A couple summers ago I wrote an emotional post about our deplorable teaching collection. I was new to Penn State and had immersed myself in the process of preparing a course on insect biodiversity and evolution. This kind of course hadn’t been taught in many years here, and its associated collection was in a ruinous state: ethanol evaporated, wet specimens rotten, active dermestid larvae, missing taxa, high value specimens pilfered from the research collection, etc. I moved most of the offending lot into the brown, metal repository outside our building for safe disposal. And it was all incredibly sad.
Alas, I soon heard pleas from no less than two artists – pleas to please stop discarding potential inspiration and potential medium. Where I saw waste and tragedy, they saw collage, sculpture, and painting.
I am extraordinarily proud and excited to see that one of these relationships has now resulted in ART! Sarah Swist joined the Frost this fall as a volunteer and immediately took interest in our “salvage” pile. In return for her help in rescuing specimens from Riker mounts (the target of another one of my rants that summer), we’ve tried to keep her flush with entomological inspiration. The resulting extraordinary pieces—a painting and a sculpture—are now on exhibit at the Edwin W. Zoller Gallery (10a–5p, M–F, October 14–25, 2013):
More than you can chew.
Sarah Swist, 2013.
A long time ago someone borrowed a whole drawer’s worth of cockroach specimens from the teaching collection, perhaps for an outreach event, and then never returned them. When I discovered the specimens they were sitting in unit trays, completely exposed to the elements and broken into tiny bits. In one of the trays was a note that read “to be returned ASAP”. In another unit tray was a live Periplaneta americana, feasting on its dead cousins (mostly large, tropical blaberids). At first we thought it was just another specimen, albeit in much better shape than its friends. Then it scurried out of the tray and disappeared seemingly into the ether. Sarah borrowed two of the A-size unit trays and reproduced them in scale, with oil on canvas. Each canvas is 7′ 9″ × 4′, and my small photo does not do them justice.
The physical possibility of gravity in the mind of someone standing right here.
Sara Swist, 2013.
We sequestered two kinds of wet-preserved lots during our clean-up of the teaching and research collections: (1) rotten lots that are beyond rescue (huge blooms of yeast, combined with discolored or evaporated “preservative” and massively disarticulated specimens) and (2) lots with no data (e.g., a giant jar of maggots with no collecting event label). Sarah rescued several of these jars to compose this inspiring (if unsettling) sculpture. It’s tall and completely nerve-racking … and it’s the first time I’ve peered on these jars of ruined specimens and actually felt good about them.
If you’re in the State College area in the next two weeks please do see these works in vivo. They’ve certainly inspired me to think more broadly about the value of our specimens—beyond their potential to educate and enlighten and more about their potential to be repurposed and to inspire.