Last summer Peggy Macnamara was walking down an Evanston sidewalk when she spotted a fiery searcher. A beetle common in Illinois, the fiery searcher is easy to identify because its iridescent shell changes color as it moves. Before she knew it, she’d taken off her hiking boot and coaxed the insect into it. Then she fished a used cup out of a nearby trash can and transferred her catch into that. “People were looking at me, but I got him home,” she says. “Now I’ve got him in my collection.”

Macnamara isn’t an entomologist–she teaches scientific illustration at the School of the Art Institute. But she spends a lot of her time on the third floor of the Field Museum, in the insect division of the department of zoology. “That’s where everything good is,” she says. There, pinned to cards and carefully filed away in drawers, are more than 20 million specimens of bugs from all over the world.

A self-described classical draftsman (“even though here they think of me as some wild artist”), Macnamara has been painting subjects at the museum for 25 years. “The first ten years it was pots, architecture, figures, the structure of the building–just pure classic stuff,” she says. When the museum closed its Asian hall in 1992, she moved on from artifacts to animals. About five years ago she started doing bugs. “It’s still figure drafting,” she says. “But I have ten times the raw material to work with.”

Macnamara puts her subjects under a microscope while she sketches them in pencil at around ten times their actual size. Then she adds layers of watercolor. When she first started grouping the bugs on a page, the combinations were pretty random. “I was pulling everything out of drawers,” she says–desert-dwelling red velvet ants, African crickets–“and then [collections assistant Jim Louderman] started pulling Illinois drawers for me.” She was astonished by the bright colors and exotic shapes: “You’d think they were from Brazil. And we think we live in a dull part of the world.”

Now, with help from the Field’s entomologists, she groups her bugs more scientifically. Sometimes she pesters staff members to pull their favorite specimens or asks them for feedback. “When the legs dry, they get funny,” she says. “I have to have someone telling me if the legs are right.”

About a year ago she started working with the University of Chicago Press on a book of paintings of Illinois insects. “It’ll be a layman’s guide,” she says, “with very little text. Just the Latin name, the common name, and maybe the habitat.” There’s no publication date set, but Macnamara plans to include everything she can paint that’s native to Illinois: dragonflies, praying mantises, stick bugs, flies, butterflies, moths. “There are more beetles [in Illinois] than anything else,” says Macnamara; they include not just fiery searchers but june bugs, tiger beetles, and black patent leather beetles.

Not long ago she was sketching a spotted beetle when, through the lens of the microscope, she saw its legs start to move. It was a recent acquisition, and even after two days in alcohol, it wasn’t quite dead. She told Louderman, who “just took him and put him back [in the alcohol].” Now, she says, “I regret that. We should have had some ceremony where we took him and let him go by the lake. He beat the Field Museum collecting techniques!”

A selection of Macnamara’s insect paintings, entitled “Secret Observations: Watercolors of the Collections From the Field Museum,” is on display through March 16 at Aron Packer Gallery, 118 N. Peoria; call 312-226-8984 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph; illustrations/Peggy Macnamara.