“The Leafcutters” is a multimedia project focused on the ant Atta cephalotes and I have made repeated trips to Central America to work with them. The photography and video are shot on location; the drawings and sculptures are completed in the studio.
Leafcutter ants inhabit the Neotropics, live in large underground colonies, have sophisticated communication, well organized division of labor, and are agriculturalists, skillfully cultivating their own food. They cut pieces of plant material, usually leaves, and carry them across the forest floor, often traveling for hundreds of yards (on trails meticulously cleaned by them) to their underground nests. From this plant material they cultivate a fungus, which is their main food source. These nests are architectural masterpieces, where temperature and humidity are precisely controlled for the cultivation of their fungus. The nest of a mature leafcutter ant colony, with several million members, is a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers that can occupy ten square yards and be fifteen feet deep.
Ants have eerie parallels, on many levels, to Homo sapiens, and this is one of the main reasons I am drawn to them. They inhabit nearly every ecosystem on Earth, are one of the dominant species in their habitats, and impact the grand structure of all other biological systems. They wage war, take slaves, raise and keep other animals for food, and are master chemists capable of making their own antibiotics. I am also drawn to their beauty, which is characterized by delicate legs, bulbous body parts, and spiny armor. A parade of leafcutter ants, carrying bits of leaves and flowers, looks like a colorful, line drawing flickering across the forest floor.
But, it is the leafcutter ant as a dominant species and rapacious defoliator that this project takes its cue. Leafcutter ants are the principal herbivore in the tropical and semi-tropical regions where they live. They do not clear cut rainforests quite like we do, but they can strip a tree in a single night, and repeat this night after night. At a time in history when humans are causing deforestation at an alarming rate, this insect provides rich and relevant opportunities for illuminating man’s impact on the environment.
“The Leafcutters” is a unique collaboration with a colony of wild animals. I am inspired by what the ants naturally do and work with their behavior to create my artwork. The content is a result of both our contributions.