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South Portland artist's work takes wing, with help from Neiman Marcus

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South Portland artist's work takes wing, with help from Neiman Marcus

SOUTH PORTLAND — Mike Libby is embarking on his biggest project to date. It may fit in the palm of your hand, but the result is timeless.

The 33-year-old artist is working on a limited edition series of sculptures for the 2009 Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, a collection of can-you-top-this luxury gifts for people who are less concerned about money than they are impressing their friends. 

Libby's work features natural and mechanical elements. He takes non-endangered, laboratory-grade beetles, scorpions, spiders, grasshoppers and dragon flies, and combines them with old watch components.

Libby's work, which has appeared in The New York Times, Playboy magazine and on the Discovery Channel, is one of nine products to be featured on this year's Neiman Marcus Fantasy gift list. His bug art graces the pages along with drivable cupcakes and chandeliers made out of plastic bottles.

"To get into the catalog is a pretty big deal," Libby said. "It's basically like getting millions in free advertising. This holiday season is my best yet."

Libby's series of special-edition beetles will feature nine sculptures, presented on a custom lathe-turned oil-finished walnut basin under a 10-inch glass dome. Watch parts will be installed on African flower beetles, which are about the size of a clenched fist with a wing span of about 8 1/2 inches. An engraved brass plaque with the beetle's Latin name, Cetonidae: Goliathus Goliathus, will be placed on the base.

The insect sculptures will sell for $8,500 each and will be made on a per-order basis.

"It's the biggest one I've done," Libby said. 

Libby fuses the mechanic with the natural in his Chapel Street studio, which he calls the Insect Lab. After receiving specimens in the mail, he places the bugs in a sweat box to loosen their joints. In the case of beetles, he removes the wings and guts them with a scalpel, then installs the timepiece gears with tweezers and glue. Other insects simply receive their mechanizations on their exoskeletons. 

Libby said the California-based Device Gallery initially submitted his work to Neiman Marcus. He later got a call from the retailer, telling him he made the cut. Libby hopped on a plane and flew to California, with a sample sculpture in his lap, to get final approval. 

The Neiman Marcus listing is just the latest opportunity for Libby, who has been making insect sculptures full time since introducing his creations at the East End Community School's holiday fair in 2006. Libby said he makes and sells about one sculpture a week, at prices ranging from $400 for a lady bug to a $2,800 spider. 

"During the down economy my prices have been able to go up, because I don't have any competition," he said.

Libby is also looking to make special-order sculptures that have special meaning to people. One woman, whose father had died, contacted him about taking apart her dad's watch and installing the gears and springs on a dragon, for which her dad had a special affinity. 

Although much of Libby's time is taken up making insect sculptures and running his own small business, he is already working on his next art series: making museum-type dinosaurs out of pages taken from the Bible. When asked whether there was any implicit meaning to the project, his response was the same one he gives to similar questions about his beetles.

"I really look at the way I work as calling upon influences and points of interest, and just putting them all in the melting pot," Libby said. "All of my studio work involves being creatively agile with materials and concepts." 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

Photo: Contributed
A longhorn beetle.

Photo: Contributed
A tarantula.

Photo: Contributed
A praying mantis.

Photo: Contributed
A butterfly.