Artist Rachel Wright’s fascination with moths is more than a flight of fancy. It’s an existential synopsis.
“There is something sublime in their brief, ephemeral existence that makes me more aware of the transitory nature of life. By incorporating the moth form into my sculptures, I am trying to capture a moment in the infinite cycle of life,” Wright wrote.
The description is part of the artist’s statement in conjunction with Wright’s installation “Passage” in the Rotunda Gallery on the second floor of Spring Hill College’s visual art facility. Though an instructor at the University of South Alabama, she employed visual arts students from SHC in mounting the work.
Fifty-five moons serenely arc through their phases across the gallery’s rounded wall, each seemingly formed from encrusted lace. Below them, dozens of alabaster moths spiral into a central point, all ghostly stark and nearly luminous against a cyan background.
Though devoid of its customary frozen-liquid appearance, these moons are glass. The process was painstaking and began with Wright’s drawn lunar body for a model.
“I screen-printed glass powders onto a kiln shelf and tack-fused it just hot enough that the glass would stick together but not so hot that it would create a big glass blob. Then after it came out of the kiln, I slumped it progressively three times into deeper and deeper forms. If you do it all at once it will wrinkle up like a handkerchief,” Wright described.
That meant there were four separate firings for each moon, each firing lasting overnight. That entailed months, many moons of making moons.
Their winged companions came about organically and biologically. First, Wright grew them.
“I ordered the cocoons online, then discovered they were female when they came out of the cocoon and I could put them in a breeding cage where wild male moths would come to them overnight. I only got, like, six of them originally,” Wright said.
She limited herself to luna and Polyphemus varieties, the latter named after the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey. Before long, she was rewarded with eggs, then caterpillars that molted a series of skins through roughly five weeks of growth.
“The Polyphemus only ate certain kind of oak trees and the lunas, I could only get them to eat sweet gum. We tried birch and other things and they wouldn’t eat them,” Wright said.
After leaving their cocoons, the moths are at most two weeks old, long enough to mate and lay eggs. They don’t even have working mouths at that point.
When they expired, they became artwork. Originally planned for replication in glass, they had to be treated first.
“Because the wings are so delicate I ended up dipping them in wax to mummify them and get them in position. Then I took two-part rubber molds of them and removed the bodies. Once I had the mold, I could cast it multiple times,” Wright said.
The original plan to transform the wax molds into glass was sidelined by a biological issue on the artist’s part. Her proximity to fumes from overheated wax wreaked havoc.
“I was using a soldering iron to clean up the edges and was right next to it and made myself really sick with an upper respiratory infection. I had it a few weeks. It was to the point that just the thought of the wax made me cringe,” Wright said.
Luckily a jaunt to medical help just two minutes from the campus art department did the trick. After a pair of steroid shots and antibiotics from a modern doc with an Old West name — Dr. Wiley Justice — she was on the mend.
“I was way more careful about the studio. I went and bought three different, exhaust and cross fans for ventilation,” Wright said.
After more consideration, she decided to stick with the wax figures of the moths — “a wax to the flame and that sort of thing” — and arrived at her finished product. The actual mounting not only taught the SHC students a little something about pinning moths for display but introduced a few of them to a mysterious substance.
“We used carbon paper to transfer my design to the wall. One of the other students was explaining to them what it was and how when you ‘cc’ someone on an email that’s what it means,” Wright laughed.
On display for the next year, this is the eighth in her “Leap” series and the latest in a fascination with moths that began years ago. In a statement for a 2013 show, she called them “a metaphor for transformation, metamorphosis and the ephemeral nature of the soul … Then there’s that thing about how they’re attracted to light and how that represents the soul’s attraction to knowledge.”