Peabody’s ‘Beauty and the Beetle’: Art and photos show insects’ ‘marvels’

“Beauty and the Beetle: Coleoptera in Art and Science,” an exhibit that aims to inspire an appreciation of the Earth’s most diverse denizens, opens Saturday, May 27 at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

“Beauty and the Beetle: Coleoptera in Art and Science,” an exhibit that aims to inspire an appreciation of the Earth’s most diverse denizens, opens Saturday, May 27 at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

The exhibition, on view through Aug. 6, combines select beetle specimens from the Peabody collections with larger-than-life beetle-inspired art by New Haven sculptor Gar Waterman and Bethany photographer William Guth.

Like “Dinosaurs Take Flight,” also on view at the Peabody, “Beauty and the Beetle” employs the interpretive nature of art to arouse visitors’ imaginations in ways not available to science alone.

“Artists and scientists alike are diligent students of nature, each investigating its subject in remarkably similar ways: science to document and explain, and art to interpret and express,” reads an exhibition statement.

A larger goal of “Beauty and the Beetle” is the quest to inspire “deeper appreciation for the fantastic creatures that call Earth home — including humanity — and encourage us to reflect and respect the environments that support us all.”

Waterman, who proposed the exhibition concept to Peabody staff, hopes to encourage viewers to “move beyond the predictable revulsion to the insect world.”

“Most people who encounter coleopterans would sooner crush them underfoot than marvel at their exquisite architecture,” he said. “I’d like to think that this exhibit might help to change that fact.”

Leonard Munstermann, senior research scientist in epidemiology at Yale and head curator of entomology at the Peabody, curated the exhibition.

Photographs by William Guth of an African spotted flower beetle (left), a scarab beetle from the Congo so named because it feeds on flowers, and a clown weevil from New Guinea.

“At first we thought [Waterman’s] proposal was a little nutty, but the evolving synergism in the group has produced a remarkable amalgamation of art and science,” he said.

Beetles are a group of insects that form the order Coleoptera. Their front pair of wings is hardened into wing-cases, called elytra, distinguishing them from most other insects. They include more species than any other order and constitute nearly a quarter of all known types of animal life. Of the 1 million species of insects known to scientists today, nearly half — about 400,000 — are beetles. They are found in habitats across the globe, and take on a wide variety of shapes and sizes, the largest being 400 times longer than the smallest.

Actual specimens are small, if not miniscule, but Waterman and Guth supersized the scale of the creatures. Waterman, who calls himself “a nature-obsessed artist whose work explores the architecture of natural design,” pairs larger-than-life metal sculptures with beetle specimens; by altering the scale, he can show the intricate details of beetle anatomy. To inform his work, he met with Munstermann and fellow entomologist Bill Krinsky andobserved specimens in the Peabody Division of Entomology to learn about their anatomy.

The art form he employs is bricolage, a construction of whatever materials come to hand. His sculptures were initially inspired by metal stampings that were cast-offs from an automobile brake parts manufacturer. They resembled insect legs.

“What began as found-object art evolved into a science lesson in entomology,” Waterman explains. “The more I studied beetles to inform my artwork, the more fascinated I became with their extraordinary biology and biodiversity.”

A video in the exhibition shows Waterman at work in his Westville studio transforming brake parts into adult beetle sculptures. The work requires a lot of cutting and shaping using numerous tools: industrial laser cutter, angle grinder, TIG welder, and MIG’s electric arc. Hundreds of individual welds are required to complete each section of the sculpture.

The oversized beetle photographs in the exhibition — high resolution aluminum prints — are the work of William Guth. Both art and anatomy lesson, they feature colors and exoskeleton topographies that straddle the line between abstract art form and biology. Guth cites three elements of his macro photography that were significant to capturing the fine detail of specimens this size: lighting, camera control, and photo-editing software. Fourteen images of a subject were taken at different focal points, then combined to produce a fully focused image and selectively enhanced detail.

Photographs by William Guth of a mountain stag beetle from Sabeh, East Malaysia (left) and a New Guinea spotted longhorn beetle.

The actual beetles on display represent the beauty and complexity of nature’s art, say the exhibition coordinators. The largest group of beetles are the weevils, or snout beetles of the Curculionidae family. One of six groups of Coleoptera on display, they comprise about 90,000 species — more than all species of fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals combined — and range in size from a grain of sand to 1.5 inches long.

Other Coleoptera on view include the stag beetles (Lucanidae family), longhorn beetles (Cerambycidae family), scarab beetles (Scarabaeidae family), and ground beetles (Carabidae family). In each case, specimens show the many extraordinary variations of rostrums, antennae, mandibles, and other features. 

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, located at 170 Whitney Ave. in New Haven, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed Jan. 1, Easter, July 4, Thanksgiving, and Dec. 24 and 25. Admission is $13 for adults, $9 for seniors, and $6 for children 3-18 and college students with ID. Children under age 3 are admitted free, as are all visitors on Thursdays from 2 to 5 p.m. September through June. 

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