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It’s a bug’s world

"Praying Mantis Playing Cello" by Lisa Wood

By Julia Irwin

“JUST IMAGINE what a bunch of bugs would be doing if they weren’t being watched, and then put that under a glass dome,” says local artist Lisa Wood, describing her otherworldly dioramas that feature insects at work and play. “It’s usually a simple story: a beetle clipping articles out of the newspaper, a caterpillar decorating a wedding cake or two ants having tea.”

Wood walks to her part-time job at Nest, the gift shop at 2300 Fillmore Street, from her home near Alamo Square. When she moved here from New York in 2000, she found inspiration in her new surroundings.

“Actually, when I first moved here I wasn’t that crazy about the Painted Ladies and Victorian homes,” she says. “They just grew on me.”

Now Wood not only finds inspiration in the surrounding Victorian architecture, but also in the history of the Victorian people.

“It’s just their sensibilities,” Wood says. “They’re very crafty people with their photography and odd, morbid fascinations. People were collecting things from nature — and nature is my biggest influence. That all kind of interweaves with what I’m interested in.”

Wood was raised in the American Southwest and attended the University of Texas at El Paso, where she studied jewelry and design.

“Growing up in a rather isolated part of the country had its advantages, and I tended to live inside my imagination,” Wood says. “As a kid I was always making little worlds for insects I had rescued, and I remember always collecting bits of nature and saving them in shoeboxes for a later project. To this day, not much has changed.”

Before she began creating the insect dioramas, Wood made shadowboxes juxtaposing old photographs and nature.

“They’re larger, and they only have one side,” Wood says. “They didn’t have a life of their own like the insect dioramas. They’re more morbid, more ashes to ashes. The insect dioramas are the opposite of that. They’re playful, whimsical.”

Though Wood had always incorporated nature into her work, she hadn’t worked with real insects before she started creating her dioramas.

“It was the first time I had used real insects in my work, and I was hooked,” Wood says. “Insects are amazing little creatures. I can’t help but be in awe of the way they move, and their vibrant colors.”

About twice a year, Wood says she goes to a big warehouse near Los Angeles called BioQuip that sells dried insects and other equipment and supplies for “entomology and related sciences.”

“I go in and pick out just the right ones, make sure they’re big enough or sturdy enough or cute enough,” she says.

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Back at home, she goes through the painstaking process of putting the delicate insects into hot water to rehydrate them, making them pliable enough to pin into positions. Each diorama takes several days.

“Making the base has its challenges. I like the base to look as natural as possible, and using different sand, dirt and rocks takes some time,” Wood says. “I like to use a mix of nature and handmade dollhouse miniatures to tell a story. It all has to be glued down securely without any glue visible, and that takes patience.”

The dioramas, priced from $200 to $800, are available at Nest on Fillmore and at Paxton Gate in the Mission. Wood acknowledges they’re not for everyone.

“Some people really don’t like bugs,” she says. “Some walk by and don’t even notice them. But a few stop and pick them up and really look, and giggle and love them. Most do find their way into other people’s homes — and that makes me happy.”

Not all find new homes, however. Wood admits she just can’t part with some of her favorites. “Several months ago,” she says, “I made a diorama of a snail having a snack of milk and cookies and just couldn’t sell it.”