Many people’s first inclination when they see a spider is to squash it, but not Will Knight. For the past 40 years, the 90-year-old artist has been encouraging the spiders living inside his barn in Williamstown, Vermont, to weave their webs so that he can harvest their work and apply it to slabs of wood to make intricate pieces of art.
Knight and his 82-year-old wife Terry came up with the idea for Knight’s Spider Web Farm in 1976 after reading instructions in a Girl Scout handbook on how to capture spider webs and adhere their prints to paper using hairspray and paint. They took the idea one step further, applying the webs to pieces of wood carved and painted by Will and showcasing their handiwork at local craft fairs. Within a short period of time, they had a following—and a new career.
“Soon we got really busy,” Terry tells Smithsonian.com. “Will kept on collecting the webs and I would paint flowers on the wood. All of a sudden our pieces were looked at as works of art.”
Eventually, she says, Will became a spider expert—and in the years since, they’ve gathered approximately 16,000 webs, each harvested by hand. Will has constructed a collection of 36 racks inside his barn. Each houses 24 wooden frames designed to encourage the harmless spiders to spin.
“I’m careful not to collect the webs from every spider, because I want to make sure that they are around and can eat in the meantime,” Will tells Smithsonian.com. “I would rather capture fewer webs and keep spiders happy. They need to eat in order to spin their webs.”
Most mornings for Will start out the same. He grabs a spray bottle filled with water and gently mists all of the frames. (The water acts like dew drops, making it easier to see the webs.) When he finds one he likes, he attaches a small ribbon to the frame and returns later to spray the web with white paint. Using a wooden board, which he has either painted black or stained a dark walnut color, he sprays the board with glue, carefully bringing it up behind the web and pulls the board toward the web to capture it.
“The more Will did it, the better he got,” Terry says. “He got to be so proficient that he could hold part of the web with one hand and place it on the board.” Over time and with his advancing years, she says, Will has adapted his technique to his body’s needs.
Will’s technique may have changed, but demand for his art has not. The Knights have a legion of fans from around the world that drop by their farm, which is located just south of Montpelier on Spider Web Farm Road. “All of our neighbors agreed to changing the road name, which was very nice of them,” says Will. (Who could say “no” to Vermont’s Spiderman and Spiderwoman?)
Over the years, visitors from as far away as China and Israel have come to their farm, which is open daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. through the summer, with limited hours in the autumn. Will keeps an online notebook to update those unable to visit in person.
They may have achieved notoriety for their arachnid artwork, but the Knights remain humble. For us, this isn’t a huge money maker,” says Terry. “It’s something we really enjoy.”
Will agrees. “I don’t turn anything into art,” he adds. “The webs are themselves art and the spiders ought to get the credit.”