A bug’s eye view: Shawn Smith’s Ommatidium exhibition

March 10, 2023

the remainder

I followed the buzz last Saturday and attended the opening of Austin artist Sean Smith’s “Ommatidium” exhibit at Gradak Gallery. I have followed Sean’s work with interest over the years. For one thing, he and his wife, Anne, are our neighbors and friends, and occasionally I catch a glimpse of new work in his studio. For another, his focus on the complex – and often digitally filtered – human perception of nature is fascinating.


Sean is known for his 3D pixilated wooden animal sculptures – often surprisingly life-sized. For “Ommatidium,” he broke away from his usual style to create 2D artworks, sculptures of imaginative insects, a flickering light installation and even a stained glass sculpture of an Australian whale mound (pictured above). It’s a terrific show — thought-provoking, slyly funny, and strangely beautiful. Here are the official details:

“Ommatidium explores our complicated relationship with the insect world. The show investigates the darkly humorous marketing of chemical agents to safely destroy them, the extreme championing of aesthetically pleasing and useful insects above all others, the surprisingly terrifying methods of measuring insect population density, and the overlooked beauty of their intricate architecture. The ommatidium refers to the compound eye structure that insects use to see the world. Through this exhibit, artist Sean Smith uses this concept of complex vision to encourage viewers to overcome their innate fear and disgust of insects and see them through a different lens.”


Watch the Red Queen run, and see a secret message revealed in this 55-second video MAD. The Red Queen Effect, an idea at play here, is a hypothesis about evolutionary biology, named after a character. Alice in Wonderland. The concept of MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction, will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Cold War.

Fleet Song

A fleet gun, an old-style pesticide sprayer, greets you at the gallery door. A bird’s head is mixed into a sprayer – one of the unintended victims of indiscriminate pesticide use, which poisons the food supply of many other animals.

“Dead kills insects,” it reads. And more!

buzz word

buzz wordOn one wall of the gallery hangs a large collage of Anand’s pesticide advertisements. Many of these made me laugh out loud, or cry in disbelief. The ad on the upper left (above) proclaims, “DDT is good for me!”

“No flies on me thanks to DDT,” another read, along with a photo of a smiling baby.


Wasp-nest letters spell NIMBY, short for “Not in My Backyard.” The uneasy feeling you get from watching this exhibit is that you (at least I) used pesticides to get rid of harmful insects. What is nesting through the back door? sure Is it crazy? No doubt. Nosy-nosed weevils attacking my precious (and expensive) large agaves and towering yuccas? I’m so scared. This week I coated the inside of my mailbox with Raid when ants started nesting there. Blame! But ants in the mail? no

Ladybugs, dragonflies and butterflies are easy to caress, but challenging to embrace all Insects, especially destructive or dangerous. Sean’s art acknowledges this and asks us to examine our conflicted feelings about bugs. What is beauty and value here, it asks?

Preparing for the void series

his Preparing for the void A series of insect sculptures, Sean writes:

“In a typical summer month, 6 billion insects fly over your head. Wind and wind currents disperse the insects over great distances. Since 1926, scientists have been using airplanes to collect insects at up to 19,000 feet. For this series, I’m going to see the insects survive their journey. Imagine building space suits to help.”

The Invisible City: The Weaver Ant’s Nest

Creates pixilated collages of insect “homes” — chrysalises, termites, and ant nests. invisible city Ann Berman, Shawn’s wife, collaborated on these fascinating works of art, each of which is “culled from a book of human treasures: gold, fine art, rare orchids and golf courses.” Weaver Ant Nest (Above) was compiled from golf course photos.

Kaleidoscope in Decline

A caterpillar-shaped, 3D wall sculpture of the monarch butterfly is called Kaleidoscope in Decline. “The overall figure presents a graph of declining monarch butterfly populations from 1993 to 2017.”

the remainder

An interesting — and cringe-inducing — 3D piece for those with trypophobia is called the remainder There is a photograph of the artist’s face made from a found paper nest. Shawn wrote:

“Paper bugs use nests to raise their young. At the end of the season, they leave the nest and do not return. I was impressed that so much labor goes into building, maintaining and protecting such a complex architectural structure, only to be abandoned. Paper wasps use facial recognition to identify members of their hive….I convert[d] My portrait is inserted into a wasp nest. I wanted to identify myself as something in nature that is not outside of it.”

Artist Sean Smith

Well done, Sean (and Anne)! If you’re in Austin, put on your virtual compound eyes and check out “Ommatidium” in the grayDUCK gallery. It runs until April 16, 2023. And if you’d like to meet Sean, he’s giving an artist talk on April 1st at 2pm.

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dig deep

Plan to join Budding Plant Sale and Festival March 18 at John Fairy Gardens in Hempstead, TX. There will be rare and unique plants, as well as art, ceramics, jewelry, food, drink, music and other entertainment for the whole family. Members have early access and get free. Non-member admission is $5. Children under 12 are free.

Shop for native Texas plants At the Wildflower Center’s Spring Native Plant Sale. Held Friday through Sunday, March 24 through May 7 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The first weekend is for Wildflower Center members only, so joining To enjoy this facility, and get free admission throughout the year and much more.

Tour season kicks off with the Great Outdoors Tour of the new Austin home March 25 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Check out 7 designer landscapes for $20 and get ideas for your own outdoor living space.

Experience a surreal garden at the Zilkar Botanical Garden, with an enchanting neon-art display throughout the park, food and drink, music and dance, surreal performers and interactive art sculptures. Surreal costumes are encouraged! 25% of event proceeds benefit the Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy. April 6 (VIP Night), April 7-8 and April 13-15 runs from 6:30pm to 11pm.

Tour 9 designer landscapes on the 2023 Austin Outdoor Living Tour May 6. Designers and manufacturers will be on hand to answer your questions. Cost is $33.85 for adults and $17.85 for children ages 12 to 17. For safety, no one under the age of 12 is to be carried except children.

Learn about garden design from the experts at Garden Spark! I host private talks with inspiring designers, landscape architects, and writers several times a year in Austin. These are limited-attendance events that sell out quickly, so join the Garden Spark email list to be notified in advance. Just click on this link and ask to be added. Season 7 begins in August. Stay tuned for the lineup!

All material © 2023 by Pam Penick for Excavation. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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