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There’s A Fly In My Art, Blue Fugates Of Kentucky

by Stephen K. Ritter
September 2, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 35


Flies swarm on a canvas in an enclosure.
Credit: John Knuth
Insect art: Flies hard at work on a painting.

Artist John Knuth buys maggots wholesale on the Internet. He then co-opts the digestive system of thousands of flies spawned from his purchases to spatter abstract images on canvas. The paintings, which have been on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, are colorfully alluring if you don’t think about how they are made.

Credit: Andy Featherston/MOCA
Abstract: Paintings created by buzzing flies, by artist John Knuth, on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Four paintings hang in a gallery.
Credit: Andy Featherston/MOCA
Abstract: Paintings created by buzzing flies, by artist John Knuth, on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Knuth was initially interested in how flies spread disease, but he wasn’t sure how it worked. As he learned more, he realized he could use flyspeck, the bits of material flies spew out while eating, as a medium. In essence, Knuth uses the flies as a collective dot-matrix redistribution system, forcing them to create a “metaphor for the city, specifically the sprawl of Los Angeles.”

For his first few paintings, Knuth fed the insects hamburger, but the flyspeck came out in monochromatic brown. After experimenting, Knuth found that he could customize a Kafkaesque color palette by mixing up a concoction of water, sugar, and watercolor paint that the flies lap up and regurgitate.

Once the maggots begin to hatch into flies, he puts them in a screened-in box that holds the canvas. Each painting uses a few generations of flies and takes a couple of months to complete. The artist does little to guide the flies, but he is giving some thought to manipulating the compositions by using masks or stencils. He says it’s a crazy feeling to have the wind generated by thousands of fly wings beating on your hand when you feed them.

Earlier this year, Newscripts reported that the chemistry behind “blue-man syndrome” had finally been explained (C&EN, Feb. 4, page 40). Recall that this is a condition, called argyria, in which a sufferer’s skin turns a distressing blue color from chronic exposure to silver. Most cases occur in people who have consumed copious amounts of colloidal silver as a cure-all metallotonic. Researchers have posited that silver ions form blue-tinted nanoparticles in the skin when zapped by sunlight.

Credit: Newscom
Colorized: A blue Fugate descendent and family.
Reportedly, Ben Stacy and family, descendent of the “blue Fugates” of Kentucky who have an enzyme deficiency that gives them blue skin.
Credit: Newscom
Colorized: A blue Fugate descendent and family.

Intrepid reader David C. Kennedy of Palm Springs, Calif., wrote in to point out that Newscripts omitted mentioning the blue people of Troublesome Creek. This extended blue-skinned family, descendants of one Martin Fugate, lived for generations in an isolated environ in eastern Kentucky. Their blueness had long been accepted as some aberration of nature—maybe heart disease or a lung disorder—although most of them lived into their 80s or longer.

In the 1960s, Madison Cawein, a curious hematologist, figured out that the Fugates had a recessive gene that cuts off production of the enzyme diaphorase. This enzyme, also known as cytochrome b5 reductase or methemoglobin reductase, converts methemoglobin to hemoglobin. Methemoglobin is a blue-tinted oxidized form of hemoglobin that carries oxygen in the blood. People normally have a small amount of methemoglobin, but in rare cases there’s more, and it can make the person look bluish.

Cawein hit on a clever idea to solve the Fugates’ problem: inject them with the dye methylene blue. It seemed counterintuitive to fight blue skin tone with a blue dye, but Cawein knew that methylene blue is an electron donor and could reduce the iron in methemoglobin back to hemoglobin. In effect, blue + blue = pink.

Indeed, upon injecting the blue people with methylene blue, their skin turned a normal pink color within minutes. Cawein left the Fugates with supplies of methylene blue pills to sustain a normal skin tone. The only side effect, as one man confided later to Cawein, was that he could see the blue flushing out of his skin when he urinated (which was actually excess methylene blue). As the Fugates dispersed in recent decades and the gene pool has become more diverse, there appear to be fewer blue people in Kentucky.

Steve Ritter wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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