Jason Penfold, artist and founder of Violet Eyes Entomology, grew up surrounded by nature in regional New South Wales. “I was the kid who was always in the dirt, garden and nature,” he tells Broadsheet. He came to love it through exploration and the people around him, especially his grandmother. “She was really smart when it came to geology and the natural world.”
It’s fitting then, that Penfold’s art practice focuses on nature, and recreating its stillness. The self-taught ceramicist, sculptor and entomology artist creates intricate works using natural specimens like butterflies and moths. “As an adult, you cycle back to those things that make you feel really good. And being in the natural world and working with natural history with my art always felt good.”
Since 2015, this passion has seen Penfold spend countless hours learning to handle, pin, pose and preserve Lepidoptera and other specimens. The fine motor skills he’s honed across ceramics, sculpture and taxidermy have come in handy, too. “Most of what I know has been me on the kitchen floor of my apartment, teaching myself to pin butterflies,” he says. “I made really ugly things for a couple of years.”
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While it’s involved plenty of trial and error, learning beyond the ivory tower has also enabled flexibility. Traditional specimen presentation might call to mind vivid illustrations of butterflies and beetles, or butterflies in a dusty shadow box at the back of an antiques store. But Penfold’s works test the boundaries of entomology art by using other natural elements – such as pearls, crystals, brass, clay and stones like agate.
In one piece, a kaleidoscope of butterflies form a circle around a mother-of-pearl fragment, posed as if bowing in worship. In another, two comet moths face each other while propped onto a plate of selenite, their long tails cascading over the crystal. While most entomological representation focuses on the study of specimens, these vignettes go one step further to tell a story, inviting stillness and reflection. “What I do is like a visual meditation,” Penfold says.
An average day in his dedicated Richmond studio space in inner-city Melbourne might be spent working on commissioned art pieces or an upcoming collection, or running entomology workshops. For each piece, Penfold sources butterflies and moths from farms around the world, excluding species that are endangered. “The ones I work with have lived a life. They’re not A1 specimens – you can tell by their wings and the scratches on their bodies,” he says. “I pin them and put them in a frame or an artwork so they’re safe forevermore.”
For those curious about the practice, Penfold’s workshops teach you to handle, pin and display different specimens – from butterflies to beetles to scorpions. There’s beginner’s entomology, Victorian dome-making and, his personal favourite, the spiders and scorpions workshop. “I love that class because it’s more sculpture-based and leans into the world of taxidermy.”
In the daylong workshop, participants turn these formidable arachnids into pieces of art that they might hang on their own walls. It includes using a 3D silicon injection technique to give specimens a lifelike quality. And Penfold’s own pet – a Flinders Ranges scorpion named Seymour – is there to be studied along the way. Not your average muse.
Penfold acknowledges that his work is niche. But while it’s not everyone’s cup of venom, Violet Eyes has grown a devoted following over the years. One of its more popular pieces, for example, is a vase-like ceramic urn that has smooth, rounded edges – and will actually look good on your mantelpiece, whether used as a vase or funerary object. “People love it because it’s not your classic urn. It’s got a whole concept behind it.”
Many of Penfold’s pieces tackle complex topics, dancing on the precipice between life and death. He combines materials and techniques to create curious artworks that will stand out in any home. And the same might be expected from his next collection, which Penfold says will explore the theme of fire. It’s inspired by his current favourite butterfly, the Acontius firewing, which is black with a fiery band of orange across its wings. “People can expect something beautiful, even if the subject matter is heavy.”
Violet Eyes Entomology’s artworks and workshops are available online. View by appointment at Penfold’s Richmond studio space.
This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.
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