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Artists and entrepreneurs transform crickets from sick to wanted

Cicadas seem to be everywhere these days.

They’re crawling out of the ground and will soon sing from the treetops across Illinois, as the life cycles of two broods coincide for the first time in more than two centuries. But they’re also on stickers, wall art and graphic novels, on funny T-shirts and Taylor Swift shirts, on sculptures and even on signs.

From bug to fad, crickets have been embraced by artists and entrepreneurs showcasing products in honor of this rare, shared event.

“It’s more than just an item,” says Nina Salem, founder of The Insect Asylum, an Avondale-based zoology museum that is leading a citywide effort for amateur and expert artists to create more than 1,000 giant plaster cicada sculptures. purchase or sponsor to decorate and place around Chicago. “It’s an experience and an opportunity to join a community.”

Some entrepreneurs, including Salem, are longtime insect enthusiasts who love crickets in their rugged, natural beauty and want to share that love. Others try to overcome their own aversion and create less realistic, more attractive merchandise.

“I took the Chicago flag and desecrated it with cute, happy crickets,” says Trayce Zimmermann, a Chicago public relations specialist who started the website Cicadapalooza. “And I added the music twist (referring to the site’s start at Lollapalooza) because a gazillion of them come out to sing. There you have ‘cicada chic’ – something that is fun to wear for people who don’t like the ick factor.”

Local artists and entrepreneurs say they hope to encourage the public to embrace the insects as part of community building.

“In terms of promoting collective identity and people’s desire to make art and buy things related to it, there are parallels with unusual events,” said Ginger Pennington, a professor at Northwestern University who specializes in consumer psychology and human motivation. “I mean, there’s the solar eclipse, there’s obviously COVID, or when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016. We’ve just seen the merchandise explode, partly because we all feel like we’re part of the special, unusual thing that’s happened and it ties us all together.”

Arouse curiosity

In the gift shop at the Bess Bower Dunn Museum in Lake County, a booth is filled with cicada-inspired items: books, wall art, postcards, key chains, pins, stickers, even gold dangling earrings and necklaces with stone pendants shaped like an insect . Walking into the new exhibit – “Celebrating Cicadas,” open through August 4 – visitors are greeted by a curious cicada nymph with bulging red eyes.

The insect is featured in a mural illustrated by Samantha Gallagher of Gurnee, who has combined her passions and studies in art and entomology into a career drawing scientific illustrations of insects. It is one of the eleven illustrations she was allowed to draw for the exhibition.

A 17-year-old cicada walks on the sidewalk on May 28, 2024, near Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio on Forest Avenue in Oak Park.  (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)
A 17-year-old cicada on the sidewalk on May 28, 2024, near Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio on Forest Avenue in Oak Park. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

“The biggest compliment I can get with my art, especially since my subject is insects, is when someone says, ‘Well, I don’t normally like insects, but I like yours, yours look friendly out, or yours are beautiful.’ ‘” she said. “That’s exactly what I’m trying to do: instead of creating feelings of fear or disgust, which is very common. … I’m trying to inspire more curiosity and maybe even compassion.”

Some of Gallagher’s art prints are sold in the museum’s gift shop, but she also sells other items online, including tote bags and phone cases.

“Some people want that souvenir, they want to feel like they’re part of something bigger, especially something so temporary and fleeting,” Gallagher said. “If you’re here, you can participate. And maybe it does, whether you want it to or not. So when you’re in Rome, right?

The large-scale collaborative sculpture project led by The Insect Asylum on site was originally conceived in Baltimore for a 17-year periodic emergence of cicadas there in 2021. Salem said she wanted to bring this “Cicada Parade-a” home to mark the double emergence of to celebrate this year. .

“This has been a very beautiful moment in history, so we are very happy to celebrate it,” Salem said. “The whole spirit of this project was to help create some perspective for the rise of the cicada. Because we know that so many people were afraid of it, we wanted to add something beautiful that stimulates education.”

Love them or hate them, one thing is clear: according to Pennington, crickets bring out strong emotions. But by dealing with it through art and merchandise, people can channel and cope with these emotions, whether positive or negative.

“Some people like the really detailed, scientific illustrations. Those people see the art and the wonder in it,” she said. “For some people it’s fear and loathing, so some of the information, the art and the merchandise helps them overcome that. After seeing a stuffed animal, the cicada T-shirts, it’s kind of a coping mechanism. You can see it in this abstract way, and the cuteness of it instead of the gross, realistic aspects of it that people find scary.

Good publicity

Casey Deeter, left, holds up a Cicadapalooza shirt, sold by Trayce Zimmermann, at her self-proclaimed “cicada chic” clothing booth on May 25, 2024, at the Randolph Street Market in Chicago. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)

Others, less enthusiastic about the noisy visitors, try to embrace crickets on their terms. When Zimmermann first heard about this year’s cicada emergence, she said she scrolled through pages and pages of “uninspired” and “dirty-looking” cicada products online. She couldn’t imagine using or wearing any of it.

She decided to create “cute” designs for T-shirts for friends and family. But she didn’t expect the popularity her side hustle has since garnered.

“Everyone loves it. And I’m not a T-shirt salesman,” she said. “I’m a publicist, but I added a little PR magic to it, and now I’m up to my eyes.”

Zimmermann said she thinks the excitement of an event so widespread has largely changed public perception in recent weeks; Personally, she feels that she can now live next to the insects, albeit at a safe distance.

“Their reputation has improved, but they’re still dirty!” she laughed. “I don’t want them in my hair.”

According to Pennington, that’s part of the power of social influence. “You see other people working on (crickets), making merchandise and making art about it. And it changes our perceptions and our behavior,” she said. “So we’re more likely to conform to that normative influence and we’re more likely to get involved when we see other people involved.”

Zimmermann said she felt this shared commitment.

“Are us turnout, and it’s a way to commemorate it,” she said. “And in ten years you’ll have this T-shirt and you’ll say, ‘I was there.'”

A sense of belonging

Cicadas climb a tree near shed exoskeletons on May 28, 2024, near Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio on Forest Avenue in Oak Park.  (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)
Cicadas climb a tree near shed exoskeletons on May 28, 2024, near Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio on Forest Avenue in Oak Park. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

At The Insect Asylum – which has long had a cicada logo – there is a shelf of cicada creations from local artists and small businesses. From Ampersand Curiosities, there are ethically sourced crickets crystallized with blue, red, silver or purple glittering minerals, which sell for $95.

Other items include band T-shirts and posters for the “Summer ’24 Scream Emergence Tour” through cities in the Midwest and Southeast. Salem, the museum’s owner, said they are running low on cicada items because so many of them have been sold in recent weeks.

Volunteers and friends helped Salem cast more than 1,200 cicada plaster sculptures, which could be decorated and distributed throughout the Chicago area for the art project. Even as they staged the public installations, the museum’s basement was still full of raw images last week ready to be embellished. Salem said the scope of the project has exceeded their expectations for 600 sculptures.

Pennington explained that shared events help break down barriers that typically divide people, especially in today’s contentious social environment.

“So often we focus on differences and now suddenly we’re all experiencing the same thing,” she said.

Like the solar eclipse, such an event also helps put those differences, and one’s reality, into perspective.

“These long, 17-year-old cycles … make you realize that all this time has passed,” she said. “Despite all this chaos that has happened in the political world, and (crickets) have just been hanging out there. So you can zoom out a little bit to a bigger perspective: all this time has passed and there’s the same cycle of nature that goes on and on, exactly the same every 13, every 17 years. It’s a bit humiliating.”

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