Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Use of the Garden Snail (Helix aspersa) in a Collaborative Art Practice.

Introduction: The common garden snail was introduced to San Jose, California in 1850, and has since spread around the world. This makes them a readily available raw material for artwork. While collecting garbage along the SF bay, I observed paper cups and cartons that had been partially eaten by snails. These snails contain bacteria in their gut that can break down cellulose, thus they can eat paper.
Hypothesis: The patterns I observed in in-situ examples of paper-lined items that were partially eaten by snails led me to the question “can snails can be used to make paper based art?” In my observation of snail-eaten paper items collected from the environment, I noticed that in some cases, the snails ate through the paper completely, but in other cases, the snails only ate through a surface layer, leaving subtending layers partially intact. I made the hypothesis that snails would eat through layers of differently colored paper to reveal a colorful and aesthetically pleasing pattern. Methods: Snail Collection: I made a snail cage in my backyard. Snails were collected from my yard and surrounding parks, and neighborhood yards. Most people are only too happy to get rid of snails from their gardens. The snails were fed kitchen scraps and the occasional head of lettuce.
Preparation of Substrate: The snails were fed on a layered substrate consisting of a wooden base with three layers of paper: two layers of colored paper with white on top to provide a unified visual surface. I expected that, as the snails ate through the white paper, the colored layers would be revealed.
Experimental set-up: Snails move slowly, but are mobile. In order to confine them to the art-producing surface, the layered-paper substrates were assembled into boxes covered with fine-mesh chicken wire. After initial trials to determine how quickly snails could eat through the paper layers, I placed ten to twenty snails in each box. Twenty eight boxes were assembled into a “tenement” structure 7 boxes high by 4 boxes wide. The structure was placed outside, in a shady spot at Montalvo Art Center for three months, and periodically misted with water to create the moist environment favored by snails.
Results: As expected, the snails created patterns in the layer paper substrates. The snails ate most actively in the corner areas of the box, creating a characteristic pattern of central clear areas, with heavily grazed edges. Some pieces of paper were dyed with more water-soluble pigments, creating a watercolor effect that interacted with the textured pattern created by the snails.
Future Directions: An unexpected result was the colorful snail excrement left in the boxes. I intend to use these colorful nuggets of recycled paper in future aesthetic experiments.


  1. Believe you were the exhibitor at Makers Faire where I enjoyed chatting. You have altered my perspective on my garden enemies ;>)

    1. Wanda, Maker Faire was amazing! Thanks for chatting.

  2. I met you at Maker Faire and am ready to construct my own snail tenement. I thought that you told me that you fed the snails lettuce and other vegies periodically. But I don't see how you would get food into these structures. (And of course their excrement wouldn't be as rainbow.) Can they survive solely on dyed paper? Do you think some papers might have dyes that are harmful to snails? Give me some construction tips!


    1. Tina, Glad to hear you're going to make your own snail box. The "Tenement" I made was just a temporary sculpture that the snails lived in for three months. And yes for those three months they had nothing but paper to eat and they were fine. They have eaten every type of paper I've given them, except one kind of construction paper, they even like glossy magazine paper. The rest of the time I keep them in a box that sits on the ground, see the third photo from the top. It's just a quickly put together box from scrap wood and window screen. You could do it on a smaller scale with just a plastic storage box, or glass aquarium tank, just make sure to keep it out of the sun and have ventilation holes that they can't escape through. I put in a little door on the side to put in food and paper for them to eat, but just a board laying on top would work too. If you want them to be active just mist down the inside of the box during the evening and they will eat all night long.
      Good luck, let me know how it works out.