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How Painter Justin Nuyda Sees Art in Collecting Butterflies

The artist started his butterfly collection as a young child.
IMAGE COURTESY OF JUSTIN NUYDA
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An artist’s eye is trained to see the beautiful. Some see it in the different forms of art, some as inspirations to their next work. But there are others who see the beauty in the patterns and colors of nature itself. It takes a special perspective and an innate curiosity to see the world as an entire work of art. And this is exactly the outlook of esteemed painter Justin Nuyda.

Nuyda is a prolific abstract artist whose career has stretched across over 50 years. Graduating from the University of Santo Tomas with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, he has also garnered prestigious awards and brushed elbows with some of the most notable Filipino artists such as Jose Joya. But his love for art isn’t limited to that which can be created with brushes and assorted paints. This love holds true in nature—toward the art of collecting butterflies.

Justin Nuyda in the process of painting
Photo by Courtesy of Justin Nuyda.
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Photo by Courtesy of Justin Nuyda.

It all began as a family-bonding hobby. According to Nuyda, “Yung father ko and his brothers—anim sila na magkakapatid—all collect. It all started when my eldest uncle, Rene, saw this guy who was collecting butterflies.” There wasn’t a specific system to it for them back then, even when it came to naming the insects. The artist said that the names his uncle would come up with would be as simple as Fairy, Cinnamon, or even Batman. 

With years of experience came an eventual understanding of the proper way to safely seize the creatures. He discovered that a net is one of the basic tools any aspiring butterfly catcher needs. The artist said he actually owns an old one that’s around 18 feet long, which he now uses to pick mangoes.

It was also important, he explained, to know where the creatures usually pass through. That’s because different types of butterflies have various gathering places and flight patterns. “Kanya-kanyang style sila. Wise yang mga yan eh,” Nuyda said.

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A part of Nuyda's framed butterfly collection
Photo by Courtest of Justin Nuyda.
Photo by Courtesy of Justin Nuyda.

Preserving the butterflies after they die is also a pretty meticulous process. These insects fold their wings once they pass on, and the wings must be opened for them to be properly put on display. The painter also has to use a certain type of anti-rust insect pin for this part, and he positions the butterfly wings at a solid 45-degree angle along with the antenna.

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The art of butterflies isn’t just in how the artist catches and preserves the insects. “For my art, I get some colors from butterflies. Do you know that butterflies have unusual color combinations? You usually won’t do those combinations. It’s a mistake,” he laughs. “But when you see them in butterflies, ang ganda. The color composition, saturation, gradation—ang ganda.”

Nuyda's framed butterfly collection
Photo by Courtesy of Justin Nuyda.

It might seem at first like some sort of chicken-and-egg situation—did Nuyda catch butterflies to get color inspiration, or did he paint to earn money for this hobby? The artist declared that it was the latter. His number one passion was, in fact, butterflies. It’s an expensive one, as the transportation to get to where the insects reside can cost a lot, added to the guides and camping equipment.

But of course, passion can hardly be stopped when it’s as deep as this. Nuyda mused about the thrill of the chase: “I enjoy catching them. Ay naku, the chase! Kasi you have small nets, tapos ang laki ng tatakbuhan nila.” The collector also talked about how he enjoys setting them. “Before, it took me just 15 minutes for each butterfly. Now, it takes me 25 minutes. Pero ang sarap talaga. Lalagyan mo lang ng naphthalene, until it dries. When it’s dry, ‘yon ang reward.” 

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Nuyda with some frames from his butterfly collection
Photo by Courtesy of Justin Nuyda.

After so many decades’ worth of butterfly-catching adventures, it’s safe to say that there’s also at least 50 years’ worth of stories. He’s named almost 70 butterflies that are new to science. Each one in his collection has its own special story and memory for the painter.

One of these is the Papilio Chikae Hermeli butterfly, which he named after his father. His father caught one in the ’60s. And when Nuyda caught another one after, there was a slight confusion and controversy over whether or not this was an actual species or a subspecies. To an outsider, it appears to be a rare butterfly. But to the painter, he had a whole boxload of it—much to the disbelief of the staff at the Smithsonian Museum, who had interacted with Nuyda’s daughter Ayni regarding her father’s collection.

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He also mused about the Magellano butterfly, the supposed inspiration for holographic colors for the Japanese. Much like the Magellano, holographic colors give off a multi-dimensional blend of hues for an almost other-worldly effect.

“When it flies,” he said, “the wings change colors. You will see it depending on the light.” He first caught it in 1957 in Tagaytay, when Magsaysay had died. He didn’t have a net when he saw the curious creature, and so he had to make do with a broom. Its wings were broken but Nuyda could still see its iridescent features. 

Nuyda's butterfly photographs
Photo by Courtesy of Justin Nuyda.

One of his proudest moments, however, was having a butterfly named after him in the ’60s. “You cannot name a butterfly after yourself,” said the artist. “So it was another collector, a professor actually who named it. That was my shining glory, the first butterfly named [after] a Filipino.”

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This Filipino pride was something that the painter carried with him all throughout his life, especially when he noticed that there weren’t really any scientific journals to back him up when it came to naming butterflies he caught. He’d have to send his findings to Japan or Germany. It would take months—especially since this was during the pre-digital age—for him to be published in whatever journal he communicated with. He resorted to starting his own journal in the ’90s called Fil-Kulisap.

Another part of Nuyda's framed butterfly collection
Photo by Courtesy of Justin Nuyda.

Still, Nuyda’s collection garnered international recognition. When around four or five editions of Fil-Kulisap were published, the Smithsonian Museum reached out to him. He wasn’t interested at the time. It was his daughter that replied to them, and the painter thought of possibly donating a part of his collection to the famous museum. His collection could rival that of Senckenbergh Museum in Germany (which has the largest collection of Philippine butterflies) and the British Museum of Natural History (which has the second-largest collection). Next to Japanese collector Tsukada, Nuyda’s is the fourth-largest collection of Philippine butterflies in the entire world. He has also helped scientists with their research by lending and donating some parts of his extensive collection. 

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Nuyda with his paintings
Photo by Courtesy of Justin Nuyda.

And to think, he’s been able to do all this while maintaining a stellar career as an abstract artist for the past decades. He’s been working even through his stage four cancer diagnosis, which he is currently being treated for. He’s set to have a solo exhibition called Chrysalis from September 25 (this Saturday) until October 16 at Salcedo Private View, NEX Tower in Makati City. The show would feature 12 pieces that allow audiences to ponder on what is familiar and mysterious while giving them an avenue for introspection. (Editor's note: Justin Nuyda's show has already sold out.) It seems like a distant realm from the world of butterflies, and while he loves both, Nuyda treats his work and his hobby differently.

“I've never sold a single butterfly in my life, not even once,” he said. “I will exchange, or swap ... but I will never sell, although I've been offered so much. But I don't do that.”

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It takes a special sort of eye to see the beauty in these fascinating creatures.

Photo by Courtesy of Justin Nuyda.

 

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