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Tracie Skarbo was motivated to write by her father, who was her biggest supporter. “He was always behind me, rallying me on with my writing. I would always see him with a book in hand. He gave me a great appreciation for the written word, and the power and responsibility that writers have to shape those who read their words. He also taught me to respect nature and to value the beauty within it; my reflections on my environment are just an extension of this.” Skarbo was raised on Vancouver Island and is working on her next two books.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Wasp Paper Project

It started with an email I received from a poet friend of mine, Dan Thompsett.  He came into possession of two paper wasp hives by accident, one was listed on the internet through Craigslist and the other was found through a woman he knew.  He put both on Ebay but only one of them sold.  Then when he removed the egg cells from the remaining hive the cells sold without a problem, but it seemed no one wanted the actual paper from the hive.   He knew that I painted and liked to take photographs so he asked me if I could think of a way to use the paper in a visual way.
I was thrilled when the paper arrived in the mail.  It was so beautiful and fragile.  I was in awe of the fact that thousands of tiny mouths could make such beauty out of dead and decomposing wood.  They were the ultimate recyclers!
Paper wasps gather fibers from dead wood and plant stems which they mix with saliva, and use to construct water resistant nests.  These are usually made of grey and brown material.  Paper wasps will only sting if provoked, unlike yellow jackets and hornets.  They will eat other insects and they are considered to be beneficial to gardeners.
I began to take the paper out of the box and separate it into useable layers, separating the old discolored pieces and then pressing the bigger sheets to flatten them.  I enjoyed the beauty of the lines within the paper, and I was impressed with how fragile yet how strong the paper could be.  The paper was built up in layers in some areas, (no doubt to circulate air throughout the hive or to make some parts stronger) while other areas were much easier to dissect.  I wondered at the different colors in the paper; different shades of grey, pale yellows, burnt umbers, coming together in thin swirls and waves.  I thought about how much time and dedication came from such a team effort, and what it could teach me in my own life. 
I had thought of several ideas how to use the paper, the best of which was putting it on canvas like a type of organic painting.  I didn’t want to rush into anything though, working with a medium like this would be tricky and there would only be one shot at it.  I felt that in a way I was working with a valuable commodity because there was not much of the paper to work with, which meant there was not a lot of room for error. 
I decided to do some research on the internet for some ideas and some insight into the perfect adhesive for the project.  I found to my surprise only two sites that had anything to do with the medium.  One was a man named John P Finley, who actually used the wasp paper as a canvas for acrylic paintings.  As an artist who dabbles in acrylics, I could appreciate the amazing skill of this man to actually paint on such a delicate canvas.  You can find out more about him here: http://www.johnpfinley.com/Acrylic%20Gallery.html
The other was a woman from Toronto who drives around the city collecting the abandoned nests in November and December.  Then she takes these sometimes enormous nests and cleans them out and then turns them into gorgeous examples of organic art.  You can see how she harvests the nests and take a look at her finished products here: http://www.underatree.org/WNboxes/WNboxes01.html
I decided the boxes were the best idea for me to try.  I liked the idea of the multifunctional use of the finished product, and I felt as though the paper would be displayed in an appreciative way.  I went to the local craft store and hunted around for some unique boxes that would be a good choice for a first try.  I found some easy looking ovals made out of thin pine to try my luck with.  I chose two with loose fitting tops because I didn’t know how tight they would be after the paper was put on and the lacquer administered. 
Next on my list was finding the right adhesive.  I tried an idea that one of my artist friends mentioned; lacquer as an adhesive would be like killing two birds with one stone.  But unfortunately it didn’t have the effect I was looking for.  Another artist mentioned superglue; I thought this would be a great idea for someone without my accident prone nature, in the end I found that regular everyday white school glue did the trick. 
When I actually began working on the project I found that it was slow going.  It was a matter of finding the right pieces to cover the pine, but it was also that some of the paper would break and tear unless handled with the utmost delicate manner.  A bit like working with gold leaf, although not that fragile.  I would give the area I wanted to cover a good amount of glue to make sure of the contact, then find the desired piece and press it to the wood to seal.  I tried various ways to do this, with a paint brush, q-tips, the end of a paint brush, but nothing worked as well as my fingers.  Most times the glue would rise up through seams in the paper and cover my fingertips making them sticky and the result was bringing up parts of the paper I had just laid down.  Many trips to the sink were required to wash off the excess glue.  I thought that if I used a spray adhesive this might work in my favor as it would not rise through the layers.  The drying time of the glue was a couple hours.
Once the layers covered all of the wood, it was just a matter of trimming off the excess around the bottom of the lid and the top of the lower part of the box, which was easily accomplished with scissors.

I was nervous about where the box attached itself to the lid though, would there be enough space in between them? Or would some of the adhered paper rip off?  Would lacquer be a solution if the paper did tear?  Would it be slippery enough to allow easy removal of the lid?  Or would I have to go back and tear off some of the paper and sand down the glue?  It’s all trial and error and I’m having fun with the experiments. 
The next step was covering the whole project with varnish.  I use Liquitex Satin Varnish on my acrylic paintings to protect them once they are finished, so it seemed a logical step to use it on this as well. It was an easy application with a paintbrush and I made sure there were no bubbles to ruin the sheer effect.  I was worried the first time I used this product because of the milky bluish color while applying, but to my relief I found that it dries clear.  Another benefit to this varnish is that it won’t yellow over time and you don’t have to be outside, or in a ventilated area to use it.  It does take a while to dry though, for best results you should let it cure for three days.  The clean-up is simple too; a little dish soap and some hot water is all you need.  When the varnish dried I was happy with the results and gave the finished box another coat. 
I found out that a little sanding would be needed on the inside of the rim of the box to ease the tight seal of the lid, and next time I would paint the inside of  the box first.  But these are all things that you learn as you go, and are part of the overall process. 
I am going to try a canvas next and see what that is like, and I thought that making a cover for a book of handmade paper would be great too.  Next time you see a hive in the fall, or on ebay or Craigslist, perhaps you might like to give this art project a try too. 


  1. Hi Tracie mj here - All I can say is Wow - Amazing Beautiful - The organic patterns in the wasp paper - you could sit at look at for ages.
    This is a fantastic achievement that you must feel so proud of - Great how you have kept a diary of the progression - well done you and those wasps.

  2. I'll never see wasp nests the same way again :)