Petaluman catches the art bug
Kevin Clarke’s love for bugs began when he was tasked with annihilating a carpenter ant colony that took residence in the front yard of his childhood home in New England each summer.
“I had full permission to do whatever I could to eliminate them,” the Petaluma-based entomologist, or insect scientist, said of the bugs that came out in “full force” every year. “I destroyed them with magnifying glasses or rocks, but I made observations while I was doing the killings. I became really interested in the lines they made and everything they did.”
Clarke went on to graduate with a degree in psychology from Boston College, moving to San Francisco in 1999, where he worked long hours as a business analyst in the bustling stock market, though he never lost his curiosity about bugs, spending his free time researching insects.
The self-proclaimed “ant fanatic” also begin helping a friend pinning bugs and exploring the California Academy of Sciences, where he was transported into a “whole other world” among the millions of insect specimens.
He snagged a job in South Africa studying ants before graduating from San Francisco State University with a masters in conservation biology, completing his thesis project on ants in the city. Finishing graduate school at the same time as the economic downturn, Clarke found it challenging to get an entomology job, so he began pinning bugs on his own and giving out the frames as gifts, as the requests for more insect-based art poured in.
“Bug Under Glass,” Clarke’s one-man entomology business was born in 2002, and the 42-year-old said he hasn’t had a “real job” since 2003. He now spends his days surrounded by more than 12,000 insect specimens in his home studio, creating frames filled with colorful butterflies, moths, beetles and other bugs, as well as jewelry.
Channeling a more whimsical style, Clarke has also mastered the art of animating beetles - boiling the dead bugs he receives in the mail until they’re malleable and shaping them to fit in unlikely diorama scenes, where various species can be spotted plucking a banjo, riding a motorcycle or enjoying a picnic. He said presenting bugs in creative ways helps people understand the importance of insects and conservation.
“Art is a way to draw people closer to insects and have them appreciate them in a different environment where they don’t think they’re threatened,” he said. “It helps break down barriers.”
For Clarke, who purchases his butterflies from farms that help stimulate the local economy and promote sustainability in areas such as Malaysia, Peru, Thailand, Papua New Guinea and Kenya, the full-time job is the perfect coupling of conservation and creativity. He also attends craft fairs where he talks to passersby about bugs and conservation, and also includes a natural history card with each of his pieces to educate buyers about the insects they’ll be showcasing.
“I get all different types of reactions when people walk by my booth, from ‘eww, yuck’ to an interest,” he said, adding that patrons are amused when they see the same bug they think is “gross” inside a miniature car or riding a giraffe.
He said he ships thousands of products all across the U.S., with business on the uptick each year. His work has been featured in a medley of art shows and at Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum in Hollywood, The Oakland Zoo and the Petaluma Wildlife and Natural Science Museum, where he also serves on the nonprofit’s board of directors.
His collections have been featured in films such as the recently released comedy “The Meddler,” and as design props in Pottery Barn and West Elm catalogs. He also appeared on AMC’s “Immortalized,” a competitive taxidermy reality TV show where he created a Gilligan’s Island-esque scene using about 600 bugs.
Clarke, who moved to Petaluma four years ago with his wife, also established a scholarship through the Petaluma Education Foundation for students pursuing a career in biology, and he enjoys sharing his love of arthropods with his 3- and 5-year-old sons, one of whom is named after the famed entomologist E.O. Wilson.
“It’s funny to see how they react (to bugs) compared to other kids,” he said of his sons. “The disgust of bugs is learned from adults … my kids will pretty much pick up anything off the ground and they know the names of a lot of bugs. My first son’s third word was bug.”
He’s grown fond of the “20-step commute” to the garage workspace in his Petaluma home, and though he admits there are times when he grows tired of pinning 100 butterflies in a workday, he says he’ll never lose his interest in insects.
“I like the discovery behind them; there’s always something new you can learn about insects,” he said. “You can study ants the rest of your life and still not know everything about them … it’s a job where I’ll never stop having to learn.”
(Contact Hannah Beausang at email@example.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.)