Brigette Zacharczenko is passionate about all things creepy-crawly.
The 19-year-old Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake high school graduate turned college zoology major, in fact, can’t ever recall a time when the outdoors and its myriad inhabitants were not the focal point of her days and nights.
“As a kid, my dad taught me how to look for animals, and my insect identification books rarely left my side,” she said, noting that if she had to choose a favorite bug it would be a tie between the praying mantis and ambush bug, as they are both stealthy, well-camouflaged predators with strong front claws.
“Whenever one of us found something, it was my job to identify it, learn about it and perhaps keep it for a day. Over the years, the more my knowledge grew the more I was determined to learn,” she said, noting her father was always on the prowl for small things such as grasshoppers.
Art imitating life
These days, this veteran “buggy” does plenty more than hunt down and spend time hanging out with the slithery and slimy.
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She has gained international attention and has become a favorite among area insect enthusiasts for her ability to replicate a variety of critters by using crafting techniques her grandmother taught her as a child, including sewing, cross-stitch, knitting and crochet.
Her wares, most of which are created in her parent’s Ballston Lake home, are for sale at Etsy.com, a Web site for handmade goods, while others are sold at local fairs and events.
Schenectady resident Christine Vermilyea was tickled when she came face to face with Zacharczenko and her diverse works at Albany’s LarkFest after getting a brief glimpse of her goods online several weeks ago.
Vermilyea’s 5-year-old daughter, Audrey, quickly fell in love with a foot-long platypus sporting a brown, corduroy body and gray, fleece bill.
“She absolutely loves it,” Vermilyea said of her daughter, who has named her stuffed toy Elise. “It has already been to St. Anthony’s Festa and vacation Bible school, and I am sure it will be in her backpack on the first day of school.”
Curtis Lubbe of California owns several of Zacharczenko’s entomological masterpieces, and said he is hooked on her works since they so perfectly marry the realms of art and science.
Zacharczenko’s merchandise may be soft and cuddly with a combination of fleece and polyfil giving most all of the items an irresistible look and feel, but each item is about form just as much as function. Most of her finished pieces are meant primarily for decorative use.
Take, for example, Danny the dung beetle. This hand-sewn black beetle, Zacharczenko writes on her Web site, “is ready and willing to tackle the biggest piles of poop around. He’s even got [a ball of dung] all his own.”
Then there is Morticia the gigantic mosquito, complete with lifelike “hairs” of black thread on the antennae and thorax. And it is difficult to resist Mindy, Marsha and Melissa — a trio of pink mealybugs.
All of the soft sculptures are unique, and according to Zacharczenko, are best-suited for an entomologist, a strange child or as a teaching prop in a classroom.
To add some diversity to her collection, Zacharczenko does dabble in making some insect art, such as a bright blue and orange bombardier beetle pin. This particular beetle, she says, is famous for shooting boiling acid from its abdomen. Then there are fuzzy dragonfly necklaces and insect-pattern zippered pouches.
One of the reasons this committed teen feels so compelled to create replicas of these often overlooked and underappreciated insects, in addition to numerous other creatures, is because it is so difficult to find accurate representations of her favorite life forms anywhere else.
“Bugs are often made to look too cutesy, or with the wrong number of legs or body segments. I strive to make my creatures as accurate as possible within the limits of working with fabric. I mostly use fleece, as it’s soft and inviting, making the bugs seem not quite as scary. Often the bugs I make are the only ones like them in the world, as far as I can tell. I don’t usually repeat any of my designs unless it’s requested as a custom order,” she said.
This insect artist added that she gains inspiration for her works from a variety of sources.
“During the school year, it’s often from my entomology-related classes. My college roommate is also very interested in insects, and so she sometimes gives me suggestions or we brainstorm together. If I ever feel stumped, I flip through one of my insect guides and something will jump off the page at me,” she said. “I then spend time sketching out drawings, trying to envision how the creature would translate from the picture to fabric. I make everything up as I go along, I have no patterns.”
She also spends time outside each day.
“I’m always on the lookout for interesting creatures, and instinctually look under any rock, log or board I may come across. Also, I’ll often take a small sewing or drawing project outside with me to work on while I enjoy the view and the bird calls.”
Zacharczenko said she loves that a good portion of her business is based upon custom orders, as many people place requests for a favorite bug or other organism they cannot find anywhere else.
“I’ve had orders for various underwater invertebrates such as an amphipod, nudibranch and some of the prehistoric burgess shale fauna, as well as things like a giant water bug, housefly, slug and a tick. Some orders have come from countries such as Israel, New Zealand and Canada,” she said.
Zacharczenko, who goes primarily by her nickname, “Weird Bug Lady,” a monicker affectionately assigned to her years ago, maintains her business year-round. But she does not let it get in the way of her studies. And when it comes to pricing, her items are not cheap, but then again, she pours her heart and soul into each of her crafts.
“I don’t try to compete with mass-produced toys, and people realize that I’m offering a unique service that’s worth the price I charge for my time, effort, creative ability and materials. The money I make often goes right back into buying supplies, but it does help with school expenses,” she said.
As for her future, this ambitious student said her career goals include earning her doctorate and becoming a college professor. She also hopes to keep up with her buggy hobby for as long as possible.
That won’t be a problem judging by her slew of atypical pets.
There are Bijou and Jacques, her two ball pythons, along with several other snake varieties, including a corn snake, Monty, and a Kenyan sand boa named Tiger.
Rounding out her clan is a pair of salamanders, a gecko, one bearded dragon, a tarantula, a giant African millipede and a fluctuating assortment of turtles, tree frogs and wolf spiders.
And hard as it may be to believe, Zacharczenko insists she has yet to meet a bug she can’t appreciate.
“I’m not a fan of being bitten by things like mosquitoes and horseflies, but I can see their beauty and usefulness. I’m willing to give every bug a chance,” she said.