It is intriguing that moths are one of the few animal groups to trigger a recognised psychological anxiety, “mottephobia”. It is surely a reflection of our deep-seated diurnal biases that we visit all manner of affections upon butterflies but withhold them from their nocturnal relatives. Working on the assumption, cited by Dostoevsky in Demons, that “one cannot love what one does not know”, the artist Sarah Gillespie has mounted a campaign at Helston’s Kestle Barton art centre to change our minds. Her print exhibition, Moth, running until 31 October, is a glorious revelation of the insects’ special brand of beauty.
Moths are subtle, the colours delicate, their patterns and chromatic combinations a blend of revealing form and protective function. Often a moth’s appearance is as much disguise as it is a declaration of identity.
Gillespie captures all this complex aesthetic information, but her printmaking technique reveals something powerful both about herself as an artist and moths as animals. The ancient dark-to-light mezzotint process involves combing a copper plate with an instrument called a rocker. The areas of the metal sheet thus treated print as pale designs upon a dark background. The method is therefore an almost perfect analogue of how moths reveal themselves mysteriously out of the night. A fundamental quality required of the mezzotint artist is intense patience. One can almost feel the time required to achieve these prints, as well as Gillespie’s loving absorption in moth beauty.
However, on the day of our visit, the living mystery of moths almost upstaged the impact of Gillespie’s art at Kestle Barton. The organisers had invited the Cornwall Moth Group to set up (harmless) traps, and overnight something wonderful occurred. Nestled in one in the morning sunlight was a Clifden nonpareil (Catocala fraxini). A migrant probably journeying from eastern Europe or even Siberia, it has large triangle forewings incised with grey and beige zigzag patterns. But when it lifts these it reveals hindwings of deepest lavender bordered in black bands. Clifden nonpareil is adorned with blue ribbons in life and is a blue riband in the imaginations of mothing folk. No more fitting animal could have graced this fabulous art show.