By Laura Samuel Meyn
Images courtesy of Jennifer Ivory
An Art in the Square artist channels architectural skills and a love of insects into eye-popping artwork.
From their long antennae to their sleek bodies to the intricate markings on their brightly colored wings, Jennifer Ivory’s ink, paint and paper butterflies, pinned in shadow boxes, are so lifelike that one of her biggest challenges is convincing viewers that they’re not real. To think otherwise is an understandable mistake, given that her sculptures, depicting a variety of insects from all over the world, are informed by a lifelong obsession with bugs. After all, the architect-turned-artist took entomology classes in college for fun.
Ivory, based in Corvallis, Oregon, is a featured artist in this year’s Art in the Square in Southlake. While she maintains a busy spring art show season, this year marks her first stop at Art in the Square, which was recently named the nation’s number one fine art festival by Art Fair SourceBook. Ivory has exhibited at MAIN ST. Fort Worth Arts Festival half a dozen times, and this year sets up camp in North Texas for the 10-day stretch that encompasses both shows. She plans, together with a friend who’s flying in for the occasion, to visit all the barbecue joints within 5 miles of her hotel. Ivory travels in her Sprinter van, toting along tent and booth equipment, framing materials and, of course, cases and cases of painstakingly created bug sculptures. “If I plan really well, I can usually keep a full booth for eight shows in a row,” she says. “I’m frantically framing between shows.”
The artist life is something that Ivory fell into accidentally while working as an architect in Florida. She had been an avid collector of real bugs since childhood; as an adult, she got a request that would change her life. “My mom asked for some butterflies one Christmas — in my family we draw names and you have to make a gift for that person,” says Ivory. “I selfishly didn’t want to break up my collection, so I thought, ‘What the heck — I’ll make some.’ They had wire antennae and balsa wood bodies.” Afterward, more requests trickled in; she made some for her sister, and more for a wedding present.
As Ivory worked, she experimented with new materials and made her specimens more and more lifelike. Friends talked her into applying for an art show to sell her bugs; it was while filling out the entry form for the Atlanta Dogwood Festival that she came up with a company name to hide behind: Insectworks. “I thought, ‘This has a high probability of being a big disaster,’” she says. “I didn’t want my architecture practice associated with it.” However, Ivory would be in for a surprise. “I practically sold out,” she says. “You don’t get tired of people telling you how much your work makes them smile.”
Ivory continued working as an architect and taking her bugs to nearby art shows, but eventually, she had to make a choice. Around the time she decided to retire from architecture, her sister, who runs a horse farm in Oregon, wanted to travel and asked if Ivory would consider keeping an eye on the farm. Ivory and her daughters moved west, and took over some space in the farmhouse for a bug-making workshop. “I got settled in and just never left,” she says with a laugh. She’s been making insects full time since 2010. “I use all my architecture skills, but instead of buildings, they’re insects,” she says. “I used to call them my little bug models, but a friend informed me that in the art world, I need to use the word sculptures.”
Because so many clients have asked about sculptures that can be mounted without the protection of a shadow box, she’s now experimenting with coatings to keep the insects safe from humidity and dust. And Ivory also has experimented more with how she mounts them, sometimes using photographic backgrounds instead of the more spare, scientific style. Individually, the bugs are such convincing likenesses that entomologists who stop at her booth often comment that she’s done her research. “It’s all based on the real thing; I try to get the detail and color super accurate,” she says. “The one thing I do take leeway with is the size; I go down to one-quarter scale and up to twice life-size.”
While Ivory gets excited about trying to re-create exotic bugs that friends send her photographs of, it’s the domestic dragonflies and butterflies that have proved the most popular with collectors. “Everybody has a bug story. It’s amazing to me. There are childhood stories of a grandmother’s farm, or someone who had a yellow butterfly land on them at a funeral, and they took it as a sign,” she says. “I have a completely hardcore science approach, but I swear I have heard this across the country.”
Ivory has come to think of herself as an insect ambassador, using her art and interactions to help people appreciate the important role insects play in the natural world. “It’s fun to hear people say, ‘Oh, I hate bugs,’ and then go away not hating bugs,” she says. “I would love for people to become more insect aware — plant gardens, stop using pesticides, make a haven for butterflies in their yard.”
Insectworks Inspired by insects from around the world, architect-turned-artist Jennifer Ivory creates lifelike bug sculptures with ink and acrylic paint on art paper. In April, she’ll sell her work at both MAIN ST. Fort Worth Arts Festival and Art in the Square in Southlake. Single insects in 8-by-10-inch frames start at $175; 541-602-1142 or insectworks.com.
MAIN ST. Fort Worth Arts Festival Eighteen blocks of downtown Fort Worth are filled with art, shopping, entertainment, food and drink for the four-day festival, centered on Main Street between Weatherford and 9th streets. April 16-19. Free admission; mainstreetartsfest.org.
Art in the Square With more than 250 artists represented, Art in the Square, begun by the Southlake Women’s Club as a fundraiser in 2000, has grown into a nationally recognized art fair. Go for the art, and stick around to enjoy the musical performances, children’s activities and food and drink. April 24-26. Free admission; artinthesquare.com.
Featured Artists at Art in the Square
Images courtesy of Art in the Square
In addition to Insectworks’ Jennifer Ivory, there are seven more featured artists in this year’s Art in the Square lineup, chosen by ZAPP, a panel of professional artists.
Phill Singer’s oil paintings and prints demonstrate both a love of surrealism and an appreciation for the 18th-century painting tradition; the Pennsylvania-based artist’s work has been widely published, too; psingerart.com.