Mike Libby is the founder of Insect Lab, collaboration between bugs, arachnids, antique watch parts and electronic devices. His inspiration came over a decade ago when a colourful dead beetle by a vending machine caught his eye (we hope we weren’t guilty). The coils in his Rhode Island School of Design brain whirled and the concept of marrying insect with machine was born. It may be a creative approach but, unlike our entomologists here, at least he puts the pieces back together.
Each intricate sculpture takes a painstaking 20-40 hours to make and they are individually made to order. deBugged caught up with Mike Libby and got a rare insight into what makes him tick.
What are you working on right now?
Currently, I’m working on a couple of commission pieces, a praying mantis and a scorpion. They are both big, about the length of your index finger big. And I’m also
getting some work ready for a show here in the US and in Germany. I’m also fortunate to afford some time working in my other studio, too.
Your work has been described as futurist, but I think it bears reference to the Victorian-era. The Victorians had insatiable thirst to pin mount or stuff anything which moved – the Rothschild’s alone amassed two million butterflies in the 20th century! In the British Natural History Museum there are 28 million insect and arachnid specimens. Why do you think people love to collect and display insects?
Everybody has their reasons, whether it be an appreciation of form, color, shape, function. There are as many reasons as there are people, likely! But generally I feel it has to do with an inherent fascination and wonder at things that are different.
The Victorians also liked to dress fleas. Any plans to start clothing insects or maybe you could reinvent the flea circus. Fleas with spring-loaded legs – that would be fun!
Mike: Hmmm… naahhh. Not into apparel design, maybe in another life.
I’ve trod on many a dead insect. They disintegrate easily so how on earth do you dissect them – please share your trade secrets.
No secrets, really just a steady hand, good tweezers and small pins. The “secret”, I guess if you call it that, is to place the specimen in an airtight container with a moist towel in a warm setting for about 24 hours, this will “relax” the specimen, make it’s stiff joints loose and it’s wings more manageable to posing. I also use all archival materials for the final displays.
The beetles are so beautiful – what do you polish them with?
Nothing. Besides incorporating mechanical components and posing, I don’t embellish or airbrush or paint or shellac any specimen, even beetles. It’s amazing the variety of colors, patterns, finishes and lustres they have!
Which insect/arachnid would you really like to work with?
There are some pretty big beetle specimens I would still like to work with, rhino beetles, flower beetles, and I’m still looking for some bigger more exotic grasshoppers. Oh, and a really BIG dragonfly would be great.
Has there ever been a time that you wanted to lie to a customer that you accidentally broke their sculpture because you wanted to keep it?
There’s absolutely no way I would go near a spider. What are you scared of?
Little centipedes, millipedes, anything whose front looks like their back end and vice versa.
Have you ever worked with cockroaches? If so I hope you used plastic gloves – they are germ ridden!
Yep, about a decade ago when I lived in New York, too young and naive to know/think about using gloves.
What’s the most difficult job you’ve done?
Ladybugs are always difficult, and dragonflies. And the Orb Weaver spiders are challenging, too, they all have such small body volumes, thin tails, long legs etc, that the risk of breakage or damage is high, but the finish is proportionally rewarding.
Ever had a go at taxidermy? I think you would be great and I heard there’s a revival…
I’ve done other sculptures using taxidermy blanks, the inside forms real taxidermists use to stretch the hides of animals over, I modelled either leaves or fabrics over them, but I’ve never done “real” taxidermy. Not interested, frankly, seems gross, I wouldn’t like working with something that was/is a vertebrate. Also the tendency to be making “Frankenstein” like work is always there, and making creepy, garish work, cobbled together mutant work, seems flat, lacklustre and dull to me.
After ten years of getting under the skin of dead insects do you think you know what makes them tick? (sorry couldn’t resist he he he).
I am no closer to knowing what makes life “alive” than when I started. It is a beautiful mystery, the things that makes us, and other creatures, alive. I rather it stay that way.