On Insects and Art

A blogging bonus: meeting interesting people through artists I already admire. Take Lauren Levato. An insect obsessed visual artist with a background in journalism and womens studies, Levatos current exhibition, Lantern Fly Sex Cure: New Insect Drawings, is now on display at Firecat Projects. Although I initially knew Levato only as Tony Fitzpatricks publicist, as I learned more about her, I felt a growing kinship. When I read on her website that she was raised by wolves, I knew we had to talk.

Our Town When I was eleven, my best friend and I communicated by howling at each other (in public). Whats your proof you were raised by wolves?

Lauren Levato My family. No really, we used to say that a lot when I was a kid and one day, when our family was in a particularly destructive era, I was like actuallyyes. Its used as an implication of lack of manners or refinement, but when taken in terms of a fairy tale it means you have something other an intelligence that goes beyond human capacity or understanding. There are examples in literature and mythology of the feral child having a preternatural intelligence. I identify with [that]. Its one of the reasons I can walk into a room and tell you where the insects are in seconds.

OT Why the insect obsession?

LL My grandmother [collected] Monarchs and their mimics and I remember collecting with her. I found a jar of her specimens in my studio one day in 2005 and since Ive focused on insects almost exclusively. [Also], I grew up in Indiana and that place is lousy with insects, especially cicadas. Everyone was horrified to walk through hundreds of them on the sidewalk but I remember clearing a space and sitting down in this massive pile of them with their orange-red eyes.

OT You call insects stand-ins for humans. Why?

LL We share many behaviors and sometimes their anatomy reminds me of ours. People can call it anthropomorphizing, but heres a great example: When faced with fire the scorpion will sting itself. We all know people who self-destruct when faced with a threat.

OT How has your background in womens studies played into your art?

LL My best friend and I [ran] a non-profit organization that helped survivors of sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence use art and writing as a way to process through stages of healing. Rewarding, but it took a lot out of me. [Womens Studies influence] is much more subtle now, [but] those concerns that take a person into a womens studies program and that are generated in such a course of thought are always there.

OT Take us through how you create a drawing from inspiration to completion.

LL Having an obsession helps, thats for sure. I read a lot of scientific writing, biology books, and mythology. Read them all together and you start learning and combining really different ideas. Or you stumble across some interesting tidbit that stays with you forever. For example, the poster image for Lantern Fly Sex Cure is the piece From the Bodies of Dead Horses and that title and idea come from the old belief that wasps sprung from the bodies of dead horses. Now this was an observable fact some wasps are carrion insects and their young hatch from a dead body. Or they swarm and take nutrients they need. Whatever the case, people saw wasps emerging from horse carcasses, and the folktale stuck. Pair that myth with my imagination. When my dad was having quintuple bypass ten years ago, I got through the surgery by imagining when they cracked open his chest, the doctors would get hit in the face with a field of Gerber daisies. Or bats would fly out and circle the room. I laughed at these ideas, especially because dad was a real cranky dude. When it was time for the show, I started drawing an anatomical heart and the wasps made their way in and there you have it. Years worth of research and mental imagery came together into one piece.

OT To collect insects, I assume you kill them. Any conflict in being obsessed but having to kill them in order to pay homage?

LL I got this question a lot when I used actual insects in my work like the time I was going to build a cicada dress. I dont kill them as much as it would seem given the amount I own. I have a dealer in China who sources them from farms around the world. There is a huge insect market. If you are okay eating a farm-raised cow, you cant really argue about a farm raised Blue Morpho. Especially because somewhere in Papua New Guinea a farmer has a well paying job supplying butterflies for weddings, to museums, to collectors, schools, and artists. I dont kill insects in my home and mostly now, like many scientists, I keep them long enough to study, take notes, draw from, photograph, and release. And to let it crawl on me to see what it will do. If I killed a larval stage insect I would feel bad, but an adult stage insect–the one everyone sees is mostly here to mate and die. However, I do step over ants on the sidewalk.

OT Whats the meaning of your new exhibitions title?

LL We dont have the Lantern Fly, or the Peanuthead Bug, in this country or we might have heard this one. Its called the Lantern Fly because people used to believe it had a light in its very well-endowed snout. It does not. Its strange size and shape freaked people out, and the myth of the sex cure came about when people starting saying Ive been bitten by a Lantern Fly, and the only cure is to have sex within 24 hours or Ill die a horrible death. But the Lantern Fly has no mouthparts! It couldnt bite you if it tried. I love what mythology people create around insects.

OT Your next project relates to your recently deceased father. Whats the role of art in processing grief?

LL If I didnt have this show to work toward in the aftermath of his sudden death I might have gone off the rails. It focused me in months of emotional chaos. As Tony Fitzpatrick said to me, its an un-tethering and with a father who cast as long a shadow as my dad, yes, un-tethering sums it up. Read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, is the answer I can give right now, less than a year after his death. Ask me again after I finish my next project.

Lantern Fly Sex Cure: New Insect Drawings by Lauren Levato can be seen at Firecat Projects through July 23, 2011

Visit firecatprojects.com for more information.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, Herself When Shes Missing,” is forthcoming from Counter Point Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicagos StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually.

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