Insect wings : a meditation on scale and mothers

Image result for art insect wings

I dream about making furniture out of insect wings. Tiny, sheer, delicate and for whom?

Upon rising, I think about size in creative endeavor. How scale matters. I wonder: am I working too small — somehow limiting the scope of my work — or perhaps, the opposite — making life difficult by bucking a natural inclination to work small?

A large wall quilt. A goddamned novel.

And then out of nowhere, I remember something my mother said to me when I was seventeen or eighteen: “You may very well be a miniaturist.” Her tone was curious detachment as if still considering the idea, not at all one of her emphatic pronouncements.


For reasons both complicated and pragmatic, I spent my senior year at the school where my mother’d been teaching for almost a decade. For a span of nine months, then, she was both mother and art teacher to me and for nine months, I was her daughter and her student (and the ‘art teacher’s daughter’).

That year, I was perpetually embarrassed by my mother — what 17 year old isn’t? Her clothes. Her laugh. Her opinions. I still remember how cringe-worthy her repeated mispronunciation of the late Baroque period was — making it sound less like a hot beverage and more like a porn star’s screen name — Ro-COCK-oh. Again, Mom? Really?

But, overall it was good. For one thing, seeing her in her element enlarged my view of her. In particular, it lent credence to an assertion she’d been making for years about having this respected competence elsewhere (as opposed to the beleaguered and disputed competence at home). But more importantly, I was the beneficiary of her considerable skill as a teacher. Of course, she dispensed observations and enthusiasms throughout my childhood, but as her student, the feedback was sustained and structured and something a little different could unfold.

Even now, it’s hard to square my mother’s capacity to run rough shod over people with her perceptive skill in the art room. Imagine a woman walking into the teachers’ lounge of a small school where she’s disliked by a majority of her peers — a place where her chain smoking and a tendency toward dismissive, smug bombast put people off.

Now picture that same person entering her classroom and coming alive with the give and take with her students. Watch that same forceful delivery of opinion turn a shy student into an aspiring artist. Yes! That quiet student who formerly floated from class to class in ghost-like invisibility has become a person determined to make something beautiful and certain she can do it — because of my mother.

You know how teachers talk about ‘that one student’ that made their entire teaching career worthwhile? My mother sometimes had two a year.

My mother taught her students that they had something to say and that how they said it was both unique and discover-able.

Teenagers who’d convinced themselves by the ripe old age of 15 that they were ordinary or ‘just jocks’ found out otherwise in her classroom. For the wild kids (called ‘juvenile delinquents’ back then), she’d harness their misspent leadership energies without judgment, instilling no end of appreciation. “Give ’em a job,” she’d cackle.

Of course, she celebrated talent — what teacher doesn’t? For those students, her unique skill seemed to be in knowing when to gush effusively (but sincerely!) and when to step back and let them struggle. She ushered one outstanding student after another into their talent.

“You just might be a miniaturist.”

Is the observation as straight forward as it sounds — as in, ‘work small’? Given that my mother was right about an obnoxious number of things, I’m willing to consider this anew, but not exactly sure how to.When I removed a small section of a semi-large quilt to work on separately, I considered letting the fragment stand alone. I do this all the time.

(The fragment has been returned to the whole). Sometimes, when the prospect of finishing a first draft overwhelms, I get energized at the idea of trying to get excerpts published (and then, ironically, I can get back at it).Is scale of work as innate as our preference for certain palettes? And if it is, is it useful to step outside of that preference now and again and see what happens? What results if we don’t discover or honor our basic preference regarding scale — does it add pitch to the learning curve in a distressing manner, building in frustration that could be avoided? Or is this something else?

Before I go, I have to tell you we’ve had a string of truly beautiful summer days here. The weather was especially nice for a small birthday gathering for K yesterday — very Napa-valley with the tables in the yard and flowers cut from the garden. Of course, our new fire table was a big hit!


Insect drawing from

14 thoughts on “Insect wings : a meditation on scale and mothers

  1. Mo Crow

    look forward to seeing your furniture made of insect wings! I love the way the Persian miniaturists used beetle wings in their work

    1. deemallon

      until your comment, I hadn’t thought about ACTUALLY making things out of insect wings! But since mulling it over, I’ve collected pix from an old science manual — so maybe? with renderings of wings?

  2. Sue Batterham

    I understand exactly where you are coming from. I always end up working small; if I plan large it either doesn’t work out or never gets done. After reading your blog I understand better that some of us are just meant to work small, it’s wired in. Thanks !

    1. deemallon

      ‘or never gets done’ — that happens here big time! Part of why thinking about scale is refreshing is because it absolves me from laziness or disorganization as prime reasons why those big quilts languish.

  3. snicklefritzin43

    small and manageable has always been the place of comfort for me in creating; taking a vision and working as it appears without enlargement finds the greatest comfort in my mind and my hands.

  4. Michelle in NYC

    Tremendous tribute, including the juxtaposing of the hard and the soft parts of your mother. The quilt work and thoughts on what to do with each vision were also interesting. We can only be what we are after all and it’s our decision every time. Such beautiful work!

    1. deemallon

      thanks Michelle — I was listening to a TED talk about networks while walking Finn yesterday — one guy was asserting that the reason humans spread vastly (‘succeeded’) way beyond other intelligent and social creatures, is because of networks. I thought about blogging and the friendships here. How much your comments mean to me!

  5. debbie.weaver

    Small is beautiful is my mantra though sometimes I do larger pieces and then seem to get lost in the midst of the work. Fascinating post as yours always are.

    1. deemallon

      PS I mention the studio space (comment below) with respect to your work, because it seems like stepping back (and back) to see the whole while weaving a tapestry would matter a lot… and how hard it would be to see the whole if you didn’t have the space to step back far enough

  6. deemallon

    I wonder about the physical constraints of studio space, too. I remember hearing a very successful quilter speak at my guild years ago and when it was my turn to ask a question (people thought me nuts, maybe), I asked, “How BIG is your studio?” Well, she didn’t think I was nuts and got why I was asking, and it was indeed HUGE.

  7. Hazel

    Such a thoughtful look at your mother. I’ve always been grateful for the moments when I’m able to see my parents from the outside- helping them to make more sense & seem more whole, but then again, sometimes it just confuses me more!

    1. deemallon

      Yeah, I know what you mean about the shifting images we hold. I could write a companion post about how I don’t know what my basic preferences are BECAUSE of my mother. But mostly these days, I feel a sense of compassion for who my parents were — this has been brought about by being a parent, and perhaps even more so, by the difficulties associated with being in relationship with my sister.

  8. Nancy

    Aw Dee. Dee, this made me (once again) long for my mama. At 58 years old, how I would love to have more deep talks with her, about all of the unanswered ideas. I almost went to her Jr. High, also for complicated reasons, but I was too afraid to cross that bridge as she was adored by her peers and students alike. I think I felt like I could not live up to being her daughter in her setting. Plus all my ‘second mom’s and my god mother taught there! lol
    As far as small, I’m a sucker for anything miniature. I should remind myself of this as I shrink with age!! haha
    I love your color choices, in any size. Spread out like this, I thought it is your town!
    PS I agree with Michelle’s eloquent comment.


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