Conspiring with caddisflies
by Eliza Murphy
"He hath ribbons of all the colours i’ the rainbow; inkles, caddisses, cambrics and lawns."
—from The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare
Name Ferg (no first name, no last name, just Ferg)
Vocation Father of two, a Renaissance man who draws, paints, sculpts, composes poetry, plays music, and makes jewelry from beetle carcasses.
HOME BASE Seattle, Washington
KNOWN FOR Conspiring with caddisfly larvae to create art.
He says "I make dreamtime trophies. And I feel pretty certain that the spirit is the intellect of the soul."
Aquatic, six-legged, caterpillar-like creatures, caddisfly larvae crawl slowly across stream bottoms, gathering bits of leaves, gravel, twigs and sand. Using a sticky silk excreted from its mouth, the caddisfly, or periwinkle, glues the debris into a protective casing it wears for several months.
A few years ago, Ferg, a tall, lanky, dreadlocked Seattle artist, watched a caddisfly emerge from a miniature castle in a friend’s aquarium. The glass tank’s floor was lined with bubble-gum-pink pebbles, and the periwinkle had used them to build a gaudy casing. That pink periwinkle remained dormant in Ferg’s imagination for a few years, then hatched as inspiration: He decided to try to work in cahoots with the tiny creatures.
On an October morning, the results of that collaboration sit in Ferg’s palm, illuminated by the sunlight shining through his studio window. The fragile, tubular forms, slightly smaller than pieces of penne pasta, glimmer in the light. One is encrusted with garnet, turquoise and bits of gold leaf; another is a jumble of opals, micro nautilus shells and minuscule fossils. "This is an orchestration of how color can bling," says Ferg, "of how beautiful the periwinkles create."
Ferg calls the gem-spangled forms "graffiti trains" after the graffiti-covered boxcars that were among his earliest influences. He collects periwinkles from waterways in the Cascade Mountains. At home, he puts them in tanks filled with spring water, letting them acclimate to their new digs before putting them to work.
These aren’t dimestore goldfish tanks, their bottoms layered with impossibly aqua stones. The periwinkles strut on retractable forelegs over sparkling floors, choosing tiny baubles to add to their casings. Ferg uses a special file to flatten one side of the little gems, making them easier for the periwinkles to grab hold of.
After several months, a periwinkle seals itself inside its casing. More months pass, then the caddisfly, now morphed into an adult, cuts its way out of the case and "hatches." An aquatic cousin of moths and butterflies, the insect gets its scientific name, Trichoptera, from its adult stage, in which it sports a pair of hairy wings. But its common name comes from the larval casing — it’s derived from caddice men, Renaissance-era cloth merchants who pinned their colorful wares to their coats.
Ferg intervenes before the cocoon stage, teasing the larvae out of their gem-studded casings and placing them in abandoned casings he has found in the wild. Then he returns them to their native streams. "The periwinkle probably won’t even know what happened," Ferg says. "That’s their purpose, to eat and build the shell." He keeps the "little gem jackets" and reinforces them with jeweler’s glue. He’s still experimenting with making jewelry from them, trying to find a way to reveal their beauty while protecting their fragility.
As a child, Ferg left no stone unturned in his quest to become intimate with the natural world; rock hunting with his parents and tromping through creeks fed his innately fertile imagination. After one of his brothers was murdered, Ferg sought solace in art and in his love of wild things. In addition to periwinkles, he keeps unusual insects in a handmade cage in his kitchen. From the carcasses of katydids, beetles and praying mantises he fashions strange new creatures, like a double-headed beetle painted in metallic purple and silver. Some of these wind up in his miniature natural history museum, their invented names displayed on placards in tiny rooms whose floors are covered in leaf skeletons.
"Creativity is my medicine," he says. "It is a God-given natural antidote to my pain."
The author, known to salvage roadkill and bits of detritus for inclusion in box shrines, writes from Portland, Oregon.© High Country News