Raven Larcom '21 with photographs from her exhibition titled, "Entom."  Photo provided by Raven Larcom

The Intersection of Insect Art, Science and Advocacy

Deborah Dudley

“Honestly, it started because I wanted to send my mom pictures of really cool bugs,” says Raven Larcom ’21, whose summer Saints Start Challenge Grant resulted in the intersection of scientific research, art, and environmental advocacy. It began with catching and cataloging a lot of North Country insects. 

Under the mentorship of Tristan McKnight, an instructor in the First-Year Program, and Karl McKnight, professor of biology, Larcom, who is an art and biology double major, spent the summer analyzing the wing interference patterns of almost 400 species of Lasiopogon specimens, a common genus of robber/assassin flies.
“We were looking at the rainbow-stable patterns that show up in clear insect wings, but only over dark backgrounds,” explains Larcom. “So, if you hold the wing over a light background, then you don’t see the rainbow colors. But once the background reflections are eliminated in darker backgrounds or in natural settings, then you can see these rainbow patterns.”

Larcom gets very animated about the patterns because before 2011, the scientific community had dismissed them as random, or a “soap-bubble effect,” and not significant in a biological sense. But what McKnight, McKnight, Larcom, and other researchers were finding is that the color patterns were actually stable, and they are now working on finding a scientific explanation. 

In addition to the biological characteristics, Larcom started to see something else in Tristan McKnight’s large collection of insects, which shared the robber flies’ habitat.

“I was peeking in the boxes because I had been taking photos of the wings of all of the Lasiopogon species, and I would see a really cool bug next to them,” she recalls. “So, I looked at the other insects under the microscope and started to realize just how beautiful and unique and diverse they were.”

At the encouragement of her photography professor, Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Sarah Knobel, Larcom decided to use her combined talents as artist and biologist to bring awareness to the beauty and importance of these insects in our ecosystem—to force people to reconsider these organisms in a different context. 

Using a Leica MZ125 microscope with a ring light and camera attachment, Larcom was able to capture, scale, and output large color prints of the complex anatomies of each insect, which were then exhibited at 42 Maple, a contemporary art center in her hometown of Bethlehem, New Hampshire, in August.

“So these bugs, which normally are the size of your fingernail, are now bigger than you are,” says Larcom, “and people get to see all of their hairs, limbs, and eyes along with their vibrant colors and textures.”

Larcom hopes that through her art photography she can raise awareness of these beautiful organisms and that people will start to think more about the role they play in our environment.

Bringing the research documentation into the gallery made perfect sense to her. 

“I feel like a lot of research is inaccessible to a lot of people. The general public isn’t able to access all scientific journals and papers,” says Larcom. “I want to bridge that gap and present these scientific findings and things to the general public in a way that they can understand and appreciate. 

“For me to process things, I have to overlap them a little bit, and then really think about them in different ways,” says Larcom. “My way of doing that so far has been through art, where people say, ‘Wow! That’s visually interesting. I’m intrigued,’ I think that starts a lot of interesting and important conversations.”