Who would have thought a Cicada Killer Wasp could be so beautiful? You may not think so when one surprises you flying out of your mailbox… but put the little guy under a microscope and a new world is revealed. This world is complicated, layered, iridescent and almost endless in its variety. This is the world observed by Dinah Wells, a watercolorist and entomologist living in Guilford, Connecticut.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dinah and seeing her work first hand at a recent Art League meeting. I also enjoyed seeing her favorite specimens. And yes, by specimens I mean actual dry, dead bugs. But after listening to Dinah talk about her inspiration and passion for insects, I couldn’t wait to take a closer look at them. She showed us a Stag Beetle, a local Cicada and a North American Horse Fly. Up close, they were like fine jewelry – delicately filigreed wings; eyes textured in dots and swirls like expert engraving; and the colors…!
Recently I had the idea to create an art quilt based on a glass of water with an ice cube in it. It was a simple tumbler sitting on a flat table. What’s so complicated, right? However, once I started drawing it, I began to get that “oh geez, why did I start this?” feeling. The closer I looked, the more colors appeared. There were so many reflections, shadows, layers… it was a little universe in there! I cut and tried combinations of fabric, pulled my hair, pulled out threads, started over, cut and moved around chunks of finished pieces until I was able to step back and see that world again. The end result is one of the most complicated quilts I’ve ever finished, and one of the most satisfying. I loved the experience of observing this image so closely that it transformed into something other than glass, water and ice. Without the physical object to observe, my art quilt would never have come to life as it did.
Although no artist can work without using their imagination and taking leaps and liberties with ‘reality’, we can’t let ourselves become isolated from the world. If we live only in our minds we risk losing the life force behind our work… which is life itself.
I’m not suggesting everyone should go out to their backyards with a jar and start collecting bugs, or stare at their dinnerware until their eyes are bloodshot. But I was inspired and energized by Dinah Wells’ integrity and disciplined observation. And I understand how her fascination with these usually-hidden treasures serves as an engine for her creativity. She not only studies these insects from photos, but also researches their anatomy and if she can’t locate a specimen locally, she goes to the Peabody Museum to look at their collection. She knows her subject inside and out – literally. By the way, the Cicada Killer Wasp sounds ominous they kill Cicadas, not people.
Picasso once said “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.”
As artists, it is our job to observe and reflect the world around us. Not every artist works in a representational style. But every artist can benefit from the practice of keen observation and investigation. To take an object and study it down to the smallest detail, until the subject becomes part of the artist, takes discipline and focus. From there, we can go anywhere we want… we may even discover a whole new world that fits in the palm of one hand.