Curator Collection: Announcing Mike MacDonald, Anchor Artist at Nocturne 2020

Lindsay Ann Cory
Posted on July 23rd, 2020
by Lindsay Ann Cory

Shé:kon, hello,

I began working on the Anchor Artist programme this past March when the virus arrived here, and our community of K’jipuktuk/Halifax went into lockdown. During that time, we were finding ways to connect in isolation and globally witnessing people singing from balconies and clanging pots and pans as they cheered for health care workers in cities that were otherwise eerily quiet. We heard the news of skies and waterways clearing up, and of nature having more space to breathe and expand.

Do you remember this time?

It was in this moment that I connected with the first Anchor project — a project that has ultimately become the heart of the entire programme: Mike MacDonald’s Touched By The Tears of a Butterfly. Mike MacDonald (1941- 2006) is a Mi’kmaq media artist and gardener who planted butterfly and medicinal plant gardens throughout Turtle Island, many outside art centres and public galleries.

Mike MacDonald’s Digital Garden. Detail of placemat series 4 (1997) MSVU Art Gallery.

When I was an artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts in 2016, I spent a lot of time in Mike’s Butterfly Garden there. I experienced Mike’s art years prior through his media art installations - which often incorporated plants and animals as well as Indigenous knowledge - yet sitting in that garden welcomed me into a possibility of what art truly is.

Between the Lougheed Building and Glyde Hall, the garden at the Banff Centre is part of the permanent collection of the Walter Phillips Gallery. I laughed when I learned this, as many permanent collection works are vaulted and preserved so they can be available to be witnessed in exhibitions for years to come. The butterfly garden cannot be put in a vault, as it is a living artwork that thrives on change and the interaction of a myriad of elements and beings. I loved learning that some of the institution’s responsibility and caretaking around this work is learning about the plants and insects, weeding and education. Preservation here is a collaborative openness between humans and more-than-human kin, which creates a space for gathering, healing, contemplation, slow observation and listening.

Art is living reciprocity.

Video of Mike MacDonald’s Butterfly Garden at the Banff Centre for the Arts

MacDonald’s interest in butterflies began when he felt unwell, and an elder suggested, “When you are not feeling good you go find a butterfly and follow it and it will lead you to a medicine that will make you better.”¹

Touched By The Tears of a Butterfly is a silent video that features a Monarch butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. “The tears of the butterfly are bodily wastes that accumulate during metamorphosis. Released, they break the seal of the chrysalis and allow the butterfly to emerge.”²

The video is a simple and direct presentation that foregrounds the wisdom of the butterfly’s process with no explanation, no translation, no human interpretation. The work creates a quiet space for relationships to emerge, and demonstrates that Mike’s apprenticeship to butterflies and plants was truly one of respect and listening.

With the theme of Echolocation, I wanted to encourage more sound-oriented art this year. Yet it’s completely intentional that the heart of the festival will be a silent video piece, as silence is the space from which all sound emerges and returns to. Silence, I feel, also makes us more aware of our listening. In a world where much is asking for our attention, can we simply wonder at the wisdom that is inherent in the quiet, vulnerable emergence of a butterfly? Can we be with our listening?

Mike MacDonald’s Digital Garden. Detail of placemat series 5 (1997) MSVU Art Gallery: “Digital Garden was an installation composed of a video projection and laser-printed photographs depicting Eastern Canadian butterflies and the plant species on which they depend. Indigenous plants have been planted on campus to attract local species of butterfly. Each plant favoured by butterflies has a medicinal use.”

Indigenous botanist and storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is also an Anchor Artist this year, said in a conversation with Robert Macfarlane for Emergence Magazine:

"The pandemic has had me thinking a great deal about how the vulnerability our species is experiencing could be an opening to imagining the threat and constriction that is the reality for so many other species, and often at our hands.”

Globally, insect pollinators, including butterflies, have been declining, which has an enormous impact on the sustainability of ecosystems and food production. All life on this planet is dependent on the ongoing process of pollination.

The butterflies and plants enact a sustainable way of being in the world, and of relating. In particular, Monarchs eat the toxins in milkweed to protect themselves from predators and reciprocate the generosity through pollination. This exchange makes their incredible, almost 5000km migrations possible — both species are able to reproduce and transmit their wisdom of connection through generations because of this reciprocal relationship.

Through his devotion to the butterflies and plants, Mike MacDonald engaged in ongoing practices of care, reciprocity and respect for the land and our more-than-human kin, and shared this reality of interconnectedness with others. I am very grateful to be sharing Touched By The Tears of a Butterfly at Nocturne this year.

To learn more about Mike’s work, I highly recommend you read Katherine Ylitalo’s piece “Mike MacDonald’s Butterfly Garden” about his garden at the Banff Centre for the Arts:

Mike MacDonald


(1941- July 17, 2006) Born in Sydney, Nova Scotia, MacDonald is of Mi’kmaq ancestry. Mike drove across Canada every year working as a video installation artist and gardener in addition to pursuing photography and new media projects. Self-taught, he focused on the environment, incorporating plants and animals in his artworks. He found inspiration in both his aboriginal ancestry and Western sources, drawing from science as well as traditional medicine and ethnobotany.

His works have been featured in exhibitions worldwide at such venues as the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona and the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, France. In 1994, he was awarded the prestigious Jack and Doris Shadbolt Prize from the Vancouver Institute for Visual Arts and in 2000 he received the first Aboriginal Achievement Award for New Media presented at the Toronto imagiNATIVE Festival. MacDonald’s most renowned projects include the butterfly gardens he has planted across Canada since the early 1990s. They are tactile living examples of his devotion to and admiration of the environment.

Inspiration to create the gardens can be seen in his video installation works, most notably in Touched by the Tears of a Butterfly (1994). This installation features silent videotape in a loop projected in front of a set of rocking chairs. The video follows the life of a butterfly, from its existence as a caterpillar until it bursts from its cocoon as a colorful winged insect. MacDonald has also been recognized for presenting some of the most touching installations on Aboriginal heritage and community. For example, Electronic Totem (1987) showcased a stack of five video monitors, one on top of the other, depicting the contemporary life of an Aboriginal community in British Columbia.

Mike's careful, positive storytelling, as well as his tender regard for nature and the quiet goings-on of the butterfly, has built him a reputation as one of the more significant contemporary artists in Canada.

Mike MacDonald (photo by Sheila Spence)

1 From LandViews interview by John Grande, “Mike MacDonald: Healing Garden”
2 Excerpted from Robin Metcalfe’s curatorial essay “Mike MacDonald Digital Garden,” which can be read here: and the website for the project is here: