Geared Grasshoppers: Q and A with Craft Fair Artist Mike Libby

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Mike Libby pays the rent by upgrading insects into art. He began in 1999, with a dead beetle he found underneath a vending machine. Libby complimented the natural beauty of the beetle’s wing patterns with gears from a Mickey Mouse watch. Today, he replaces spiders’ abdomens with brass and grasshoppers’ antennae with springs.

Part science fiction and part reincarnation, Libby considers his sculptures "insects that appear plucked from a future in which artificial intelligence has triumphed over the natural world." He will be one of 120 artists featured in the upcoming Smithsonian Craft Show at the held at the National Building Museum between April 23 and 26. Libby, whose work is available online at Insect Lab, spoke with me about the mechanics of his art.

How do people perceive you and the work you do? Is there a creepy factor?

ML: There's always the danger of having a reputation as the creepy bug guy. I guess I've been able to look beyond that hang up and appreciate the aesthetic and the way are designed. I know they are life forms that live on this planet and the reasons they have the features they do is because of the location that they're in or what they need to do to survive. If people have hang ups about bugs before they see my work, there's nothing I can do about that.

So, do science and evolution influence your work?

ML: There's definitely a philosophy of looking at evolution from a cultural point of view. I've done that with some other work, where I've taken Bibles and composed them into the skeletal sculptures of dinosaurs. I'm more interested in the anthropological way of looking at it. Why is it that we're so interested in ourselves and own origins and the origins of other things? That's more interesting than coming to a conclusion.

Have you thought of expanding your art beyond insects?

ML: Insects provide enough of that feeling of them being the other. I've gotten contacted by people who've used a taxidermy method to combine a cat and a bird. That really freaks me out because that has a Frankenstein quality to it. I think insects are so different: their skeletons are on the outside, they seem like aliens and have been on this earth longer than other species.

What kinds of objects do you incorporate into the insects?

ML: I tend to use brass, steel and mechanical parts from watches, typewriters and sewing machines. I think things that physically move are more inherently interesting that circuits, wires and LEDS. If an iPod doesn't work, we can't see why. If something is spinning or turning and breaks down, we can maybe understand why.

What are you bringing to the Smithsonian Craft Show?

ML: I've got some butterflies, a ladybug and a Harlequin beetle, which has a beautiful ornate pattern on its back wings. Egyptians used to think that those patterns were messages from the gods. I'm going to be showing a huge new beetle. Its wingspan is about 8.5 inches long and its body is a little smaller than your fist. It's the biggest I've done, which is exciting because I had a lot of room to do mechanical adornments to make it look really intricate and complicated.

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