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Former eyewear salesman finds career
as artist to be a sight better
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Elaine Larson, Special to the Examiner
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Dozens of Morpho butterflies seem to fly up the wall in a flock, their wings a vibrant iridescent blue that changes color in the light. Frozen in time behind a clear acrylic frame, the butterflies that make up artist Steven Albaranes' "Blue Canyon" wall design remain forever lifelike, suspended in perpetual flight.

"I call it sustained motion. You do tend to see them moving," said Albaranes of his popular butterfly creation. "I spread their wings to give them a realistic flight look. They're very soothing to look at."

Exotic butterflies of all shapes and sizes come to life under the artistry of Albaranes, a San Mateo resident who makes and sells butterfly wall and table decorations through his company, Butterfly Creations.

A former designer eyeglass salesman, Albaranes' fascination with creating colorful butterfly designs has grown from a part-time hobby to a full-time vocation.

In addition to exhibiting his work at craft festivals throughout the Bay Area, including this weekend's art and wine festival in San Carlos, Albaranes designs and ships dozens of orders out of his home. His one-of-a-kind creations are so popular he has trouble keeping up with demand.

The acrylic panels, which come in a variety of designs and sizes, are filled with non-endangered butterflies that have died a natural death on special breeding farms. Suspended on clear pegs in mid-air, the butterflies are not flat, as in museum displays, but three-dimensional as they are in life.
Some of Albaranes' larger pieces have been displayed in the show windows of Tiffany and Co. in San Francisco and Neiman Marcus at the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto. Others adorn the walls of professional offices throughout the Bay Area, as well as Buck's restaurant in Woodside. Butterfly Creations also has a display at Coyote Point Museum in San Mateo.

From Water to Wings

A New York transplant who has lived on Mariner's Island since 1982, Albaranes was a successful salesman of Italian eyewear for 14 years and also an amateur collector of tropical fish. But after his 180-gallon saltwater aquarium crashed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, he decided replacing it was too risky in his Mariner's Island location.
A visit to the Academy of Sciences a few months later changed his life: He found that he was drawn to the museum's butterfly collection.

"They had blue butterflies that just hypnotized me," recalled Albaranes, who has a particular fascination with iridescent colors. He decided to try mounting butterflies as a hobby. Encouraged by another artist to sell his creations, Albaranes set up a booth at a local craft festival, and his business was launched.

"That first year I signed up for six or seven festivals. It was an immediate success from the first show. I knew I had something with great potential," he said.
By 1992, his Butterfly Creations had grown to be so successful that he was able to give up his sales job and make butterfly designs full time. "I got to a point where I had to make a decision. I was making a good living, but I loved creating. It was then that I started calling myself an artist," said Albaranes, who credits his success in life to his father, who ran his own clothing store in Rochester, N.Y., before retirement and is now a successful painter.

"I feel like I've won the lottery. There's nothing more gratifying than making these pieces and selling them," said Albaranes, whose marketing know-how has come in handy.

"I see so many artists who do phenomenal work, but they don't know how to sell it."

These days, he is hard at work seven days a week in his garage-turned-workshop, endeavoring to fill custom orders that continue to pour in.

Among the best sellers is his signature "Blue Canyon" that features several dozen blue Morpho butterflies from Brazil, or "Flights of Fancy" that contains exotic butterflies of all shapes and sizes.

Other popular panels include "Emerald Hills" that features butterflies of all patterns of green, "Rainbow Forest" and "Golden Skies." Albaranes also does custom orders such as a tropical fish pattern he designed for one customer.
The panels range in size from 9 inches by 12 inches to 24 inches by 36 inches and cost from $179 to more than $2,000. His newest creation is a series of tabletop box displays that start at $69. Albaranes also creates a series of larger panels upward of 9 feet tall that sell for $5,000-$8,000 and contain about 350 butterflies.

Bred in Rain Forests

Albaranes is quick to point out that the butterflies he uses are not captured or killed but are specially bred on commercial butterfly farms in the rain forests of Brazil, Costa Rica, the Amazon and Papua, New Guinea.

Enclosed in large, netted pens, the butterflies flourish in their natural surroundings, protected from predators until they die a natural death within a few weeks. Gathered up by workers, they are identified, labeled and shipped to collectors and distributors all over the world.

Other live butterflies are sold while still pupae (the stage in a butterfly's life in which the caterpillar larva transforms into the winged adult) for exhibits like those at Marine World, Africa USA.

Butterflies have been in existence for 100 million years and can be found worldwide - from the Arctic tundra to deserts to the tropics, where they are most abundant.

There are an estimated 20,000 types of butterflies. Together with their cousin, the moth, they make up a large group or order of insects known as Lepidoptera (from the Greek words for scale and wing), since the insects are covered from feet to wings with thousands of tiny scales.
Beginning life as an egg, butterflies pass through three distinct stages including caterpillar or larva, which later evolves into a pupa or chrysalis from which the fully formed, winged adult finally emerges. Adult butterflies live anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Butterflies come in all shapes and sizes; their exotic colors and patterns provide a natural camouflage against predators.
One of the largest is the bird-wing, a New Guinea native whose wing tips can span 11 inches. These are a favorite of Albaranes, along with the iridescent Morpho butterflies in the Morphidae family.

Albaranes, who orders thousands of carefully preserved butterflies at a time, pays from $1 to up to $3,000 for specimens that he carefully selects from a large butterfly encyclopedia he refers to as his bible.

Butterfly shipments, which must be approved through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department to ensure they are not endangered, are then fumigated to kill any lingering mites.
Although he is careful not to give away any trade secrets, Albaranes has developed techniques for carefully spreading the wings of butterflies, which arrive closed in envelopes for shipping. At any given time, there are rows of stretch-winged butterflies pinned to pieces of wood in his garage workshop.

Grade A Butterflies

"I have learned where to touch the butterflies so I won't damage them," said Albaranes. "Butterflies that are sold are graded, like diamonds. Every butterfly I use is A-1 perfect quality. You won't see any rips or tears."

Although he started out displaying mounted butterflies in traditional wooden frames, Albaranes later devised the airtight acrylic box frames that he believes shows the butterflies to their best advantage. "The panels just blend in. They go with any decor," he said.

"These panels are very durable, but if you drop one, you've lost it," said Albaranes, who has shipped his creations as far away as England, Norway, Germany and Saudi Arabia.
"They're airtight and won't fade if kept out of the sunlight. They'll last a lifetime."

Albaranes is helped in his work by his girlfriend, Florence Plan, who also is employed full time as an executive secretary at Amdahl Corp. in Santa Clara. But business is so good, he is thinking about hiring an assistant.

Customers who come to his home can browse through a portfolio or order directly from his brochure, which is also available through the Internet. Albaranes' own home is decorated with a variety of his butterfly panels, which he can mix and match to form different designs, including a heart shape.

Dr. Berdeen Coven, a Cupertino psychologist, covered an entire office wall with more than a dozen of Albaranes' butterfly creations, which he custom arranged for her.

"The beauty and serenity of butterflies is so soothing," said Coven, who has always been a butterfly fancier. "They represent flight, freedom, growth and development. Steven Albaranes has a beautiful soul that comes through with his butterfly art."

"I tell my customers to hang their butterfly panels where they spend a lot of time," said Albaranes, who never grows tired of the insect of infinite variety. "I am making available in art form one of Mother Nature's most colorful and beautiful creatures."
 
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