Artist Christopher Marley reveals how his insect phobia became a deep passion.
I haven’t always loved bugs. In fact, I spent the first nearly 30 years of my life in fear of them. Where I grew up in Oregon, however, I rarely encountered insects, so I seldom found my phobia a problem. But at age 19 I moved to northern Chile, and my condition took a dramatic turn for the worse. Years later, while I was working in fashion advertising, I had assignments in dozens of countries—most of them tropical. The situation became almost stifling.
Then one night I found myself in a crowded Bangkok night market where several people were selling what appeared to be small marsupials unceremoniously crammed into cheap frames. Upon closer examination, I was horrified to see that the framed creatures were actually beetles. I couldn’t take my eyes off the little monsters, and I ended up buying as many as I could carry.
Over the next several years insects became the only souvenirs I sought in each new country I visited. As my interest grew, I began a serious study of entomology and ventured to remote locales in Latin America and Southeast Asia to collect and observe exceptional species in their natural habitats.
Insects became the embodiment of all the dread and allurement I had hoped to portray in my drawings and paintings. But attempting to design using organisms that are already perfectly designed is trickier than it may first appear. The immediate tendency is to try to emulate some natural setting. But as no re-creation can rival even the most mundane scene in the real world, the end result of this effort often resembles a banal collision of taxidermy and science project.
My former fear and apprehension of insects impelled me to take a different tack and drove a passion to present these amazing arthropods in a way that took them as far as possible out of their natural context. As I experimented with uniting the worlds of crisp, architectural design and enigmatic, bizarre organisms, the result was pure gratification.
Epitomizing all that we seek to eradicate in our lives—the disorder and the unpredictability—insects are the embodiment of chaos theory. This dichotomy of anarchic insects versus structured symmetry has been the primary impetus behind my work. By incorporating insects into compositions that are clean, architectural, and balanced and offering them up in graphic, minimalist presentations, I am able to take advantage of the innate energy (albeit largely negative) pervading our very idea of bugs and redirect it to a fascination for them. When viewed in their proper light, and under our prescribed conditions of control and predictability, we find something in insects heretofore inconceivable. We find the brilliant hues and elegant forms, the structure and precise mechanics—the order—that we have been pining for.
When planning a piece, I sometimes do computer mockups of a few of the more elaborate designs, but I usually prefer to play with the specimens themselves to see what I can come up with. Particularly gaudy or ornate specimens won’t work well in designs with other species, for example, unless the goal is to focus on radi- cal divergence. I use no guides to help me other than the occasional ruler, preferring to eyeball things, because no specimen is ever perfectly symmetrical, so tiny adjustments must be made in each piece.
Color is easily the most fundamentally indispensable aspect of this work. In the insect realm, color’s emotive quality unites with the energy of interaction with an enigmatic organism. One question regarding my work has been repeated far more than any other: “Are the colors real, or do you paint them?” I always answer that the colors are completely natural and unretouched. Truly, even the rudimentary elements of art imitate life.