Commemorating Life: Vermont Thoughts on Art

Play is something humans and animals have in common. We liken frolicking baby animals to our own children, innocent Edenic beings before the fall of adulthood. We otherwise perceive animals as creatures of instinct consumed by survival. We human beings, however, have refined our ability to divert ourselves. We have a spiritual side which we exercise through contemplation and prayer. We create art. And we kill for sport. 

How else can we explain the work of a man who created intricate portraits of war heroes made up entirely of insect parts? I write of the eleven “mosaics” of John Hampson (1836-1923), displayed at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. During my visit to the museum last year, I was fascinated by Hampson’s painstaking work, undertaken as a personal hobby, but horrified by his use of thousands of insects that he himself killed. 

What are we supposed to make of these shadowboxes? To me, what matters is how we view the work. We have a choice. We can view the pieces as the Fairbanks describes them, as insects “meticulously positioned on wood and lovingly framed.” Or we can interpret them as shadowboxes that stand at the crossroads of self-expression and destruction. Killing becomes a means of creating likenesses of men whose business it was to kill. These works can serve to pull us like a moral clarion call to honor natural life rather than to destroy it.

George Washington on his horse, made of thousands of butterflies, moths, and beetles, by John Hampson

In 1860, Hampson, a 24-year-old machinist, arrived in the United States from England and traveled the country with the Navy. He distinguished himself by killing “more than 70,000 butterflies, moths, and beetles” with “a net and cyanide-laced killing jar,” according to Williams College art conservationist Zoë Samuels, who restored his “collage” of Civil War General Henry Slocum on his horse. Hampson took on average three to four years over a fifty-year period to create each of his works which include portraits of Presidents Washington (above) and Lincoln. 

Hampson’s “bug art,” the folksy term the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont uses to cloak its collection of Hampson’s oeuvre, is entirely revealing of a dark side that only human beings are capable of exercising. To me, this pointless pointillism is a set of nesting shadowboxes of death, soldiers and bugs fitted into an economy built on the backs of generations of enslaved people, displaced Native Americans, and conquered land. In our distorted fascination with numbers, we can marvel at, or gag upon, the fact that Hampson killed and positioned 9,751 butterflies and beetles to commemorate General Slocum, a leader of a war that killed 620,000. 

With the Civil War, slavery ended and 4 million African Americans were at last recognized as human beings, but the struggle to fully enfranchise them continues to this day. We have a death wish in American culture cloaked as freedom. We uphold the right to own assault weapons, sadism hidden behind arguments of liberty. We allow manufacturers to pollute the environment in the name of free trade and something called economic growth. 

After taking in Bug Art, we thirst for a yang to this yin, a countervailing human art in which life commemorates life and the ingredients never justify the ends. We have the ability to discern right from wrong, beauty from ugliness; and we have a capacity for self-discipline, as Hampson himself demonstrates. 

Not far from the Fairbanks Museum in the mountains of Vermont is the Museum of Everyday Life, an isolated old barn alongside a road in which you can flick on a light switch and view mundane objects as art. It was founded by Clare Dolan, a nurse and puppeteer with Bread & Puppet Theater who is in favor of “anything living and breathing” and a foe of unfettered capitalism. In fact, the museum’s First Manifesto “shouts” against commodified art and “up with exhibits created by massive numbers of ordinary people” where “all things can be touched.” There’s a bird made of a safety pin, and a fake stuffed life-sized bear. No sentient being died to create these works. 
Humans recognize the smallness of our lives and the enormousness of our power as stewards or destroyers in a way that no other creature can. This is our salvation. If we are truly humane, we can turn away from the glued or impaled insects that together form a man’s face, and walk outside. 

Photo by author. Museum of Everyday Life