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Feature Mon Aug 04 2008

An Interview with Lauren Levato

Based in Evanston, artist Lauren Levato expresses her fascination with insects by incorporating real-life specimens into her work -- as well as bones, horse hairs, and other organic materials. Recently we caught up with her and asked her about her critter-based creations, which she calls "insect assemblages."

How did you become so interested in insects?

Well, it all started more than 30 years ago in a little place called Indiana ... Really -- I have always been interested in insects. My grandmother is probably the first origin of inspiration that I can consciously recall. She loved monarch butterflies, and their mimics, usually, too. One summer, I remember, she found several outside her house in Hebron.

Growing up in Indiana surely helped: grassy fields, the lake, farms. Plus, my mom always encouraged research and investigation of anything I liked. She would help me 'raise' the Cecropia caterpillars we found. Thankfully, I have her green thumb, and planted my first very fruitful butterfly garden this summer.

Where do you get your materials?

I find them now, mostly. I moved from Ukrainian Village to Evanston in 2007, and to my great joy this town is crawling! I used to order them from a dealer in China, and I may again in the future, but for now I'm taking what is delivered to me in the windowsill, on the beach, etc. I learned to pin them as a child, but I can't bear it now, so I only take what is already dead.

Where did you get that longhorn beetle? Probably not your kitchen, eh?

I wish! If we lived in Indonesia or Malaysia or Africa -- where most of these critters are from -- they probably would be in the kitchen. No, they are from my dealer in China, who sources them from around the world.

When did you decide to start using insects in your work?

I think it was in 2005. When things happen intuitively for me, they work out best. I was making some collages in my studio, and a small jar of my grandmother's monarch butterflies sitting on my table caught my eye. I took them out, took some apart, and was on a roll. Within the year, I got the idea for a Beetle Abacus, and had made many assemblages with insects.

I had 300 Xylotrupes ulysses (a rhino beetle in the scarab family) ready to make a wedding dress from them, but my proposal was rejected. I've been using them in classes teaching kids to draw insects, so many of them have found new homes.

What are some of the unique challenges of your work?

Infestations. Many insects are scavengers, so I have to keep a close eye on my collection -- especially because I don't have them in museum storage or anything. I lost three black swallowtails to a ravenous spider while we were living in Ireland. We came home and it was all wings and legs - no bodies left.

Also challenging is the dead bug stink. Do you know what opening a box of 100 insect specimens smells like? Oh, man! Once that smell gets up my nose, I walk around for days asking my husband, "do I stink?" Preservation could also be an issue, so I have replacement insects. Plus, dried insects break pretty easily. And people naturally want to touch them.

What is your favorite insect-related myth?

There's a lot...I really like the ones related to death and fortune. Butterflies with number shapes on their wings in your house mean money is coming; a Black Witch Moth in your house means someone will die. There are insects with really wicked names because of their mythologies, like the Devil's Coach Horse. But I really love the myth of Eos and the cicada. I adore cicadas, and the idea that she turned him into a cicada so he could sing his love to her is the best. It's true, too -- the loudest little fella gets the most lady cicadas. And who doesn't adore a good cicada love song?

In addition to being a visual artist, Levato is also an editor, educator and writer. Her first collection of poems, Marriage Bones , is a chapbook published by Fractal Edge Press.

About the Author:

A native of Johnstown, PA, Lauri Apple is a contender for the title, "world's most renowned bag lady," thanks to her somewhat popular (at times) website, FoundClothing. Lauri has a JD and doesn't know why, but it will take about 30 years for her to pay it off, and that worries her. Her favorite cities are Prague, Pittsburgh, Austin and Chicago. When she's not looking through people's trash, she's either painting, taking pictures, or making/thinking about making cartoons about her weird life.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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