Silicon Valley Magazine

The article as it appeared in the Oct./Nov. 2004 Premier Issue


  The article as it appeared in the Oct./Nov. 2004 Premier Issue

When you first enter butterfly display artist Steven Albaranes's Mariner Island home, you're immediately aware of a calm and luminous energy that permeates the entire house. Just inside the living room a small stone water fountain burbles quietly in the corner. Streams of daylight pour through thewindows that face the lagoon beyond the dock in back. Various sized acrylic cases containing brilliantly colored butterflies adorn walls and tabletops. A particularly large panel holds an arrangement of dozens of exotic iridescent-blue and sulfur-yellow butterflies suspended high toward the vaulted ceiling. You know that the butterflies aren't alive, yet there is an undeniable rhythm and movement in the way they've been arranged.

The perceived motion is subtle, but palpable; you can almost hear the soft fluttering of wings.

"The title for that display is 'Blue Canyon'," says Steven. "It's one of my signature pie- ces." For nearly fourteen years now, Albaranes has been creating these unique works of art, first as a hobby, then as his full time vocation. After a highly successful career as a designer optical supply salesman, he was inspired to create his own art by his father Paul, who, after owning a retail clothing business for 25 years, became a self-taught and well-respected artist in his own right.

Albaranes began selling his butterfly creations at Bay Area art festivals and within two years he was able to leave his sales job altogether. In addition to the assorted sized panels he sells to private parties, Steven has also created custom window designs, his swirling butterfly displays offsetting the hard beauty of Tiffany and Company's jewelry and the natty angular lines of Neiman Marcus women's wear.

As Steven talks about his butterfly creations, you sense a quiet, yet intense passion for his art as well as a full appreciation for his being able to earn a living doing what he loves to do. "I work hard, but I always feel like I've won the lottery. Even though I've been doing this for a long time now, I feel just as excited today as I did when I created my first piece." Observing him in his downstairs studio that overlooks the softly undulating water of Mariner Island Lagoon, it's hard to argue with him.The commute alone must be especially sweet.

A life-long hobbyist, Steven at one time collected exotic saltwater tropical fish. "I loved their iridescent colors and the unique personalities that each and every fish had." But on October 18, 1989 that all came literally crashing down in the Loma Prieta earthquake, prompting him to search for another, less fragile hobby. While visiting Golden Gate Park's Academy of Science with his girlfriend, Albaranes was smitten with a floor to ceiling display of iridescent green and yellow butterflies. The curator of the Academy referred him to a butterfly expert in San Diego from whom Steven eagerly gathered information about butterfly breeding farms and display

One of the trickiest aspects of Steven's art is the delicate operation of opening a butterfly's wings from the folded position in which they're shipped. After extensive practice on inexpensive butterflies early on, Albaranes eventually refined a technique where he opens the butterfly and effectively custom curves the outspread wings, rather than pinning them flat as is usually done for museum exhibits. When displayed, the curves in the butterflies' wings introduces an element of movement-what Albaranes calls "sustained motion"-into the otherwise static space. The effect is a unique rhythm for each piece that you can actually feel.

None of the butterflies used in Steven's creations are endangered or purposely killed. He imports his almost 400 different species from various commercial breeding farms located in Central and South America and Papua, New Guinea. The farms are actually netted-off sections of rain forest that allow the butterflies to mate, lay eggs, and die naturally in their native environment. They are then gathered and shipped to collectors and distributors around the globe. Quality of the butterflies is rated, similar to the system used for diamonds. Albaranes uses only the top grade, A1, in his designs and, to prevent any potential damage from mites, fumigates 100%of those he buys.

Even though it's been twelve years since Steven left his sales career, he's still a firm believer in customer service. "One of the keys to my success has been repeat customers. Once they buy their first display, it isn't long before they want another. And with my website (,the range that my butterflies can fly has expanded tremendously. Now I can bring even more people into that special family of butterfly lovers."

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