Butterfly Effect - CODAworx

Butterfly Effect

Submitted by Merle Axelrad

Client: Los Angeles County

Location: Arcadia, CA, United States

Completion date: 2015

Artwork budget: $75,000

Project Team


Merle Axelrad


Parisa Dadmehr

Department of Public Works, Los Angeles County

Industry Resource

Paul Davis

Valley Graphics


The original brief for this public art commission was to create artwork that would enhance the entry lobby of a (still to be designed) new LA County outpatient mental health clinic. Typically my artwork is 2D; that is what I presented to the selection panel. Only after I was awarded the contract was 3D mentioned.
The lobby includes a two-story volume that is approximately 22‘x25’. I designed a large suspended sculpture,120″x200″x150″, that depicts a “monarch cluster”. Over 10,000 butterflies and leaves (hand-painted and silk-screened fiberglass and polyester) hang from 6 metal branches.


This County facility serves all - from the jilted lover to the homeless schizophrenic. They are often distraught. My first priority was that the artwork add beauty and a sense of peace to the space. The previous clinic was dark and unwelcoming. This new clinic has a glorious light-filled two-story lobby that I wanted to enhance that with a swell of color and brightness.

Mental health is all about change, movement and metamorphosis. Some say that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the planet might cause a tsunami on the other side - the Butterfly Effect. Small changes have the potential to create much larger changes—in our own lives, the lives of others and the environment. Monarch butterflies, familiar to most Californians, are the perfect metaphor. Besides their own individual metamorphosis, they are constantly moving. Traveling great distances every year, they rest along the California coast. Overwintering in clusters hanging from the trees, they wait for the right time to move on - to change. Rest and change, rest and change....

Looking up, you are surrounded by fluttering butterflies. With nature as my starting point, the artwork is optimistic while being both energetic and calming.


Focusing on the concept of CHANGE, I led several workshops with clinic clients and staff. Their written thoughts about change, along with those of members of the Arts Commission, the Dept. of Public Works, and the construction team, were printed on 700 hand-painted and hand-cut fabric leaves, thanks to the help of my assistant, Mary McFarland.
We also handpainted over 3000 sheets of fiberglass and polyester which were then silkscreened with my drawings of butterflies. One fabricator die-cut the butterflies; another water-jet-cut the aluminum branches.
Then those leaves and butterflies were assembled into strands. Each strand had been designed and specifically located in collaboration with a 3D graphics designer, Paul Davis. Over 100 different people helped me assemble the strands at a series of “Butterfly Parties”. It truly took a village!

The project also focuses on the diminishing monarch population. The wall-mounted “Art/Science Panel” shows how the clinic sits in the monarch flyway. It describes how an individual might help reverse this population crisis by planting milkweed. Working with MonarchWatch.org, I distributed packets of milkweed seeds (600 packets) to everyone who helped with the project. It is all about the “Butterfly Effect”.

Additional Information

At the sculpture’s dedication I had the chance to speak to many people, from the mayor to supervisors to some clients/patients. My favorite conversation was with the guy who checks through your bags after you’ve passed through the metal detector. He told me that in the previous building he always tried to say something nice to the visitor - something to put a smile on their face, something to balance the cold unwelcoming lobby. He told me he didn’t have to do that anymore. The person would come in, look up at the butterflies, and smile. ‘Makes me smile too.