Decades-old discovery leads AJ Vanderelli to ‘So… Bugs’

The new WitchLab exhibit, which features creepy, crawling creations from 20 artists working in a variety of mediums, has its roots in a journal kept by the artist/curator’s late mother.
"The Sign Following the White Noise" by Ron Anderson, now on display in "So... Bugs" at WitchLab
"The Sign Following the White Noise" by Ron Anderson, now on display in "So... Bugs" at WitchLabAndy Downing photo

Earlier this year, WitchLab founder Tiffany Boggins and artist/curator AJ Vanderelli began to brainstorm ideas for a new art exhibit to install within the Franklinton occult shop's event space. Around the same time, a chance discovery led the two to consider the various creepy crawlers that populate the world around them.

This finding – a decades-old journal kept by Vanderelli’s mother – included an entry in which the elder vividly detailed her then 3-year-old daughter’s deep fascination with all things insect, writing how the youngster would share both her sandwiches and her sleep quarters with roly polies and various other winged and many-legged creatures. “Her teacher told of an incident where Alicia (AJ), while holding a fly in her left hand, sat at the lunch table eating her bologna sandwich with her right,” she wrote. “One night, unbeknown to us until the next day, she fell asleep with a roly poly … clutched in her chubby fist. She awakened in a tizzy as her bed partner had escaped. Please, Alicia, don’t sleep with bugs in your hands.”

The insect entry is packed with myriad rich and loving details, including Vanderelli’s childhood tendency to recite the various facts she memorized about bugs (“It is a fallacy that earthworms can be cut in half, forming two; they will die”), the sensory nature of her fascination (“Gradually, she’s becoming aware of numerous differences – the softness of a caterpillar, the hardness yet fragileness of a snail shell”) and even the questions not yet asked but anticipated. “As of yet, Alicia has not inquired as to … the sexual relations or preferences of snails,” her mom wrote. “However, we will be prepared.”

In the weeks following the discovery, both Vanderelli and Boggins said they became increasingly aware of the insects with which we share our spaces. This realization was accompanied by a reawakened sense of childhood playfulness present throughout “So… Bugs,” which kicks off at 7 p.m. today (Friday, May 17) at the WitchLab event space, featuring sounds courtesy Chris Weldon and readings from Vanderelli, Jethro Jam and Dan Dougan.

“I think I’ve just been paying more attention to nature, and just this whole way of being,” said Boggins. “It’s also nice because it’s springtime, and we're starting to hear the [bugs] again. And then I just keep thinking about baby AJ and her lack of fear of bugs – and that’s the amazing thing. … A lot of kids are influenced by their parents, where the parent will be like, ‘Ah, kill it!’ And obviously hers weren’t like that.”

For Vanderelli, the return to those more carefree childhood days impacted her in multiple ways, not only fueling a sense of youthful imagination – in discussing roly polies, or pill bugs, she talked about how their movements would sound to a person with supersonic hearing, envisioning their bodies clanging and clattering with the force of medieval armor – but also serving as a reminder of the times before her parents' divorce and the familial disconnect that developed in its wake.

This rediscovered playfulness bleeds into one of Vanderelli’s assemblages, entitled “My Arms Are Made for Holding, Not Swatting” and featuring a Godzilla figurine outfitted with tiny arms borrowed from a toy frog and surrounded by gold-painted bees. “The bees are there, and he can’t do anything about it with his short arms,” Vanderelli said, and laughed.

All of the artists on display in “So… Bugs” are part of the WitchLab “brood” – a collection of employees, former employees and store-adjacent folks who have supported the space and helped it to grow into a thriving community. Among these are a number of artists familiar to the late Vanderelli Room, a beloved Franklinton gallery that closed at the end of 2023, including Henry Hess and Marcus Blackwell. These contributions sit alongside cigar box dioramas from Boggins, trippy creations by fiber artist (and WitchLab employee) Viv Locker and an eye-catching painting courtesy painter and former educator Ron Anderson, which is titled “The Sign Following the White Noise” and depicts a massive, beetle-like creature walking astride a stoic female figure.

The show is the latest in what Vanderelli described as an ongoing collaboration with WitchLab, with Boggins having invited the former gallerist to continue to curate the space in the months to come. (A carnival-themed show is currently in the works for June.) Vanderelli described her new role as both familiar but also somewhat alien, speaking to the importance of learning to honor and operate within the world that Boggins and Co. have built, and which Vanderelli hopes to find imaginative ways to highlight.

“With this exhibit, I think it helped to pull in Tiffany and her brood. And I’m a part of that tree, but these are the people really nurturing this space,” said Vanderelli, who in recent months has spent more time with the community orbiting the shop in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of what makes it tick. “And I think all of that will help me be a better curator for this space.”

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