HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES
Dominican insects make natural art
Harvard entomologist brings nature's beauty to the public
By Alvin Powell
Harvard News Office
It's the brilliant colors and otherworldly shapes of the Dominican insects that catch the eye and draw a viewer in. It's the alien forms magnified for all to see clearly that keeps one standing before the images hung at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, studying them.
The digital images are one-third of the center's show "Tre: Dominican Contemporaneity," which is the result of a collaboration by three Dominican artists, sociologist Soraya Arecena, and Harvard entomologist Brian D. Farrell, professor of biology and curator of entomology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ).
Farrell's images are just the tip of a digital iceberg, a growing catalog of the Dominican Republic's insect life that Dominican and Harvard students have been compiling for four years and that stands now at 40,000 images representing 6,000 species.
"This is the front end of a growing encyclopedia of life of the Dominican Republic," said Farrell on a walk-through of the gallery on Friday (March 17).
Farrell's project to catalog Dominican biodiversity began with a student field trip in his insect biology course in 2002. Students on that excursion fogged trees and collected the insects that fell onto cloth sheets slung below. The students helped identify 500 insects, including many new species, which were then digitally scanned and entered into a database.
Since then, Farrell has enlisted a growing corps of both U.S. and Dominican scientists and students from museums and universities in both countries.
The students, directed by the scientists, continue to collect, catalog, and scan insects. They occasionally make significant finds, such as the discovery last year of a citrus tree pest previously unknown in the Dominican Republic and responsible for millions of dollars of losses elsewhere.
As the project has grown, so have the digital products. From the initial digital pictures, Farrell's team at the MCZ has learned to make large, quality prints on canvas and posters of the prints. Farrell's group, together with the Nature Conservancy, is distributing the posters to elementary schools near Dominican national parks. The canvas prints in "Tre" will also soon be on display at the Punta Cana airport, where Farrell hopes they will raise funds to support ongoing student work on the biodiversity project.
Once finished, Farrell said the catalog of Dominican insect biodiversity would make the island the first in the world to have a complete catalog of its native species and, eventually, DNA barcodes for every one. The project is already being used as a model for similar efforts elsewhere, including in the Boston Harbor Islands National Park.
"This could be a model for larger countries," Farrell said. "Because it's a small enough island, we can develop the methods to do a complete survey and build the capacity of scientists and educate students, all at the same time."
Farrell selected images for the show that help tell the story of a beautiful and diverse world buzzing just beyond the awareness of many island residents. The show includes the familiar, like the dragonfly, and the virtually unseen, like the world's rarest ant, Thaumatomyrmex, equipped with antlerlike mouthparts to strip the spines protecting its millipede prey. The images are meant to intrigue viewers and draw them further into the world of Dominican insects and, if possible, foster awareness of their beauty and an interest in biological diversity.
"I worked with the artists and they led me to include a little of everything, a richness of images and of stories," Farrell said. "[The pictures] are a kind of Trojan horse, with their beauty carrying the idea that insects aren't just buzzing, anonymous pests, but individual beings with names, histories, and stories. I hope these bring the magic of their lives into the everyday world in the Americas, as they have in some Asian countries."
Farrell decided to take part in the show to help educate the public about the richness of the Dominican Republic's culture, traditions, and environment. It's a richness he's come to appreciate over years of visiting the island.
"When people think of the Dominican Republic, they think of baseball, beaches, and rum, they don't think culture," Farrell said.
Farrell got additional help with his part of the show from University Professor Emeritus Edward O. Wilson, who has traveled often to the Dominican Republican in his studies of Caribbean ants and who wrote an essay on the growing field of environmental art for the show's catalog.
The other parts of the show include a display of colorful costumes from the Dominican celebration of carnaval, whose dazzling oranges, golds, and yellows and fantastic horned masks mirror the otherworldly shapes of the insects displayed nearby.
The third part of the exhibit features the work of three well-known Dominican contemporary artists, Monica Ferreras, Raquel Paiewonsky, and Jorge Pineda, all of whom have exhibited internationally. Ferreras, Pineda, and Irina Ferreras of the Harvard University Herbaria were the exhibit's organizers.
"For me, it's been great, because a lot of people who come to see the other pieces, see the insects," Farrell said.
The show is in Cambridge after opening in January in the Dominican Republic. "Tre," opened this week at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center and runs through April 26.
"There's a power to visual imagery," Farrell said. "We are visual animals, after all."