Riverdale Press Article

Natural beauty, encased forever
October 15, 2009
By Jason Fields

Maurice Elmalem has won international recognition for beating people up and teaching them how to beat up others through martial arts.

He’ll casually tell you about his friend Arnold Schwartzenegger, and he’s always happy to talk about his Guinness World Record for shattering of 50 sheets (8 1/2 inches) of glass with his hard-edged hands.



Down in the cool basement of his home, at the very back, is a small room lit by fluorescent lights and nearly spilling over with photographs, trophies and martial arts championship belts. There are also pictures of restaurants and electronic shops he’s owned, and building facades he’s designed. But none of those things are what he wants to show you today. Instead, his passion is for something altogether more delicate… Butterflies.

There are boxes and trays of Lepidoptera — to give them their formal name — that have come from all over the world to Riverdale. Mr. Elmalem picks one up, its bright red, iridescent wings spread, and sets it to glide like a paper airplane, letting it come to rest in a palm. “Sometimes, I play with them,” he said.

Butterflies live no more than a month, but their beauty can last for decades, if they are kept under the right conditions. Mr. Elmalem has found a passion in the preservation of these shimmering insects by turning them into art. Inside Plexiglas cases, each insect is carefully placed, each on its own tiny pedestal. A drop of glue secures the butterflies, carefully arranged in patterns that are sometimes abstract, sometimes literal.

Looking at the clear, butterfly-filled frames on display in the living room of his house is like looking into a kaleidoscope. “My character is to be exceptional and different,” he said. “I have been an artist for 45 years.” Now 55, Mr. Elmalem is a small man who seems entirely made of steel, reaching up to his steel gray hair.

A new medium

For the last five to six years, Mr. Elmalem has worked mainly in the medium of insects, preparing and placing them just so. He forms shapes that depict vases filled with flowers, the Big Apple with a brilliantly colored bite taken out of it, and even an American flag made from butterflies of red, white and blue.

The designs are three-dimensional, incorporating many species putting a rainbow to shame. Each is fixed at a different height in the case. Many of the frames can be picked up or flipped over, each angle producing a unique, brilliant view.

Mr. Elmalem buys the insects from all over the world, picking the best and brightest and paying anything from a few dollars for several to hundreds for a single rare beauty. When they come to him, Mr. Elmalem said, they’ve lived their brief lives and died from natural causes. “They close their wings when they die,” he said.

And so the first thing he does is to carefully moisten the butterflies he receives, packing them gently in damp foam and keeping them there for 24 hours. After that, he carefully opens each pair of wings, allowing the radiant blues, reds, yellows, greens and contrasting blacks to be revealed. After the wings have been opened, he places the butterfly’s body in a carefully formed groove, so that it has a place to rest while the wings are spread wide and then carefully weighted so that they won’t close again. Another 24 hours pass. Now the insects are ready to be placed within the cases, each of which is created to Mr. Elmalem’s specifications.

Meticulous work

He sketches out the precise design, knowing that once butterflies are put in place, if something’s wrong, he’ll have to start again. “You can’t fix them, when they’re made,” he said. It takes Mr. Elmalem between one month and three to finish a single case. He then sells them around the world, from the South Street Seaport to Spain. If the finished artwork is going to Spain, Mr. Elmalem carries it himself, not trusting his delicate creations to the vagaries of shipping.

His works vary in price, from a couple of hundred dollars for a small case to more than $4,000. The American flag case was destined for the White House, but when he was told there would be no guarantee that the piece would become part of the permanent collection there, Mr. Elmalem decided to keep it.

Even if no one was willing to pay for what he makes, he said he would continue. It’s the butterflies themselves that turn inspiration into a mild form of obsession. “How can God create something so beautiful?” Mr. Elmalem asked, as he looked over what he had made in the crowded room below his house.