Renaissance Man: Steven R. Kutcher
By Nuala Lincke-Ivic

One day, several years ago, I walked outside my classroom door, after first engaging my students in group work, and joking with them to “wait a sec” while I went outside had a quick mid-life crisis. I had just turned forty—and newly, officially, middle-aged, half-way through my life—I was having a hard time facing the monumental truth that all human beings must. That I am mortal. That one day I will die. It was a classic mid-life crisis I was experiencing, maybe not as lyrical as the one E.B. White seems to experience in his renowned essay “Once More to the Lake,” but it was just as real. And as I was standing there, just outside my classroom door, I saw Steven R. Kutcher.

I had seen Steven before, and had never really paid attention to him, but now I did. Classes were in session, and he was one of the few people in sight. Steven was walking rapidly along a sidewalk toward the door of the biology classroom where (I’ve learned since) he usually teaches. Looking at him walk, I thought that he seemed so alive and energetic, almost as if he were bouncing along the sidewalk. He also seemed happy, eyes bright and bird-like, darting about and seeming to take in scenery that was interesting to him, even the scenery he saw on the “old” part of the West campus, from a drab gray sidewalk.

Watching Steven, I thought of that famous Bette Davis quote: “Old age is not for sissies.” At the time, Steven was somewhere in his late 40’s or early 50’s, and I thought to myself, “This guy will never be a sissy, because he’s always going to be young at heart, like he stayed 12 his whole life. Look at the way he walks, and he’s alone; he doesn’t even know anybody’s watching him!” And I thought, “Who is this person?” I had to know. Watching Steven walk so energetically along the sidewalk, practically bouncing, was the equivalent, for me, of the feelings a young American poet, on the cusp of adulthood, once experienced when he saw birds migrating in a steady, powerful "V" line across the sky. I felt reassured, for a reason I can’t really explain, to see him. The way Steven walked somehow acted as assurance to me that I would be all right; I would not be a “sissy” in old age. You see, when I was younger, I had heard the Bette Davis quote “Old age is not for sissies,” and had thought little of it, but now, this quote had taken on a profound meaning for me. I was a newly-minted 40. And from a front row seat, I was witnessing the physical decline of older people in my life, watching them struggle to remain cheerful and “themselves”—not to be sissies—as they lost the privilege to drive, the key to self-autonomy in L.A., where we lived.

So…I made it a point to introduce myself to Steven later that week, to talk to him, just a casual little conversation, a “look-see” endeavor, like I was a 49er walking randomly along a stream bed and, here and there, dipping my pan into the sandy bottom, hoping to find a nugget or two of gold. And in the weeks and months and years that followed, whenever I saw him, and we each had a minute, I talked to Steven. I didn’t ask him about his philosophy of life, or anything like that; I just chatted about this and that with him, and basked in the aura of energy that seemed to emanate from him. And during these little talks, I discovered the bare facts of his life. He’s an entomologist (insect expert), and he teaches biology at West. If you see a movie with insects in it, Steven probably worked on the movie, as the “bug guy,” and…(this is unusual) Steven collaborates with insects to make “bug art”: paintings. I’m not kidding. He loads paint onto the bugs’ tiny little legs, thinner and finer than baby hair, and they walk across a blank canvas, directed by Steven, and in that way, Steven and the bugs create art together.
 
I know, I know…that sounds…well, out there, doesn’t it? (“Only in L.A.,” you’re thinking, right?) But Steven’s a very serious artist, and the paintings he and the bugs make together are carefully, painstakingly crafted. And they are art. Now you might be thinking, "they sound strange," and they are strange, but strange and wondrous, because through them, with them, Steven has tapped into the world that is (often quite literally) right beneath our noses—but which we don't see, or deliberately choose not to look at—because insects are, too many people, "creepy-crawlies," and (in a knee-jerk, xenophobic reaction), many of us humans shy away from anything that is not like us, that is different. But through his artwork, Steven shows us that insects are not "different" in a bad way: They are different in a...well, in a strange and wondrous way. Like the waves in the ocean that we also cannot control (just as we cannot control each other, not really), all insects are unique and beautiful, so unlike and like us at the same time. And they are seemingly oblivious to us, as we frequently seem to be to them, all of us, humans and insects, living out our very busy lives in seeming isolation, but side by side. Like people in a large city who walk by each other on the sidewalk, we brush elbows, even stumble into each other, but never seem to look at each other: to truly "see" each other. And yet together we abide on the thin crust of this spaceship we call Earth, which whirls 'round and 'round in an endless, black, star-spangled sky, with all of us aboard. Maybe Steven is so alive, seems so alive, because he not only chooses to see, but also to interact with, this hidden world of insects, and in the most positive way imaginable. He creates art, beauty, with them. Through his art, Steven makes us realize that, in our busy world, if we do not take time to see or notice this small world, then life will be less colorful and wonderful. And Steven’s pursuit of his particular art form is also inspirational: He does not fear to be passionate about his work, even if that passion is not popular. Through his art, Steven encourages us to take the road less traveled.

Read my interview with Steven below, and learn more about him and his very special art. You can also click on and view his paintings, created in collaboration with the world of beings often hiding right beneath our noses. And…if you want to learn even more about Steven, you can find his Bug Art movie on the Internet. Google BUGARTBYSTEVEN.COM.

1. What made you think of using insects to help you to create art? Do you or did you create paintings without insects as your co-artists?

I have been creating art from the age of four or five years. I like to draw and paint and have always done so. In the early 1980's I was asked to make a fly walk through ink and leave footprints, and I figured it out. In 2003 I was asked to see if I could do some art using insects as moving brushes. The result is the work I do today. My work can be seen on my art site BugArtBySteven.com

2. Are the insects hurt by the paint you "load" onto their legs?

Insect diversity is an indicator of the health of the world. I also am concerned with their well being as artists, so I take care when painting because I would like to use them again. You can see me clean them in my movie “Bug Art,” [and there are]…excerpts [of this movie] on Youtube.

3. You seem fascinated by the beauty of insects; you don't seem to regard them as ugly or creepy--scary. Have you always been this way, even as a child?

And...why do you think so many people detest bugs; why is it that spiders, in particular, and any "creepy-crawly" seems to repel so many people?

I have always loved insects. I did have a little fear of large spiders. Most fear stems from bad experiences or lack of knowledge of the fear object. I have been able to use people’s fear to help them, educate them, and scare them with horror films. I do not frighten people for free. It always seemed strange that people will pay money to be scared by a movie.

4. You are a man who wears many hats. Tell us about your work in the movie industry and your teaching--and the role bugs play in these two separate jobs.

In the [movie industry], I have worked [on] close to 90 feature films, and I do everything from consulting to bug wrangling. What I do most is use my knowledge of insect behavior to solve film problems with live insects. A list of my films can be found by searching for “Bugs are My Business” [on the Internet]. I discovered that one out of every three movies had an insect or needed an entomologist, [and since] the early 1980's I have enjoyed teaching biology at West. My students enjoy hearing about my adventures as a biologist. Almost every week I tell them about movies, teaching experiences, written work about me, or adventures I have had. I usually tie the experience to a point related to biology. I admit they like to hear about my work with stars or about my appearances somewhere. I also try to bring live things into the classroom, as I feel it is essential to have students interact with living material while teaching biology. Most have seen me with a tarantula on my shoulder.

5. Do you have a written artwork--a poem or an essay about insects--that you would like to share with us?

I rarely write poems about insects as there is more to life than insects, but here is a poem that I wrote [that] mention[s]…butterflies.

 


Steven R. Kutcher's Poetry

Poet’s Note: On January 13, 2011, 179 old Oaks and 72 Sycamore trees in the Arcadia woodland were bulldozed to make room for dirt that could have been put elsewhere.

Who Speaks for the Trees

Garlands of galls delicately strung on Coast Live Oaks
Wrens and Doves sing their soothing songs above tail-wagging deer
Hummingbirds flit among the Sugar Bush and Penstemon
Whoooo speaks for the trees?
Owls that sing to waltzing bears in moonlight dreams

Who speaks for the trees

Not the neighbor who said,
“If it becomes a choice between trucks carrying dirt and trees
Then the trees have got to go”
Not the elderly man who said, “No one sees the trees”
Not the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors who read death notices of voters
While people had only sixty seconds to speak passionately to save the woodland
The Board said, It's a public safety issue and the trees must be removed
The next day they cut trees down into the pernicious night

Who speaks for the trees

The people that speak for children who can't speak
Woodland walkers who lingered among the butterflies
Those that climbed those trees to defend them from the bulldozers might
The natural beauty of this woodland took hundreds of years to be born
Perished in a day under death machines

Who speaks for the trees

Farewell, the sky is falling and the land lies barren
The Board of Supervisors makes promises daily
The leaves will not drift from the ancient trees this Fall
You must tell the children
You must speak for the trees

 


Steven R. Kutcher's Art

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To see more of Steven R. Kutcher's bug art, click on here.