Working with Bioluminescence: Firefly Replica

When I first began my internship with the Canadian Museum of Nature in early May, I was unaware of how fundamentally important creativity is to the museum. I did not expect how much I would be able to apply my experiences of visual arts to this museum setting.

A woman holds a firefly model.

Stephanie and the firefly replica during the painting stage. Image: Loralie Hachey © Stephanie Hachey

My main objective of my internship thus far has been to create two replicas: one of a firefly (Photinus pyralis) and one of a bioluminescent mushroom (Omphalotus olearius). Both will be used in presentations on bioluminescence that will be offered at the museum until mid-July.

A mass of chicken wire.

The beginning of the wire process—the making of the firefly’s head. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

And so, in early May the brainstorming began. My original idea was to sculpt the body of the firefly out of Styrofoam. However, knowing how much I hate the sound of scraping Styrofoam, I was quick to scrap this idea. Thinking more about what materials I could use, I decided that chicken wire would work best because it is both lightweight and easily manipulated.

As someone who is math-illiterate, the beginning steps were the most difficult. With multiple trips to the Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence exhibition and numerous searches for fireflies in Google I ultimately decided to create a firefly replica that was 50 times the actual size. Forgetting to add a few numbers here and there a couple weeks into the project, I realized that I was making a firefly 60 times actual size—evidently math will never be my strong suit.

Project materials laid out on a table.

Creating the firefly’s wings—wire skeleton sewn onto a wing pattern made out of mesh. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

After a few weeks of bending wires and trying to be as patient as possible, I finished the skeleton form of the firefly model. The next step in the process was to papier-mâché over the wire skeleton to create a hard outer shell that I would be able to apply paint to.

The base structure on a table.

After creating the skeleton form of the firefly, I attached all the pieces together. The next step (as shown here) was to prep for the papier-mâché by covering the replica in tape. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

You would think that mixing up a batch of papier-mâché would be very simple. However, given that I have non-existent cooking skills and a short attention span, it was more difficult than it should have been. After adding, removing, and then adding more water and flour to a bowl, I finally had the ability to discern how much of each ingredient was needed: one part flour and two parts water was the final working result. For those of you out there who want to create your very own papier-mâché project: don’t forget to add salt—it helps prevent mould!

The chicken-wire structure with some papier-mâché applied.

Papier-mâché process—the completion of the head and wings. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

After the papier-mâché process, I applied a few layers of Gesso to the replica to act as a base paint. I am currently working on applying detail and colour with acrylic paints—attempting not to get it all over my clothes, which is impossible. I hope to also add lights to the end of the firefly so that visitors will be able to see first-hand how fireflies “speak” to one another through their bioluminescent flashes.

The firefly replica, all white.

The papier-mâché process is finally complete! Gesso has been painted over the replica to create a smooth surface to paint detail on. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

Detail of the replica.

Close-up of painting process. This is a depiction of the firefly’s abdomen. Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

The end-result firefly replica, as well as the mushroom replica, can be seen at the museum’s bioluminescence presentations. Don’t forget to visit the museum and check it out!

The finished replica.

The firefly is finally complete! Image: Stephanie Hachey © Canadian Museum of Nature

And if my experience has seemed fun to you, join me at the museum on Sundays and Wednesdays starting on July 6: I will be creating another giant mushroom with the help of the public until August 13. The experience I gained while creating the firefly will surely come in handy!

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