Queen Paper Wasp Encounters

My interactions with insects have become a dynamic influence on my artistic process. Paper wasps love to build their nests on the eaves outside my textile art studio in northern Colorado. Each spring I use the handle of a metal rake to scrape off the nests before they get going. The key is to remove the nest when the queen is out foraging, which is usually in the strongest heat of the day. This means I spend some time watching the queen build. This also means I start developing a bond with her. After all, she did pick my house. To me, that feels like some kind of compliment.

I often wonder how wasps see with their compound eyes, or how it feels to fly or build a nest. I also have guilt about destroying a queen’s efforts and feel regret that she will return from foraging to no home because of my action. Because this distresses me, I usually tell the wasps my plan. I stand under the eaves and speak to the queens out loud.

It’s my concern about the dangers of pesticide use to bees and other insects that causes me to go to all this trouble. And because I can’t help but feel empathy for the pain of such a demise, I have a vehement dislike for insecticides. I do everything in my power to avoid using them. I don’t think of insects as pests and think everything in nature has a proper place in the world.

A queen paper wasp tending her nest with her head penetrating one of the cells.

The Queen I Allowed to Stay

In 2019, I began plucking off nests when the queens were away, but there were fewer that year. One queen in particular was always at her nest when I checked. I made the decision to let her stay and build. I wrestled with this. She intimidated me. I knew the power she held: to create an entire colony of flying buzzing wasps! There could be hundreds by summer’s end.

With this decision in mind, I took some photos of her (including the one above.) I spoke my promise out loud, “Okay, I promise I’ll let you stay” and looked her in the eyes with trepidation. What have I done? It was an exercise in trust. It was based on my sense of respect for nature and a desire to act not in fear but with trust that nature would not harm me.

Infiltration Into My Artistic Process

In the studio, I set out silk for a new textile artwork in the colors of summer: lots of greens with small bits of reds, yellows, and blues. I chose unwashed, crisp green silk for most, and scraps from older works (already cut and re-cut) for the other colors. As is typical of my artistic process, I had no vision of how the composition would evolve. I just knew I wanted to describe the feel of the season.

At first, photos of aerial views came to mind, and then how much pavement there was in those images. I added big strips of silvery gray to the mix. My thoughts kept rolling. Flashes of bees and monarch butterfly migration sparked in my mind. I felt ashamed to be human. I thought about E. O. Wilson and his essay about the “little things that run the world” and my singular impact on the lives of wasps in my own backyard.

Jan R Carson, The Promise (detail), Stitched Silk Illuminated Textile, 36'H x 36"W, 2019

A Multitude of Questions

I kept thinking about the queen paper wasp. What was her experience? I imagined being her in the moments of her return to no home because I had scraped her nest off the rough wood of the eave. I tried to feel how horrifying that must have felt but was only flooded with questions. Did she have a sixth sense anything was wrong? Did alarm bells ring in her mind as she approached? Did she spy her nest on the ground below? Did she panic? Did she grieve? Or did she just move on to start again, dumbly?

I added large strips of beige to the mix—the color of the wasp’s nest. I matched its size to the gray I’d chosen to represent the pavement. Again, I was experiencing events through the queen’s eyes: nest, nest, nest, forage, forage, build, build, build…asphalt! It was heart-wrenching to think this way, but it was all that was coming to mind. I cut and sewed and turned and cut again, tossing and mixing.

But I kept a light hand. Wasp eyes would see as through a prism or kaleidoscope. Nothing in focus, just shapes, large and small. I worked in a similar state of mind, not editing. It came together with little effort. I sliced the silk strips at random—two inches, three inches, six! It felt good to break out of restraints.

The Completed Artwork: The Promise

Jan R Carson, The Promise, Stitched Silk Illuminated Textile, 36'H x 36"W, 2019
©Jan R Carson, “The Promise”, Illuminated Textile, 36″H x 36″W (2019)

When the colorful mix of large and small shapes matched my impression of the queen’s mosaic-like vision, it was complete. The final step was to place the piece on a light box, amplifying the colors and revealing the sewn connections. Without the light (and all the associations of light) the piece would be lifeless.

The experience I had with the queen paper wasp had rewarded me greatly. Ruminating about her had inspired me to render her perspective. My artistic representation seemed true only when any impression of landscape, horizon, or spatial location had disintegrated. I wonder, can you see it now, too?


Jan R Carson's illuminated textile titled The Promise installed in the entry of a home.

This piece is now a part of an artist friend’s collection. She decided she wanted it without knowing the story behind its creation. But she is a bug-lover. It pleases me so much that she owns this illuminated textile. I feel the thoughts I put into the work during its creation somehow spoke to her.

The wasp that I made the promise to never finished her nest. I suspect she got caught in a neighbor’s trap or was killed in some other way. So my fears about the growth of a dangerous colony never materialized.

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How My Artistic Process was Influenced by a Paper Wasp

4 thoughts on “How My Artistic Process was Influenced by a Paper Wasp

  • July 11, 2023 at 6:28 PM

    Beautiful work Jan and a captivating story at the root.

  • July 12, 2023 at 10:06 AM

    Thank you! I appreciate that you took a moment to let me know.

  • July 12, 2023 at 6:06 PM

    Beautiful and engaging textile and story, Jan. I loved reading this and getting a glimpse into your creative world. Sincerely, Kim Lordier

    • July 13, 2023 at 3:52 PM

      Thank you, Kim – I’m glad you found something rewarding in this post!

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