The Flight of the Mantids

Truly impressive works of art can have profound impacts on people. It can leave you speechless and overwhelmed, or elated, aroused or upset. Art that really speaks to you can have even more of a dramatic impact, in can drive you to become more artistic to create your own beautiful thing. It pushes us towards becoming more than an observer, but a creator. It inspires us. The Mantis Garden has been responsible for facilitating this change for hundreds, if not thousands of people over the last year, and their aim is simple: We express Ourselves so that You can express Yourself.

Gaetan Spurgin of Philadelphia created started this project as a one time installation for a Psy-Trance concert a little over three years ago. Using a children’s Science Fair model, he used a modified design to create a free-standing Preying Mantis out of birch wood nearly 9 feet tall. After he began bringing it to different events and finding that the simple wooden generated a lot of positive and thankful attention, both for its beauty and the peace of mind that it brought, he determined that he couldn’t waste the potential he had. As he reached out for further inspiration from his friends and family, two young children of a friend of his asked if they could paint on the plain untarnished wood at a Thanksgiving party, and it struck him. He began to encourage others to decorate his mantis frame until it had taken on a life of its own, complete with identity and personality. Mantis Greatburn became a welcome fixture at nearly every event in Philadelphia’s burner scene for the last two years, until this spring, when Gaetan expanded the project and brought in talented young artists Clinton Graybill and Skye Ruozzi to help with the project.

For nearly a month, the crew work fastidiously to produce three more mantises based off of the structure of the original, while securing art space at several east coast regional burns and art forums. The idea was simple: Bring unpainted “virgin” mantids to the festivals and allow them to be painted by festival goers. Not only would each contributor find a safe space to come and freely express themselves creatively, but each event left the installation with a thicker gradient of personality and energy. These insects are charging with the positive energy of thousands of creative minds coming together to produce a single, therapeutic atmosphere in which anyone who feels welcome can make themselves at home and feel free to find peace.

BARmag had a chance to sit down with Gaetan and find out more about the Mantis Garden project. Here’s what he had to say:

When did you create the first mantis (Mantis Greatburn)?
I originally created it in October 2010. It was commissioned by Vish Metaforce for a psy-trance festival [Nuthouse, Washington D.C. – October 23rd – 24th, 2010]. Originally it was just birch wood and it was used as a projection surface for video mapping.

So at the time, you were mainly working as a VJ…
Exactly, that was the main thing. I wanted to build the Mantis as a symbol, as a creative platform to share and display different visual artists’ work. The concept would be that it would travel to different film festivals and it would just be a new, contemporary form of film/projection art.

What made you decide on a mantis over some other insect, or animal or any other form?
It was a creature I was always interested in. It always had this allure because it had this urban myth that it was illegal to kill them. And it didn’t have any other mythology in the States. I figured it was a beautiful creature and I wanted to give it a mythology. I wanted to give it an identity – so when people did see the mantis either in sculpture or image form, people would associate it with creative sharing. A form by which people could display and share their visual arts.

Now that you have built and created five of these mantids, how had this changed or evolved from your initial concept?
At first, most of the people, the audience didn’t really get to participate in that. Once I started to change the direction of the project to communal art. It became a lot different because before it was just getting into a venue, setting it up. Now there’s this whole new essence of responsibility and care because it became the community’s art piece.

Mantids at Country Club 2012

Going from that concept of a more individual expression to a more communal-based creation of artwork, how has that changed your process, or ideas of what art is, or how you create as an artist?
Before when it was just a visual piece, I was displaying my own work or close friends’ work. Now that it’s become a group piece…sometimes I’ve had to take a step back and just watch how it happens and develops. It’s more about having to…uh, not coreograph the art…to… curate the art…where the artists who have previously worked on it meets the new pieces created with each new event. And watching that process. Sometimes it’s been tough because when it’s your own work, you can choose everything and if there’s something that doesn’t work, something that you don’t like you can change that. And with this it hasn’t been about changing what I didn’t like at all – it was about changing things to help increase the interactivity of it. So now we don’t change designs, colors – sometimes we create a new path for new paint to be set onto a piece. It’s probably 50/50 – stand back and watch and the other 50% figuring out how to put it all together so the next group of artists can add theirs. It’s become a living piece of art – just as the mantis is a living creature, it’s skin changes and goes through steps. Sometimes it goes through darker imagery and other times brighter imagery and that is something that evolves and rotates.

What has been the most exciting or unexpected result of this process for you?
My favorite part is watching people who have never seen a concept like this – a lot of people are familiar with the art world or are patrons of the arts, but have never seen a piece that they can be involved in [creating]. And it’s definitely rewarding to see people realize that and say, “Wow, what should I add to this, how can I contribute to this?”

Not only is this in art installation for the Burning Man event, but you also plan to extend this outside of the burner community…
No, that was not a part of the original plan, but seeing people at these festivals spending 5+ hours painting…watching people and seeing this really intense connection and the reward they got out of this – really made me want to bring this to people that couldn’t necessarily get out to our events. After Figment, watching children get completely lost in the painting, I really wanted to bring the Mantis out to people who couldn’t – in hospices, in hospitals. A lot of what people have said about this is the sense of accomplishment and unified work toward something and feeling that you’re part of something. Besides the installation at Burning Man, the idea is to continue the project…instead of just making the project larger and larger and larger – actually building a series of smaller (4-8 feet mantids) and to send them out to different hospitals or programs so they can make it their outreach programs. We’ve also been contacted by the NY department of education about some projects that they’re involved in, including conflict resolution with young adults and teens. Also, several literary groups to display at poetry festivals. So it has always been a sort of two step process. First, it was focused on the installation. To build an installation was going to require about 10 different events – to get people familiar with the project, getting comfortable the project. And once there was an awareness of the Mantis program, using that public backing to go to the second step to start a community outreach program – to start a non-profit, so that we can send these mantids around the world.

Looking forward to seeing this project at the next regional burn or on playa? It can’t happen without your help! For more information about the project:
and here: 

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