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"I Dreamed I Was a Butterfly"  by Alice McMahon

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"I Dreamed I Was a Butterfly" by 

From the Black Butterfly series. Portrait of Shan Zuo Zhou, charcoal and white pastel on mylar drafting film with blue-gray Canson backing paper, 16 × 16″. From a reference photo by Steven E. Gross.

I am a member of the 33 Collective Gallery located in the Zhou Brother’s Art Center, Chicago. The Zhou Brothers have been generous to allow our co-op gallery to use the entire art center for our group show this month. The show opens Friday March 20th, 2009. The Zhou Brothers are always on hand at the center and are very supportive of the members of the gallery and of their artists in residence. I am fascinated with them, their persona, and their work and decided they would be perfect subjects to draw for my series, which always features creatives as models. Brother #2, DaHuang Zhou will be tomorrow’s subject for Daily Drawing.

The butterfly is borrowed from a Chinese watercolor design, and the Chinese symbols stand for “inspired-dream-vision-revelation”

As noted in my earlier blogs, in this series the butterfly is symbolic of the artist’s muse. The title of this work comes from Chinese literature by Zhuangzi – [Chuang-Tse]

“One day about sunset, Zhuangzi dozed off and dreamed that he turned into a butterfly.
He flapped his wings and sure enough he was a butterfly…
What a joyful feeling as he fluttered about, he completely forgot that he was Zhuangzi.
Soon though, he realized that that proud butterfly was really Zhuangzi who dreamed he was a butterfly, or was it a butterfly who dreamed he was Zhuangzi!
Maybe Zhuangzi was the butterfly, and maybe the butterfly was Zhungzi? This is what is meant by the “transformation of things.” – Zhuang Zi (369?-286? b.c.)

The Zhou brothers short biography:

The Zhou Brothers are one of the most accomplished contemporary artists in the world today renowned for their unique collaborative work process. They always work together on their paintings, performances, sculptures, and prints, often communicating without words in a so-called dream dialogue. Their thinking, aesthetic, and creativity are a symbiosis of Eastern and Western philosophy, art, and literature that informed their development since early childhood. Their indomitable spirit allowed them to leave behind their brilliant success in China, where they were hailed as national heroes for their early work, to step onto the world stage. They have since achieved international acclaim while continuing to work in the West.

The Zhou Brothers, Shan Zuo and DaHuang Zhou, were born in China 1952 and 1957 respectively. They studied drama and painting at the University of Shanghai from 1978 to 1982 and the National Academy for Arts and Crafts in Beijing from 1983 to 1984 where they received their MFAs. During the beginning of the 1980s they became leaders of the contemporary art movement in China. In 1985 they won the National Prize of the Chinese Avant-Garde of the Ministry of Culture and the Prize for Creativity from the Peace Corps of the United Nations. They were also honored as the first contemporary artists ever to show their work in an exhibition that traveled to the five largest museums in China, including the National Art Museum of China in Beijing and the art museums in Shanghai and Nanjing.

Realizing that the political and cultural landscape at that time would not allow them to expand their careers, an invitation to exhibit in Chicago in 1986 presented a timely opportunity to make the transition onto an international stage. The Zhou Brothers have consequently maintained their home and studios in Chicago while actively exhibiting their work nationally and abroad."

Companion piece, portrait of Shan Zuo’s brother DaHuang Zhou:


white, black, china, artist, butterfly, symbolism, alice, shan, mcmahon, zhou, zuo

I specialize in figurative charcoal drawing. My work was recently shown and sold at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Current works delve into the realm of symbolism and magic realism.
All of my drawings are meant to be noble representations of individual subjects, and also bring together a wealth of influences, recognition of art history and myth and a contemporary attitude to create images that are of the moment, but hopefully will also remain relevant in the future.

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  • mimi yoon
    mimi yoonover 5 years ago

    oh my gosh, alice… this is one of the most beautiful image i’ve ever seen…
    so amazingly beautiful… and the way you’ve designed the page is just immaculate…

  • Mimi, I want to give you a big hug! I’m here picking at my errors. LOL. Too late, it’s already framed and at the gallery. :) I hope Shan Zuo likes his portrait as much as you do! Thanks for the fave! (Here’s a virtual hug OO)

    – Alice McMahon

  • ShadowDancer
    ShadowDancerover 5 years ago

    love LOVE L O V E this…
    love his face, his pose, the butterfly, the narrative… oufffff… wonderful

  • love LOVE L O V E….love is all you need! Thanks for the love SD. ~ Back at you! <3

    – Alice McMahon

  • Vasile Stan
    Vasile Stanover 5 years ago

    Truly impressed on the deeper levels by your talent of depicting emotions and feelings on a human face. You must see what others are missing all together… your art is so revealing of You.

  • Vasile Stan, I’m touched by your comment. This was a very excellent photo reference by Stephen E. Gross, who spent weeks living with the brothers to capture these intimate moments. I often feel like a mechanic when I’m drawing, but today, I think some of the Zhou’s energy infused me – I drew this in just a few hours. I think they would like it that way. :) So glad you like it my talented friend!

    – Alice McMahon

  • Traceyisanozzy
    Traceyisanozzyover 5 years ago

    This is an exquisite piece Alice…..the expression on his face while contemplating the beautiful butterfly is magical…..and I love the symbolism so much…
    Your accompanying story is also extremely interesting and I loved reading all of it…
    Wishing you much success with your gallery exhibition and I have no doubt it will be!

  • These brothers are extremely interesting, Tracy. You can watch them working in tandem on Youtube videos – so cool! I’m thrilled you liked this enough to keep it in your faves. An honor to live on your beautiful page. xx

    – Alice McMahon

  • brettisagirl
    brettisagirlover 5 years ago

    this series gets more and more compelling :}

  • YOUR series gets more and more compelling. (teasing – Nate does that to me all the time ;) Seriously, I’m very excited about your new direction! Now if I can just get a minute to catch my breath, I’ll snap up that Zimmerman from your Etsy shop. (YAY!)

    – Alice McMahon

  • Anita Inverarity
    Anita Inverarityover 5 years ago

    This is most stunning Alice- A true masterpiece xx

  • JDNarts
    JDNartsover 5 years ago

    The expression of quiet contemplation in his face and especially his eyes is wonderful dear friend! Fresh, direct and beautifully done; a totally compelling image. You are on a serious roll with these Alice! Very, very nicely done! :-)

  • You always make such thoughtful (and I know, honest!) comments. That means so much to me Jim. I hope the brothers like their portraits! xx

    – Alice McMahon

  • simonesphotos
    simonesphotosover 5 years ago

    this is truly beautiful!!

  • Wow! I’m stunned by the color and sence of light in your photos! Thanks for being so kind.

    – Alice McMahon

  • lindybird
    lindybirdover 5 years ago

    An instant favorite—such soft, introspective beauty in this piece. I simply MUST try the mylar film (I bought some over Christmas break, but haven’t had time to work on it).

  • You should try it! I know when I bought my first sheet it sat for a while before I got to it. The first attempt was not good. I’m sure you’ll develop a style that will suit you, or maybe it willbe just a fun experiment. The best advice I ever got was that we artists should remember “it’s just a scrap of paper” :) Thanks lindybird. xx

    – Alice McMahon

  • 2Herzen
    2Herzenover 5 years ago

    Really great work in here! I’m stunned by how beautiful this one looks! :)

  • Thanks Herzen. This one fell into place so simply. I think the planning for the past month or so was the biggest hurdle. The creation was just a few hours. Took nearly that long to frame the darn thing. Ugh! :) The companion piece is now up, if you care to have a look.

    – Alice McMahon

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