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David Ball: The three stages of mantis belief

Former FFRF Programs Manager Kristina Daleiden shows off the artwork commissioned by David Ball of Ohio that now hangs in Freethought Hall. (Photo by Chris Line)
The “praying mantis,” the “agnostic mantis” and “atheist mantis” with a light bulb over its head, by Carla Fontecchio.

FFRF was recently gifted a piece of artwork from Member David Ball of Ohio. It is a triptych created by Carla Fontecchio, which includes the “praying mantis,” the “agnostic mantis” and the “atheist mantis.” It now hangs on the wall in Freethought Hall’s editorial department.

Here, in Ball’s words, is how the artwork came to be and ended up at FFRF. 

By David Ball

A few decades ago, I ran across a simple cartoon in a science magazine that portrayed a praying mantis shrugging its shoulders instead of clasping its “hands,” with the caption “Agnostic Mantis.” I snipped it out, and it eventually made its way onto the bulletin board of my office when I became a professor in northeast Ohio.

About 15 years ago, a friend, also an atheist, saw it and remarked something along the lines of “Well, if you take that to its logical end, you’d get an atheist mantis, right?” We laughed together at the joke, but then he turned a bit serious and said — again, not an exact quote — “You should consider getting a triptych made. You know — praying mantis, agnostic mantis, atheist mantis.” My friend’s mother was a devout Catholic and three-panel triptych works are a well-known style in Christian art.

Well, Cleveland has a very well-regarded art school — the Cleveland Institute of Art — so we advertised for a student who would be willing to take the idea and make it happen. Carla Fontecchio, a senior drawing student, agreed to do the job for $300. She and I met a few times to talk about how to proceed, including how each one would be posed. We agreed that the atheist mantis should have it arms crossed in a sort of “no-ideologies-welcome” stance. It was her idea to draw the three mantises in those poses and label them with their Latin binomial name and common name in an Audubon-esque style.

My wife, Gail, who took Latin in high school, made up fake Latin names for the agnostic and atheist mantises. Carla took a few months to do them. In addition to the original, she made five copies of each panel onto thick parchment using the specialized duplicating equipment at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

I framed the original, and it is hanging in our home. I framed one copy and hung it in my office, where it alternatively tickled and antagonized my colleagues and students. One copy went to my friend who suggested it, one copy went to another university colleague, and I scanned each panel in full color and have it available as a file for life-size printing off a large-format printer (and I had quite a few takers!).

That left two sets of copies. Then, last spring, Freethought Today printed a cartoon with a praying mantis in it, so I had an idea: What if I donated one set to FFRF to display, or to auction off to support scholarship or legal expenses?

I reached out to FFRF’s Programs Manager Kristina Daleiden, whom I met earlier when my son and I visited, and proposed it. She came back to me with the idea that FFRF can use it as their contribution to the auction for the MayDay for Humanity event. 

Well, that wasn’t exactly my intention as I wanted the FFRF community to enjoy it in some way. But then I recalled that I had two sets remaining, and suggested to Kristina that FFRF take both, one to donate to the MayDay auction and the other to use as FFRF sees fit. 

So, I shipped both sets to FFRF for ultimate disposition (along with some maple candies from a small but proud northeast Ohio maple industry!).

If I recall, the MayDay for Humanity auction got several hundred dollars for their set, and FFRF has a set on display at Freethought Hall. Eventually I’ll visit again and see it in person!