Yellow Butterflies and the Impacts of Art Shared Between Communities

A photo of artist Nathanael Kuhn standing in front of a mural he worked on. His arms are spread wide.
Artist Nathanael Kuhne stands in front of his mural in Carson City. Photo credit Cheyenne Lester

There’s no question that Reno has a variety of art for people of all ages, cultures, backgrounds, and perceptions to enjoy. Whether it be the graffiti on walls in Midtown, the little art shops, coffee shops, local dive bars, or the state’s museum of art, there will never be a shortage of creative flair being displayed in our quaint ‘Biggest Little City.’

But it was Carson City that had the spotlight last month, during the inaugural Murals and Music Festival. Artists from different areas of life and locations hit the streets of downtown Carson City to come together and breathe new life to the area.

One artist, Reno-based Nathanael Kuhne (, was there to take part in the festivities. He’s a member of The Generator, a community art and maker space in Sparks. I’ve known him through my work as an art teacher there, and one of the first things I noticed is that there is rarely a moment when he is not doodling with a permanent marker from his wallet-sized art pad he has with him daily.

Kuhne is a self-taught artist who specializes in graphics and illustrative cartoon-style characters, which pop out with inspiring words and humorous quotes on the charade of day-to-day life. (“I don’t have a drinking problem. That shit’s easy.”)

So, to get a better sense of the event and the importance of allowing this kind of expression in a public space, I spoke with Nate, and here’s part of our conversation.

Cheyenne Lester: Do you think it’s important that different communities come together for the purpose of sharing art?

Nathanael Kuhne: Yeah, definitely. I think it can present a different perspective, especially in a town like Carson City, where it’s kind of more conservative and there’s not a lot of art and music, it opens a new window into what could be. We had a lot of people cruise through. This sweet little old lady asked me what the snake I drew meant. In Western civilizations the snake can mean something evil, but in Eastern mythology, a snake is a symbol of change and enlightenment. So, I always try to sneak in symbols that can be taken in more than one way.

Yes, I always thought art was subjective to different eyes, and no one will see a piece in the exact same way or mind process.

It was really cool, there were seven different artists painting the wall I was on. It was such wildly different styles, and processes, and approaches. We had one guy from L.A. and a lady from Sacramento. Just to have them come all that way and share something semi-permanent was great. Everyone in the little shopping plaza were just super stoked on it, because they had just been staring at a beige wall for, who knows, forever. It was interesting.

It’s amazing to me, once we put our differences aside and can see that we are all here for one purpose, to create something that will last longer than we can… 

Oh yeah, for sure. Ten years after we die, we could just be a photograph left in someone’s drawer. We’re never going to run out of walls. Even if someone doesn’t like my work, at least I made them think. At least it still remains.

So, tell me a little bit about the yellow butterflies surrounding the snake. I know you said you had a sketch, but they weren’t originally supposed to be part of your piece. How did they come to be?

Well, I needed a space filler, and [as] I was trying to decide what to put on the side of this mural, these yellow butterflies flew right over to me. I think maybe they were attracted to the colors of the paint. Honestly, they were probably disappointed when they came over and it wasn’t flowers. They gave me the idea to draw these black and yellow butterflies.

Our interview kind of stopped there, as he was focusing on his piece. But, I did ask him if he had any motto for art or life. He quoted the Dr. Seuss line “If you want to be number one, you have to be odd,” and he told me his favorite art quote, a line from Mexican poet Cesar A. Cruz and later repeated by famous street artist, Banksy:  “Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.”

Kuhne also shared a favorite word of his: ‘watashiato,’ a Japanese term that translates generally to “the impact you’ve had on the lives of people you know.” It leaves you wondering which of your harmless actions or long forgotten words might have altered the plot of their stories in a way you’ll never get to see.

I wanted to shed light on the impact of art through communities and why it is essential to have different types of expression from people of all backgrounds displayed in our surrounding towns. But the deeper I got into the interview, the more I realized that maybe some people are these fleeting creatures. You can sketch out ideas, make mock drawings, and think that you have the whole day planned, but it isn’t until you run out of postulations that the most beautiful things come to you unexpectedly.

Maybe we are not the flowers in which colors radiate in hopes of proper pollination, but we are the wings. We are the creation, the most intricate story, the most beautiful of composition meant to be embraced for the inspiration we unknowingly bring.

I thought to myself, “Could that also be the meaning behind the word, ‘watashiato’?” Such a harmless exchange of thoughts and words that altered my own state of being unaware of how it got there? Was this altering my story?

Art will always thrive, just as entertainment, sports, fashion, and food all do. But, it thrives even more innately when we come together from our own unique walks of life with a purpose of sharing what someone else can’t. The intricate space that is our minds and our own realities set on fire with brush strokes and good intentions will never cease.

So yes; we are the yellow butterflies.
Here for a brief moment, and longing to be carried away by the freedom of the wind.
And our circuitous journey of creation is what help us fly to one another, and eventually, away.

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