Brenton-on-Sea’s butterfly inspires Knysna’s metamorphosis

Visitors to Brenton-on-Sea, Knysna, won’t be able to miss the creative transformation that’s taking place in this small seaside hamlet – all at the hands of a small group of committed community members and the #knysnaartproject.

Part of the Western Head & Goukamma Conservancy, and perched on the dunes overlooking a 5.5km-long stretch of pristine white beach towards Buffalo Bay, Brenton-on-Sea plays host to some of the most extravagant sunsets in the world. It is also home to the tiny Brenton Blue Butterfly, one of the rarest butterflies on earth and a National Treasure.

The newly unveiled Wall of Wings now reaffirms this rare resident’s place at the heart of this community and also is one of the “Knysna 5” truly unique, natural attractions, alongside the Knysna Loerie, Knysna Seahorse, Knysna Dwarf Chameleon and the Knysna Leaf-folding Frog. Mounted onto mottled blue tiles that mirror the fluid ocean backdrop and memorialise the distinctive hue of the male Brenton Blue, a giant stainless steel butterfly has its wings spread wide in welcome to visitors.

The Wall of Wings is a collaboration between local artist Helena Gerber, Debbie Young and Dave McRae of Knysna-based LaserWorx and Neels Groesbeek of Knysna Steelworx. Helena, who acted as Creative Director on the Wall of Wings, explained the inspiration behind the installation: “We knew from the start that we wanted a giant butterfly for Brenton-on-Sea. As artists – painters, sculptors, poets, writers – we often draw our inspiration from nature. Butterflies are symbols of beauty, freedom, transformation, mystery and appear in art everywhere – our spirits as human beings are instantly uplifted in their presence. The world would be a much poorer place without them.”

Debbie and Dave, whose laser cutting business was built on the back of developing iconic Knysna gifts and merchandising for the tourist trade, developed the design for the butterfly installation. A contemporary, stylised interpretation of the Brenton Blue, the design will now become the basis for a whole new LaserWorx range. Neels, who volunteered the support of his steelwork services to the #knysnaartproject in response to the initial call for proposals, provided the experience and expertise needed to engineer the creative idea into a 2m-tall steel sculpture that will endure against the elements for years to come. Local independent contractors Desmond Makellie (DesMark Construction) and Phillip Pieterse built and tiled the Wall, in itself a work of art. Together they have been working on projects in Brenton for more than 15 years.

The Brenton Blue Butterfly is close to the hearts of residents. More so since the Brenton Blue Butterfly Reserve was obliterated in the 2017 fires. This small area was the only home of the Brenton Blue and for a long time after the fires there were fears that the species had become extinct. The discovery of dormant larvae deep in the soil however led to an ongoing project to rehabilitate the reserve and re-establish the Brenton Blue Butterfly in its natural habitat initiated by the Brenton Blue Trust. Funding is always a barrier to progress and it is hoped that the Wall of Wings will ignite interest in the conservation of the Brenton Blue and inspire support and donations for the Trust and ongoing efforts to prevent the butterfly’s extinction.

The creation of the Wall of Wings at Brenton-on-Sea, as with the other #knysnaartproject installations underway, inspired broader collaboration with community members to transform the public spaces around the beachfront and the rest of Brenton-on-Sea with colourful mosaics. According to Judy Harrison, Chairperson of the Brenton-on-Sea Ratepayers Association and coordinator of the community mosaic project, the #knysnaartproject butterfly added some momentum to an initiative already underway to brighten up Brenton with new benches, tables and bins sponsored and mosaiced by residents. “When the organisers of the #knysnaartproject came to us with their plans for the Wall of Wings we set our hearts and souls on transforming the walls of the set of stairs at the top of the descent to the beach into a canvas of colour”. A core team of 12 mosaicers, with the adhoc support of other residents, visiting children, and staff of the adjacent Brenton Haven Hotel, spent a combined total of 175 hours on the stunning mosaic murals that now line the steps to the beach.

Colleen Durant, GM of Visit Knysna (the greater Knysna area’s Destination Marketing Organisation), was visibly excited by the first of the #knysnaartproject installations to be officially unveiled. “A single line item on Greater Knysna’s Destination Management Plan has sparked a regeneration project of a size and scale beyond our expectations and imaginings. Communities have been inspired to action – they want to be part of the solution when it comes to reclaiming Knysna’s reputation as a hub of art and creativity.”

In a world where selfies and that perfect Instagram moment is now the most popular way of sharing photos and experiences worldwide, the #KnysnaArtProject is encouraging visitors to Greater Knysna to branch out, explore and discover everything the area has to offer by creating a series of unique photo opportunities. The initiative is an ambitious and exciting collaboration between Visit Knysna (the greater Knysna area’s destination marketing organisation), the Knysna Municipality and the Knysna Art Society.

The Brenton-on-Sea beachfront is one of six iconic sites in greater Knysna area identified for public art placements in phase one of the project. A 2.2m statue of a Rastafari priest is about to take centre stage at Judah Square in Concordia, and a full-size, fully mosaiced vintage VW beetle will soon be unveiled alongside the estuary in Sedgefield. A giant nautilus sculpted from stainless steel and indigenous wood will grace the SANParks waterfront on Thesen Island, and in Buffalo Bay a “boardwalk” of surfboards painted by local artists is building the town’s reputation as a prime surfing destination. Knysna’s central business district will be cheered with the Knysna in Bloom flowerpots being turned into creative canvases for contributing artists.