Not furry, cuddly or by any means cute, bugs always get a bad rap. At the sight of them, people reach for rolled-up newspapers and insect sprays. But to textile artist Jennifer Angus, insects are simply material for art. She's so comfortable with them that she'll handle bugs while eating a bag of chips. “It sounds a bit gross, I know,” she says, laughing.
Angus hopes to highlight how important bugs are to life.Since 1999, Angus has been using thousands of brightly colored insects to create kaleidoscopic patterns on the wall, thus short-circuiting our initial instinct for revulsion and replacing it with amazement. Angus has exhibited in art museums and science museums around North America. Her latest exhibition All Creatures Great and Small has visitors ewwww-ing and ahhh-ing over approximately 5,000 insects at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles now through September 11. “Part of my work is the rehabilitation of the image of insects -- that insects are so vitally important. We need insects to pollinate flowers that, in turn, produce fruit. We need insects for decomposition. Without insects, I don’t think we could exist,” says Angus. Her other goal is to elicit wonder. “I want people to walk in a room and say, ‘Wow! I’ve never seen anything like this before. We don’t have very many ‘wow’ moments anymore in this age of Internet.” She first discovered the decorative potential of insects in the '80s while on a research trip to the Golden Triangle -- a region overlapping China, Laos, and Myanmar -- where she found the shawls of the Karen tribe lined with greenish iridescent jewel beetles. It was only years later when a fortunate miscommunication with curator Sarah Quinton led her to put her passion for textiles and the beauty of insects together.
Angus has over 30,000 bugs, which cost between 50 cents to $25.“She misunderstood me. I was talking about wanting to do something with the pattern on the insects. But she said to me, ‘It’s a real good idea to put insects in patterns on the wall.’ I went, ‘Yeah….That is a good idea.’” Angus now has over 30,000 bugs in her inventory, which cost anywhere from 50 cents to $25 and gets used over and over again in different exhibitions. They range in size from as long your hand to a small as the last joint of your pinky. There are no butterflies or moths in Angus’s inventory. She works with hardier bugs like grasshoppers with pinkish-purple wings, electric blue weevils, polka-dot weevils, leaf mimics, and thorny stick insects (which really look like how they’re named) that can withstand the wear and tear of repeated pinning. Some of the weevils in her show have been in use since she first began. Despite what visitors often think, Angus doesn’t paint over any of her bugs. She also doesn’t use endangered species in her work, preferring to sleep well at night, thank you. When creating patterns for her insects, Angus is usually inspired by the history of the exhibition space, which the artist says are usually converted masions, or new ideas sparked from her previous exhibitions. Working with a floor plan and photos of all insects to scale on Photoshop, Angus meticulously lays out where each mandala, honeycomb, or zigzag pattern will go. From there, her well-practiced team installs a grid of thread in each location and puts up an entomological wonderland set in a Victorian-era sitting room in just 7 to 10 days. Ironically, Angus’s long familiarity with insects has made her immune to the sense of wonder she wants to instill in her viewers: “That wow moment? I really don’t experience that anymore, so I really have to live vicariously through other people.”