Little Shop of Colors
A former church in Lisbon Falls is now home to one of the most stunning collections of spiders and butterflies.
- By: Meadow Rue Merrill
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro
If You Go
Maine Art Glass Studio Butterfly & Insect Museum, 51 Main St., Lisbon Falls. 207-353-6777. www.maineartglass.com. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and Wednesday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free. Guided tours can be arranged in advance for a minimum of fifty dollars.
Think of Maine insects, and you’ll probably imagine painful hordes of biting blackflies. A more unusual assortment — and indeed, one of the most unusual assortments in the country — can be found in the renovated choir loft of a former Lisbon Falls church.
That would be the somewhat obscure Butterfly & Insect Museum at Maine Art Glass, which contains some of the world’s most striking and strange bugs artfully arranged in stained-glass boxes. Shimmery South American blue morphos butterflies, speckle-winged giant walking sticks from Papua New Guinea, Peruvian tailless whip scorpions, and Asian atlas moths with wings the length of a child’s arm are just a few of the exotic creatures preserved and displayed by the museum’s founder, Jim Nutting.
“I’ve been collecting since I was five,” says Nutting, who graduated with a biology degree from Bates College and worked as a corporate fund-raiser for Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston for three decades before devoting himself to glass art — and bugs — full time. “My mother used to send me into the field behind our house in Millinocket to catch butterflies. Then, together, we’d mount them.”
Nearly fifty years later, Nutting’s collection includes more insects than he can count. He opened the museum six years ago after moving the glass studio, which he co-owns, into the Gothic-style brick church on Main Street. Soon its Sunday school rooms were crowded with worktables, its sanctuary with glass, paintings, and woodcarvings. The brightly lit loft is lined with more than a hundred jewel-toned cases, each crafted by Nutting to mirror the iridescent colors of the creatures inside. One entire section is dedicated solely to Maine insects, such as leafy green luna moths and black swallowtail butterflies, though these are not among the most colorful in Nutting’s collection.
Some, like the luna moths, he’s collected himself. Others, he’s purchased from tropical butterfly farms, online auctions, or nature catalogs. “I’m always looking for deals,” says Nutting, who confesses his collection has become something of an obsession. “I shop all over the world, and I usually do pretty well.”
Depending on rarity and size, certain butterflies can cost a thousand dollars or more, but the most Nutting has paid was $150 for a South Pacific birdwing. How much he’s spent on the entire collection, even he doesn’t want to guess.
Just down the church’s front entry hall, past a mural of Jesus, one entire room is packed with tubs containing the carcasses of carefully folded moths and butterflies along with rigor mortis-bound beetles, scorpions, and spiders. By Nutting’s estimate it contains more than ten thousand, all carefully interned in crinkly cellophane envelopes. The stench of carbolic acid (used to keep the specimens from molding) causes some visitors to hold their breath, but to Nutting, the contents are intoxicating.
“Probably in my lifetime, I’ll never be able to make use of them all,” Nutting admits.
The color, variety, and sheer spectrum captivates him. Carefully softening, positioning, and occasionally gluing their delicate bodies back together, Nutting attempts to bring these fragile creatures back to life, which is how they look in his displays — as light and luminous as if they’d just landed for a nip of nectar.
“He has an amazing collection,” says Joanna Torow, director of education for the Maine State Museum, which regularly features Nutting as part of its annual Bug Maine-ia exhibit. “Jim brings his skill with stained glass to create the display cases, which are beautiful and colorful, and at the same time, he is a wealth of knowledge about the insect world.”
Torow says Nutting’s unique blend of art and science makes his collection rare. Indeed, it’s surprising to hear someone whose fingertips are scarred from slicing glass and stained black from soldering cite the scientific names of specimens as if all visitors surely know a Pamphobeteus antinous when they see one. (By the way, that would be a bird-eating spider from Peru, which Nutting has positioned with raised fangs on a slab of driftwood.)
“No one does quite what I do,” remarks Nutting, who spends up to a day soldering each display in the gallery’s workshop before filling it. “I had an entomologist who’d been living in Africa pay me one of the biggest compliments. He said, ‘I’ve been all over, and by far you have one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen.’ ”
The only similar exhibit in Maine, according to Vasco Carter, a staff biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife who oversees the licensing and importation of exotic animals, is at York’s Wild Kingdom in York Beach, which displays dozens of live butterflies from around the world.
Both Maine and federal laws restrict the sale and transportation of non-native animals, live or dead, especially those that are rare or endangered. Therefore, Nutting must acquire permits for those in his collection. And, as it turns out, they’re not all dead. Nutting shares his office with scorpions, tarantulas, hissing cockroaches, and African millipedes. These draw the biggest gasps at schools, libraries, and community gatherings where he regularly displays his collection.
He’s so cute!” exclaims eight-year-old Taylor Hooper-White while petting the hard, black shell of a foot-long African millipede trying to climb up her hand during one of Nutting’s presentations at the Freeport Community Library.
Nearby, the children’s librarian makes the rounds with a twig-like mantis nestled under her chin, while Nutting distributes delicate cecropia moth cocoons to the crowd. The room hushes to hear the tightly wound pupae rattle inside. When they hatch, Nutting will feed them on willow and white birch, before releasing them.
He doesn’t track the number of visitors that come to the museum, but he’s glad to finally have the space to show the insects off. Among his many cases, visitors won’t find a single Maine blackfly. Horseflies, however, are another matter.
“If they’re big enough to spread their wings and stick a pin in, I tend to keep them,” he says with relish.