Paint by larvae
I painted with maggots last weekend. Yes, maggots. Those little white, writhing fly larvae you sometimes see in your trash can or on a particularly aged specimen of roadkill or coming out of someone’s flesh in a horror movie. (Remember the drumstick scene in Poltergeist?)
The maggot-painting process is relatively simple: First, lay out a piece of paper and a few cups of nontoxic water-based paint. Using a pair of tweezers, gently pull one maggot from a writhing mass in a plastic container. Pause to recover from the shock, and crude musty odor, that comes from being in proximity to a pile of wriggling maggots. Now drop your maggot artist in a cup of paint. Once the maggot has shimmied about, extract it with the tweezers and drop it on your paper. It will crawl in one direction or another, leaving a colorful trail behind it. Repeat with different colors, and—if you’re feeling lucky—more than one maggot at a time, to produce a multicolored abstract painting not unlike a Jackson Pollock.
The opportunity to create art with an organism most of us either ignore or revile is truly transformative. Taken alone, and covered in bright colors, a single maggot becomes less an agent of decay than a friendly little art supply. (Albeit one that is impossible to control. Maggot painting requires a laissez-faire attitude, as no amount of pleading, cheering or tilting the paper influences their movements.)
Of course, maggots’ affection for rotting meat and their pesky habit of becoming flies has hindered their popular acceptance in home-based crafts. Better to go to a workshop, like last week’s at Explorit Science Center, and paint with a trained entomologist. Though Explorit’s activities are targeted at children, adults are welcome too. And, frankly, you haven’t lived until you hear a mother coo to her toddler, “OK, honey, here’s your maggot!”
Forensic entomologist Rebecca Bullard, currently an entomology grad student at UC Davis, invented maggot art and regularly hosts educational maggot-painting seminars for schools and places like Explorit. That is, when she’s not busy collecting maggots from corpses.
Bullard, a young woman with an easy smile and obvious enthusiasm for her work, happily explained the details to Explorit visitors. Her primary job is assisting the police in determining how long a body has been dead, based on the life stage of its maggots. Maggots also can be analyzed to test for drugs in a corpse, which the maggots ingest along with the corpse’s flesh.
Dead bodies might seem an inappropriate discussion topic for a children’s craft table, but Bullard’s professionalism made the subject seem merely educational. When asked by an Explorit visitor if she actually handles corpses, she shrugged. “Not always at the crime scene,” she said casually.
Bullard assured us that our maggot painters would not become corpses themselves. Used to living in a semi-liquid state, the maggots are quite comfortable in the paint. After the workshop, Bullard promised to take them back to her research colonies and hatch them into flies.
I was relieved. I’d actually grown fond of the little being streaking red, blue and yellow paint across my paper. I wasn’t alone. Other adults at the table were cheering on their maggots—“Right! Turn right! Yes!”—or listening intently as Bullard described maggots’ usefulness for cleaning out wounds in hospitals.
Though my admiration for the critters was growing, I couldn’t help shuddering whenever the larger containers were opened to allow for the retrieval or return of an artist, revealing a white, squirming pile of larvae. Bullard seemed amused by this squeamishness as she calmly captured maggot escapees with her bare hands.
She told us maggots preferred to be in a group, for easier digestion, and that they make noise when they eat. When pressed for a demonstration, Bullard laughed and emitted a rhythmic slurping noise like the sound of a thousand tiny mouths drinking liquefied meat.
A collective “Eeeew!” rose from the table.
“Hey, I aim to please,” she said.