Rocky Fiore: America's Top Spiderweb Artist (PHOTOS)
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New Jersey artist Rocky Fiore has nothing in common with Little Miss Muffett.
Instead of running away from spiders, he runs toward them -- looking to collect their webs.
Fiore is considered by many to be America's top spiderweb artist, garnering as much as $200 a pop for the intricate webs he collects in the forests near his home in Dumont, N.J.
Although Fiore has always loved being out in nature, the idea of collecting webs didn't occur to him until he was in his early 20s.
"I read about it in a craft book for kids and I was intrigued," Fiore told AOL Weird News. "Basically, the book said to dust the web with talcum powder and put it on a piece of paper coated with hairspray."
At the time, Fiore was experimenting with stained glass. He tried to put that first web in between two pieces of glass.
"But it didn't work the way I wanted it to," he said. "So I started using one piece of glass that was coated with varnish. The key is to get the web on it before the varnish dries."
Since then, Fiore has mounted more than 12,000 webs. He said the key to making them as visually appealing as possible is to apply a background color that completely isolates the web.
"Unlike photos of spiderwebs, my method exhibits the web alone, free of distracting background. Otherwise, just take a picture, it's easier," he said.
Although Fiore makes the bulk of his income selling spiderwebs, he only gathers them during summer -- unless he visits Florida in the winter.
"Spider season here in the northeast is between May and September," he said. "But this year it's been rough. We didn't get a spring. We went from April cold to August heat. A lot of the spiders haven't started spinning webs."
On a good day, Fiore averages 20 webs a day, and as many as three in a day from a single spider.
"That's 20 webs worth displaying," he said. "There are always three or four that just don't look good. Other times, I might be looking at a nice web and when I go to approach it, I step on, say, a twig and it gets attached and the web pulls apart."
The early morning hours after the dew has evaporated is the best time for collecting, especially right after the spider has just finished and before the wind, rain or other insects have had a chance to damage its webbing.
Fiore loves all spiderwebs but he's especially excited when he nabs one made by a micrathena gracilis, or rock spider.
"They are incredible," he said. "They are ridiculously repetitive. You'd think they had an inspector or a code to follow."
Fiore turns 59 in July and, amazingly, he's never had a serious bite in his four decades of web-snatching. The worst he could think of: "This past season, a crab spider bit me and I had what looked like pretty nasty mosquito bite for two weeks."
However, that was nothing compared to the verbal attacks from the animal-rights advocate he met while in Florida.
"I damn near got arrested," he said sheepishly. "She was a birder and I was so naive and showed her what I was doing and explained the process. Then when I was leaving, she yelled at me, 'You're taking the spider's home!' I was all apologies, but she started taking down my license plate saying she was going to report me.
"Luckily, I drove away and nothing happened."
Fiore sells the webs on a website called Whirled Wide Webs as well as at upscale gift shops around the country, such as The Evolution Store, a natural history-themed gift shop in New York City.
Store manager Alex Minott is a big fan of Fiore's work, and so are the shop's customers.
"His webs are pretty popular," Minott said. "It's hard to keep in stock. His technique to make the webs permanent is quite lovely."
Minott says that while many of the customers buy the webs to display as art, some have other plans.
"I've seen people turn them into pendants or even beer coasters," he said.
But that doesn't mean Fiore's web business isn't tangled in some controversy.
Adrienne Burke, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said Fiore would be better off admiring spiderwebs in their natural environment rather than removing and selling them.
"Building a web is not as easy as it might seem for spiders, who have to eat for two days to obtain enough nutrition and generate enough energy to complete just one web," she said. "It can take up to two hours to build each intricate creation, and spiders also know that they must contend with leaves, animals, wind and other weather issues, which is why they produce their impressive handiwork at night. We wish Mr. Fiore would respect spiders' hard work and find another pastime."
For his part, Fiore said his work gives people normally skittish of spiders a chance to see what great artists they are.
And as his web of influence expands, so do his dreams for the webs he collects.
"I'd love to get these into the Smithsonian," he said. "I kept about 100 for myself; ones that are unusual or special. I really like to keep the ones that show the web-making process, such as just a loose frame with just a few diagonals."