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Petaluma artists turns bugs into whimsical art to promote conservation

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Bug Under Glass

Petaluma entomologist Kevin Clarke founded Bug Under Glass in 2002. He turns butterflies and other bugs into museum-quality artwork and jewelry to encourage appreciate and conservation of insects.

Visit: bugunderglass.com.

Kevin Clarke’s garage workshop isn’t for the faint of heart. There are bugs everywhere, but not just your standard cockroach, spider or wayward ant. We’re talking extraordinary insects, and lots of them.

Forget the swift-moving silverfish or loathsome potato bug that might lurk under boxes or along the rafters. Clarke’s neat and tidy workshop — his wonderland — houses some 10,000 insects from the world over, preserved and meticulously organized in towering rows of file drawers.

The Petaluma entrepreneur and entomologist runs a niche home-based business, Bug Under Glass, that elevates often-misunderstood insects into works of art. He spends his days carefully mounting butterflies, beetles, batwing cicadas and hundreds of other species into museum-quality frames that are shipped to customers across the country.

His award-winning handcrafted artwork includes jewelry featuring butterfly and moth wings and whimsical dioramas starring insects squatting on tiny toilets or playing miniature musical instruments.

The back of each display includes a natural history “story” detailing the bug’s background — its species, where it originated, interesting facts about its habits and habitats.

“Every bug has a fascinating story you wouldn’t expect,” said Clarke, 45.

The rhinoceros beetle, with its thick exoskeleton, for instance, is among the strongest animals in the world, able to lift more than 800 times its weight. The largest can measure 6 inches in length. In Asia, Clarke said, some are raised as pets; others end up as participants in fights that people wager on.

“The biggest takeaway is that every species has a story to tell,” he said. “When you know something and understand it, you’re more likely to appreciate it and conserve it. It builds a better understanding about the importance of insects.”

Clarke has a lifetime interest in the world underfoot. He’s been curious about bugs since his childhood outside Boston, where his parents entrusted him to rid their property of a large colony of carpenter ants. He studied the ants as he carried out the task.

Decades later, he spent a year in Cape Town, South Africa, sorting and identifying ants; his master’s thesis at San Francisco State University focused on the ants of San Francisco.

“I’ve always had a fascination with ants,” Clarke said, revealing a tattoo of a harvest ant just below his waistline. From the tiny ants that have long captured his attention, to the giants of the insect world, Clarke wants people to know that bugs aren’t just the things of nightmares and horror films. They are far more than creepy, uninvited guests in homes, yards and at picnics.

“Insects have been feared by the public for lots of different reasons. A lot of bugs are erratic. They jump, they fly, they sting,” he said. Yet, their value is enormous. “They’re the base of the food chain. There wouldn’t be birds or bears or any other animals without them.”

Clarke laments that many children are growing up without the fascination of watching bugs in open spaces, developing a natural curiosity as he did. Insect species in rainforests are going extinct, another troubling fact for Clarke, whose master’s degree is in conservation biology.

“Our connection with the natural world is becoming more limited,” he said.

He started Bug Under Glass after discovering there was a demand for his artwork. He initially made the biological art as gifts for friends and then was invited to sell his handiwork at a crafts fair, where he sold out.

Bug Under Glass

Petaluma entomologist Kevin Clarke founded Bug Under Glass in 2002. He turns butterflies and other bugs into museum-quality artwork and jewelry to encourage appreciate and conservation of insects.

Visit: bugunderglass.com.

Clarke founded his green-certified business in 2002, while pursuing his master’s degree. It’s been his full-time job for the past eight years. Bug Under Glass is an effort to make people less squeamish and more comfortable with bugs by experiencing the natural world in a design-centered way.

His customers include more women than men and represent a cross section of ages, nationalities and backgrounds. “It really is all walks,” he said. “Insects resonate across all spectrums of people.”

Clarke sells primarily from his website and online at houzz.com, a home remodel and decorating site, and at etsy.com, an e-commerce marketplace showcasing handmade goods and unique items. His work also can be found at places like the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and at December Thieves, a distinguished Boston shop featuring works from global artists.

Locally, his work is available at Field Works Petaluma, a downtown gift shop offering products created by independent and small-batch makers.

Clarke was working in finance in San Francisco when a friend of a friend needed help with a project at the California Academy of Sciences. There, he found himself surrounded by more than 14 million insect specimens, “just in awe” of the collection. He had no idea he’d establish his business and later move to Petaluma and transform his two-car garage into a meticulous studio housing about 400 insect species at any given time.

His insects, dead on arrival, are hand-raised or sourced from sustainable butterfly farms in countries such as Malaysia, Madagascar, Kenya and Costa Rica that promote conservation and help the economy of native people.

Shipments of scorpions, spiders, giant water bugs, wasps, praying mantis, centipedes, butterflies, moths and numerous others arrive ready for processing.

“It’s a powerful conservation tool,” Clarke said of the sustainable farming practices.

The arthropod expert spends about 50 hours a week in his workshop (longer during holiday seasons), with an assistant helping out twice a week, mostly with framing and labeling. The process to prepare bugs for display includes placing specimens in a “relaxing chamber” (a Tupperware container with a wet rag and heated water) to make them more pliable, drying and sorting them, then carefully pinning bugs into position on a spreading board.

The designs, all under UV-protected glass in shadow box frames, include moths and butterflies of every color and pattern imaginable, his best-sellers. Options include butterflies mounted on vintage maps, like an early 20th-century California map featuring the state butterfly, the dogface.

Also popular are the whimsical insect dioramas Clarke creates with dollhouse miniatures he considers “the perfect scale and size,” placing beetles on itty-bitty bicycles or atop diminutive jungle animals. A guitar-playing weevil and another on a motorcycle, dubbed “Weevil Knievel,” are featured at Ripley’s Believe It or Not in Hollywood.

Clarke also makes jewelry from butterfly wings, utilizing delicate pieces that have broken during processing.

Varieties include a necklace featuring a Madagascar sunset moth wing and a brilliant yellow pendant necklace showcasing the sulphur butterfly from South America. A green grasshopper-wing ring rivals the beauty of an emerald.

Prices start at $26 for jewelry designs, $36 for insect displays and $85 for dioramas. Clarke ships about 100 to 200 orders a month to interior designers, museums and others.

Despite his daily work with bugs, Clarke hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for live insects.

He and his wife, Jennifer, a Petaluma schoolteacher, and their sons, ages 5 and 7, count 10 hissing cockroaches among their pets. The couple’s older son’s middle name is Wilson, named for Clarke’s favorite entomologist, E.O. Wilson, recognized as the world’s leading authority on ants.

Clarke said his wife is an especially good sport. “She’s accepted this,” he said, laughing.

“This is my dream job,” he said. “I can’t ask for anything more than this.”

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