When I woke up one morning to look at a large painting finished under tungsten light bulbs the night before in morning daylight I was more amused than upset to see three large carpenter ants eating my painting high up on the panel. The were having breakfast on the fresh layer of egg yoke and water, my painting medium.I paint with food after all, I shrugged.
I decided to paint a picture that ants would enjoy eating and use it as a backdrop landscape of a working ant farm. I had been invited to an exhibition with the theme of eating and thought it would be perfect.The subject matter was easy—a colorful picnic blanket covered with goodies, a frosted cake, fruit in a bowl, fried chicken legs on a plate, sugary pastries, and an open bottle of red wine. It was painted like a tilted Diebenkorn landscape with a foreshortened backyard at the top with green grass at the blanket edge.
I was not eager to introduce ants that would eat your house into a painting—one that would hang on someone’s wall in a wood-framed box that the ants would also eat on the way to basement joists. After the painting was finished in egg tempera I coated the sweet food, like the cake and the pastries and the top rim of the wine bottle with honey—food for a less threatening ant colony.
The frame was a work of art in itself. Black painted maple, The assembly held a glass face one inch from the painting with room for an ant farm at the bottom. A neat sliding door on the side was the portal for squirt gun moisture. Round, screen-filled holes up the sides were ventilation. The top was removable for maintenance and ant colony introduction.
Where do you find the ants? I remembered old comic book back page ads that offered mail order ants, wondered it that still happened. Instead I called my picking buddy, Jerry Cook’s father, a retired entomologist, for advice. Halfway through my request he hung up on me. I called again;he didn’t answer. I took that as negative feedback.
Undaunted, I called the extension university in Pullman,
somehow confident that since it was WSU they had a civic obligation to answer me—a taxpayer’s question. I was right or lucky. A helpful insect expert told me the ants I was looking for were in my yard. Moisture ants, she called them. Honey lovers, maybe even vegans, perfectly safe for the average person’s home if they didn’t keep sugar in the pantry. How do you harvest them, I asked. Do you have to dig up an anthill? Do I need to capture the queen?
No, I was told. If you want ants that like honey simply place something with a flat surface out in the yard and they will volunteer to live in your painting. It was the perfect answer, an elegant proof.
I painted a second bottom panel below the blanket painting, the panel behind the sandy soil I hoped would be transformed to an underground city, like my paintings of the denny Regrade years before. Wouldn’t be a shame, I thought if the ant living spaces reached the back wall and there was nothing on it? To this end I painted tiny Jack Gunter paintings that I hoped would be visible inside the burrows on the wall, just in case.
In the back yard on my knees looking for ants I made another discovery. A garden hose lying in the unkempt grass was an ant superhighway. Preferring an easy hose stroll over a scramble over thick undergrowth, they had discovered the express lane across the yard.
The big day was here. I planned to capture as many volunteers as I could to build my ant farm and stroll around on a painting of a picnic to have lunch. Why wouldn't they love it? The frame stood against the house with the top off, waiting to receive its new citizens. I painted the words, I love Karla with honey on a flat cardboard square and placed it over the hose with a dab of honey at the edge to get their attention. It occurred to me that it was a shame I didn’t have time to print out tiny road signs on tine wood signposts to place beside the hose at ant level to encourage the volunteers, signs that announced, Enlist in a great art adventure, Win a free trip to Seattle, and Tired of the same old anthill? Jack Gunter’s luxury ant farm offers travel, good food, fine art, and a view. Apply ahead. A close-up video camera could capture the march of the honey ants up the hose, past the road signs encouraging to join. It would be a short, thoughtful film. I’ll make it someday.
When I returned to the cardboard is was already covered by a quivering living font and conscripts were still arriving. Snatching the panel off the grass I shook moisture ants into the farm top, trying my best to ignore the stream of escapees running down my arms. My art team at first was upset about the change of residence, but soon they settled down. The next morning I saw passageways open to the glass with happier ants busy cleaning the living spaces.
The Bumbershoot Art Exhibit, Setting the table, curated by Ron and Kathy Glowen, invited fifteen artisans to create an object in that theme. My work fit right in. Deemed too heavy to hang on the temporary walls the painting titled, Picnic five inches thick sat on the floor. It was a sizable painting and it looked fine as a sculpture. My favorite object in the show was a full-sized cafe table with two chairs—each created in one piece out of French bread dough and baked in a super sized oven. While I was drawn to this sculpture I was not alone.
The Seattle Times columnist Jean Godden wrote a piece for the paper about a young Bumbershoot art visitor who noticed a trail of ants marching in a line across the carpeted floor. They were leaving a painting on the floor, headed for a bread sculpture on the other side of the room. Seems my security measures were insufficient. I like the thought of a solitary freedom seeker who finds the home of his dreams and makes the journey back to the silly ant farm to tell the colony. Ms Godden noted the Bumbershoot staff had created a no step zone and constructed a raised edge on both sides of the migration.
I was somewhat heartbroken they preferred another artwork.