On her property north of Boulder, painter and conceptual artist Jane McMahan spent four months videotaping the interior of two beehives. Focusing on two queen bees, Zazzala and Tazzala (named after DC Comics characters), and the drama on the honeycomb, she’s since whittled the amber-hued footage into six scenes, each lasting five minutes, calling it “Nousbee.”
By playing segments in rotation on six large, overlapping panels, and looping them continuously, McMahan is hoping she can convey the beauty of bee behavior.
“Bees have a negative connotation; they’re aggressive, creepy and sting,” McMahan says, noting, “They’re only there to work, and their culture is fascinating.”
But as you probably know, they’re in trouble. Since late 2006, billions of honeybees have mysteriously flown away from their hives and died. The culprit is known as Colony Collapse Disorder, but the cause is elusive. Scientists are looking at a web of problems — pesticides, viruses and parasites, weakened immune systems — most likely aggravated by large-scale agricultural methods.
It’s estimated that one in every three bites of food we put on our forks relies on the work of pollinators, the honeybee chief among them. Daisy McConnell, co-director at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs‘ Galleries of Contemporary Art (GOCA), joined the ranks of the worried after viewing the documentary Vanishing of the Bees last year.
“The threat to bees is a threat to human existence,” she says.
To raise awareness, McConnell spearheaded an art show focused on bees, HIVE, and joined efforts with others around town for Cross Pollination, a series of community-wide events that runs through December. Six local art institutions are partnering to host a mélange of workshops, performances, panels and even honey tastings.
McMahan’s film footage will debut as part of HIVE, along with works from four other artists who herald the pollinator’s impact on our culture and ecosystems through sculpture, encaustic (beeswax) painting and site-specific installations.
“Like the canary in the coal mine,” says McMahan, “bees are an indicator of how things are going in the environment. And they’re not doing well.”
Apiary field day
Boulder artist and filmmaker Laura Tyler has been a beekeeper for 11 years. She tends to her bees using organic methods. Still, it’s been a bad year. Honey yields have dropped drastically.
“Our bees look sick,” says Tyler. “We’re seeing the same symptoms that are being reported in California. I believe that systemic pesticides are the cause.”
In sickness and in health, the apiary informs all of her projects. In HIVE, she’s showing Sister Bee, a short 2006 documentary she produced and directed that follows six beekeepers for a year, as well as exhibiting honeycomb sculptures and encaustic paintings.
Encaustic is an ancient medium that predates oil paint, Tyler says. Molten wax is applied to a surface and then “built up in layers, dripped, scratched and gouged,” blending aspects of painting and sculpture.
“They’re known for translucency, lush texture and depth,” she says. “Its popularity is spreading like wildfire.”
Tyler’s subjects are botanically inspired renditions of leaves, stems and flowers. She paints a 4-foot-by-3-foot panel and then cuts it into book- or notepad-sized vignettes. In the gallery, Tyler arranges the “tiny” paintings into clusters.
“They work together like a supraorganism,” she says, referring to a group of organisms that function as a social unit. “Bees need the colony or they will die. They’re social creatures. Humans are like that as well.”
Not to be missed are Tyler’s two honeycomb sculptures, which she creates by “directing the bees’ natural patterns.” It’s a time-consuming technique, and rarely seen. “Flying Geese,” which is named after a quilt pattern, took five years to complete: Tyler inserted triangular wooden frames into a hive, allowed the bees to fill them with comb, then arranged the comb, like a quilt, into a 24-square sculpture.
A second sculpture appears under the seat of a dining room-style chair. Tyler guided the bees to build both dark and light comb, eventually creating a sphere of comb the size of a basketball. The chair is representative of the human body, she says, and the comb represents the energy bees provide. “It looks like a rocket ship about to blast off.”
A whole ‘nother level
Matt Barton, a UCCS art professor, has constructed a human beehive for HIVE. It’s a hybrid of sculptural and architectural elements, he says. Modeled after the traditional dome shape found in the wild, it hovers over the exhibit at roughly 12 feet tall. Around the middle, it’s nearly 8 feet wide. Steps in the center lead up into a tight opening, and like honeybees, visitors can crawl in, climb up, and relax inside the cozy cocoon.
“Now the viewers are themselves part of the exhibit,” Barton says. “It’s more of an exploration. It adds another level of interaction.”
Barton constructed the hive using aspen saplings that he gleaned from overcrowded forest in Park County. He trimmed hundreds of the cream-colored branches to make poles and wove them over an armature. The geodesic design is bolstered by the intertwined saplings forming the hive’s arch.
“I’m creating space for people to take wherever they want to go with it,” Barton says. At past installations that were similar in scope, he’s seen strangers meet, make connections and leave as friends. His hive is designed to have the same effect and to create a sense of community.
“The colony resembles all of us working together,” he says. After all, a single bee alone accomplishes nothing. “But when they come together, it works beautifully.”