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South Florida Artist Creates Infections You Might Actually Want To Catch

These bugs created by Beca Gilling are meant to spread things like courage and luck.
These bugs created by Beca Gilling are meant to spread things like courage and luck.

There is a room in artistBecaGilling’s Miami house that looks a little like it should belong to a mad scientist: Candy-colored, amoeba-shaped critters smile out from specimen jars. There’s a row of tools you wouldn’t be surprised to find in a dentist’s office.

“I work standing up at this aluminum, very lab-like, cook-like table, and this is where I create most of my little creatures,” says Gilling, who has a background as a ceramic artist.

Gilling is the artist behind “I Bug You.” It’s a collection of whimsical toy pathogens designed to spread things like courage and luck. The toy manufacturer Uncle Milton—the same one who makes those big green ant farms—has picked up Gilling’s designs and turned them into key chains and plush toys for the holiday season.

Gilling sat down with Health News Florida to talk about how her own illness and interest in science inspired her infectious sculptures.

WLRN: Why did you start creating these little bugs?

BECA GILLING: About five years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I'm very proud to say that I'm fine now. But at the time I was very… there were moments that I wasn't very happy.

Artist Beca Gilling is creator of "I Bug You."
Credit Sammy Mack / WLRN
Artist Beca Gilling is creator of "I Bug You."

And one day I said, listen I'm just going to do something to cheer me up, rather than make what I thought at the time were very profound ceramic pieces.

I sat on the floor and I started making these little creatures and the minute I finished the first one, I literally giggled out loud.

I remember very clearly thinking, wishing, that I was infected with something good rather than bad. So I started making up these symptoms. It’s like, if I needed courage, what kind of symptoms would I need? But one of the symptoms of the courage bug is enlarged guts, gall, nerves, neck and heart—mental manifestation not to be confused with the actual body parts.

So I had fun coming up with these funny, quirky little creatures and symptoms to go with it.

What was the first bug that you made?

It was the courage bug and it has courageous symptoms. And that's the really cool thing about the bugs. They're like super-cute, big-toothed, candy colored.

I was enjoying it, and I was having fun doing it, and I wasn't thinking about cancer. I was thinking about making these little things and giving them to people.

And these little bugs look an awful lot like real pathogens and real bacteria—only they have these giant smiley faces on them. What kind of reference material were you working with?

I did so much research. It was absolutely ridiculous the amount of research that I looked into viruses. Because these are supposed to be bugs like viruses.

And 20 years ago I was pre-med and that informed a lot—informs still a lot—of my work from my ceramics. What I thought was artistic professional work, which is all about hybridization of species, to the little creatures that cheered me up.

Although I went to fine art school and I got my MFA in visual arts and so forth, that background still creeps in.

So if you started out pre-med, how did you end up on the path of becoming an artist?

I was pre-vet. It's more or less the same path until you get to grad school. But I'd spent a lot of time in the ceramics studio. I took all my electives in ceramics.

And I had a very heart-to-heart conversation with my mom, saying, you know it's going to take 15 years before I start working as a vet and so forth. And I love art. What do I do? What do I do? And she said why don't you go into a vet's office? And I volunteered at a vet’s office for a week. And then I realized that I couldn't do what they did. So I decided visual arts.

Do you have a favorite bug? 

It depends. It really depends. That's why so many came out, because one minute I need courage. The other one’s like, oh my god I really need luck.

It really depends on my mood, and hence so many bags.

I used to sell in a gallery in Tampa and [it] absolutely made my day when I saw a seven-year-old reading the words 'symptoms, transmission and prognosis.' And then she looked up to her mom: 'Mom, what's transmission?'

So that absolutely makes my day when these little things happen.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Sammy Mack
Public radio. Public health. Public policy.