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Carlton man uses insect art, education to 'inspire'

John Mann gently spreads a butterfly's wings to demonstrate what it will look like when eventually mounted and framed. (Jamey Malcomb/Pine Journal)1 / 4
John Mann does some of the delicate work needed to display and mount a butterfly in his workshop in Carlton. (Jamey Malcomb/Pine Journal)2 / 4
John Mann shows off some of the butterflies, moths and other insects he prepares and sells as part of his business, "Insecta Etcetera." Mann purchases specimens from around the world, rehydrates them, then mounts the animals. (Jamey Malcomb/Pine Journal)3 / 4
John Mann shows off some of the butterflies he is rehydrating to eventually mount, frame and sell. (Jamey Malcomb/Pine Journal) 4 / 4

John Mann has been fascinated by butterflies and insects almost as long as he can remember.

"I started chasing butterflies when I was about 4 years old," he said. "I've always been really interested in insects, birds, wildflowers and just the outdoors in general."

Mann, who moved to Carlton in October 2016, said insects have always been among his hobbies, but except for his college and graduate work in biology and entomology, it had remained just that — a hobby — until he and his wife, Deb, moved to Carlton. They purchased their home from their kids, who were teachers in Esko at the time. The couple were doing some renovations, so the house met their needs. One of the contractors asked Mann about his hobby.

"I have a huge collection here of thousands of butterflies," Mann said. "I had them in frames around the house and over the years I had given some away. A little over a year ago, there were some contractors here and they saw the frames on the wall and they asked if I would sell some frames to them for Christmas presents."

Mann had planned on doing a lot of fishing in retirement, but he wasn't finding it quite as fulfilling as he hoped.

"I retired and I thought I could fish every day, but you can't fish every day — that gets old," he said. "I had all of this knowledge about insects and invertebrates and I had a friend who was selling his collection at art shows and he told me how he did and I dove right in."

Calling his new venture "Insecta Etcetera," Mann, with Deb managing the bookkeeping, began preparing insects he had collected and started purchasing more from countries like Madagascar, Indonesia and Malaysia. He built a small workshop in his garage to prepare the insects for sale.

The specimens arrive dried and folded in small envelopes. Mann first rehydrates them and uses specialty pins to spread the wings and appendages back into their original shape. The work is delicate and time consuming, but necessary with the extraordinarily fragile, dry butterflies.

"Some are easier to work with; some are hard to work with," he said. "Butterflies are really delicate and the colors on a butterfly's wings are just overlapping scales, so you have to be really careful not to damage them."

Mann has also diversified his collection and works on other insects, like scorpions, rare grasshoppers and moths. Some he believed would never be of interest to the general public, like tailless whip scorpions. The venomless scorpions use their front two appendages to feel their way along dark caves to trap prey in Indonesia.

"It's something I wouldn't think I would ever sell, but some people like them," Mann said. "It's pretty grotesque."

Almost all of the insects are farm-raised. The farms he works with become sustainable businesses in developing countries around the world.

"I have friends who have helped start these butterfly farms," he said. "They help fund the opening of the farms. They release one-third of the butterflies back into the jungle and sell the other two-thirds. You get perfect specimens for people to buy as collectors or to sell to museums as specimens."

The business model, Mann said, encourages local populations to protect natural habitats instead of promoting deforestation or destruction of those habitats in favor of planting mass crops.

Over the summer, Mann began appearing at art shows in Carlton, Duluth, Ely and as far away as Wayzata, Minn. Last fall, Mann purchased a camper so he and his wife can take longer trips and do more shows in the coming year. At the shows, Mann found himself becoming something he never expected: a teacher.

"Going to the art shows and talking to people all day is great," Mann said. "I end up being a biology teacher, answering questions from kids and adults. I end up with a lot of fingerprints on the cases' glass at the end of the day."

Not that he minds a little extra work.

"If I can inspire any child to get more interested in nature, that is an accomplishment," he said. "From awareness comes curiosity and hopefully a greater appreciation and desire to preserve our environment."

For more information on Mann's artwork or sustainable business practices, visit insectaetcetera.com.

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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