The Rapidian

Local artist finds inspiration in moths, praying mantises, mysteries of tarot cards

The art of Molly Vega Burgess continues to evolve over time and can be found at the UICA gift shop.
Zammara Cicada, 2015

Zammara Cicada, 2015 /Molly Vega Burgess

Underwriting support from:
Artist and muse

Artist and muse /Molly Vega Burgess

"I always wanted to be an artist. Well, or a ballerina," Molly Vega Burgess laughs. "Because you're supposed to."

We are standing in her studio, a windowed but curtainless room on the second floor of her home. The minimal decor is, as might be expected in the workspace of a full-time artist, eye-catching. On one wall hangs a painting of a beaver holding a uterus; it's funnier than you might think. Affixed to the adjoining wall is a soft sculpture of a faintly and deliberately wrong moth. "It's one of my fantastical creatures," she said, differentiating between it and her more rigorously mimetic pieces. It will be traded to another artist for jewelry. 

Burgess knows something about jewelry, having studied jewelry-making at Kendall College. Materials proved prohibitively expensive, so she switched to soft sculptures. She transforms fabric into pert, dignified animals one could imagine artfully arranged in a young Wes Anderson's bedroom. They've proved popular; they sell well at local shows. But her heart belongs to the bugs.

"I just love them," she said. Her first bug sculpture was created for a friend's birthday. The process proved addictive. The work, which requires close study of the architecture of insects and arachnids, had made her both more appreciative of bugs and more comfortable with them. She sculpts them with an attentiveness to anatomy and color that is both awed and clear-eyed; even her least realistic creatures have their feet, so to speak, on the ground. She finds freedom in the strictures of realism.

Several examples of these sculptures are for sale at the UICA gift shop. Another, titled Zammara Cicada, was on display at Devos Place Convention Center during ArtPrize 2015.

In 2016, she submitted to the festival Dimensional Dreams, a collaboration with local artist Nicole Trim. In it, Burgess' butterflies and moths emerge from the edge of a stylized, dreamlike painting. Seeing it, I was reminded of Marianne Moore's line about "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." Trim, who wrote her dissertation on the surrealists, explained the piece to me: it is the dream of a girl from a far stranger world than ours. "The girl was dreaming about moths, and here they're mundane, but to her they're really fantastical." Both artists were complimentary of the other. Burgess told me the collaborative process was ideal: she had complete trust in Trim, and she could work on her portion alone.

Solitude cropped up more than once in our conversation, as did shyness. This surprised me; the Molly I know is poised, earnest, and approachable, both a gracious hostess and a good friend. Years ago, I saw her stand up in front of a crowd in the Grand Rapids Public Museum and deliver the finest wedding speech I'd ever heard. That she hides her shyness so well is attributable, I think, to a desire to make others comfortable. But she's happiest working in her studio, alone.

What she's working on most often lately is not sculpture but drawing. She's creating (again in collaboration with Trim) a tarot deck. The notebook she shows me contains a dozen or so first passes (the praying mantis hierophant, the butterfly empress). She shows me how her approach evolved from image to image, becoming freer, and how she has begun to incorporate plants. The images are odd and very beautiful.

She absently taps the last one. "Getting there," she said.

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