On Saturday June 11, 2011, about 50 artists swarmed the public streets of San Francisco, hawking their wares carried in carts, in baskets, or on their backs. Some sold real items, others bartered or even exchanged intangible goods, like stories. Among those itinerant art-merchants was “microscopic milliner” Anton Fell, known far and wide as the Antenna Fella.
The initial idea for Anton Fell came from a suggestion by Aimee Baldwin, an artist who creates incredibly realistic paper birds. Aimee was participating in the group art event “The Cries of San Francisco“, a project by Allison Smith in collaboration with Southern Exposure Gallery. Inspired, I immediately started creating insect antennae to sell to the masses! But instead of relying on beloved insects such as ladybugs and butterflies, I instead chose to represent insects from the “unloved orders”, insects and arachnids considered as pests, and ones generally under-appreciated.
Carrying antennae around on my person was out of the question, they were too ungainly. So I built a great grasshopper cart using scrap wood and cardboard, purchasing a pair of old bicycle wheels from a community bicycle restoration center. Originally it was going to be a “weevil wagon”, but after the main body began to take shape, I decided to make it an easily recognizable insect, a locust. The “grasshopper cart” had a central tube of cardboard inside it, so the antennae could be stored upright. It was painted to look like its digestive tract, allowing me to give it wonderful “bug gut” colors inside. Mmm, guts!
At the gallery opening, dressed as a cross between a school professor and a door-to-door salesman, I sang my cries to any and all to buy my wares:
Plumose and Serrate
Filiform and Lamellate
Antennae for sale…!
The cart was stocked with 20 pairs antennae of unloved insects and arthropods: head louse, bed bug, cockroach, millipede, tick, gypsy moth, clothes moth, boll weevil, termite, Argentine ant, earwig, and others. I even included a couple of better-loved insects, such as stag beetle and antlion. I anticipated a hard sell, which really was my goal; rather than sell as many antennae as possible, my desire was to talk about people’s revulsion to insects, and convince them that even the least loved creatures have fascinating, and even beautiful, lives. If I could convince somebody to appreciate a silverfish or earwig, then I have lit a new candle of biophilic empathy.
I did not anticipate that I would sell out, completely. I had naively priced them to go, and everybody came up and bought them. They loved them. I was beswarmed! Soon antennae were bobbing hither and to in the market-space Southern Exposure had created in their gallery. It was a swell evening, but that meant I had better make more antennae for the June 11 market day. A lot more.
Due to the outdoor event getting rescheduled due to an unseasonable rainstorm in the Bay Area, I had two weeks to go into production mode. I made multiples of every species, resulting in a whopping 62 hand-made antennae. The line-up this time consisted only of “un-loved” insect antennae: Head Louse, Yellowjacket, Gypsy Moth, Boll Weevil, Argentine Ant, Bed Bug, Cockroach, Termite, Carpet Beetle, Clothes Moth, Jerusalem Cricket, Silverfish, Earwig, Flea, Mosquito, Light Brown Apple Moth, Horse Fly, along with Tick and Dust Mite pedipalps. Each headband came with an identification tag, and a little sentence extolling their virtues. “The mellifluous MOSQUITO sings for its supper in the warm Summer nights!”, and so on.
The sunny beautiful Saturday found San Francisco’s Mint Plaza thronged with artists of every stripe, craftspeople with carts, booths selling prints, heritage seeds or hand-sewn wounds, conceptual political artists, as well as even more esoteric sellers of dreams, time, and hope. It was a loud chaotic wonderful throng, and I happily lost myself in it, expounding upon the virtues of insects to any within earshot. And since I am naturally a Very Loud Person, my range of earshot was long indeed, thanks to the plazas and tall buildings.
My opening line of “Which insect do you love the least? “, then fitting them with the antennae of their nemesis, created some wonderful conversations. Schoolteachers flinched when I handed them louse antennae. New Yorkers shivered at the mere mention of bed bugs, and were scared to even touch the cardboard-and-paper antennae. Several times I was approached by people who knew their entomology; “Have you any Reduviids?” “No, I’m out of Kissing Bugs, perhaps I can interest you in a mosquito? They also harbor trypanosomes!” “Ooh, you’re good!”
Some people had deep connections to the antennae they purchased. One older gentleman, at the mention of my tick pedipalps, declared that he had finally been cured of Lyme disease, after ten years of antibiotics. He then triumphantly purchased the tick pedipalps as “a talisman” after his long ordeal. That was a personally humbling thing to witness.
Once again, by the day’s end, I had sold every pair of insect antennae to friends and strangers alike. The most awesome thing was to look all around me in Mint Plaza and see antennae in the crowd: There, a dust mite laughing. Running, a pair of fleas. At another booth, an earwig dancing. Endless forms most beautiful!
By the way, the Grasshopper Cart, along with many other carts, booths and artworks by participants, will be on display until July 2nd at Southern Exposure Gallery in SF. Check it out while you can.