Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired: Linda Kunick

In honor of Women’s History Month, Great Parks is celebrating eight local woman artists who find creative inspiration from the natural world around them.

Meet Linda Kunick

Linda Kunick
Linda Kunick (provided)

Linda Kunick, also known as the Butterfly Lady, is an artist, an art teacher, and an advocate for people with disabilities. She is best known for her joyful and vibrantly colorful drawings of butterflies. Not only does Linda receive great artistic inspiration from the beauty of butterflies, but she also resonates strongly with what they represent: transformation and surprising strength.

The views and opinions expressed in the interview are those of the artist and do not represent the views or positions of Great Parks.

Great Parks: Why butterflies? Why has that been such a recurring and important art subject for you?

Linda Kunick: Well, it came from before I did art. Butterflies made me feel I could do anything I wanted. I could go anywhere I wanted to go. I could be brave. And that is what brought me here. I didn’t draw butterflies at first like I do now. I did clay butterflies with my friend Ruth. And when I started doing butterflies on paper, they got so big! Everybody knows me as the Butterfly Lady. They would know my name, but they would remember “Oh yeah, that’s the butterfly lady.” And that made me feel good.

GP: So, before you ever started doing art, you’re saying butterflies were an inspiring image to you. Can you speak more on that? You said they made you feel like you could do anything …

LK: Well, I can go back to when I did a weekend mass walk, a walk to Jesus. I did that after my mother died. Well, after my parents died. My sister, Debbie, went with me and I didn’t realize what I went there for, but I went cause Debbie went. But I didn’t know I was going to get something from it. And Sunday was my last day, and you have to talk about what you’re gonna do with the rest of your life and I said Debbie is gonna do all the talking and I’m gonna do all the hugging. Well, it went reverse. Now I do more talking than Debbie does. And when I found Jesus on Saturday afternoon – I already had Jesus but I just found him again – well that took me many places. And now I can do anything I want.

GP: Why did you assume Debbie would do all the talking and you would do all the hugging?

LK: Cause I would have never talked to you before that.

GP: How come?

LK: I was very shy. So, Debbie would do the talking and I would hug everybody. That’s why I said that. But it went reverse.

GP: I think a lot of people feel inspired by butterflies. Why do you think that is? What is it about butterflies that make people feel this way?

LK: They are so little, and they fly so far! There’s two places they go. I saw butterflies in California, and they fly to another place … .

GP: Are you talking about the monarchs? Is it Mexico?

LK: Yeah! And I would love to see that. When I went [to California] it was so cold that week. They were there. But they were in the tree. So, you couldn’t see them as well. And when you look at them, they are so pretty. A lot of times when I see a butterfly, I stay and stare and watch them for a long time. I don’t touch them, but I watch them for a long, long time. And then I can go away and feel really good about it.

GP: Butterflies don’t start their lives as butterflies. They transform. They start as one thing and transform into something else. How do you relate to that?

LK: When I was growing up, I wanted to be like my sisters. And I was in a cocoon. And I couldn’t get out of the cocoon. There’s no way I could get outa there. I wanted to be just like my two sisters. But I knew I can’t be just like my two sisters. I wanted to be, and I couldn’t be. Cause I have a disability, and when you have a disability, you don’t do a lot of stuff that you want to do. In your mind you want to do it, but when you try it, you can’t do it. That was a big thing for me when I was growing up. “Be like Debbie and Sandy.” And after the weekend of Jesus … .

GP: How old were you then? 

LK: I was in my 40s, maybe 50s. When I did the weekend, that cocoon came off, and I would talk more, and I would do more that I would not do before. A lot of stuff I do today I would not have done at that time.

GP: Like what kind of stuff?

LK: I wouldn’t go anywhere by myself. Today I will, but I couldn’t go to a restaurant. How can I order food? That was my problem. Cause I don’t read. And then when you find out you can go in a restaurant, you didn’t want to ask what was on the menu. But you know there’s always one thing that will be on the menu … .

GP: What’s that?

LK: Hamburgers and french fries. So, I ate a lot of hamburgers and french fries that year. Because you could ask for that and know it would be on the menu.

GP: There were things you couldn’t do before that you do now, that you never would have thought about doing before. You mentioned traveling to see the monarchs. What are some other trips you’ve taken?

LK: My first airplane ride was when I was 19 and I was going to Washington, and I went with my sister, so that was not the same cause I went with my sister. But the second time I went on an airplane, I went to Michigan by myself with a ground assistant from the airport. My mom didn’t want me to go. She did everything in her heart to get me to do something else. But I went. And when I got off the airplane, I felt good. I did it! By myself. With ground assistance. At that time, if you asked for ground assistance, a wheelchair would come, right? Well, I didn’t want to get in the wheelchair because I don’t need a wheelchair! I can walk. But they want you to be in a wheelchair. There’s no option. Now, I’ll get in the wheelchair. But back then, that was not in my thinking. And they got awful mad cause I didn’t wanna get in the wheelchair. But in their mind, you need a wheelchair. So, I just take the wheelchair now.

GP: People can still need help without needing a wheelchair! What about trips you take with the church?

LK: I would have never done that if I didn’t take the weekend with Jesus. I never would have said yes to that trip to Nicaragua.

GP: So, what kinds of things did you do in Nicaragua? What projects were you working on?

LK: We took baby clothes, and we gave them to the mothers who just had a baby. Everday someone would go to the hospital and give [clothes] to the ladies or young girls that just had a baby. And then I was making pocket crosses. You make these things with a pocket, and it has a cross inside and then you have a note, and you give them out. And that always gave me the thrill of giving stuff out to them. I got a thrill to do that.

GP: Can we talk about your artwork? What kinds of materials do you use? What kinds of art are you making?

LK: I only make butterflies. Now people will say, “Can you make this?” No, I cannot do that. I can’t copy from a picture. And I don’t worry about it. I don’t worry about that kind of stuff. I just like to make butterflies. And I love to put butterflies on top of butterflies. And I use a lot of colors. I always buy colored pencils. Every time we go shopping, I have to buy pencils. Debbie says, “You have enough,” and I always tell her I can never have enough pencils. Never enough pencils!

GP: Other than drawing, what have you worked on? 

LK: I’ve made a lot of pottery for my fundraiser [to go to Nicaragua]. I wanted to make a lot of plates for my fundraiser, to sell. So, me and my friend Seana, every day we would sit and make the plates for the fundraiser. I carved the butterflies in the plate. And then she showed me how to do the bottom. Seana knows a lot about clay. And my goal is to make a lamp with clay. I’ve been looking for a butterfly lamp for a long time.

GP: I want to ask you about your relationship with nature and the natural world and being inspired by what we find outdoors.

LK: I love to walk. I always did like to walk. I walk many places.

GP: What inspires you about the walks?

LK: Well firstly, you can go by yourself. You can leave when you want to. And that’s my biggest thing, you can leave when you want to. Because people with a disability, they can’t leave when they want to. They have to wait for their [support] person. So, when I decided to walk, I’d say “Oh, I’m gonna leave at 10 o’clock,” and I did leave at 10 o’clock.

GP: So, you found some freedom in walking?

LK: Yes.

GP: And during your walks, what kinds of things were you seeing, smelling, and experiencing? What kinds of things did you bring back to your artwork?

LK: I look at all the flowers around. I look at all the houses. And I love looking at the sky.

A bright, colorful drawing of a butterfly by Linda Kunick.
Provided by Linda Kunick

GP: I also want to ask about some aspects of your artwork that are really notable. You’ve already mentioned you love color. I’ve never seen a Linda Kunick piece of artwork that isn’t full of color, every color in the rainbow. And another thing I notice is the butterfly wings kind of look like a mosaic. And I wanted to ask you about those two things. Can you talk about the colors that you choose?

LK: Well in my mind, I’m not doing that. It just happens that way. And how do I choose a color? I don’t choose a color. I just go in my bag and pick a pencil up, and whatever color it is, that’s the color I use.

GP: What about your layering of butterfly on top of butterfly?

LK: I was drawn to that after I did the clay with my friend Ruth. If you’ve ever noticed it, I love yellow. So, all my pieces have yellow in it. Why yellow? I have no idea why my favorite color is yellow. And when I got done with that piece, I said it needs something else. So, I put the lines in there and then it brings it out a little bit. And then I get home and show Debbie what I’m doing. If she doesn’t say anything, then I know she doesn’t like it.

GP: Ha! Ha! Okay, which doesn’t mean it’s bad! It just means it’s not her thing.

LK: Right. And so I did something else with it. And not because I have to please her. But I just want to ask her if she liked it or not liked it.

GP: You value her opinion.

LK: Yes. And when I do the pattern, the pattern is not there. I don’t make it look like that. I don’t know what I’m doing with it until the end. When I get done, I say “Oh!” It’s very free form. All my pictures are. And sometimes it looks like a bird shape, but I didn’t make it a bird shape. It just happens that way.

GP: You are an advocate for the disability community. Can you talk about that?

LK: Yes, I am. I worked with DDS (Hamilton County Developmental Disability Services) and then I went to DD Council (Ohio Developmental Disability Council), and I learned how to be an advocate. If you’re an advocate, then you can go and talk about it in different places, and that’s what I love to do. I love to talk to groups about being an advocate. I love to tell people where they should go to get help if they have a kid with a disability. What not to say to people… and, my friend, he used to say, you heard it all the time but now you put it together, he said “You can’t fix the person.” You can help them, but you can’t fix the person. I heard him say that a bunch of times. But now all that stuff he was saying, I remember. He was my boss, and him and I and my friend Diana always went to talk to people. And I miss that very much. And when I did the DD Council, I loved it. I did that for 11 years.

GP: Wow! That’s a long time. Is there anything else you’d like to say about being an artist?

LK: I love to be an artist, and I love when people say I’m an artist. And also, a lot of people here [at Visionaries + Voices], they look at me like I’m a big artist here. And when I heard that the first time, I was really, really surprised. Because you know, you go through life, and when I say that, it ain’t just me. Everybody who is here goes through their life like I did. And that’s hard! To go through life with a disability, cause a lot of people do not understand you. They thought you couldn’t do it cause you had a disability. But my parents and my family never told me that. They never said you can’t do it. They would say “You can do it.” I remember two things I couldn’t do. Tie shoes, Debbie taught me how to tie shoes. It took a long time. And using a pair of scissors, and mom taught me that, and I remember going through that with my mom. I used to play with paper dolls. You can’t find paper dolls today. But I played with a lot of paper dolls and cut them out. Well mom had to cut them out for a long time. But she showed me how to use a pair of scissors. And when you learn how to do something, you do it for a long time.

GP: You are an art teacher. Can you talk about that?

LK: I love going out to teach kids my art. And I always say two things to them: I say my real name is LK, but my fun name is Butterfly Lady, and I always tell them that. And when I would go through the [Teaching Artist] program, the school I went to, they had a day of dressing up like a famous person. And a little girl dressed like a butterfly. And I asked her “who are you?” and she said, “I’m the Butterfly Lady!”

GP How old was she?

LK: Maybe 2nd grade.

GP: That’s so sweet. I love that.

LK: When Debbie heard that, she was very proud. And then I always say [to the kids], “You don’t have to draw a butterfly. You can do whatever you want to draw.” But mostly, they do butterflies.

Linda Kunick is one of the local artists whose artwork will be on display at Instinct: Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired, a nature-themed art show happening March 31 and April 1, 2023 at Fernbank Park.

Megan Hague
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest