The center spokes of
The center spokes of "Centennial Wheel" are made of hundreds of ladybugs.

Bug Art of John Hampson

Field review by the editors.

St. Johnsbury, Vermont

John Hampson isn't listed among art's great masters, but maybe that's because his art wasn't made with oils or watercolors, marble or bronze. John Hampson used bugs. Thousands and thousands of bugs.

John Hampson's birthday: never forgotten at the Fairbanks Museum.
John Hampson's birthday: never forgotten at the Fairbanks Museum.

By day, Hampson was a machinist who lived with his family in Newark, New Jersey. By night -- and probably on weekends, too -- Hampson caught beetles, flies, ladybugs, butterflies, and moths, and spent decades pinning and gluing this improvised bug paint into elaborate shadowbox arrangements. His art celebrated the U.S. flag, designs from patchwork quilts, American Presidents and war heroes, and his own 50th birthday. His body of work totaled only 11 pieces. Each took years to complete.

Hampson labored with obsessive, orderly precision, but he was no insect purist. Clean lines and fine detail were created by stripping off wings and slicing through bodies. The thoraxes of countless beetles and flies were dismembered to create waves of notability radiating from the heads of Abraham Lincoln and General Pershing.

Frozen waves of bug glory erupt from George Washington's head.
Frozen waves of bug glory erupt from George Washington's head.

John Hampson died in 1923. The bug art became the property of his daughter, and when she died in the 1970s her estate tried to find a place that would take it. They worked their way outward geographically, eventually finding a home for the art at the Fairbanks Museum in Vermont. That meant that no museum, hall, or gallery in New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, or Washington, DC, wanted anything to do with John Hampson.

Twelve different kinds of bugs were used to make
Twelve different kinds of bugs were used to make "North Star."

Their loss.

Hampson's art and life are full of questions. For example: why did he attach roll-down window shades to each shadowbox? Did they protect the art from sunlight? Did Hampson use them for dramatic effect, like a rising theater curtain? Or did his wife simply yell, "John, put a shade on those bugs!," so she wouldn't have to look at them?

"We really don't know," said Beau Harris, the museum's Collections Manager. That's a frequent answer when it comes to John Hampson, whose recorded history begins and ends with his 1923 obituary in the Newark Evening News. It's not even known why, exactly, the Fairbanks Museum said yes to his collection when everyone else said no, although a Victorian-era natural history museum is a good fit for art made of bugs.

Restored bug art depiction of General Slocum, hero of the battle of Gettysburg.
General Slocum and his horse were unseen for decades. The artwork was restored in September 2019.

Seven of Hampson's creations are on display at Fairbanks -- three others are in storage, and a fourth fell apart years ago -- in the balcony, flanking a model of a giant dragonfly and across from an exhibit of souvenir spoons. The museum is a preserved time capsule of the 1890s, a dark, arched hall whose illuminated oak cabinets are packed with dead animals and curiosities, including an Egyptian sarcophagus, a fake cave, and an exhibit titled, "Varieties of Wool." It's the kind of museum that John Hampson would have recognized from his lifetime, and perhaps would have dreamed would one day display his art -- or perhaps not. We'll likely never know.

The only part of Abe Lincoln that isn't a bug are his glass bead eyeballs.
The only part of Abe Lincoln that isn't a bug are his glass bead eyeballs.

The Fairbanks Museum has been a good steward of "Bug Art," which is the cozy, familiar name given to it by the museum staff. In 2019, Fairbanks asked Zoe Samels, working at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, to restore the largest of Hampson's creations, a tribute to General Slocum, hero of the battle of Gettysburg. Zoe found that sunlight wasn't Bug Art's greatest enemy -- it was other bugs, who had chewed into thousands of Hampson's moths and butterflies. She replaced the damaged parts with look-alike textiles and paper mache, and gently scrubbed the artwork's surviving 9,751 insects with a Q-tip. "Issues of stability aside," she wrote, "a good cleaning was primarily what General Slocum needed."

Bug Art remains one of the Fairbanks Museum's most popular exhibits. Generations of visitors have been intrigued by John Hampson's delicate interweaving of wings and metallic sheen of beetle carapaces, and by his forever-mysterious motivation. What was he thinking? How did he catch all of those bugs?

Beau Harris summed up Hampson's art in a matter-of-fact way that might have pleased the enigmatic artist. "He did a lot of work," said Beau, "and he did a pretty good job."

Also see: Closet of the Spiderweb Lady

Bug Art of John Hampson

Fairbanks Museum

Address:
1302 Main St., St. Johnsbury, VT
Directions:
Downtown, in The Fairbanks Museum. I-91 to exit 20 (US 5/Railroad St.). US 5 north. Take the first left (Main St.) and proceed up the hill, through the stop sign, and two blocks beyond. The Museum will be on the right.
Hours:
Daily 9-5 (Call to verify)
Phone:
802-748-2372
Admission:
Adults $9.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
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