University of Wisconsin School of Human Ecology professor Jennifer Angus who teaches textile design, makes patterns on wallpaper with an unlikely medium: bugs.
Angus will have an exhibition in the Smithsonian Institution, a feat which may not have been possible without the help of some small friends.
Angus’ passion is patterns and while she’s always enjoyed them, playing with her mother’s old dresses as a child piqued her interest.
She remembers a silk skirt with a butterfly-patterned print, and the continuity of the butterflies around the dress intrigued Angus.
While conducting research on minority dress in the Golden Triangle region of Northern Thailand during the mid-1980s, Angus said she had a revelation. After stumbling upon a “cleaning shawl” from the Karen tribe, Angus noticed a fringe strung with beetle elytra, which is the hard outside wing of the insect.
The green and metallic nature of the wings resembled sequins, and Angus was amazed since she never imagined insects as capable of being so beautiful.
“I was impressed with the ingenuity of using what was essentially in your backyard — and that’s how I first got interested in insects,” Angus said.
But Angus’ passion is patterns, and thus her insect wallpaper was born.
At her very first exhibition, onlookers from outside questioned the artistic qualities of her wallpaper from a distance. But after they stepped closer, Angus saw viewers were taken aback upon seeing the insects that filled the patterns. Observing this reaction, Angus said she realized she had something powerful in her art.
With 5,000 bugs in her exhibit, Angus said she didn’t do the collecting herself. Instead, she used specimen dealers. After an exhibition, she puts the insects on foam boards and into storage boxes to reuse all insects from showing to showing.
Some critics have expressed concern for the use of dead insects in her work, but Angus said she doesn’t use endangered species.
Angus said the problem isn’t her use of insects, but deforestation of rainforests the bugs inhabit.
“The insects are a renewable resource but their habitat, most of the species I’ve used, are from the rainforest,” Angus said. “The insects are ambassadors for their species.”
Her exhibit will be in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., and will be part of the gallery’s reopening after a two-year closing for major renovations.
Angus said the Smithsonian initially contacted her because of her ability to deal with the eccentricity of spaces. They asked her to send a proposal for an exhibition at the reopening, which they then selected.
Angus wants to make her wallpaper look original, like it was meant to be in the Renwick Gallery. She is aware most people don’t like insects, but she hopes people will think about them differently and will be able to coexist with the creatures. Ultimately, she wants people to be in awe of her designs.
“I think in this day and age we don’t have many ‘wow’ moments. We’re a little jaded and we think we know everything,” Angus said. “I think that we don’t have that wonder and amazement very often, so hopefully there will be that moment, and that’s most definitely one of my goals.”