This past summer I dropped into an art reception and happened upon something quite unexpected. It’s not every day — or in my case, any day ever — that I come across costumed mantis bodies recreating scenes from Alice in Wonderland. But there under a glass dome, on a space the size of a small cheese platter, was the Queen of Hearts in a luxuriously flouncy red skirt, amidst manicured landscaping on a stone patio, addressing a small group of mantises wearing playing card sandwich-boards and shrinking in fear. The Queen was no doubt imploring, “Off with their heads!”
The artist of this piece is Judith G. Klausner, a Somerville, MA resident moved by the small and oft-missed details of both the natural world and the not-so-natural world. For Judith, female mantises, famous for biting off the heads of their mates not post-coitus but mid-coitus, held further opportunities for humorous beheading references. In “Judith and Holofernes,” another of her miniature scenarios, a female mantis in a slinky blue dress stands beside the bed of her lover-to-be wielding a machete.
She works with bee bodies too, acquiring them and the mantises through the internet. The bees come from Carolina Biological, a supplier to science courses and laboratories. Her online mantis source, based out of Ohio, supplies to educators, museums and collectors.
And from the less than natural realm of inspirations, Judith has taken to carving cameos and silhouettes into processed food products such as Oreo cookies and American cheese slices.
Her Oreo cookie cameos are made with the help of toothpicks, straight pins, and a balled-tip sculpture stick.
I encourage you to visit her website to see a larger selection of her work with insects, insect parts, baby teeth and fingernails, and processed food products.
I recently had the chance to ask Judith some questions about her work:
PO: Do you make the clothing yourself?
JK: I do. I have always loved costumes and sewing, and I worked as a costumer for 4 years in college. Costuming on a miniature scale seemed like a logical next step. Plus, unlike actors, mantises don’t complain when you break their arms off to get a dress on!
PO: How delicate are the mantises and bees to work with? What kind of tools are needed?
JK: Mantises are quite delicate to work with. A few of those limbs did have to be re-attached, and a couple of the antennae didn’t even make it to me intact (a secret of the Judith & Holofernes piece: Holofernes’s antennae are actually made from my hair). Dried insects arrive totally stiff and inflexible. To pose them, you first have to put it them whats called a “relaxing chamber,” which is basically a sealed jar with wet paper towel in the bottom. Once they’ve been in there for a while — for these mantises, about 24 hours — the joints can be gently loosened, and arranged in the pose you want. The limbs get pinned in place and allowed to dry and stiffen again. In addition to the relaxing chamber and the pins, I use entomological forceps to lift insects and insect pieces without breaking them.
PO: Was there anything in particular that inspired the Alice in Wonderland scenes? Have you thought about recreating scenes from other examples of literature?
JK: We — human beings — have an incredible tendency to anthropomorphize, and in the case of the female mantis’ notorious copulatory behavior, that leads to interesting questions of gender and power. I was looking for famous scenes from history and/or literature where women decapitated men, and came to the Queen of Hearts from Alice and Wonderland and Judith and Holofernes from the Bible. Salome and St. John the Baptist are another example from the Bible of a woman decapitating a man, but historically the iconography has been so similar to that of Judith and Holofernes that it didn’t seem aesthetically compelling to do both. On an art historical note, it is interesting how similar their iconographies have been, given historical attitudes towards powerful women, and that Judith was a heroin and Salome a villain.
PO: What are some examples of reactions you get from people who hear about what you do with insects, or who see it for the first time?
JK: When people hear about it for the first time, they are sometimes a bit taken aback. Unfortunately most people think of insects as disgusting, which is an attitude I try to change with my art. Responses are often much more positive when people see the work itself, though for some there is certainly still a strong “other”ness to it. Many are surprised to find that insects can be beautiful.
PO: What’s the average shelf life of the cameos?
JK: I started making the Oreo cameos in August, and so far they seem to last quite well. I do store them in the refrigerator since humidity can cause the cookie part to crumble, and high heat makes the frosting melt and lose detail, but I had two out on display for two weeks in a guerrilla art show at MIT, and they did just fine. As long as they stay fairly climate-controlled, their preservatives make them a fairly permanent material. I am looking into fixative sprays for the long-run, but I want to make sure to find something that doesn’t change the surface texture visibly.
PO: What are you working on now?
JK: I am continuing to work on the “From Scratch” series, which so far includes Oreo cameos, toast embroideries, and cereal cross-stitch samplers. Most recently I have been working on developing cut “paper” dioramas with American cheese. From some earlier experiments with American cheese, I discovered that if you leave it out it acts like a Shrinkydink — it just gets smaller and harder.
PO: What percentage of your waking life do you think is spent working on and planning your art?
JK: Wow, that’s a tough question…I can say that I don’t spend as much time working on it as I know i ought to. It can be hard after a full day of work to muster the energy and creativity necessary. Planning is another story. I feel like almost any spare moment I have is spent brainstorming!
PO: Are there any new mediums you’re considering trying?
JK: I feel like there is always the balance to be struck between growing a cohesive body of work and allowing your imagination the freedom to roam. Right now, I am trying to use the “From Scratch” series as a thematic guide within which to explore. I have experimented with knitting licorice rope, and I hope to find more unusual ways of using other packaged food products.