To help Georgetown understand COVID's toll, a mother and son turned to butterflies
"You fold it in half, and then you fold it and make like a tiny little square," Ben Looper said.
The 10-year-old sat at a table alongside his mother, Donna, transforming sheets of white paper into miniature origami butterflies.
Over the past year, the pair has folded 248 of these butterflies.
"My mom wanted to … make something that showed people how ... COVID affected ... people’s lives and stuff," Ben said.
More specifically, Donna Looper said, each of the butterflies represents somebody who died from COVID-19 in Georgetown.
"I’m sure since we stopped folding them in May there have been more, but that was when the county stopped counting by city," she said. "So we stopped at 248."
Included in that figure are Ben’s grandfather and uncle. Larry Brisky got COVID in 2020, just four months after moving into a nursing home; he died shortly after. Ben’s uncle Jimmy Godsey died in January after getting COVID last Christmas.
Ben and his mother turned to the art form to process this loss, as well as to help their neighbors better understand the toll the virus was taking on the community.
The task, it turns out, came naturally to Looper.
Years ago, she worked as a child life specialist at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin and Baylor Scott and White in Temple. She was responsible for helping children and families cope with the challenges of hospitalization and illness.
"I knew that [Ben] wouldn’t sit there and chitchat with me about his feelings, so I felt like I needed a way to keep his hands busy while we were talking," she said. "So that’s where I kinda came up with the idea of the butterflies."
Every day after school, the pair would look up the number of COVID-19 deaths in Georgetown and see how many butterflies they needed to fold.
This became particularly challenging after the delta and omicron variants emerged. Looper said it was difficult to keep up with the number of deaths occurring every day.
"There were some moments where Ben didn’t really feel into it, but we stuck to it," she said. "It was a really therapeutic thing for both of us."
For months, those 248 butterflies sat in a box inside the Loopers’ home.
Now, they hang from the ceiling of Lark & Owl Booksellers, an independent bookstore on West Sixth Street in downtown Georgetown.
The art installation, "The Butterfly Project,” serves as a memorial to those who have died from COVID-19. There is also a space where visitors can fold their own butterflies in honor of loved ones who have died.
"Some people say that, you know, it didn’t happen. Or that it’s all over. When it’s not, you know?" Rachael Jonrowe, one of the bookstore's owners, said. "And I think we should be honest with ourselves and this is a space where we value honesty, so it feels very appropriate to have Donna and Ben’s work here and be facilitating those conversations as best we can."
She said she hopes Lark & Owl can step in where others have failed to provide support during the pandemic.
"I think in America in general and Williamson County specifically, we don’t provide enough opportunities for people to acknowledge the trauma that they suffered," Jonrowe said, "and give them the resources they need to process it and come out the other side with some semblance of healing."
Ben said he’s excited to see his work make an impression.
"It’s fun to actually see it," he said. "It looks really cool."
Visitors can see “the Butterfly Project” at Lark & Owl Booksellers through the end of the year.