In the summer of 2017, Josie Lewis raised butterflies with her husband, Ryan Lucey, and 5-year-old daughter, Gigi.
They started with only a few monarch eggs Gigi found in their neighborhood. By summer’s end, they released about 125 monarchs.
“It was amazing to watch the whole process,” Lewis said. “Since the numbers have been decreasing so much in recent years, it was a pleasure to boost the population in our modest way.”
But Lewis’ connection to butterflies goes beyond her bustling miniature butterfly farm. This symbol of transformation and growth is also reflected in Josie Lewis’ art, which has taken her on a journey from grief and darkness to rebirth. In 2015, Lewis’ second child was stillborn at 37 weeks, a devastating loss.
“Anybody can connect with butterflies and the themes of transformation,” Lewis said with a tearful smile. “It’s the phoenix idea of being blown up, then getting reborn.”
Lewis recently finished a commissioned mosaic mural on the walls of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, featuring 18 native Minnesotan butterflies and moths immortalized in 200,000 colorful tiles. The yearlong process took just over a month to install in Concourse F as part of an arts improvement project to the airport.
“Josie is amazing,” said Robyne Robinson, art consultant for the project. “This was her first time creating in glass tile and she knocked it out of the park. It’s breathtaking.”
“I love that it can be something that people can respond to when they’re in a transitional phase, which of course is travel,” Lewis said. “Everyone is in various types of transition in their life.”
After getting married and giving birth to Gigi in 2013, Lewis felt lost in her art career. She had degrees in art from Bethel University and the University of Minnesota, but she felt uncertain about whether art was the right field for her. Things got worse after the stillbirth. The couple kept trying to have another child, without success.
“For two years there, everything sucked,” Lewis said. “I was dealing with grief and the physical strain of what I was going through. Dealing with that and being a first-time mom with a toddler was tough. I felt like I wasn’t really meant to be an artist, either.”
To cope, she started making videos of herself in her art studio, doing simple things with color. She created geometric designs, water colors and bright collages. By investing herself completely in the artistic process, she would get into a “flow state,” she said, that helped her feel normal — even if only for a moment.
“In all the hormonal pain I was in, and the difficulty I was emotionally facing at the time, just being at the table and messing around with color, not intending to show it, was like writing in a journal,” Lewis said.
At the end of 2016, after a number of miscarriages, the couple decided it was time to move on. Lewis started to upload her art videos to Instagram and, to her surprise, quickly gained a massive following.
A scroll through her Instagram feed (@josielewisart) shows a mesmerizing world filled with rainbows, bright colors and beautiful designs. She entertains more than 400,000 followers with daily 45-second clips where she creates bold geometric designs.
Making art feels like a 45-minute meditation session for Lewis. Her fans feel similarly when watching the videos. Lewis said she gets messages from people around the world who say the short clips of her creating art relieve their anxiety and makes them feel calm. Lewis hopes that she can inspire her unexpected social media following to find a creative outlet of some kind in their lives.
“It doesn’t have to be realism that takes years to make. I can just go paint something simple like triangles just for pleasure,” Lewis said. “If all I do is inspire 17-year-olds to paint and feel better about themselves, I’m winning.”
Lewis wants to show those struggling that there is a way through pain, even in the darkest times.
“Everybody is going to experience something that hurts,” she said. “But you can find your way.”
For the first time in two years, Lewis doesn’t have a commission to complete or a book to write. She’s ready to take a step back and breathe, to let go and migrate to the next stop on her journey.
But she’ll likely take every chance she has to go back and admire the project that has come to symbolize her life.
“I’ve already used up all my escorts to go back and see it,” Lewis said with a hearty laugh.
“In some of the darkest moments, I had the most poignant relationships with art and nature’s beauty.”
Alex Smith is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.