By Nick Thomas
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 19, 2007
In the somewhat obscure world of animal art -- where chimps, horses and elephants learn to grip paint-laden brushes and thrash randomly at a canvas to create abstract paintings -- Steven Kutcher's "bug art" stands out. Commanding a team of animal artists far too small to hold any paintbrush, Kutcher uses insects as living, moving paintbrushes to fashion his art.
"I'll take a bug in my hand and, leg by leg, load the paint onto each leg," says Kutcher, 63, from his Los Angeles home. The bugs -- flies, cockroaches and beetles -- are then let loose on a prepared canvas to scratch out their "masterpieces."
A keen environmentalist, Kutcher ensures his paint-soaked insects are unharmed by the ordeal. "I use water-based, nontoxic paints that easily wash off," he says. "I have to take good care of them. After all, they are artists!"
Critics may argue animals lack the emotion and self-awareness required to create true art, and Kutcher does inject some human creativity into the works by applying external stimuli to influence his living brushes. "If a bug is sensitive to light, I can influence its movement on the canvas by controlling the lighting," he says.
Kutcher's bug art concept grew out of his work as an insect wrangler for Hollywood films, including "Arachnophobia" and "Spider-Man." The inspiration came on a Hollywood set in 1985, while working on the Steven Spielberg television project "Amazing Stories."
"I had to make a fly walk through ink and leave fly footprints," Kutcher says. He succeeded, but the insect also left its mark on Kutcher. Images of the tiny footprints persisted in the back of his mind for two decades, eventually emerging as "bug art" four years ago.
This unique artist-arthropod partnership has yielded about a hundred works, which are characterized by vibrant, eye-catching colors and designs, splattered with trailing dots and dashes (Google "Steven Kutcher" and "bug art" to see his work). Kutcher insists they are more than just novel animal art pieces, because they reveal the hidden world of insect footprints.
"When an insect walks on your hand, you may feel the legs move but nothing visible remains, only a sensation," he says. "These works of art render the insect tracks and routes visible, producing a visually pleasing piece."
The works have been exhibited in galleries and museums on the West Coast, and last year Kutcher spent three months as artist in residence at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, Calif.
"His work was featured in our 'Bugology' exhibit, which showcased artists' exploration of insects," recalls gallery Director Jay Belloli. "Steve displayed his art collection, and also the insects that created the art. Thousands of people attended the event, and they were very curious to learn more about him and his art."
Kutcher's fascination with insects stretches back to childhood summer vacations in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he collected fireflies. After obtaining a master's degree in entomology, Kutcher taught biological sciences at California State University in Long Beach in the early 1970s and seemed destined for a life in academia.
But in 1976, his career underwent a metamorphosis -- befittingly, perhaps, for an entomologist -- when a former professor recommended Kutcher for the job of insect wrangler for the horror flick "Exorcist II."
"They needed someone to stage a plague of insects," says Kutcher, who was thrilled to hang out with about 3,000 locusts -- the name biologists apply to the swarming phase of crop-hungry grasshoppers. Kutcher also worked with cast members Linda Blair and Richard Burton, whom he "decorated" with bugs during filming.
"I'm probably the only person to ever remove a grasshopper from Richard Burton's crotch," Kutcher says, chuckling.
Embracing his encounter with Hollywood, the scientist began calculating how often bugs appeared in motion pictures. To quantify it, he watched dozens of movies and kept a close tally of the critters' cameos.
"It turned out about one in three films had bugs in it," he says. "It may have been just a fly landing on a dinner plate, or a butterfly in a garden, but they were there."
Since filmmakers at the time routinely hired animal trainers to handle Hollywood's six- or eight-legged stars, rather than insect specialists, Kutcher immediately recognized "there was job potential" for an entomologist in the movies. About 200 films, TV shows, commercials and music videos later, actors and directors still remember their encounter with Kutcher and his supporting cast of creepy-crawlies.
"Steve was terrific to work with because he was so enthusiastic about his insects," recalls director Tom Holland ("Child's Play," "Fright Night"), who used bugs in several scenes in the 1993 thriller "The Temp."
"There was a scene where Timothy Hutton has a nightmare and believes his chest splits and cockroaches came pouring out -- it was fabulous," says Holland. That roach scene wound up on the cutting-room floor ("I had to cut it because the studio dictated a change in the ending, which made the scene impossible to keep," says Holland), but others have since become classics. For instance, he helped paint the tiny red-and-blue Steatoda grossa spider that took a bite out of Tobey Maguire in "Spider-Man." And Kutcher spent nine months wrangling the army of silent, creeping invaders in the aptly titled 1990 film "Arachnophobia."
"The spiders were like his children and he took great joy in [their] performance," recalls the movie's star, Jeff Daniels. "He'd lay on the floor and blow a hair dryer up the wall, causing the spiders to run up the wall. Then, when we'd cut, he'd yell out, 'No one move!' And with his now-terrified brown spiders running all over the place, he'd scurry around with little Tupperware containers trying to corral them. It would have been comical except for the fact I was frozen in place!"
Hair dryers, electric tape, wires and chemical repellents are just some of the tools Kutcher employs to control his bugs. He readily admits bug wrangling isn't really about animal training. When a director needs a bug to fly toward a window, Kutcher places a bright light behind the window. And if the script calls for the insect to fly off and return to the window again, he'll attach a tiny tether to it.
"I haven't trained it to do that," he says. "I just use my experience to figure out a trick to control its movement."
Kutcher has been reluctant to sell the original pieces he has since created, although he hopes to produce commercial prints and a line of greeting cards soon. Currently, he's gathering pieces for a future traveling exhibit to natural history museums throughout the country.
"I hope people will look at these works and see the duality of art and science," he says. "Each insect is writing a page in its life, and every painting is a new discovery."