September 25, 2020

BY WESLEY BUTLER

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There was a time in her life when Amy Swartz was scared of insects. She didn’t like seeing them, let alone touching them. But she didn’t know why. Maybe it was their size, their shape or the way they moved. She just couldn’t put her finger on it.
Despite her fears, Swartz wanted to overcome her terror. But no matter what she did, her fright always got the better of her.
All that changed around 13 years ago, when Swartz was standing in her kitchen drying dishes. She noticed a dead dragonfly on her windowsill, and froze at first glance. She wanted to flick it off, but for some reason, she just couldn’t muster up enough strength to do it. Instead, she stood and stared at it. She was captivated by its multifaceted eyes. Transparent wings. Its elongated body. Even though it was dead, its eyes were directed right at her, almost like it still pleaded to be spared.
It was at that moment that Swartz felt her fears drain. To this day, she can’t explain why this happened. She believes it was a message from the other side telling her to start something beautiful, because she was grieving over the loss of her mother when she saw the insect.
She decided to keep the dragonfly in a margarine container, and to this day has collected over 2,500 insects, recreating them into structural displays using the heads off toy figurines. These displays are meant to present humourous scenarios where insects carry out historical human interactions. They have been showcased in conservatories in Cambridge, Kitchener and Toronto.
The idea to create these displays arose when Swartz found a bag of toy army men that belonged to her husband. Some of the heads fell off, so she thought it would be interesting if she took one of them and placed it on a dragonfly.
Taking the head off the dragonfly was revolting at first. There were moments she couldn’t even bear to look at what she was doing, because she thought it was cruel. But nonetheless, Swartz continued on with her experiment, and created her very first display, which she called “moth man.”
It consists of a toy head and arms on the dragonfly’s body, with a toy gun in its hands. The idea is to express Swartz’s deepest feelings about humankind, about how we sometimes feel the need to control everything around us.
She never knew how to express these feelings through words, so she feels lucky to have finally found a platform to bring her thoughts to life.
After she created this display, Swartz decided to collect insects from anywhere she could, cut off the heads, and replace them with toy army heads and weapons.
Another one of her displays consists of several butterflies with army heads and weapons.
“I can’t really tell you why I did it, it just doesn’t make any sense,” said Swartz. “I just couldn’t help noticing the fine detail of the toys’ heads, and the fine detail of the insects, so putting them together made sense to me in a nonsensical way.”
This has been one of the biggest challenges for Swartz, having to find insects to create displays with. She first tried to search in her backyard, but she didn’t find any.
“Besides the obsessive-compulsive part of my work, sometimes it’s hard to find these many insects without having to buy them,” she said. “I have to collect them from many different sources. Sometimes I have to ask people for them.”
Swartz is a visual artist and educator living in Toronto.  Her creations portray the concept of obsession, in humanity’s perception regarding our control over life, death and nature.
Through her work, she tries to bring forth the natural and imaginary world she thinks isn’t seen as much anymore. She describes it as her reflection on the “restrained chaos of life,” of humankind’s “pest-like” behaviour, its attempt to control the world and mortality.
She intends for her work to be a metaphor to overpopulation and extinction, but at the same time retain the beauty and eccentricity of life.
As for Swartz’s children, ages nine and 11, they love the end result of her creations, although she’s not sure if they enjoy the process as much.
“I don’t think they like seeing bugs stored in the freezer,” she said. “But their friends are amazed by what I do. They love my creations.”
Sometimes her children become slightly agitated with their friends, because they spend most of their visits staring at an open freezer in awe of her work.
Swartz has realized her one goal, which is to have her work exhibited in libraries and conservatories. Most recently, she had her “pest exhibition” displayed at the Preston library in Cambridge in February.
She doesn’t plan on stopping. In the future, Swartz plans on continuing her work, and creating more displays expressing more of humankind’s constant hunger for power. She has at least 1,000 more insects at her home, and is still looking to collect more.
Her work was first exhibited at the Angell Gallery in Toronto in July 2011, and can now be seen at the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory until June 16.