When I purchased my first framed butterfly, a small blood-red glider, entomology (insect) art was brand new to me. My butterfly’s museum frame allows me to look at the butterfly’s front and its back. I like flipping it from front to back, back to front, seeing both sides of its dazzling costume at once.
The appeal of insects is most certainly due to their variety, color, and perfect architecture. Real insects have been used as an art supply throughout human history; as you can see here, bright beetle wings were used on an Indian textile art piece over 200 years ago.
Now that I own a few pieces from this art genre, I have been seeing other entomology art pieces when I am not actively looking for them. It’s the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon at play--the frequency illusion--in which after seeing something for the first time, there is a tendency to see it more often.
This past Christmas I saw It’s a Wonderful Life in the theater with my kids--an annual affair--and sure enough, George Bailey has butterfly art in his married home--the same butterfly art that was hung on the walls of his parents’ home earlier in the film. Before I acquired my little red glider butterfly, all the dozens of times I’ve seen the film, I’d never noticed.
While the Bailey home’s butterfly art resembles something akin to an Eagle Scout project, pretty but relatively amateur, some of today’s insect artists are making what is unquestionably fine art. Christopher Marley, based in Oregon, is the Master and Commander.
When I recently stumbled upon an article featuring Ayesha Curry’s stunning home (styled by the multi-talented Ayesha herself), my eyes went right to black butterfly art on her wall. I know Christopher Marley’s work when I see it.
Ayesha Curry’s impeccable home decorating taste, which includes a mini-gallery of what must be Christopher Marley’s work, was featured on multiple websites, but none gave credit to Marley for his work. Hunt Slonem’s unmistakable bunny painting in her home is credited. Slonem shares a similar creature (butterflies and birds) obsession and repetition patterning with Marley, so Ayesha’s placement of their art on adjacent walls feels satisfying and harmonious.
A conversation about insect art--or even contemporary nature-themed art--is incomplete without including Marley. It’s like talking about rock music without acknowledging The Beatles, pun intended.
Marley’s subjects are butterflies and beyond: beetles, birds, sea life, snakes, even geckos. When he was a boy, Marley’s mother often ushered him outside, where he found nature could be an “omnipresent and unjudging friend.” As a young man and fashion model who traveled the world, he began to collect insects that bewitched him and eventually began arranging them in spectacular patterns.
Marley’s artistic vision is one grounded in respect. Each specimen is “reclaimed,” which means it has died of natural causes and been ethically and legally gathered by different breeders, organizations and zoos around the world. The dazzling presentation of the organisms in shapes with sensual names (Celebria Prism, Limited Cerulean Genesis, and Aesthetica Mosaic, for example) highlights Marley’s extraordinary gift for marrying science and art.
Christopher Marley’s work manages to simultaneously demystify and re-mystify. Just like anything else we label “other,” organisms that swim, crawl, or fly can be threatening and things we want to repel or avoid. It’s clear that Marley wants human beings to appreciate the organisms we find frightening and foreign-- their astonishing structures, their surprising beauty, and their worthiness of our wonder. His work gives us the opportunity to draw in close and see that what we thought was terrifying is also practically designed and uniquely and essentially placed in the ecosystem. At the same time, these creatures are relentlessly exotic, otherworldly in shape and color, both dead and living a second life in Marley’s work.
An arrangement of blood-red Gliders (like mine) in Marley’s “Sangaris Ellipse”
I recently acquired a Rainbow beetle ($79) and a Swallowtail butterfly ($149) from Insect Collective by Shane Morris, both for whom I have great affection. Once you’ve been to my house and seen my butterflies and beetle, you just might start seeing little creatures in art everywhere.