The Bug Lady - Jessa Huebing Reitinger

Published: 30 April, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 211, May, 2012

Jessa Huebing-Reitinger was born in Wisconsin in 1971. At the age of nine, she moved to Florida and began painting using soft pastels. Two years later and she had sold her first commission and become a professional artist. Not bad going for a 12-year-old!

Ten years later and Jessa had graduated from Kansas City Art Institute with a B.F.A. degree in Painting, and five years after that, she had opened her own fine art studio in Kansas City, dubbed the Custom Canvas. A few years later and Jessa had completed large commissioned works for Fortune 500 companies, such as John Deere and General Electric. In 2003, Project InSECT art and performances were founded and Jessa began painting the world’s largest scientific illustrations on canvas before a live audience daily. Within five years, the Project InSECT exhibition and live performances had toured 17 museums, zoos and botanic gardens within the USA.
But if you think this is a career history that most people would be happy to achieve in a lifetime, in 2010 Jessa decided that it was time and another element to her CV and began a tattoo apprenticeship. Outstanding technical and creative abilities aside, how does someone manage to pack in so many achievements into so little time? Surely there is something more than Jessa’s obvious talent that is pushing her onwards and upwards. But strangely enough, it doesn’t start with a love of art, in fact, quite the opposite.

“I loathed painting for the first 20 years of my life and didn’t find my love for it until senior year at the Kansas City Art Institute. I am as stubborn as a mule, as the saying goes, and have always been one to swim upstream. Before graduating art school, I was hell bent on representing myself, and not go through regular means to promote my work, via art publishers, galleries, or prestigious art competitions. This has made life difficult at times and I’ve had to reinvent myself as an artist many times over. However, because of this, I pushed myself in exciting new mediums, subjects and ways in which the art is created which exceeds the boring repetition I would have been stuck in otherwise. The most valuable thing I’ve learned in my creative life is there are far more opportunities and perspectives ‘outside the box’ than there are within it.”

Maybe this is a good lesson for all of us, to kick out against the established methods and mediums of getting our work out there. We seem to have been brainwashed that the only way to succeed is to ‘play the game’ and get with a big gallery or a big publishing house. So to see Jessa successfully go against the grain is not only a pleasure in itself, but also shows what can be achieve with a little rethinking and dogged determination.

Jessa is also quick to point out that her husband, James, has been instrumental in helping her achieve her dreams. Not only was it his idea to paint insects, he helped Jessa come up with the idea of Project InSECT and became her business partner.

“James and I have been together for over ten years. He has changed my life in so many ways; on the surface he is my muse and has spoiled me rotten. Behind the scenes, he is my source for new ideas and catalyst for the last ten years of my creative endeavours. He challenges me daily to be a better artist and human being, and I couldn’t have asked for a better partner and best friend.

“We dreamt up Project InSECT sitting on an old beat up sofa in my basement studio. Then we went out and did it together. Early on in the beginning, we had no funding, grants, or extra money to get this thing off the ground, so we sold everything we owned and for a short time we were homeless, living out of our car. We finally secured a 20-year-old RV to live in and transport the exhibition all around the country.

“I traded a small original painting for the RV, and yes, we lived in that RV for six years, but we miss it very much now.”

For the first two years of Project InSECT, James did thousands of hand-painted bug tattoos on children to help put food on the table and pay the bills. This all seems a lot of good old fashioned head-to-the-grindstone work, so it begs the question, why bugs?

“I am a nature and science junkie to the core. My art has always been about nature in some way, shape, or form. I am inspired deeply by the uniqueness of each leaf, insect, or yes, even a rock. If you take the time to look close enough and observe any subject, person, or work of art, the individual characteristics begin to show themselves. Observation is a science in and of itself; it is the base measurement for science as a whole. So in essence, all the elements of life that inspire me personally are observed and mirrored in my art and reflect outward to inspire others to learn something new about themselves.

“The science part comes in when Project InSECT took on a life of its own. Days off were spent bug hunting in the woods and working days filled with looking through a microscope to paint the large insect portraits. It gave me a child-like sense of adventure and discovery everyday, which most would give their right arm for to have in their professional careers.

“I would describe Project InSECT as an experimentation of confronting others prejudices and fears by subject matter and challenging the status quo of the fine art industry, by how the work is created in an educational public format. Most of the time, the large-scale paintings were created live on stage in front of thousands of people. For me, it was more than exhilarating; it was like winning the lottery everyday! And for the public, the majority of them felt like they discovered a new universe for the first time, looking through a magnificent telescope to see the stars as they never had before.”

And don’t think for one second that Jessa’s art has just been… well, art. In 2005, Project InSECT helped a small beetle in Nebraska attain Federal Endangered Status. On top of these small victories, none of the Project InSECT paintings that have been created as a live performance were ever sold. They have all remained together as a collection for exhibitions, though a couple of them were gifted to the venues that hosted Jessa’s exhibition and performances. But for all this success, Jessa states: “Despite being interviewed on numerous occasions, no American art critic has ever published a critique or review of my paintings, my process, or the exhibition.”

It doesn’t seem logical or fair and one has to wonder if this is because Jessa is a tattooist as well. Is the ‘art world’ still viewing tattooing as a fashion rather than an artform in itself? If Jessa had stuck solely with painting, would she have been shown the recognition she deserved? Either way, it hasn’t affected her drive and determination. It is just another challenge for her to overcome, and another arena to find more like-minded artists.

“Once again, James helped me with this new endeavour. He suggested I learn to tattoo and also helped me find my mentor, ‘Johnny Jinx’, who turned out to be the best mentor I could have ever had.

“Transitioning to the art of tattooing was an exciting new challenge and yet another re-invention. Like any new journey, it has been one of great challenge and great reward. I have discovered more amazing, skilled, and productive artists in the tattoo industry than in my many years in the fine art industry. I am fortunate and excited to be here at this particular time when the tattoo industry is quickening towards the fine arts in combination with the skin medium. I believe that tattooing has already had a huge impact on my painting, the way in which I view the process and flow of a work as on my painting, had a huge impact on my tattooing in the first year. I prefer to do large custom work, unless it is a realistic insect, arachnid, or arthropod… then I don’t care how small it is.”

And that is this amazing woman in a nutshell… or in Jessa’s case, an exoskeleton. Do things your way, don’t be scared to take a risk and most of all, never give up on a dream, even if it means living in an oversized car for six years. Nothing worth having is ever an easy journey.

“I not only dream big, but LOVE big… the bigger the better I say. It’s all in the details. The larger it is, the more details I can express. One day, in the near future, my eyes will give out on me and then my work will naturally get looser and more playful, because I’ll be blind as a bat. But until then, I’m determined to make the most perceptual impact possible and inspire other artists to go ‘big’ as well.”


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: Brooke Berlyn