Buggin’ Out

Shangri La to host exhibition of David Rogers’ giant insects

antsIn the 1954 movie “Them,” atomic testing unleashes a swarm of giant ants into the world, causing panic and terror. David Rogers is the artistic equivalent of a nuclear explosion, except he is much nicer and the swarm of enormous ants — and dragonflies, butterflies and praying mantis — he unleashes are more awe-inspiring than terrifying.

Rogers is installing his “Big Bugs,” made from found natural wood, at Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center where they will be on display March 5 through May 3.

“Natural materials were my first love back when I was a kid,” he said. “We lived in a fairly wooded place. I used to go to construction sites after hours and pick up scrap, but then I started messing around with the branches in the back yard and the woods, and I found it much more interesting.”

When he was 13 or 14, Rogers said he fell in love with welding.

“When you’re a kid, you look at acetylene torches and you’re like, ‘Wow! This is cool.’ It opened up a whole other world,” he said.

Rogers said he welded a dragonfly and a housefly, which he still has in his house. They were not on the scale of his current pieces, with the dragonfly having a wingspan of five feet, and the housefly being two-and-a half-feet.

“I can assume from that experience that I must have had a fascination for insects as a subject matter,” he said.

The fascination is easy to understand, Rogers said — all those body parts and legs.

“For little boys, pulling the wings off flies is a rite of passage,” he said. “What would happen now with one wing? OK. Now what about no wings? It’s terrible to think about it now, torturing little critters.”

rogersbutterflyThe self-taught craftsman eventually turned to making rustic furniture. His big “bug” break came when he created a giant dinosaur to draw people to his booth at a Renaissance fair. He got a write up in a magazine and was approached by a representative from a botanical garden in Dallas.

“She said, ‘We like the dinosaurs but we are a botanic garden. What else you got?” Rogers, a Long Island, NY native, said.

Rogers decided to return to his love of insects, but he had to figure out how to build the creatures in a way that they could be broken down and moved.

“I had no idea,” he said. “How do you build a 25-foot ant? How big is its head? I had questions like that.”

Once he decided to build his “Big Bugs,” Rogers had to figure out the look he wanted. He trapped a carpenter ant in a jar, he visited the American Museum of Natural History to sketch models built at the end of the 1800s, but finally he had an epiphany.

rogers.spider“I finally had to trust that, a. I am an artist, and b. I am a decent enough woodworker that I only had to do my interpretation of what an ant would look like if it was 25-feet long,” he said. “I made the big leap early on to get away from entomological studies and go with the idea that, if I stepped back and looked at the head and the arms and legs, it would look right. That was how I went forward building everything.

“I was always worried that people would get up too close and (think) that I wasn’t such a woodworker. But I realized during my first installation, that you have to step back pretty far to see five 25-foot ants.”

Despite not being an extensive researcher, Rogers said he has learned much about insect physiology over the years. They look the way they do because that’s what is needed to make them work.

“I had big revelations,” he said. “Just a few months ago I was refinishing one of the bees. I was looking at the shape of different parts of its body and the legs, and I thought, ‘You know, this whole thing is built for flight.’ The shape of the body is an airfoil, the shape of the head, even its legs. It’s all about lift. I make these little discoveries. Hopefully, I keep learning something.”

The Shangri La show will feature 10 creatures, as well as a couple for the accompanying exhibit at the Stark Museum of Art. Rogers’ original exhibit had four subjects —ants, a praying mantis, a dragonfly and a spider in a web.

“I remember there was something for each one,” he said. “The ants, there had to be a group of them — there couldn’t be a solitary ant. The praying mantis, well, everyone stops in nature when you see a praying mantis. You never see them in a group. They are always solitary — that’s because they eat their young.

“Dragonflies are just so beautiful and elegant and they do such beautiful things in flight. With the spider web, obviously the spider is not an insect, but it tells the story. If you go out in the morning and you see the dew on a spider web, you just stop and look at it. It’s amazing, structurally, artistically — they’ve got this beautiful stand-alone aesthetic.

“Those are the core pieces of the exhibit, and without those core pieces, the exhibit is incomplete.”

Praying MantisRogers visits each location and looks to set the sculptures so they fit into the specific location. Seeing the pieces in a different environment changes the way the artist sees the pieces. One example came at a recently-installed show at a garden in Orlando, Fla.

“I was walking through the garden with my assistant and we were walking along this lower trail away from the rest of the garden. We looked up and Dan said, ‘Look at the praying mantis.’ I was looking at the ground to see a real live one, and I said, ‘Where is it?’ and he said, ‘You know, yours.’ Way in the distance there was a window in the foliage, and the mantis looked like real-life scale. I hadn’t expected to see it, and if he hadn’t at that split second looked….”

Rogers said the installations are collaborations between his art and the botanical gardens — “stewards of the Earth” as he calls the preserves — part of a larger plan to motivate people to preserve the planet in all its beauty. By drawing people to the exhibits, he hopes the message of conservation can reach a few more people.

In other words, don’t fear the ants. It’s not a movie. Love the ants — love the “Big Bugs.”

Shangri La is located at 211 W. Park Ave. in Orange.

For more information, visit www.shangrilagardens.org.

Story by Andy Coughlan

ISSUE editor