Biology meets art in anthill casting

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Interdisciplinary effort creates sculpture from nature

This spring, Professors Raúl Acero and Qwist Joseph of the Studio Art Department, and Professor Dustin VanOverbeke of the Biology Department—representing two seemingly opposite ends of the liberal arts and sciences at the University of Redlands—found themselves together in the field adjacent to Ann Peppers Hall. Passersby rushing to class paused to stare, confused, at the scene: a jumble of equipment, melting metal, and a group of men wearing bright green safety gear.

The commotion was caused by an endeavor never before attempted on the Redlands campus: the casting of an underground fire ant colony in aluminum. The project was set in motion after VanOverbeke noticed the recent spread of fire ant nests around campus and scouted for the invasive insects near Ann Peppers Hall.

“I wanted to do an interdisciplinary cross between bio and art, because so much of biology is art,” VanOverbeke explains. “I contacted Raúl, and he was gracious enough to build this makeshift furnace and contact Facilities [Management], whose members have been wonderful in helping out.”

Professors Dustin VanOverbeke and Qwist Joseph pour the molten aluminum into an invasive fire ant colony. (Photo by Taylor Matousek '18)

Professors Dustin VanOverbeke and Qwist Joseph pour the molten aluminum into an invasive fire ant colony. (Photo by Taylor Matousek ’18)

Acero was more than willing to help with the project—and not just for art’s sake. “When I was a young guy, my first teaching job was in Puerto Rico,” Acero says. “I grew up in New York City, so I didn’t know anything about nature. I was living on this little farm, and wandered out into the land. I felt, very quickly, a lot of pain in both my feet. I was standing on a fire ant colony! The ants swirled all over my toes and bit me terribly, and I couldn’t get rid of them because they dug in. I ran and hosed them off, but swore vengeance. Today is the day!”

Once the aluminum had melted in the portable furnace, VanOverbeke and Joseph, decked out in safety gear, conducted the first pour. Using tongs, they carefully carried the crucible—now bright orange with the heat—over to the fire ant hill and poured the molten metal inside.

The hill easily swallowed it up with a billow of smoke, and it was evident that a second round of melting and pouring was necessary. The crucible was placed back on the heat, and Acero added another brick of aluminum. Once it melted, VanOverbeke and Joseph carefully poured again, which resulted in a bit of an overflow and a few small flames that were quickly stomped out.

Students gently remove the dirt from the aluminum casting still in the ground. (Photo by Taylor Matousek '18)

Students gently remove the dirt from the aluminum casting still in the ground. (Photo by Taylor Matousek ’18)

After a few minutes, VanOverbeke and his entomology students gently went to work with shovels and trowels, trying not to break off any pieces of the sculpture. Water was added to loosen the earth, and, after a lot of effort, the aluminum creation was finally freed.

VanOverbeke hosed it off, revealing a beautiful rootlike sculpture of underground ant trails.

Acero was pleased with his act of revenge, but his feelings weren’t all that hard. When asked whether all three professors would be named as the artists, he smiles and says, “I think the ants are the artists.”

Watch a video of the process below.

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