By Josh Lancette
When you see an insect climbing up your wall, you might not think, “Hmm, that would make great wallpaper.” You also might not think, “That’s fine art.”
However, after seeing Jennifer Angus’ art installations, you just might.
For the past 15 years, Jennifer has been creating intricate art exhibits by using dead insects as wallpaper patterns. She has exhibited her work in France, Germany, Canada, and plenty of locations throughout the United States. Most recently, her work was featured at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C.
For her day job, Jennifer is a professor of design studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (which also happens to be my alma mater — on, Wisconsin!), her expertise being in textile design. However, insects have become a great passion of hers. In addition to her art exhibitions, she published a novel, titled In Search of Goliathus Hercules, about a young boy who discovers he can speak with insects and sets out on a journey to find the giant insect known as Goliathus hercules.
Jennifer was kind enough to chat with me about her art and her interest in insects. Here’s the interview:
Josh Lancette: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you got interested in insects after seeing singing shawls of the Karen tribe in Northern Thailand decorated with beetle wings. Can you describe the experience of seeing insects being used in artistic ways?
Jennifer Angus: To that point, I had never thought of insects being beautiful, other than butterflies. To me, it was a revelation that there were these beautiful insects. One might think, “Surely you must have gone to a natural history museum growing up,” and I’m sure I did. But really it was a jaw-dropping moment for me to see these green, metallic beetle wings. I always say I have magpie tendencies, that I am drawn to shiny things, so I was just captivated by their beauty.
What was the transition between thinking the beetle wings on singing shawls were cool or unique and wanting to use insects in your own art and patterns?
It was a gradual transition. Like the vast majority of the general public, I had no great fondness for insects. An artist and friend of mine, Victoria Rivers, has done a lot of research on the use of insects on textiles, and she wrote a book called The Shining Cloth that has a chapter on insects. She recommended a place that you could mail-order insect specimens. The first insect I ordered in large quantities was a Eupholus species weevil. I chose the weevil because it has vertical stripes, and I had thought that when I set up these large installation works, the pattern on the insect was going to be important to the reading of the work. Little did I know at the time that it’s the wings, the legs, that negative space as I put the insects in arrangements — that’s what really makes the pattern. Thinking back on the weevil, I have a great fondness for them. I’m a dog lover, and they remind me of schnauzers.
Schnauzers? In what way?
Because they have that long snout in the same way a schnauzer does. When I first started working with insects, I would buy them already pinned. As with any collection, it becomes a bit of an addiction, and I wanted to start getting more insects. The specimen dealer would tell me, “No, I don’t have that insect pinned, so you’re going to have to do it yourself,” and he explained to me how to do it. I had a big ick factor at first — you know, they’re in a sort of moistened condition, they have a certain smell, sometimes they excrete something. Nowadays, I could have some insects on my dining room table pinned and I have no reaction to that at all. In fact, my studio used to be attached to my house, and it was essentially unheated, so in winter I would move the operation into my kitchen. I can recall my son sitting at the table, picking up a stray leg that had gotten stuck to the tablecloth, and holding it up to me and saying, “You do know this is gross.” Which I no longer did. I can’t imagine what would really repulse me at this stage.
It sounds like you’ve moved from not being too fond of insects to now being generally OK with them. Are there other ways that working with insects has changed your perspective on them?
Working with insects has really changed my whole perspective on the importance of insects to our environment. I’ve become very passionate about insects and the environment, and not necessarily just the environment the insects in my art come from, but the world that’s immediately around me, the Madison area. I’m much more conscious of the little things. Like any kid, I recall walking on the sidewalk and stomping on ant hills. I would never do such a thing now. I think they have just made me very conscious of everything in my environment, and I think I make a greater effort to be respectful.
What role do you think art, and specifically your art, can play in helping create awareness of issues such as insect health, pollinator health, and overall environmental health?
I would say that [creating awareness] has become my number one goal with my work. It’s something I never would have expected. Essentially, I am using insects to save insects. There is a small minority of people who feel what I am doing is wrong, and I understand where they are coming from. My feeling is that the insects I use, I see them as ambassadors for their species. I reuse and reuse the insects, and I tend to use the big tropical kind, and I think a lot of people don’t realize such creatures exist. So there is an awareness of existence that my art creates. Furthermore, the insects typically come from a tropical jungle, and we all know how fast the rainforest is being cut down. Insects are a renewable resource, but their habitat isn’t, so if using dead insects is upsetting to you, fantastic. Get involved with a rainforest project or boycott tropical wood projects. As long as the insects have an environment, they will continue to procreate and exist in great abundance. But while there are some negative reactions, more than anything, when people walk in, typically their first reaction is, “Wow,” and then they engage with the work in a number of ways. Common questions are: Are the insects real? Where do they come from? How many insects died for this art? Those are good questions, and if I can start a discussion about insects and the environment, then that’s a good thing. I really do feel that that’s my number-one goal these days, especially with global warming. It pains me to say that species I used to be able to get in abundance, I no longer can.
So your goal on the one hand is to get people to think about insects differently, and on the other hand is to start changing behaviors towards insects and the environment?
Do you think that art can change behaviors in ways that other means — such as public awareness campaigns, for example — can’t do?
Well, that possibility exists. My exhibitions are a very intense experience and are almost like a punch in the gut. I think they highlight the beauty of insects. I have found that a lot of people are scared of insects, and when they come into the exhibition and see the dead specimens put into patterns, it’s kind of exerting a control, an order. I think that one of the scariest things about insects to people is the way they move or fly at you. Man has always sought to control nature, and in these controlled patterns in my exhibitions, there is something soothing or known. Those who are frightened of insects can probably take time they have never taken before just to observe the remarkable job Mother Nature has done with insects. So I definitely think the possibility exists. That’s what I hope.
That’s interesting that you mention insects in patterns allaying fears. Have you seen any particularly strange or extreme reactions, or have they been mostly controlled because of the way the insects are presented?
I usually don’t get to witness many visitors seeing the exhibition. I come and install the project, and maybe I’m there for the opening, and then the exhibition is up for several months. The most extreme reactions I get are sent to me via email. Most typically they are of the nature of, “These are all God’s creatures, and what you are doing is wrong.” I’ve received some nasty ones, but I always respond. Most people would advise you not to engage that way, but I think people appreciate the response. We usually are able to agree that we want to see the insects perpetuated. Those are the most extreme reactions. Or, people who say, “There is no need to do this; insects are beautiful in and of themselves.” I disagree with that, because a lot of people won’t take time to look at insects because of their fear. I know the vast majority of people do not have an appreciation for insects.
You work frequently features insects as patterns on wallpaper, which I think is interesting because on your walls and inside your house is one place people typically don’t want to see insects, and seeing them on wallpaper might trigger some of those fears of insects.
I didn’t realize that until the very first exhibition I did. I had this growing interest in insects, but my training is in textile design — it’s what I teach at UW Madison — so I love pattern. I had a gut feeling that putting the insects in patterns on the wall was the right thing, and I didn’t know why, but as soon as I did it, the reaction I got was tremendous. The first show was in a small gallery in downtown Toronto. I had set up the show, and I could hear people peering through the glass outside saying, “I see they put up a new wallpaper, but I don’t see the art.” Then they came in and walked up to the wall, and literally I saw people take a step back as they realized what it was. So there was a tension created by something they saw and thought they knew and understood and that discovery of insects. Certainly these patterns suggest a home, a domestic space. I realized that I had power in that tension.
Do the negative reactions to your work ever make you consider doing something different with your art?
I mentioned there are some insects I can’t get as readily, and that more than anything makes me consider the future of this. In some respects, I expect there are some insects that will become fewer and some that will become more numerous as the environment changes. I’m asked from time to time if I will work with insects my entire career, and I think my answer is no. Really, it’s my love of pattern that underlies most of what I do. I foresee continuing to work, but with pattern as the vehicle. Plus, frankly, installing these exhibits is physically demanding, and I’m getting to the point where I wish I was rich enough to have assistants and could just say, “Put that there, put that there.”
Are there any insects you refuse to work with?
On the grounds of any moral decision, I would never use anything endangered because there is no need to do that. Early on, I was enamored with the dead leaf butterfly [Kallima inachus], and I loved them because of their biomimicry. But, butterflies do not hold up to wear and tear. I also think in terms of education, everyone knows a butterfly is beautiful, and I don’t need to enlighten people in that way. I prefer to use insects that maybe people haven’t thought of as being beautiful before, like grasshoppers and cicadas.
I’m required to ask this question: Do you have a favorite insect?
It changes from exhibition to exhibition. In the Smithsonian show, I used a cicada that is smaller than most insects I use, but it has black and clear wings, and the clear part of the wing sort of melts into the wall. The shapes I’m able to create almost remind me of a line of calligraphy, so I’m very excited about those. I have some katydids that look like they are wearing ballroom gowns with the pleats of the silk dresses. Phasmids continue to fascinate me, but I’m a little over them.
If someone wanted to see your work in person, where could they go?
Right now, I am in a show called “Supernatural” at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, WI, which is up until September 11. I have work at the Esperson Gallery in Houston that will be up until August 21. I’m going to be installing a project in Virgina at Emory and Henry College in mid-September, and next August I’ll be opening a show at MadArt in Seattle.
Josh Lancette is Manager of Publications at the Entomological Society of America.