How Insect Art Can Become Entomological Outreach
By Brooke Karasch
Entomology’s place in art runs the gamut from traditional to experimental to overtly scientific. Some artists intentionally include insect conservation messaging in their pieces, while others come by it more coincidentally. Regardless, the inclusion of entomology in art, and vice versa, could provide new audiences and new insights for both fields.
The scientific community has benefited from collaboration with the art world throughout time. Early examples include illustrations that allowed naturalists to study organisms in minute detail. For example, Maria Sibylla Merian was an important early scientist and artist in the 17th century. Her work was some of the first to document the idea that insects go through metamorphosis and don’t simply pop into existence as fully formed adults. Many of her drawings feature several life stages of the same insect together on one page and often depict insects life-size and in great detail.
Since then, the advent of high-powered microscopes and high-definition photography may have lessened the need to use traditional art in entomology, but there is still a place where the two can interact. Artists often take inspiration from nature, and entomology can be a rich resource. Entomology, in turn, can benefit from the public outreach and communication generated by art pieces.
An unusual example of artistic-entomological communication comes from makeup artist Jasmine Ahumada. She often uses dead insects in her unique style, and, when she does, she also adds a brief paragraph of information about the species. She incorporated spotted lanternflies in one look, and paired it with information about the native range of the species, concluding that it’s considered an invasive species in the United States. It’s easy to see how her work is beneficial to the entomological community through exposing new audiences to ecological problems.
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Many artists are also working in somewhat more traditional mediums that involve entomology. One French artist, Tomas Libertiny, has raised awareness of the decline of honeybees in Europe through his sculptures. The bees themselves do most of the work! He creates a sculptural framework, and a colony of honeybees fills in the rest.
Honeybees may already be somewhat in the public spotlight, but other artists work with insects that are less well known. Hubert Duprat works with a bug that most people probably never consider: caddisfly larvae! He collects them—in small numbers—from local streams and then introduces them to a tank where they have access only to case-building materials of his choice. These materials include gold flakes, pearls, and small semi-precious stones. His direct goal may not be to create awareness of these tiny links in the food web, but either way, he is opening the eyes of the public to a very interesting creature.
Art doesn’t have to include literal insects to overlap with entomology. Max Alexander is a knitter who bases her designs on moths. She’s created about 50 different specimens, each one based on an actual moth species. This work helps highlight the incredible diversity of the insect world. Artists in other mediums, like Raku Inoue, who works with flowers and plants, also provide this type of public awareness. His work in particular could be beneficial in that he often bases designs on “scary” insects and arachnids—presenting them as beautiful when they’re composed of flowers could improve public perception.
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Then there are artists who are very quantifiably trying to connect with the entomological community. My local art museum, Plains Art Museum, started a student program called Buzz Lab. The program aims to connect high-school students with both art and science, primarily related to pollinators. I heard about the program last year and reached out to the coordinator, and I gave a talk about my butterfly research during the Buzz Lab 2018 session. This year, we’re planning to expand my involvement into a full two-day workshop. These kids are great artists, and they’ll be excellent scientists, too. (A couple of them are already working in an entomology lab!)
The reach of Buzz Lab extends beyond just the students and staff members who are directly involved. The students create an ecology-themed public mural each year, host an interactive event at the local farmer’s market, and care for a pollinator garden. Everyone who experiences these pieces of the program is exposed to a little bit of entomology—maybe just enough to pique their interest or even get involved themselves.
Artists are already taking inspiration from, and subsequently promoting, the diversity and beauty of insects. Science can often seem daunting or intimidating, but, in pairing with other fields, we can work to bridge the gap and generate public interest. Entomologists should reach out to these artists to explore collaborative outreach ideas. It could lead to new partnerships, new projects, and new audiences for research!
Brooke Karasch is a graduate student in the Range Science program at North Dakota State University’s School of Natural Resource Sciences. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org