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Searching for beauty: Kelly Connole finds comfort in clay butterflies

August 12, 2015 at 10:35 am
By Thomas Rozwadowski

For months, it’s how Kelly Connole would finish her day. Thirty butterflies before bed. Pinch, pinch, pinch.

As an act of meditation, it proved therapeutic. But as art, there was still the lingering question of how 3,000 porcelain butterflies would look when strung together from the ceiling of Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis.

With that many butterflies, “you can’t possibly know how it’s going to come together,” Connole admitted.

Sometimes it’s good to be surprised.

“There’s a movement to them, an atmosphere created by the blue string, which almost becomes its own entity. I love that,” Connole said, somewhat awestruck, while hanging the final few inside her exhibit space for McKnight fellows.

“It’s more ethereal than I ever could have imagined.”

Twenty-five years as a ceramics artist and teacher have helped Connole adapt quickly. She knows how clay responds to her touch. How it needs to be nursed. How it can surprise with a mind of its own.

Unfortunately, the answers aren’t always so clear in her personal life.

Two deaths, separated by a year, rocked her world. Connole’s mother died of a stroke near the end of 2012. In February 2014, former Carleton studio art major Talia Goldenberg ’12 died from medical complications after undergoing surgery to alleviate symptoms of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that affects the skin, joints, and blood vessel walls.

Goldenberg’s death came out of nowhere. The “bubbliest, shiniest person you could ever hope to meet,” the 23-year-old Oregon native was the rare kind of student who transitioned from protégé to lifelong friend.

Her complex and confusing health issues inspired the centerpiece of Connole’s life and death rumination: An eight-foot zebra formed from 1,100 pounds of clay.

"There is a big difference between deaths at 69 and 23. Death proved to be a powerful equalizer in its finality. In both situations, I focused on the possibility in finding beauty in the human experience of mourning,” Connole said.

“And that’s when I thought about the zebra.”

“When you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras.”

It’s a medical adage used to train doctors so they’ll ground themselves in a diagnosis that’s common, not exotic. It makes sense: A patient walks in complaining of a sore throat, don’t start looking for a tropical disease.

Goldenberg, and unfortunately most people with EDS, are medical zebras.

“This piece is a metaphor about Talia, but it’s also about 46 years of my life experience. It’s the cycle of life,” Connole said.

“Yes, I had to cope with these deaths. But over the same time, I also enjoyed the beauty of my twin babies being born. And that’s when I realized, ‘Oh, I’m in the middle.’ I’m seeing this generation of children growing and learning, but I’m also seeing people on the other end, dying. This is the part of life that I’ve reached.”

Thanks to a $25,000 McKnight Fellowship, Connole was able to take winter off from teaching so she could work exclusively on the piece. Crafting the zebra required grinding eight hours a day over a month-and-a-half—“definitely the most ambitious project I’ve ever done,” she said—the process of tending to the clay beast particularly cumbersome because of its size.

And let’s not forget all those butterflies.

Like her past celebrated work with rabbits, Connole said it’s probably not coincidence that “somehow through animals, it feels like I have more to say.” She’s especially drawn to working with creatures en masse. While repeating a single element thousands of times can have a disquieting effect on its audience, the trick is finding the right balance so that her animals feel “closer to the human experience,” Connole said.

Case in point: Though the dead zebra serves as a powerful focal point, the burst of butterflies tells a complete story. It’s also why the act of hand-pinching 3,000 of them became so intensely personal. Connole knows what she was searching for—and, ultimately, what she found.

“I started the project with no concept of how many hours it would take,” she said. “For me, this became a deliberate act of searching for beauty. I found myself setting into grief and then pulling back out. I feel very thankful that I was given the time to work through that.”


Kelly Connole's piece is displayed at Northern Clay Center, 2424 Franklin Avenue East in Minneapolis, until August 30. You'll also find Kip O'Krongly '01 in the same space for McKnight fellows. 


The Talia Goldenberg '12 Award in Studio Art has been established at Carleton as an endowed fund for senior art majors receiving distinction on their comprehensive exercise. They must also have extraordinary promise and embody Talia's spirit of community and compassion. Selections are made by the art department.

To learn more and contribute, contact Kelly at