Photos by Conal Thomas

Nessa Darcy thrashes through the brush and long grass that line the Rathfarnham greenway, and sweeps from side to side with a beating sheet.

After a dozen or so rapid whacks, she shakes the sheet’s contents into a plastic tray and they all spill out: beetles and aphids, hover flies and ants, caterpillars and bees.

Darcy, who is wearing a white beetle imprint t-shirt and has curly light-brown hair, has been commissioned to do a survey of the area but she wants to do more with her work than record.

The world of data, charts and species identification is all well and good but it’s unlikely to get the public-at-large passionate about the undergrowth. So Darcy decided to merge entomology with art and make up her own vocation: creative entomologist.

“It’s a career I’ve made up to combine two of my biggest passions basically,” she says. “The plan is to do lots of art that celebrates insects and that gets people out doing activities involving insects.”

A small common copper butterfly flutters by and Darcy lunges for her net.

Picking Up Insects

Darcy has been into insects for a long time. “It started when I was first able to walk and pick things up,” she says. “My Dad wrote a diary when we were kids and everything about me in it is me picking up insects. Apparently I didn’t talk about anything else.”

She later studied art and design at the National College of Art and Design, and moved into the study of insects when she graduated, volunteering abroad to record and preserve natural habitats.

In 2014, she came back to Ireland after working for a while in Madagascar for what is now SEED, a conservation charity aimed at tackling poverty and environmental damage. “I came back in quite bad health, chronic fatigue and muscle aches,” she says. “In the end I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.”

She was banjaxed after her weeks trying to track down the elusive Madagascan ghost gecko among other creatures. But, luckily, she finds that the great outdoors aid any rheumatic symptoms.

For Darcy, it was time to mix her two passions.

The art world, she says, had never really appealed. “Art has always been a very instinctive thing for me,” she says. “To actually be involved in the art world in order to make a living from it you really need to be really into it.”

She takes several more sweeps of the greenway.

A Heritage Plan

It’s a practice worth noting, says Rosaleen Dwyer, heritage officer for South Dublin County Council. Last year, when Dwyer thought Dublin’s green spaces could do with a go-over by an entomologist, she turned to Darcy.

As part of her heritage plan, Dwyer wants to bring the biodiversity of Dublin’s parks and areas of “high nature” to the public through surveys and school programmes.

Along the Dodder river and in Tallaght, Darcy was commissioned to offer insights into the insect population, species often overlooked due to their size. “My overall strategy is to develop what’s called a green infrastructure network for the county where we’ve all of our green areas linked up,” says Dwyer. “It’s a way that wildlife can actually move through the urban environment.”

The mini greenway in Rathfarnham is buzzing with bugs. In one hour, in a space 20 metres squared, we observe 19 different species: five butterflies, four bees, six hoverflies, two beetles, two true bugs, a leafhopper and a froghopper. Darcy notes the results on her clipboard, sat next to her rucksack and equipment.

If you don’t pay attention, you might not notice the spectrum of creatures but kids often do, says heritage officer Dwyer.

“Kids are incredible observers and they see the differences but if we don’t reinforce those differences then they lump everything in together,” says Dwyer. “Getting children to draw these things, or colour in these things or getting them to use a little microscope to look at the details on a bee’s knees is getting them observing and engaged.”

Darcy, who has volunteered with children’s nature club OWLS, is currently working on a garden invertebrate guide for the charity portraying froghoppers and woodlice in gouache.

A Different Audience

Darcy herself spends three days a week in the outdoors, collecting, observing and planning works of art.

“We tend to think that a lot of our wildlife is just small, brown boring things but if you look at them they’re just as weird and wonderful as tropical things,” she says, tipping out another net’s worth into her tray.

The bugs crawl and skitter across leaf and seed as she points out each individual species, picking up a beetle and placing it into one of her plastic containers. She notes that there are more than 2,000 species of beetle recorded in Ireland.

The container’s purpose is twofold. On the one hand, she can study the insect in detail back home for entomological purposes while on the other, she can preserve the specimen to portray in her artworks.

“Because I have to, unfortunately, kill so many insects for the research I end up using some of the beetles, say, for projects,” she says. “A friend donated a load of old butterfly wings to me so I’m attaching the butterfly wings to some of the more boring beetles.”

It’s early days for Darcy’s creative entomology and she’s still trying to pinpoint how best to broach the divide between the undergrowth and the studio.

She rents her studio space out during the summer months, the best time for field work and observation. In September, upon return to the studio, she plans a series of large monoprints of native insects.

The visuals, she says, is where the crossover lies. “It’s definitely to do with the colour and shapes,” she says. “There might be an aspect of spirituality to it as well. I’m definitely not a creationist but I don’t see why there couldn’t be something else that’s brought evolution about.”

“In that sense, I couldn’t begin to compete with these kind of artworks,” she says. “But I do want to use my creativity to draw other people’s attention to how magnificent they are.”

In 2010, she took part in artist Kevin Kavanagh’s show Something tells me it’s all happening at the Zoo, which explored animal imagery in contemporary art. Her contribution was three pun-based corvid paintings.

One, a magpie with a pokéball clenched in its beak ties in with another project she’s currently working on in which, as she documents on her blog, she intends to tie biological recording and observation with the outdoor phenomenon Pokémon Go.

The ideas come hard and fast. Next on her list are garden surveys where as a creative entomologist she hopes people will pay at least some money, how much yet remains to be seen, to have their own back garden’s wildlife assessed and documented and to learn how best to maintain habitat and retain pollination.

Later in the year, a gallery show may be in the offing.

The Gallery

Despite her wariness of the art world, Darcy’s not beyond broaching the gallery space if it means more awareness of Dublin’s insect population. She’s not the first to do that. It is after all a great way to combine the two, says artist Alice Maher.

When, in 1994, Maher contacted beekeeper Paddy Jackson she had her own entomological idea in mind. Jackson’s bee house had tipped over in a storm. Maher decided she’d take the dead specimens off his hands.

The result, Bee Dress, involved dropping individual bees from a height onto a wire-mesh dress made of cotton and covered in the bee’s own honey. Insects, says Maher, aren’t always on our minds.

“Nessa will know that insects are not considered,” she says. “Sometimes with art, people will slow down and their imagination is allowed work when they’re not being thrown facts.”

“If she does something that has a visual component, that allows people in there with their imagination, then they will feel that they have some kind of agency on it,” says Maher. “It is a more creative way to encourage people to be interested in other things.”

Still hoping her garden surveys will take off, Darcy says her monoprints and other works will hopefully feature in a gallery show at some point soon to highlight all there is to offer in the undergrowth.

“It’s all about bringing insects to a different audience from the people who are usually interested in them,” she says, “And bringing it into a gallery is actually a way of bringing it to that audience.”

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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