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Making art with insects

Making art with insects

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Jennifer Angus has had a busy autumn.

Art Daily called the Madison artist’s 7,000-square-foot show at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, “wondrous” and labeled Angus “one of the top contemporary installation artists in the country.” The Florence Griswold Museum in Connecticut asked to extend the showing of her installation there. And on Friday, Angus was named one of two female artists in Dane County to win the first Forward Art Prize, awarded by the Women Artists Forward Fund.

When she entered the Forward competition, “I did not expect to win, but I wanted to be supportive of this endeavor,” said Angus, 58, a professor in the Design Studies department at UW-Madison.

“I knew that the more people that apply, the better it looks. That’s why I did it. It’s something I believe in — supporting women artists.”

Angus expects she’ll plow some of the prize money back into her work, most notably for upcoming shows she is doing at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Pennsylvania and Oshkosh’s Paine Art Museum.

The artist uses — and re-uses — the carcasses of dead insects in her work to create remarkable and memorable tableaus. Her large-scale work titled “In the Midnight Garden,” along with installations by eight other nationally known artists, took the U.S. capital by storm in the 2016 show “WONDER” at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.

With a title that refers to the Doomsday Clock, Angus’ installation consisted of thousands of large beetles, moths and cicadas artfully arranged and pinned on the wall. On first glance, the insect patterns might have been mistaken for Victorian wallpaper. But on closer look they carried a message about nature’s sometimes unexpected beauty — and fragility.

On a trip to Southeast Asia in the mid-1980s, Angus saw garments made from the shimmering wings of insects — and that got her thinking about incorporating them into her art.

“Honestly, I never realized that there were beautiful insects other than butterflies,” the Canadian-born artist told the State Journal in a 2016 profile. “I like shiny things …. I found myself getting more and more interested in insects.

“But my first love is pattern. So what I did was merge my interests in insects and pattern.”

Since then, Angus’ work with common insects from around the world (she does not work with endangered species) has affected even her own views, she said. And she hopes it will make others reflect on the critical role of insects.

Insects are a renewable resource, she notes — but their habitat is not.

“The bottom line is that we need insects to survive,” she said. “Of course if human beings disappear from the earth, the earth will regenerate and be perfect without us. But if insects disappear, we’ve got five weeks on the planet.”

Despite her growing international reputation as an artist — she also oversees UW-Madison programs to help artisans in developing countries — Angus was “pretty shocked when I got the call” about winning the first Forward Art Prize.

“More than anything I feel that this award is now for me to pay it forward to the Madison arts community, to show leadership,” she said. “Now it’s my turn to give back to this community.”


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