Q&A: Entomology is Art

Greg Lewallen with a section of his enormous bug collection. Photo credit: Lariat File Photo

By Matt Dotson

Greg Lewallen, drawing and 2D design professor, did not start out as an art teacher. In his time before Baylor, he picked up the hobby of studying insects. He sat down with the Lariat to talk entomology, wildlife and more.

What got you interested in studying insects?

Growing up as a lower-middle-income family, we did a lot of camping and outdoor activities for recreation. My mom was a very outdoorsy person with a lot of interest in natural history. Just being around her as a little kid growing up on camping trips, insects were part of the environment outdoors. I showed interest as a little kid and she just encouraged me.

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 9.38.40 PM.png
Butterflies in Lewallen's collection. Photo credit: Lariat File Photo

Are you an entomologist?

I am but I’m not formally trained. I’m a self-taught entomologist, but I’ve been studying insects seriously ever since I was in first grade I guess. I was 5 years old, and I have insects in my collection from that time, dating back to 1962.

So how long have you been collecting?

I turn 59 this month so I’ve been doing this for over 54 years.

When did you decide to become an art teacher?

I really didn’t decide to become an art teacher all of a sudden. I was asked if I would teach. I agreed and had to apply then go through the interview process with the provost and the administration. They hired me for a year because the department was kind of in a bind. A professor had to retire prematurely due to an illness, so they asked me to teach again the next year, and the next year, and the next year.

It became semi-permanent?

This is my sixth year. This past spring they hired me as a full-time permanent lecturer.

How has your study of insects influenced your art?

I actually incorporate insects in my imagery. I like to think of them as insect portraits. But they are not just representatives of a species of insect — they are portraits of specific specimens in my collection. If I wanted do, for example, a monarch butterfly, I wouldn’t do just a monarch butterfly — and I would do one specifically out of my collection.

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 9.37.24 PM.png
Beetles in Lewallen's collection. Photo credit: Lariat File Photo

Do you regret not being professionally trained as an entomologist?

No, I used to think I’d be a wildlife artist. Art and bugs have been the couple constants in my life ever since I was a little kid, but I have a lot of interest in natural history in general. I’m as much a naturalist as anything, but I have more specific knowledge in entomology and insects. I’ve collected birds, birds nests, eggs, reptiles and amphibians. My brother and I amassed a huge collection of reptiles and amphibians when we were in junior high. So my passion about insects is an overflow of my general interest of natural history. I’ve had a good time studying insects — it’s taken me places around the world I only dreamed about as a kid.

You’d say your insects and your artwork have matured over the years?

Oh yeah definitely. My latest work is a series of portraits of the individual bugs. About two years ago I was working on a drawing of a moth here in the studio. I was working on the negative space around the moth and I wasn’t satisfied with it so I asked one of the professors what they thought. We talked about it and she started asking me questions about that specific moth. So I began to convey the story about how I caught that moth in Panama a couple years ago. She said, “That’s really interesting, you need to write that down.” So I just started writing on the surface of the drawing around the bug with a contrasting color. There was something visual that magically happened as I continued to write and fully encase the bug all the way down to the end of the paper.

Would you consider that the highlight of your artwork?

Yeah I would. In the past I did a lot of photorealism — it takes a lot of time. Now that I’m older, I’m more concerned about the time I have. I have a lot to say, a lot of stories to tell. If nothing else, I say things through my artwork — not only visually but narratively by writing. That’s something I’m probably going to continue doing. I’ve got enough to do me a lifetime worth of material to work from and to draw from — no pun intended. I think it’s the best stuff I’ve done.

Any last remarks?

Don’t give up. Don’t give up on your dream.