Accustomed to the sight of sphinx moths among her flowers, a friend never thought to point out the one flitting and sipping its way through the evening primroses that had slipped under the fence and into her garden. “Look!” I said.”A hummingbird!” Amused, she corrected my mistake. “It’s not a hummingbird, it’s a moth. People call them hummingbird moths, or hawk-moths, because of the way they hover. See if you can get a picture of it.”
Photographing a hummingbird moth at last light, with no time to experiment with camera settings, isn’t easy. On that evening, there wasn’t any photo worth saving.
On the other hand, adult moths, which usually fly at night from dusk until dawn, sometimes can be found during the day, seeking nourishment from plants like larkspur, petunia, honeysuckle, thistle, and columbine. Plumper than hummingbirds, they’re relatively easy to spot in daylight, and easier to photograph. A year later, when I found this second moth hovering in a patch of wild columbines, I was better — if not perfectly — prepared.
Last June, I discovered a third hummingbird moth hovering over some tropical milkweed buds in a mural installed for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s exhibition, The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Art. Painted on a wall, that moth wasn’t at all difficult to photograph.
The work of Detroit-based artist Louise Chen Jones, known professionally as Ouizi, Picked from the Garden of Celestial Delights filled the corridor outside the exhibition.
In most of Ouizi’s floral murals, the flowers she envisions are neither realistic representations of plants found in the natural world nor imaginary blossoms. Instead, they combine remembered aspects of real flowers in unexpected ways. She uses botanical resources to study floral structures, but adds:
I think it’s just fun to paint from memory. I’ve studied and borrowed shapes from different flowers. They become imaginings of different species, but I also love to incorporate real flowers, depending on the project.
For her work at Crystal Bridges, Jones looked to site-specific plants for inspiration, meeting with Crystal Bridges horticulturalist Cody George to learn about plants native to northwest Arkansas. The inclusion of butterfly milkweed, dogwoods, and a white-lined Sphinx moth in the mural was a natural result.
For large-scale installations such as that at Crystal Bridges, Jones uses bucket paint, and the occasional pizza pan as a palette. Still, success has provided her with new options.
“I started out making murals with loose, leftover bucket paint, and mistint paints from Home Depot — I had to learn to match colors with whatever I had.
Now that I can actually pick what I want to work with, it’s usually acrylic or guache if I’m working on paper. I like the thickness of the paint and feel it displays the brush strokes better, which is important for my work.”
Having worked as an illustrator and fabricator in Los Angeles, Jones began creating murals after moving to Detroit in 2013; her work there has become so popular that commissions have come from across the United States and from around the world.
She considers herself as much an artisan as an artist. Although she studied drawing and printmaking at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she also depends on skills learned outside of school, such as metal fabrication, woodworking, sewing, and painting.
In this 2014 interview, her down-to-earth approach and humor are obvious:
Approximately how many pieces of art do you typically create in a year?
I make something out of nothing every day, so at least 365 — but that depends on what you consider art!
Do you “make a living” as an artist? If not, how do you primarily support yourself?
I make most of my money through large fabrication projects and commissions. The fabrication projects are usually for festivals and other corporate funded events, which involves construction or some other form of manual labor.
I do not consider this to be directly my art practice, but it funds my ability to make art and has helped me acquire skills that I did not learn in art school… I also enjoy physical labor and hard work, and if I did not have to work for other people to make rent every month I would just be doing my own crazy construction projects.
What is your favorite thing about being an artist?
I have an excuse to be dirty, disheveled, and decorated all the time.
Not only fine artists are interested in the hawk-moth. Scientists, too, find the creature fascinating, and sometimes approach it in quite artistic ways. Eleanor Lutz’s animated infographic on the hawkmoth is an example; here, she explains its background.
When I worked in [the University of Washington’s Riffell lab] as an undergrad, I helped out with an experiment about mosquito larvae. As part of the process we used a Matlab program to manually input the larva’s location during thousands of video frames.
It was a fun experiment, and I wanted to make something similar from YouTube videos. I found slow-motion videos of five flying species, and mapped out specific points on the wings during one wingbeat. I ended up with 15 frames per wingbeat, and I connected every frame using imaginary curves that went through all of the 15 mapped points.
Of course, 15 frames isn’t nearly enough for any kind of factual conclusion, so this… is just an art exercise. But hopefully you can enjoy this as an artistic pattern based on real life.
Riffell Lab slow-motion video of feeding hawk-moth
Asked about the purpose of her animations, Lutz says:
The most important thing for me to get across in my science illustrations is a feeling of delight or surprise. I want people to think science is awesome and really exciting, even if they don’t understand everything about the subject.
Members of the Sphingidae family, some of the largest flying insects in the world, hawk-moths can hover for minutes in front of a flower, extending their proboscis into its depths to feed while maintaining stability.
Tyson Hedrick, a biologist studying animal locomotion and flight at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, likened the moths’ behavior to drinking from a soda can with a six-foot straw. Intrigued, he joined with some colleagues to explore the process and their work, reported in Forbes Magazine, is remarkable:
To understand the hawk-moth’s responses, Professor Hedrick and his collaborators used a variety of high-tech methods, including 3D-printed “moth cannons” that shoot tiny copper cannonballs at the resilient insects while they sip nectar — all under the unblinking eyes of three high-speed video cameras that each shoot 1,000 frames per second.
Hawkmoth wings flap 30-50 times per second, so Professor Hedrick and his team capture roughly 40 frames per hawkmoth wingflap with each camera. The resulting 3D-flight videos are analyzed to identify how the moths recover and stabilize their hovering flight after being bombarded by a cannonball .
Beautiful and beautifully evolved for specialized flight, the hawk-moth is far more than a fleeting blur in our gardens and landscapes. Having seen it now through the lenses of both art and science, I suspect my next encounter with the creature will be even more delightful — however sharp or blurry my photos.
Comments always are welcome.