Build it and They Will Come: Engineering feats of insects and animals at the D&R Greenway

A work by Donna Payton featured in the D&R Greenway’s exhibit

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A work by Donna Payton featured in the D&R Greenway’s exhibit

By Ilene Dube
   Some of the most exquisite designers can be found in the animal insect world — a silkworm secreting a single strand of silk and swathing itself in a cocoon, or a female organ-pipe wasp braiding balls of mud into a tubular nest to nourish her young. In Wild Designs: Animal Constructions, on view through June 17 at D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center, artists were inspired by the ingenuity of animal architects and the wild designs that they create in nature.
   ”The artwork in ‘Wild Designs’ opens our eyes to the amazing engineering feats throughout the animal world,” says guest curator Donna Payton, who derived the idea from the book Animal Architects, Building and the Evolution of Intelligence by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould. “It is a reflection of the behavioral capabilities of animals and of what animal building tells us about the nature of human creativity.”
   Ms. Payton’s own work includes fanciful spider webs made from dribbled paint and other materials, as well as collages of different shapes that echo the chambers of mud created by insects. Using vortices of digital photographs and colored pencils she creates exotic nests. In “Rainbow Web” she develops a colorful background of paint and fabric on a wood panel, then hammers in copper nails around which she intricately wraps thread to create a three-dimensional web. Her “Termite Hill” is made of wicker, drizzled paint and rhinestones.
   A prolific mixed-media artist, sculptor and photographer, Ms. Payton lives in Perrineville with her husband, radiologist Howard Rosenstein, and teaches at the Princeton and West Windsor arts councils, where she inspires students who return to her classes again and again. Influenced by her mother, a collage artist, Ms. Payton has been making art since her childhood in St. Louis, Missouri.
   Her parents loved being in nature and the family went on camping trips during which her father made whistles from the sap of sassafras. The family built campfires and used the charcoal to draw on rocks. Pokeweed’s purple berries would be used to make paint. Persimmon, May apple and the hull of black walnut went into making dye, and the family would eat butternuts.
   With gossamer wings and lacy spider webs, Joy Kreves’ work looks as if it emerged from a fairy world. “The Queen’s Vacation” is a paper nest with gilded bees entombed in bubble wrap against a background of bark, lace and moss — only Ms. Kreves would think to combine such materials. She also creates cocoons and “Thoreau’s Dream” from meshy fibers, handmade paper and objects found in nature.
   ”Lace Spider Web” is made from a polypore shelf mushroom from which a crocheted lacework drops — one can hardly begin to fathom the work that goes into thinking this up, figuring out how to fabricate it, then the fine needlework to complete it, right down to the detail of tiny shiny strands of the web. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for Ms. Kreves, who has so many works in layers of paper, pulp and wasps nests and papers that echo the patterns of the wasp nests. Her understanding of how nature builds and her ability to replicate it, as well as playing on it with her humor, are hallmarks of a gifted artist.
   Susan Hoenig is fascinated by the patterns made by leaf miners on leaves. “For many years I have been collecting leaves and discovered a phenomena that I find truly fascinating,” she says. “The leaves are the dwellings of animals, various insects’ architectural habitat.” Leaf miners are larvae that dwell in the layer between the leaf’s upper and lower epidermis. They can be from moths, sawflies, beetles, weevils, wasps and flies that lay their eggs in a cut made in the leaf. The larvae tunnel through the leaf’s living tissue, creating serpentine snake-like tunnels. The miners emerge as adults within the leaf and pupate in the soil below. Unless the plant’s health is already compromised, it can withstand this process.
   Gyuri Hollosy’s “Fugue in Hornet Mansion” is visually striking, with frills and pockets, honeycomb and ball shapes, all fused together in an unusual shape, a good 8-feet tall and 6-feet wide. It calls to viewers from across the room and continues to fascinate up close, with peekaboo elements and colors that, appearing brown at first, resonate with sparkle, and break down into blues and rusts, yellow and gold. Fascinatingly, it is made of resin-bonded sawdust.
   ”I chose the nest designs first because it reflected my visual voice of the overlapping part connecting with other parts similar to the style in my work,” says Hollósy, who has taught at the Johnson Atelier Institute of Sculpture. “Later I determined its variety being that of the European Hornet which immigrated some time in the 1840s. The Bald Faced Hornet was also part of the consideration for pattern and color. They both use wood pulp to make their nests using saliva and water as a bonding agent to make their paper-thin nests. Since I’m also an immigrant from Europe and work with sawdust bonded with resin, I felt this concept was a perfect fit and a personal connection between the insect and myself.”
   From a distance, Eva Mantell’s works look like abstract paintings, even when you know they’re made of cut-up magazines on paper. They suggest nests and hives, tunnels and burrows, a “super color” for living creatures so tiny they escape our appreciation. Colorful magazine pages are cut out in lacy patterns and put back together in a way in which the original pages are unrecognizable. Ms. Mantell uses material as if it were her paint: in the background, in the foreground, with textures of dreams in the layers.
   ”The inspiration for this body of work comes from the building behavior of social insects,” says Ms. Mantell, who has exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, ICA Boston and through various dance theater workshops and festivals throughout the world. She is Outreach Program Manager for the Arts Council of Princeton. “Beginning with simple repeated gestures, insects like bees, wasps, ants and termites create complex spaces that I consider future-thinking architecture. Whether it is through planning or simply a plan that works (evolution is so dry that way) these structures are built in anticipation of what is to come: hunger, thirst, predation, extremes of weather, the passage of time, and most importantly, the care and protection of future generations.
   ”Insect nests, carefully stocked with provisions, temperature-controlled, tended and guarded at great cost to the community, are spaces filled with anticipation,” she continues. “Isn’t this what our architecture is too?”
   Linda Gebhard’s “Bee-pocalypse” series is compared with the structures made by cathedral termites from mud, chewed wood, saliva and excrement — though not an appetizing ingredient list, nevertheless a sustainable termite megacity.
   Ms. Gebhard’s materials are more benign than the termites’ and powerfully colorful, like eye candy, suggesting the magical world of hives we humans, in our fondness, destroy. She has filled an entire gallery wall with “plates” made of paper, acrylic and polyurethane, shaped like a swarm, with details of honeycomb.
   Several smaller works by Ms. Gebhard are geometric dissections of photographs embedded in resin, showing how the human mind creates structures and patterns much the way animals do.
   Kathleen Preziosi, who teaches ceramics at the Arts Council of Princeton, has biomorphic shaped ceramic objects suspended from a rafter. They are her interpretations of the biggest nests of any bird, the Social Weaver Nest.
   Libby Ramage shows various views of paper wasps made from architectural blue prints and articulated hand-drawn details, as well as newsprint cut and rearranged into patterns. Wasps invented paper long before the first human imagined it, she reminds us.
   From Harry Bower, who works in numerous materials, we learn about caddisfly larvae and other creatures. Richard Sanders has the ability to articulate designs in wood that suggest the fine honing of the hand yet also bringing it back to its native form. All this, suspended in air, like a web or a nest.
   These artists had burrowed through their material, techniques and knowledge to show how we are all together in our pursuit of home.
Wild Designs: Animal Constructions is on view at D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center, Preservation Place, Princeton, through June 17. Also on view is Brush for the Earth: Local landscapes by Heather Barros of Art Collaborations! Gallery hours Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Gallery is closed holiday. Call ahead to confirm availability at 609-924-4646. For more information, go to www.drgreenway.org.