The Ant Gallery—review by Jim Glenn Thatcher: “Ant Farm—At the Nexus of Art and Science” Atrium Art Gallery, USM Lewiston-Auburn College, April 11—June 6, 2014

Art, science, humor, serious study, nature, exotic locales, sex, birth, life and death—they’re all here, and they’re here in profusion: The art in almost every medium one can think of—prints of many types, music, books, collage, cut-outs, free hangings, 30-foot paper scrolls, paper leaves, “accordion”-like paper sculptures, embroideries, origami, and on-and-on-and-on. The science is in the subject, the humor almost everywhere in the art, the serious study in the art’s approach to science, the nature in exotic (read “tropical”) locales; sex, birth, life and death—everywhere on the planet of course—but here restricted to a certain form of insect—the leafcutter ant—in those exotic locales.

“All this in an art gallery?” you ask. Well, yeah, and it amazed me, too. But if you want to be truly amazed beyond amazement, you have to come here and see it. And behind it all are four amazing women—each one an accomplished artist on her own—and all bound together in a long-time close friendship: Colleen Kinsella, Rebecca Goodale, Dorothy Schwartz, and Vivien Russe. Collectively, for this project they came to call themselves “the Ant Girls”.

The name—and the project—arose through that longtime bonding. Back in the summer of 2012, They all decided they wanted to work together—very much together—on a large collective project, in some phases of which each of them would pass the piece in progress directly on to the next, or, in other phases, they would all work together on a single piece. Thus formed the analogy of the ants, which lead them directly to its subject—and they began their study, settling in directly on the leafcutter and its way of life, from social structure on through—nuptial flights, egg-laying, food gathering, even its “farming”—its cultivation of fungus for the nourishment of the colony.

Obviously, a great deal of research was required to get this project underway, and it continued, apparently, on through to the end. All this is borne out in the exhibition’s essay by Yuichiro Suzuki, Wellesley College Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences. As the work on the idea developed, the Ant Girls decided they wanted to design an entire exhibit rather than just a random array of pieces, and on that they approached Atrium Art Gallery curator Robyn Holman, who’s long been establishing a reputation for the installation of outstanding—and unusual—exhibitions that often reach out into the subjects of nature. With her enthusiastic cooperation, this entire show has been set up to fit exactly the dimensions—heights, widths, curves, stairs, spaces, and sloping ramps of Atrium Gallery—and just to touch it all off, the temporary overhead lettering of THE ART GALLERY has been boldly but sneakily revised by one letter to read “THE ANT GALLERY”. Capital letters or not, like much else here you’ll have to be paying attention to catch that one….

But for now, back up a bit and make your entrance through the main double doors. You’re going to be looking at a very crowded scene—all the more so for the relatively ant-like size of much of the subject here. You’ll probably be so struck by the variety you’re looking into that at first you probably won’t even notice the growth of foot-long green paper leaves hanging down directly over your head, each of them covered by a scramble of printed ants. Instead, you’ll probably be becoming focused on the three 30-foot Japanese paper scrolls reaching from floor almost to ceiling covered with marches of ants crawling upward with bits of leaves—you won’t even notice yet—you’ll be too busy and not close enough yet to see that each of those leaves is attached to its ant by a tiny slit in the paper that holds it there.

Meantime, however, you’ll feel yourself drawn down the curving ramp to your right by the four large, blue images hanging on its wall, each with its own large ant, illustrating the anatomy of its species. The way these images developed was typical of the Ant Girls’ development of both the artistic process, and their own cooperative “antness” in it: Sitting around a large table, each with paper, brushes and ink, each in her turn drew an ant head and passed it to her left; that Girl drew a thorax and attached it to the head, passing it on to the next in line who added an abdomen, passing it on again to be given wings or legs. (Most, nearly all, of this same pass-it-on process was used to develop almost everything in this exhibit). The blue images in this section were all part of a film-and-fabric process called “cyanotype”.

Next you’ll curl down off the rest of the ramp and enter the “fungus farm,” the tunnel where the ants carry the leaves which will feed the fungus that feeds the colony. That “tunnel” here is represented by a 20’ long two-sided passage formed by multiple sheets of 24×30” paper fitted together in many colors and images—the “cool” colors on one side representing the outside of the tunnel, the “warm” colors the inside. The way walls are made to join each other creates an “accordion” appearance, an element of sculptural strength that in itself helps to hold the entire structure together.

Now come out the far end of the fungus farm and keep on curling around into the everyday and endless processes of ant existence—sex, birth, life and death. First a glass-enclosed cache of hundreds of eggs fashioned from the Japanese origami paper process. Just beyond them rise strings of winged male and queen ants flying high up into the air—so high that distance makes them smaller to the eye. This is the nuptial flight. The winged males are developed from nonfertilized eggs, and die at the moment of insemination with the gigantic virgin queen, who then returns to earth and sheds her wings, which she will later eat to sustain herself as she creates a new colony with new worker ants that will tend the brood and cultivate a new fungus garden. In this section, you will see the great queen herself, along with hundreds of fallen wings.

I have taken you only through the main elements here. There is much more to this show than I have room to cover. Come see it for yourself. And—if you’re interested in a bonus—there’s going to be an ant picnic here from noon to 2p.m. on Saturday, May 17, with members of the Maine Entomological Society and ant expert Aaron Ellison….

Uh, no, the ants aren’t having a picnic—you are….

Gallery hours:

8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free and open to the public. USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College is located at 51 Westminster St. in Lewiston. The Atrium Art Gallery is in the main entrance.

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