PORTLAND, Maine — The lime green beetle appears suspended in time, wings outspread to reveal an unexpected interior of tiny metal gears — wheels and pinions, springs, levers and ratchets.
It looks as though the insect could be wound up. With a whir, the cogs inside its body would start turning, its delicate wings would shudder to life and it would fly away — across the small studio apartment, out the window and over the rainy streets of downtown Portland.
“People see the possibility in them,” Mike Libby, the robo-beetle’s 39-year-old creator, said. “Where do they come from, and what are they used for?”
In reality, the beetle doesn’t move. It’s a sculpture made out of a preserved jewel scarab beetle, antique watch parts and other machinery. Libby created it for Insect Lab, a body of whimsical artwork the Portland artist began in 1999 and has since gained global popularity.
In addition to a variety of colorful beetles, Insect Lab includes transformed butterflies and moths, bees and wasps, dragonflies and the occasional grasshopper and spider. Ranging from $300 to $1,500, these insect-machine sculptures are encased in glass domes, making them appear a part of some strange, futuristic natural history collection.
Originally from Holden, Libby graduated with a degree in sculpture from Rhode Island School of Design in 1999. Soon after, he started Insect Lab, when he found a dead beetle under a vending machine while working at an arts camp in Michigan.
“It didn’t look spectacular,” said Libby. “The inner wings and legs had broken off, and I didn’t know how to handle insects at all. I didn’t have the hand skills, but now I’ve been [doing work that is like] threading the eye of a needle on a rollercoaster for years.”
Libby began building robo-insect sculptures in earnest as an artist in residence at Vermont Studio Center.
“Making a bug look robotic — it didn’t feel serious,” Libby said. “But obviously it still has its own legs to stand on because it’s how many years later, and I’m still doing it. It appeals to so many people for so many reasons.”
Libby purchases dead insects from certified specimen dealers so he can work with insects from all over the world. His collection currently for sale includes a bright green Beyer’s scarab beetle from Arizona and a dark blue metallic beetle from Madagascar, as well as a common ladybug, delicate wings outspread to display a robotic core of 16 metal watch pieces. His current collection also includes a variety of robotified dragonflies, butterflies and a limited edition bumblebee.
He also creates Insect Lab sculptures out of specimens that people send him. He recalls creating a sculpture out of a rhino beetle sent to him from a woman in Texas. The beetle was a part her father’s personal collection of preserved insects, and she wanted Libby to transform it for him for Father’s Day.
Libby put Insect Lab online in 2005, and about a year later, it exploded on the Internet, attracting web traffic from around the world. Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Libby has shipped his Insect Lab creations to all of these countries and many more.
“The Ambassador of Morocco has 11 of my pieces,” Libby said. “And Stephen King has three.”
While these robo-bugs would attract instant attention in most rooms, in Libby’s art studio, they look at home. They’re surrounded by other pieces of artwork that trick the eye, engage the mind and inspire the viewer to take a closer look.
For more than a decade, Libby has been known as the “insect guy,” but Insect Lab is just a part of Libby’s growing body of captivating artwork, which varies greatly in materials, methods and subject.
“I can go off into whatever territory I want to in my other work,” said Libby, explaining that Insect Lab keeps him afloat financially and often fuels his creativity to work on more involved fine art pieces.
One of Libby’s most recent works, titled “Monstra Vitae Iter A Mari,” hangs on the wall beside a work table littered with watch parts and half-dissected insects. The piece first appears to be a large, antique map, but it’s actually a collage made of used coffee filters from the artist collected over the course of one year. The piece began when Libby noticed that a stain on a used coffee filter looked like a land mass.
“A lot of my work riffs off a naive seeking for pattern or understanding,” Libby said. “In a coffee filter stain is a whole universe or world I could get lost in and explore.”
With the used coffee filters as the base of the work, Libby used a seagull feather and sepia ink to draw the intricate map.
“I just decided to get cryptic and involved,” Libby said as he looked at the complete work. “I like process, and I like how each work can almost be a pilgrimage.”
“Then, kind of going further down the rabbit hole, I researched the development of sea monsters,” he said.
On the map, he drew 135 individual monsters, from ancient creatures to the more recent creations of Godzilla and the gigantic white shark from the 1975 film “Jaws.”
“My hope for the experience is that you get sucked into the details and can’t take in all of it in one viewing,” Libby said.
While the materials and subject matter of Libby’s artwork varies, each piece carries through the artist’s appreciation of aesthetic beauty, tendency toward intricate detail, curiosity about nature and storytelling, and a healthy dose of humor.
Often, this humor comes with Libby playing with the illusion of materials.
For example, from afar, what appears like the skeleton of a human hand is actually a sculpture Libby made of sunbleached driftwood that he found on various beaches in southern Maine. Held together with wire, the driftwood “bones” are studded with barnacles and entangled with seaweed. But those materials are deceptive as well. They look real, but Libby painstakingly handcrafted those details. The seaweed is a combination of paper, clay and paint, and the tiny barnacles are porcelain.
Libby has made a whole series of these skeletal hands, and each is positioned in a different hand sign. One hand is giving a peace sign, while another is flipping the bird. He’s also made hands with crystals and beach debris.
“I don’t think you can go into the art store and find all the ingredients for a project,” Libby said.
Certain themes resurface and flow throughout his vast body of artwork. Libby often mimics natural objects with manmade materials, whether he’s building tree growth rings out of used coffee filters, a larger-than-life human heart out of beach trash or a human skull out of seaglass.
“The skull is a beautiful shape, an abstract shape, and it has a lot of symbolism,” Libby said.
Experimenting with different materials, Libby has constructed a series of human skulls using a mould and measurements from his own head.
“I don’t want to be the ‘skull guy,’ though,” Libby said, laughing. “I’m already the ‘insect guy.’”
Over the years, Libby has displayed his artwork in numerous exhibitions, including several solo exhibitions at Maine art galleries. Upcoming, on Oct. 15, Libby’s collage “Papermoon” will be displayed in the yearlong group exhibit “Lunar Attractions” at the renowned Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachussetts.
Completed in 2011, “Papermoon” is three years of artists’ calendars cut up into half-inch squares and arranged into a mosaic of the moon. Photographs of the ocean tides are also scrambled into the image.
“It’s a meditation on the passage of time, and the connection of the moon and the earth and gravitational tides,” Libby said.
Through his artwork, Libby has worked with book writers, publishers, members of the science fiction community, curators of galleries and museums. He regularly participates in high-end craft shows such as CraftBoston.
More recently, Libby has been working on developing a line of Insect Lab jewelry, and he’s also hatching ideas on how to bring aspects of Insect Lab to schools and libraries.
“I know that kids especially see a lot of magic and wonder in the work, and I know and appreciate that kids don’t have high enough allowances to purchase it,” Libby said. “Basically I’m trying to translate the imagery of Insect Lab to education and literacy pursuits because there are so many different subjects in Insect Lab.”
Just as Libby’s artwork spurs him to research and study various subjects, he envisions Insect Lab influencing others to delve deeper into subjects such as entomology, engineering, design, science fiction, model-building, museum studies and robotics.
“Being an artist growing up, I was aware and definitely affected by arts programming being cut [in Maine schools],” Libby said. “I know how many people stepped up to help me as a young man to have a positive trajectory toward the arts or creativity or toward my passion, so this is a way for me to give back.”
Libby usually participates in the First Friday Art Work in Portland, which takes place on the first Friday of every month. During the art walk, he opens his studio at 277 Congress St., Apt. 1, to the public. Much of Libby’s artwork is featured on his artist website at mikeplibby.com, and his insect sculptures for sale at insectlabstudio.com.