Flint, MI—On a recent visit from England, artists Christian Fenn and Hayley Garner, otherwise known as SECA ONE and AYLO NOMAD, took time out of painting murals with a local nonprofit to further Fenn’s budding project: spreading hope after hard times.
The project, called “The Butterfly Effected,” is a blend of street art and storytelling.
The artwork is simple. It depicts one or multiple brightly colored butterflies in semi-random locations—the side of a building, a lamppost, an electrical box—wherever passersby might glance and think, “What is this about?”
Those curious enough may take a closer look, and that’s where the storytelling comes in.
The spray-painted butterflies hover near a QR code linking the viewer to a website full of real people’s stories after dealing with difficulty. The narratives, submitted under first-name only, center around overcoming addiction, illness, loss, and other human struggles.
“The idea being,” explained Garner, “people who are going through troubles will read this and realize that they’re not on their own and that people do come out the other side.”
Fenn added, “It’s like using art as a vehicle to spread positivity and hope.”
Phase One: The Egg
The Butterfly Effected was imagined from Fenn’s own experience with addiction, a part of his life which the artist openly discusses after over a decade sober.
“I effectively died in the process,” Fenn said of his turning point. He’d been using hard drugs for roughly 14 years and ultimately had a seizure that landed him in intensive care and psychiatric wards.
He now keeps a video of himself while he still used drugs on his cellphone. In it, he looks skeletal. His cheeks are sunken, skin pale. His tongue and mouth are a deep shade of blue from “some drug” he’d ingested earlier in the night. He can barely move or speak.
It’s hard to watch, let alone imagine living through.
“When you’re in that place, and there’s no one to kind of, there’s no one—” Fenn paused, looking to Garner.
“You feel like no one else could possibly understand what you’re going through,” Garner said. “But actually, if you’ve got this [project] that you can read, and you can see that actually, there are other people going through this: you’re not so isolated.”
“There are people who come out of it,” he said. “There is a beacon of light.”
Phase Two: The Caterpillar
Fenn and Garner said they’d been discussing the potential project for the better part of a year but only started putting paint to surface recently.
“It came to fruition about three months ago in the U.K.,” Fenn said, noting that his first butterflies adorn a mental health hospital back home. “We’ve not really kind of pushed it yet, but I think it’s going to have legs the way people adapt and share it.”
Despite not having a full idea of how to grow the project from Blackpool, England, when Garner was invited back to Flint for her annual work with the Flint Public Art Project (FPAP), she decided to invite Fenn along.
“I’ve been to Flint nearly every year since 2018, sometimes twice a year,” Garner explained. She’d already painted many murals with FPAP, hosted workshops at Southwestern High School and participated in a mini-documentary about street art in the area.
So, she said, she knew Flint had its own struggles and its own beauty, and therefore the city seemed a perfect place to expand a project focused on hope and positivity despite circumstances.
Once stateside, Fenn said the pair toured a recovery center and spoke with a few community leaders in Flint and Saginaw, Mich. before deciding on locations to place butterflies.
He said he likes to put the artwork near rehabilitation facilities and hospitals because he knows from experience those are locations from which the journey ahead seems particularly long and difficult.
“That’s the idea,” he said in a heavy northern English accent. “Wherever I go, I want to kind of tap into them areas [first], and then start spreading the stories around.”
But, Fenn added, he hopes that anyone and everyone will come across the project’s butterflies, benefit from reading others’ accounts of recovery or achievement, and later share their own story, too.
“It’s like passing on the baton,” he said.
Phases Three and Four: From Chrysalis to Butterfly
The concept of “the butterfly effect” began with a question posed by American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norten Lorenz: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”
While pop-culture has perhaps misinterpreted Lorenz’s intended point about chaos theory, the term has now come to represent how seemingly small actions (like painting a few butterflies on a lamppost) can have much greater impact (such as helping someone through recovery).
“At the minute, [the project] is just a platform where people can share their stories,” Garner said.
“But hopefully,” Fenn added, “in the next, say, five to 10 years … it’s like a wellbeing platform for the world.”
So far The Butterfly Effected has been spray-painted in alleyways of the United Kingdom, on electrical boxes and buildings in Flint and Saginaw, Mich. and a school and bakery in Mexico.
Fenn said the pair will be working on sites in Miami next, and he’s starting to think about what the project will become more largely.
“Everything’s kind of changing and adapting as we’re going along,” Fenn said, adding that they’re looking into the possibility of obtaining nonprofit status.
For now though, Garner and Fenn have begun working with a website designer and social media marketer. Fenn said he’s also getting calls from UK-based entrepreneurs about financing the project longer-term, and he’s considering setting up a crowd-funding campaign to create and patent a stencil of the project’s butterfly design.
That way, he said, The Butterfly Effected could offer “stencil packs” to people interested in painting butterflies in their cities, and he and Garner wouldn’t need to rely on commissions or their own pocketbooks to further the project’s message across the world.
“We’re just gonna see which way it goes,” Fenn concluded. A fair approach given that the project is named for the unpredictability of a small change’s potential effect on the world around it.