Painting with bugs

As the opening of the museum’s Art & Nature Center swiftly approaches and the featured exhibition Beyond Human: Artist-Animal Collaborations, which opens Oct. 19, I have been having a lot of conversations that go like this:

“So what’s your next show going to be?”

“Oh, we’re featuring artists who work in partnership with living animals to create their art.”

“Huh.  You mean, like, elephants and dogs and stuff?”

“Yeah!  And whales, bees, orangutans and even cockroaches.”

“Wow.  That is so cool!”

Cool indeed.  And one of the coolest, creepy-crawliest artists I’ve gotten to know as we’ve planned the exhibition is Steven Kutcher, artist and bug wrangler.

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Steven Kutcher, courtesy image

If you’re a movie fan, you’ve probably seen Kutcher’s work without realizing it.  From James & the Giant Peach and Matilda to Spiderman and We Bought a Zoo, Kutcher has worked on hundreds of movies, as well as television shows and commercials.  His job as “bug wrangler” is to help create the vision of the human writers and directors while working with the natural behaviors of the bug “actors.”

His work on some of these special requests inspired Kutcher’s transition to creating bug art of his own. He uses his knowledge of those same insect behaviors with a splash of paint and a dash of imagination and ingenuity to create beautiful paintings with bugs as his “living brushes.”  I talked to Kutcher recently about his work, and was impressed by his enthusiasm and lifelong interest in insects.

 Q: I hear you have been “a bug guy” since you were a kid.  Do you have a particularly strong memory of when you first got interested in insects?

I was born in New York and collected fireflies in a jar when I was three years old and I thought they were wonderful to watch.

Q: What inspired you to start painting with bug collaborators?

I was asked to create some artwork using insects after I told a curator I had figured out how to make a fly walk through ink and leave footprints.

 Q: Do you have a favorite bug to work with, either in film or in your artwork?

I like working with darkling beetles and hissing cockroaches.  With super worms I can use more than one worm at a time. In film I like all insects and arthropods except lots of American cockroaches because they smell and are oily.

darkling beetle from paint

Darkling beetle as paint brush. Image courtesy of the artist.

Q: What are the qualities that you look for in a “bug artist?”  (What makes a particular bug a good collaborator?)

I look for large insects with their legs as far apart as possible.  Another good trait is being able to handle the insect without harming me or them.  They walk readily.

sunrise kutcher 2004

Sunrise 1, 2004 by Steven Kutcher, with darkling beetle

Q.  What concepts help you in your Bug Art?  

I think of painting with living brushes like painting with clouds or given a paint brush for the first time.  There is no book to read and you have to invent  everything yourself.  Every painting is a learning experience and no two paintings are the same.  As I paint an invisible thing [the insects’ pattern of motion] starts to become visible.

 Q: What do you need to do to take care of your bug partners?  Would the process be the same working with another kind of animal?

I have a bug zoo and feed my arthropods what they eat.  Hissing cockroaches get banana and lettuce and orange and darkling beetles get oatmeal and vegetables.

 Q: How did you get into working with bugs in the movies?

The Exorcist 2.  I took care of 3000 African locusts and learned to work with them on the movie set.

Q: Do you have a fun story from a movie set you can share?  

A friend of mine was returning my bee hive in her car and they got loose while she was driving.  Also, I worked on a TV show once where I met an elephant trainer and got to be lifted up in the air by holding on to the elephant’s tusks.

Q: What would you recommend for kids who are interested in learning more about insects?

Read about insects, interact with live insects. And keep some if you can.  There is so much to learn and if you open your eyes and observe and ask questions, you will never have enough time to do anything else.  But if you make insects part of your life, your life will be more enjoyable.

Thanks to Steven for taking the time to talk about his work! Want more buggish goodness?  Come meet the artist during our Beyond Human: Artist-Animal Collaborations, opening day festivities October 19!  Meanwhile, see excerpts from Kutcher’s video Bug Art on Youtube.


  1. Gary Bush says:

    Just wondering about the beehive in the car woman. Can we send flowers or what? Is she still your friend? Could this event be a new movie? Endless possibilities!

  2. Meg says:

    Good questions–If I get a chance, I’ll ask him, Gary! Or come to the October 19th festivities and ask him yourself. Steven will be doing a bug-painting demo and also a talk on working with bugs in film.

  3. This is so fabulous! I love the paintings, and the idea. It reminds me of one of a story about the artist and scientist Etienne Jules Marey. He was fascinated with the way that animals moved, and in the 1800s, he was trying to figure out how bees fly with such tiny wings. There was no way to capture the motion photographically, so he used gold-leaf to gild the edges of a bee’s wings. Then he watched them fly through a shaft of sunlight, and discovered, to his delight, that they move their wings in a clever figure eight pattern.

    Lovely stuff!

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