How Far-Flung Jungles, Rare Bugs, and Tragedy Have Shaped the Work of Baylor Art Lecturer Greg Lewallen
Story By Craig Cunningham
Rolled up in the back of his closet was a piece that carried so much emotional weight that Greg Lewallen couldn’t bring himself to finish it for over two years. He knew that unrolling the canvas he had started would release a flood of emotion he wasn’t ready to face. He couldn’t yet bring himself to tell the tragic story of Maricela Ponari, or face the guilt he had been harboring in his soul.
Now, he’s ready. He wants the world to know what happened.
But to understand this story, you have to go back to Waco in the 1960s, when the Lewallen brothers hounded the local creeks and forests capturing bugs, turtles, lizards, and snakes. Their fascination with cataloging reptiles and bugs led them into a youth engagement program at Baylor’s Strecker Museum, where they were able to work in close proximity with Baylor biology students and go on select expeditions.
By the time they graduated from high school, Greg and Rodney had built one of the largest private collection of specimens in Texas. Greg describes their family garage as being lined with endless shelves of creatures floating in jars of formaldehyde. Sometimes they daydreamed about traveling into the wildest jungles of the world to capture bugs and reptiles.
“My dad worked at the cement plant at the time, Universal Atlas,” Greg said. “He would get the chemists to order carbon tetrachloride and formaldehyde. He would bring it home and give it to us so we could mix up the ratios for preservation of the specimens.”
After high school, Greg enrolled at Baylor, but soon dropped and took a job selling tractor parts. Almost twenty years later, when he was laid off, he returned to Baylor and earned his BFA in 1998.
He had been accepted to grad school, but something felt off, like he was ignoring the true calling on his life. The boyhood dream of traipsing through creeks and forests with his brother still nagged at him. When an opportunity unexpectedly presented itself for them to purchase an insect shipping business in the mountains outside Fort Davis, he and Rodney leapt. They dropped everything and moved to southwest Texas, becoming professional bug dealers.
If that sounds odd, here’s how it works: someone collects desirable and rare specimens of bugs, stores them, catalogs them, and then ships them to collectors around the world. The more rare the bug, the more valuable. They published catalogs of their inventory and shipped them to museums, universities, researchers, and private collectors who might like to buy them. At the height of their business, Greg and Rodney possessed over 2.5 million bugs for sale.
Yes. 2.5 million bugs.
“We had over 10,000 species listed in our catalog and we had over 2.5 million insect specimens,” Greg said. “We were the largest insect dealer in the world that anyone knew of.”
Butterflies sold the best, followed by beetles, and rounded out by everything else the average person might crush under their shoe. The bug dealership was actually a pair of rusted railroad cars that had been welded together, mounted on a wooden frame down a dirt road off the Davis Mountain Loop. The walls of the railcars were lined with drawers housing their inventory, and there was still enough room for offices for Greg and Rodney. Every week, they processed customer orders and drove the twenty miles to the local post office, shipping specimens all around the globe.
In his free time, Greg sketched the bugs he found most interesting, and the ones that reminded him of the people he had met along the way.
To increase their inventory of rare specimens, the brothers traveled around the world. Instead of staying in hotels, they camped in the jungle or met locals who invited them to sleep in their huts, sometimes for weeks. At night, Greg turned on a generator that powered a light, drawing massive amounts of bugs (and curious natives) to a white sheet he hung between trees. When their targeted bug showed up, Greg captured it for the collection. They stayed in the jungle for weeks at a time, sleeping in hammocks, paying drivers to move them from location to location, and following tips from locals about where specific bugs might be found. After years of wandering the jungles, the Lewallen brothers had built a world-renowned collection, with specimens envied by the most prestigious institutions in the world. Their travels took them to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, French Guinea, Cameroon, Zambia, Serbia, Montenegro, Scotland, France . . .
Some of those bugs, like Euchroma gigantea, were collected in Venezuela, at Maricela’s house. Back then, she was just a ten-year-old kid.
On his third expedition to Venezuela, Greg stayed with the Ponari family. They lived in a remote part of the jungle. As soon as the jeep drove up, he knew it was a perfect basecamp to explore that area and collect.
“There’s no walls. It’s just a thatched roof, with poles holding it up, hammocks all slung up,” Greg said, recalling the Ponari’s house. “But they had electricity. They had this one unit that had several outlets and multi-outlet things plugged in. Wires going everywhere. They were watching television. They had a VCR and they were watching Rambo: First Blood. It was surreal.”
The expeditions to Venezuela stacked up over the years, and Greg built a meaningful relationship with the family. Greg made an instant connection with their daughter, Maricela, who was a fun and vibrant kid that loved the idea of helping a strange gringo catch bugs in the middle of the night. She bounced around the jungle pointing out the things he might have missed. Every year, Greg sent Antonio, Maricela’s father, some money to help offset any education costs for the kids.
He didn’t know that one day his generosity would become the source of his guilt.
On one trip to Venezuela, Greg caught a ride to the Ponari home in the jungle. Only when he arrived, they no longer lived in the hut where he had spent so many nights. The family who had taken over the property said Antonio was in prison for murder. For murder? That couldn’t be right. Maybe he missed something in the language barrier. Greg asked his driver to go to the nearest village to ask around about the family. When they arrived, no one wanted to tell Greg what had happened. He begged people to give him details.
“And so we got all this information, kind of in bits and pieces,” Greg said. “The more we got, the more tragic it became.”
From what Greg could gather, one night Antonio got drunk and raped Maricela. She became pregnant, and eventually gave birth to a child with severe birth defects. Not knowing if the child would live or die, Maricela’s mother killed the baby on the jungle floor. As brutal and horrific as that act must have been, it was not unusual in their subculture. But word spread to the local authorities, who tracked down the family and demanded someone take the blame for murder. Antonio stepped forward. They took him to prison.
Greg rode along the dirt roads with rage swelling in his heart. How could anyone so badly abuse such a sweet child? How could a family he had known for so many years act with such brutality? He imagined the young girl, filled with wonder, giggling as she darted through the trees. He imagined his friend, Antonio, and what a devastating, irredeemable act he had committed against his own family. Greg seethed. His heart broke for Maricela. The rage would subside over time. But the guilt wouldn’t. He knew that the alcohol Antonio purchased was with the money he sent to the family for her schooling, and at some level he felt a share of the blame. Even now, his eyes fill with tears when he tells the story.
“The last time I had sent him money, he had some left over,” Greg said. “He bought some wine, got drunk, and then raped Maricela. And so I felt I was a party to that. Even though my intentions were good, to help the family out and everything, to provide meals for them, feed them, clothe them.”
When Greg finally saw the Ponari family, he expected them to be distraught and fractured. Instead, they welcomed him as always and asked if he would like to go visit Antonio in prison. They acted like nothing had changed. Greg told them no, he wouldn’t see Antonio. They insisted. His stay was short, but something really bothered him. Maricela seemed . . . ok. Why weren’t they more upset? Why were they so nonchalant? Why did their rage not match his own?
He would find out eventually. Just not on this trip.
Back home in Fort Davis, the dream began to splinter. Rodney was diagnosed with liver cancer, and soon after passed away. In the wake of his death, the bug business collapsed because of family complications and headaches from Rodney’s will. All of a sudden, the boyhood dream of the Lewallen brothers had come crashing to an end. Had it all been an illusion? Had they really been paid to wander around the jungles of the world catching bugs? Was Rodney truly gone?
Greg doesn’t like to talk about the lawyers, the legalities, the debts, and the details of Rodney’s will. But suffice to say things didn’t play out how he expected, and overnight the business was in danger of losing everything. With nothing to hold on to, Greg packed his truck one morning, padlocked the railroad cars, cut his losses, and drove to his boyhood home of Waco to rebuild his life. He owned nothing but the boxes piled in the bed of his Ford Ranger.
Suddenly jobless and wondering what kind of career he could possibly pursue with a background of collecting bugs, Greg hit a low point in life. He drove to Baylor on a whim to see if any of his former professors were still teaching. The art building was completely empty. He strolled the vacant halls admiring displays of student art. He headed for the exits, but heard someone call his name. It was the chairman of the art department, John McClanahan. McClanahan remembered Greg from 1998, when Greg was older than the other bachelor level students by nearly two decades. McClanahan invited Greg to sit with him in his office, where he abruptly offered him a short-term teaching position.
“It totally floored me. I just sat there and looked stupid, I guess. But I said, ‘Teach what? I don’t have any experience teaching. Teaching what? What would you want me to teach? Why would you want me to teach?’ Everything I threw out there is the reason why I shouldn’t be teaching, and he shot me down or said, ‘Oh, we can work through that.’”
Greg had no MFA, no teaching credentials, and no teaching experience. But McClanahan remembered Greg as a student, and how he had been a natural mentor for the younger students in his classes. They worked out a plan for Greg to lecture while he pursued a masters.
After leaving to see if any of his former teachers were still at Baylor, Greg came home and told his wife that he was going to be teaching at Baylor. And that’s where he’s been since 2009.
One day Greg received a telephone call from Antonio Ponari.
Greg was still reluctant to talk to him, but Antonio was insistent. He spoke rapid fire Spanish, and Greg couldn’t keep up. Finally, Antonio handed the phone off to a man who spoke perfect English, hoping Greg would listen. The man on the other end of the line was a Christian missionary. Greg finally learned the full story of what had happened. After Antonio raped Maricela, this missionary had come into their village. He shared the gospel, and the entire family began following Christ. They started the long process of working through the forgiveness and grace that would be needed to heal their wounds. They began to be transformed by what they had experienced. When Greg arrived, they wanted him to visit Antonio in prison so that he could hear firsthand how God had forgiven him.
Greg was floored by the phone call. All of this time, he had been gripping bitterness towards Antonio, when in reality the family had experienced transcendent forgiveness. He knew that he needed to draw Euchroma gigantea as an ode to the story, and an ode to Maricela.
Greg had always drawn the bugs he found most interesting. But one day, he decided to add a story of its capture to one of the drawings. A fellow professor walked into the office and saw the piece and was blown away. This was something special. It felt part Indiana Jones, part Paul Theroux, and part biology experiment. Since then, Greg has continued to draw bugs, but frames them in the handwritten story of how and where they were found.
He is finally ready to share Maricela’s story with the world. That is the story that currently hangs on the walls of Martin Museum.
“Last summer, I finally said, “You know, I need to tell that story. The story needs to be told.” Because it’s a beautiful story, ultimately. All of my other bug drawings that I’ve done have been about the bug itself. But this one was different. It was the story. About halfway through drawing that thing, the whole dynamic changed for me. And I was really anxious now to tell the story. To get to that point where I could share it with the world. Because I wanted people to know that here’s a kid who absolutely loved her father. I mean, she was always at his side, laughing and giggling, and it was like they were best friends. For that to have happened to her, how devastating that must have been. And that’s what I kept dwelling on, and that’s why it was so hard for me to address it. But then the beauty of it comes. Romans 8, “All things work together for good, for those that love the Lord and are called according to His purpose.” He didn’t say all things are good, but all things can work for good. And through that tragic incident in Maricela’s life, there was hope. There was forgiveness. There was redemption and reconciliation within that family.”
To Greg, the bugs are like a photo album. Each one pinned under the glass is attached to a memory – the smell of the soil in French Guinea, a campfire conversation with natives in Panama, a rainstorm in Serbia. With some of the bugs, he sees Rodney’s face and hears his voice. Seeing others, he feels the sweltering heat of a Cameroon jungle, recalls the guards with machetes who delivered rare beetles to him in the middle of the night, or thinks back to the muddy creeks of his boyhood.
When he looks at this piece, he thinks of Maricela and a transcendent grace that he still cannot fully fathom. He recalls the day she captured Euchroma gigantea. He had spent hours chasing the beetle with no luck, and it flew into the top of a massive tree. Antonio called Maricela over and told her to fetch the beetle for Greg.
“It’s a big old tree. She can’t get her arms around it,” Greg said. “She shimmied up the tree, climbed down a limb, caught the beetle in her hand, and brought it down one-handed. She ran it over to me and placed it in my hand, and just turned around, giggled, and ran off back into the jungle. And so I never did catch one of those beetles myself. But Maricela caught it. That’s Maricela’s beetle, not mine.”