Child Artists' Tools Include Mixed Media, Maggots Letting kids dip maggots into paint may sound merely disgusting — but there's an entomologist from U.C.-Davis who calls it art. Rebecca O'Flaherty is using the maggot art to teach respect for a larva most people associate with road-kill. Under her guidance, students dip maggots in water-based paint.
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Child Artists' Tools Include Mixed Media, Maggots

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Child Artists' Tools Include Mixed Media, Maggots

Child Artists' Tools Include Mixed Media, Maggots

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Naturally, most people have an aversion to maggots. Well, here's a story about a woman who loves them. Rebecca O'Flaherty, an entomologist from U.C.-Davis loves them, and she wants kids to love them, too. So she invented something called maggot art.

From member station KXJC in Sacramento, Steve Milne explains.

(Soundbite of children talking)

STEVE MILNE: Rebecca O'Flaherty - a tall, redheaded woman wearing dark-rimmed eyeglasses - is handing out maggots to a classroom of fifth graders at Woodridge Elementary School in North Sacramento.

Ms. REBECCA O'FLAHERTY (Entomologist, U.C.-Davis): So you guys ready for your maggots?

Unidentified Children: Yes! All right!

Ms. O'FLAHERTY: Be ready. When I put them on your page, he's going to start moving around.

MILNE: Students are sitting at their desks with pieces of white paper and mini paper cups containing red, blue and yellow water-based paint and a pair of tweezers.

Ms. O'FLAHERTY: So I'm going to give you a maggot, and I'm going to put him on your piece of paper. And then it's going to be your job to pick him up and put him in the paint. And so once he's got a little bit of paint on him, then you'll put him back on the page and he'll start crawling around.

MILNE: These are clean maggots, or baby flies, raised in a lab by O'Flaherty. One of the students, Jason Baram(ph), has just dipped his maggot into a cup of blue paint, and he's watching the larva move across the page. He says he used to be grossed out at the sight of maggots.

Mr. JASON BARAM (Fifth-Grade Student, Woodridge Elementary School): Because when I saw them in the garbage can, they were just eating bones and stuff like that. But now, I'm not really grossed out. It's cool how they did it. They just go side to side in all different directions.

MILNE: Renee Viera(ph) isn't so eager to start dipping her maggot.

Ms. RENEE VIERA (Fifth-Grade Student, Woodridge Elementary School): This is nasty-looking. It's really squirming around a lot.

MILNE: Rebecca O'Flaherty is standing in the middle of the classroom, watching the kids with a smile on her face.

Ms. O'FLAHERTY: I don't see that anybody is having any trouble touching the maggots. There is a little bit of hesitation at first by a few of them, but they seem to all get into it.

MILNE: This is her sixth year of teaching maggot art. As a forensic entomologist, O'Flaherty sees a lot of maggots. When a dead body is discovered at a crime scene, she examines the maggots to determine the time of death. Maggots trail fluid behind when they leave a carcass. That's how O'Flaherty got the idea for maggot art.

Ms. O'FLAHERTY: I guess too many late nights hanging out with my maggots in the lab, and just decided to give paint a try. And so maggot art was born.

MILNE: When you tell people what you do, do they think it's kind of quirky?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. O'FLAHERTY: It's been difficult on the dating scene for sure.

MILNE: She may avoid the subject with prospective dates, but O'Flaherty is quick to talk with kids about her passion for maggots and entomology.

Ms. O'FLAHERTY: They're amazing creatures. For many, many, many years, people have used them in medicine. Physicians early on discovered that maggots were much better at cleaning out wounds than they were with their scalpels. And, in fact, they promote healing, and they kill bacteria, and so they're just really neat little guys.

Unidentified Child: Do they climb up stuff?

Ms. O'FLAHERTY: They do. If you leave them in your paint cups, they'll crawl up the side of it.

MILNE: Some of the kids are asking O'Flaherty if they can take their maggots home. She'll decline that request, but she says it's a good sign she's made an impression.

Ms. O'FLAHERTY: I love taking maggots into the classrooms and getting kids excited about what I do - excited about science. They don't get too many opportunities to do a lot of hands-on science, and this is a really unique combination of science and art.

MILNE: O'Flaherty is working on a how-to book so that teachers can hold maggot art workshops themselves. She's also working on her own maggot art. She hopes to see that displayed at local galleries in the future.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Milne in Sacramento.

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