Whole (Salad Magazine #2)

This is a reprint of my submission to Salad Magazine issue 2. Check out the other cool stuff people did too!

A gouache painting of an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus). The butterfly is a bilateral gynandromorph: its left wing has the dark morph female pattern, and its right has the male pattern. It feeds on a white daisy with the dorsal sides of its wings facing the viewer. The flower is slightly out of focus and melts into the green background. The butterfly's wings extend out of the frame.

The painting was done using four paints: Prussian blue, cadmium red, yellow ochre, and white. A glitter gel pen was used to add iridescent glitter to the blue spots on the butterfly's hindwings. The photo of the painting was taken in a sunbeam.

Gynandromorphs are organisms that have both male and female tissue, which is usually a result of atypical sex chromosome distribution during cell division early in the organism's development. When an organism only consists of a few cells, two cells with different sex chromosomes will proliferate, and the result is an organism with some male cells and some female cells. Gynandromorphs may have bilateral symmetry, meaning one side contains the male cells and one side contains the female cells, or they may be mosaics, meaning the tissue types are randomly distributed.

Gynandromorphs, especially bilateral gynandromorphs, are usually referred to as half-male and half-female. This characterization isn't necessarily inaccurate, but it relies on an arbitrary human interpretation of tiny bundles of cellular DNA. (After all, butterflies use a completely different sex determination system than humans do.) Gynandromorphs, like animals whose cells only have one configuration of sex chromosomes, have no internal concept of gender. They can't reproduce, but that doesn't bother them. They exist as they are.

I studied biology in college. There's only one certainty in the field, and it's that life on Earth will always find ways to ruin the neatly constructed boxes that we try to sort them into. That doesn't mean there isn't value in those boxes, but I derive an odd sort of satisfaction from seeing other organisms buck categorization. I don't like it when people try to sort me into categories, so I think there's a bit of envy in the mix too.

One of my original ideas was a pinned butterfly in a frame because I like insect taxidermy, but the more I sat with the idea and thought about the meaning I wanted this piece to have, the less I liked it. We live in a society that's extremely hostile to people who don't fit into the right boxes, especially with regards to gender. It didn't feel right for me to put a dead butterfly on the page, even if I was the only one ascribing meaning to that dead butterfly!

And so the butterfly is alive. It doesn't know what fate will befall it tomorrow, and it doesn't care. It lacks the ability to have an existential crisis. Right now, it's having an excellent meal. Life goes on. The butterfly exists as it is.