Art of Science: A Moth’s Brief Life in Art


Artist Elsabé Dixon grew up raising silkworms in cardboard boxes as a child in South Africa.  Now based in Virginia, Dixon has made her childhood hobby the source of her art, now on display in a unique residency and installation called LIVE/LIFE at Arlington’s Artisphere through February 22.

In the Artisphere studio, Dixon and helpers first constructed an environment for domesticated silkworms (Bombyx mori) to live out a life cycle – hatching from eggs to caterpillars, eating mulberry leaves, spinning cocoons, pupating, mating and dying – and then created sculpture using what was left behind, including twigs, empty cocoons, salt and even silkworm poop.

Detail from LIVE/LIFE, Elsabe Dixon, Mixed Media, 2014-15
Detail from LIVE/LIFE, Elsabe Dixon, Mixed Media, 2014-15

Dixon sees the life cycle of the Bombyx mori – the only truly domesticated insect in the world – as a means of investigating many aspects of life. The first and most obvious is the ephemeral and ever-changing nature of life, but the work examines many other issues, including our relationships with society, nature and the built environment.

There are no barriers between the insects and the audience here. Visitors in the earlier months of the residency were free to touch the caterpillars and the moths. When I visited earlier in January, the moths were all dead, but I was able to touch the silk cocoons left behind.

The sculptural installation that Dixon has constructed, first for the silkworms to live in and then using their products and detritus, is based on microscopic photographs of silkworm particles. Made from materials including rubber, cut-up cardboard paper towel  tubes, discarded silk cocoons, mulberry branches and, yes, piles of caterpillar poop, the installation looks organic, natural, and utterly at home in its modern-art setting.

LIVE/LIFE is open to the public Thursday and Friday evenings as well as Sunday afternoons, when the artist welcomes visitors to join in conversations with her and others in the field of art, medicine, engineering and food production.

The Art of Science: Growth Factor

Betty Busby, a textile artist based in New Mexico, uses quilting to explore scientific themes.  Her large and often spectacularly detailed pieces represent biological processes, including cell division and the growth of plants and other organisms.

Busby uses photomicrographs of scientific images as inspiration for her work.  She says that because the colors in microscope photos are mostly artificially produced, either through chemical or lighting methods, it gives her the freedom to experiment with “the wildest color combinations I can think of, unhindered by expectations of realism.”

This piece, Growth Factor, looks at cell growth and development.  Busby printed the cell images on silk in a palette of green and gold, evoking a forest, then appliqued the purple organelles welling up in the middle. This piece will be shown at “Quilt Visions: Brainstorms”  at the Visions Art Museum in San Diego, CA, in October 2012.

You can see more of Busby’s work on her website  and at her etsy shop.

This post contains material that originally appeared in Guru magazine

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