Laurel Davis has bugs in her head.
The latest creature to fly from the award-winning Taranaki artist's mind is a huhu beetle. New Zealand's largest beetle, Prionoplus reticularis, has landed on the wall of her studio beside a long stick insect and a giant weta - mostly made from soldered copper and paua.
'If I'm not making one I'm thinking about one or someone has asked me to make one for them. They are always there,' she says, touching her head.
From a distance, these intricate insects look real.
Even Laurel's been fooled by her artwork. 'I have scared myself - I will have a big spider sitting on the table, walk past and go 'whoa'.'
The truth is that despite her love of New Zealand's native creepy crawlies, she's terrified of some. 'Big wetas still freak me out and big spiders. I scream like a little girl when I see a spider, but I won't kill them - I get my daughter to take them outside.'
That respect for nature stems from her parents, who wouldn't kill unwanted critters but always let them loose. Laurel's mum and dad have also been huge supporters of her art. Her mother has collected pictures, clippings and other ephemera relating to her daughter's work.
Both of Laurel's children, teenager Alice and 20-something Ben, are artistic, but can take their mother's work for granted. 'I'll say 'have you seen my latest bug?', which will be sitting on the table they've been walking past all day, and they'll say 'no'. Children - they keep you grounded.'
But Ben does admire the huhu, which has its wing casings exposed. Laurel takes it off the wall to reveal its fine details, including a crab body for the head, tiny hairs made from copper foil and translucent veined wings. These are made from tissue, bonding medium and fine copper wire.
It's a big beastie, but only slightly larger than ones Laurel has seen up close to in her New Plymouth backyard - and as a child. 'They look amazing when they fly,' she says. 'I used to be scared of them when I was a kid. I still am because they bite.'
Despite her trepidations, Laurel loves to get books on insects out of the library and browse magazines and the internet looking for interesting specimens.
'It's just crept on me that fascination for bugs.'
Her first foray into the insect world began with the weta.
She had been playing around with glass and copper work for years. 'Then I decided to do two wetas on old farmer's work boots.'
That effort won her first equal in the rural section of the 2003 Taranaki Art Awards.
Her latest entry is slowly forming in the lounge.
Once again she has chosen a rural theme for her work, this one called Gumboots in a Southerly Gale.
An ethereal-looking person formed from chicken wire, muslin and glue leans into an imaginary wind. 'I had the centre of gravity wrong, so I had to break the legs and redo it.'
Laurel also sculpts heads from pumice pieces - but only outside in summer because it's such messy work. The latest work-in- progress sits on a table outside in an undercover porch that looks over the garden.
At one time she was making a series of heads, which were placed atop bamboo to pop in the garden. 'I had two out the front, but they were stolen.'
Snails have been another project, these inspired by spiral- shaped shells. 'You walk along the beach and go 'oh wow, that's beautiful, what can I do with that?' '
These findings have metamorphosed into not-so- realistic snails made using tiny face moulds and modelling clay to form curling horns and tail. 'They are the lady snails in the garden,' she says of these works, which are on sale in The Raised Eyebrow beside Tupare in New Plymouth.
During this year's Powerco Taranaki Garden Extravaganza, on from October 26 to November 4, some of Laurel's copper and paua bugs will be at Pukeiti as part of a selection of on-sale artistic works from The Raised Eyebrow.
She also has some insects in Kina NZ Art + Design Space in New Plymouth.
Flitting between snails, carvings and sculptures, enables Laurel to have time away from bugs.
'It takes ages to make these insects, so I can't do them fulltime,' she says.
The huhu beetle took two days to create.
First she looks at pictures of the insect and then visualises her own version. She works out how to give them movement, what materials to use and the sequence of assembly.
Over the years she has challenged herself to make cicadas, whitetail and katipo spiders, bumblebees, butterflies, mosquitos, bees, the praying mantis, cockroaches, white moths on a copper alien head, centipedes, flies, an earwig and a strange- looking native giraffe weevil.
Every now and then she breaks out and does a fantastical copper and paua creation, but she can't get enough of bugs. 'Some of the creatures in the insect world are just so bizarre that if I was to make one people would just say 'what?' '
When she first moved to her house in Vogeltown, the backyard was a wilderness full of insects, especially the native weta, long stick insects and even huhu beetles, which would clatter-whirr past.
'That's the sad thing - you tidy up to make things look good, but then the bugs disappear.'
In her garden, which is evolving like her insect creations, cabbage trees flourish, magnolias flower and there are signs of weeding and fresh plantings.
At the bottom of the property are 'three mad chickens' that eat more than they produce. 'We had them free ranging, but their aim was to come inside. I would be in the dining room and I would hear this noise and look down and there would be this chicken, so they are banished down to the outback.'
She originally had two chickens and one day another turned up.
The garden is a haven for birds: wood pigeons whir overhead and a yellow-flowered tree has pulled in another native. 'We had 14 tui in the kowhai tree. It's the most I have ever seen in there. They are beautiful flying around. That nectar really gives them a buzz, a sugar rush; they are mad.'
Over the years, Laurel has also made birds - a huia for Moko Gallery at Hot Water Beach and flocks of pukeko, tui, seagulls and kingfishers.
The household also has a shih tzu-cross dog called Eddie and two black cats at the opposite ends of the age spectrum. Te Whiti is 18 and Louie is just a kitten.
'We went to the pet shop to get some fish and came home with a kitten,' Laurel says. 'You can't have a house without animals - it would be boring.'
And she'll always have a head buzzing with bugs.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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