ottawa photo-based artist. Lately her practice has taken a unique turn.

This is the final photograph in Leah Mowers series of images. It shows a Monarch butterfly and its empty chrysalis. Courtesy the artist.

There is something healing about doing art. It is at the heart or a new initiative between the Ottawa Hospital and the Ottawa Art Gallery called Creative Wellness that will, over the next few years, investigate what art and science can do together to create something positive inside the health system.

Because of her daughter’s illness and treatment, a few months ago, Mowers said she was brought into the push for Creative Wellness to “interpret what a scientist ” was doing.

The scientist in this case is Dr. John Sinclair, a neurosurgeon at the hospital who does deal with cancer of brain. He is bringing a new treatment called fluorescence image-guided surgery into the Ottawa Hospital. The procedure involves using a dye to give a brain tumour a colour so it can be seen easily and removed completely. His hope is the expand this treatment across Canada.

“What Dr. Sinclair is doing is really changing the game (in treatment of brain cancer) and it really gave me hope,” Mowers said. “I started thinking about that. And my interpretation is about bringing hope to families.”

There are similarities between doctors and artists, she said. Both think outside the box when solving a problem and creating something beautiful. This makes art and science a natural pairing. Her contact with Sinclair was limited but judging by the images created it was more than enough.

As she started thinking about her project she said she realized that hope involves a transformation of sorts.

“The caterpillar turning into a butterfly metaphor is an obvious example of a transformation.”

When she started working on this project one of the things she did was raise a caterpillar to a chrysalis and then to a butterfly.

She started work in August and it took about 14 days for the caterpillar to enter a chrysalis. Another couple of weeks she had a butterfly.

She kept the chrysalis and the caterpillar in jars and took them with her even to the cottage.

She fed the caterpillar which ate like well a … caterpillar and also produced a mountain of waste that she cleaned up every day.

“It was almost another mothering thing.”

Sadly her caterpillar, after becoming a chrysalis, didn’t make it. The other chrysalis did survive and a butterfly did emerge. She photographed the chrysalis which is small and has a beautiful green colour with a band of gold.

The beauty of a Monarch butterfly’s chrysalis is the perfect vessel for hope, Leah Mowers believes. This is a close up of her photograph which was on display at the Ottawa Art Gallery Wednesday evening.

“I photographed the process in the studio. I specifically used a (bright white) background because I wanted it to appear a little bit clinical and I thought that might be a bit more hopeful.”

She watched as the caterpillar shed his skin and turned his body into the chrysalis.

Eventually she did let the surviving butterfly go and as it flew away, she said, she experienced “the mother thing again.”

The exhibition also contains three photographs of her now 24 year old daughter in the series. She was very careful with the images she used, she said. Mowers says the hospital is trying to find a way to use the images she has created but so far that is pending.

At the end of the day, this has been quite a journey. The project sent her back into the emotions of that difficult time.

“As a mother you are head down, let’s keep going. The whole time we were going through all that treatment, I just had this feeling that she would be OK. I never doubted it.”

There’s that hope “thing” again.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.