Over the course of two years, Deanna Witman went out into the woods — or, sometimes, scouted a restaurant compost heap — then took her finds back to her darkroom, let them slink around overnight and checked back in the morning to see the results.

She made art — with slugs. And it’s beautiful. 

Once Witman developed the silver photographic paper, the slime trails, poo and sluggish nibbles looked like celestial bodies as they might be seen through a telescope.

Witman, who describes herself as an artist, educator and explorer, said inspiration came from a rare quiet moment of sitting in the woods.

She wondered: What if?

“In my hunting of slugs, some nights I would find 10, and some nights I could pick up 100,” said Witman, 42. “Also, it’s really important to know they’re not hurt; they’re not harmed. I totally take them back to where they came from.”

Witman, originally from Pennsylvania, now living in Rockland, set up a slug corral of sorts in her darkroom so they couldn’t wander too far off the paper. She strategically placed damp sponges so the slugs had something to drink. They dined on gelatin in the photo paper.

And once tucked in for the night, the art was up to them.

“I like giving up that (control), letting serendipity, letting the magic happen,” Witman said. “In this case, it’s letting biology happen. I think they move more quickly than people can imagine, especially if you’re not watching.”

The end results, once developed, were pale squiggles, dots and misshapen star bursts on a mottled black background. She named the eventual collection “Supercluster Arion and Other Phenomena.”

“The first prints, that metaphor was pretty clear for me,” she said. “Most of the images are made by this one particular species that can be found in woodlands around here. The bigger prints, the ones that are several feet long, for those I relied on a restaurant compost pile to get the really big gray (slugs). The thinking would be that those would have a bigger trail.” 

Witman, who has a background in environmental science, teaches at Unity College and the Maine Media Workshops + College. She’s sold several “Supercluster” photos already. Witman’s represented by Susan Maasch Fine Art in Portland.

Past photo projects have included experimenting with elderberry pigment for soft, fading pink prints and time-lapse images of herself naked in the woods. 

As friends found out about this project, “some people refer to me as the slug lady,” Witman said. “This is totally new, and probably why I worked on it for so long. I was obsessed with it and in love with the process. I loved going out and finding them, bringing them back and watching them.”

She was genuinely surprised the first time she overheard someone admire one of the photos, read the description, then say, “Eww.”

“I was one of those people, too,” Witman said. “I had vegetable gardens and I would put cups of beer out for slugs to not eat my vegetables.” 

But, no more.

“Now I have this certain regard for them and respect that I just, I really couldn’t hurt one,” she said. “I’m hoping I never have to garden again.”

“Supercluster Arion and Other Phenomena” is on display at Unity College’s Leonard R. Craig Gallery through April 18.

Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, unexplained and intriguing in Maine. Send photos, ideas and slug macaroni art to [email protected]