The Bee Barn - Lyons, Nebraska

The Good of the Hive just completed our biggest honeybees yet on the roof of a barn (on a relatively tiny farm) in the middle of big agriculture - GMO corn and soybean fields as far as the eye could see. Four bees, each over 21 feet in length, have seemingly climbed to the roof of a barn as if to say “Hey, don’t forget we’re down here!” And they are big enough to be visible from low flying planes (like crop dusters). We were invited to Good Taste Farms through an email from organic farmer, Jeff Cassler. He has 8 acres in an area where farms are more commonly in the 100s of acres. Because of this, he cannot keep his numbers at an organic level despite the fact that he follows the practices rigorously. Pesticides and herbicides drift. I was fascinated by the choice on Jeff’s part to have a small farm in the middle of giant GMO monocrop land in the first place. He didn’t inherit the property, he bought it 8 years ago. He works in the medical industry in Omaha and the farm is about an hour north. He currently splits his time between the farm and Omaha and is planning to retire on there in the future.

 

As an artist and small business owner whose mission is to draw attention to the importance of a tiny creature that is struggling in a very big world (I’m talking about the bees here, not me), I felt a kindred spirit-ness with Jeff. In a world that views anything less than global marketplace domination in the business world as failure, where do the little guys fit? I struggle with this balance every day and find that without a healthy heaping of faith each morning, I would have crumbled in year one. I flat out asked Jeff if he and his partner Diane could survive by the crops they could yield from their 8 acre organic farm… crossing my fingers that he would say yes so I could add another individual to my growing list of people defying the status quo for the greater good… And when I asked, I didn’t mean plant enough to sustain them in an apocalypse, I meant survive within the ‘business’ of farming and selling crops. He said “absolutely.” Jeff assured me that if he added a green house to allow for year-round yield, it was definitely possible. Possibility is like a drug to me and Jeff had just given me a fix.

 

So what about the bees?

 

Bees and pollinators are a complicated issue in rural Nebraska. Most of the land is what is known as ‘bee desert.’ There is very little there for them to forage. But at the same time, from a corn or soybean farmer’s perspective, corn is self-pollinated and soybeans are wind pollinated, so the symbiotic relationship of bees and flowering plants is not as necessary in Nebraska’s current big agri-culture as it is, say, in California with the almond crops. But necessary is a relative term. And just because the bees are what brought us to Nebraska, does not mean that pollination is the only thing the bees are about. There is an importance to their existence within a landscape that goes beyond what they are doing for humans and ‘our’ food systems. And the longer I do this work, I am coming to realize that the bees are not telling us that we need to save them to save our food systems. This is simply a viewpoint that allows humans to comprehend that there is a problem at all. I think (and I don’t often put my opinion in typeface) the bees are saying that there is an epic, unprecedented disconnection happening between all things. And it is the humans that are causing it. The natural order is off because we (the people) are putting too much pressure on growth. I am not talking about the farmers. Every single farmer I talked to was willing to go with the flow of what is best for the food systems and the American people’s agricultural needs. Even the crop dusters we were originally painting “at” are just doing a job that was created out of our currently flawed agricultural system. But the complexities of the problems are way beyond farmers and certain pesticides.  Pesticides and herbicides like neonicotinoids and glyphosates are a clear and present danger, but the root of the issue in my current understanding is in the ownership of the seeds. This is what scares me more than anything else… and I can easily project on that, this bugs the bees, too.  To an artist, there are only a few symbols of possibility and hope in the world. A starry sky in it’s vastness and unknowns, a baby (because we assume that because ‘they’ are new to the planet, ‘we’ are getting a fresh clean start, and third, the seed (and my new favorite).

 

Because the seeds of big agriculture are patented and treated with patented pesticides and herbicides we are allowing people to take control over the bulk of what we eat. And if you control what a person (or a bee) eats, you control them. I’m not even sure big pesticide companies know this is what they are doing, (I honestly think they believe that they are doing good business as they were probably taught in business schools of the 20th Century), but by marrying the treated seeds with herbicides that kill everything except the monocrop, complete market and human control is possible… In other words, the possibility of shifting and changing is controlled. And I could not look myself in the mirror as an artist or an American if I thought that was anywhere near okay.

 

A seed is a symbol of possibility. But it is also a real thing that can be used to control. People have been trying to control each other for millennia… nothing new there… but it is only in the last hundred years or so that we have started controlling nature. And what rang so clearly with me in Nebraska was that if the essence of the human spirit is compromised in any way, we are doing a tremendous disservice to each other. Business shmizness… If we tamp down possibility we tamp down the beauty of the human spirit.

Everybody's Bees

EverybodysBeesWeb.jpg

I’ve been hand-painting big, beautiful honeybees on walls for over a year now - nearly 1300 individual bees at this point! I have talked with several thousand people about honeybees, art, and the world in general. I have painted in liberal communities and conservative communities. I have talked with people that have mansions and people that live in cardboard boxes. I have talked with three year-olds, 90 year-olds and every age in between. And I have noticed something pretty awesome with almost every conversation…

I started this initiative because, as an artist, I couldn’t stop thinking about bees (and this passion has only grown as I have gone deeper into the work), but something else has revealed itself that, for me, has become the true essence of this work - and it is both simple and rare at the same time.

Honeybees are in every neighborhood in the world. They are the only creatures on earth that we ‘keep,’ yet they remain wild. This is why they are so mysterious and awe-inspiring to me. They are in our yards, at our picnics, at the ball games and even in our cars on occasion. They have no political party, racial solidarity, or religious affiliation. They touch us all. They are ‘everybody’s.’  So as we talk about them and work toward saving them, there is no side to take - there is no need to be thinking about ‘what I think’ about them. When people stand and look at painted bees on a wall, they are standing next to each other looking the same direction at something together… something that is bigger than any one of us.  

It is as if the bees are reminding us to relax and remember that it is possible to ALL agree on something… and it can feel good and comforting to do so.

Painting bees on walls seems to bring out the best in people. I believe that the bees deserve the best we can offer as they need us, more than ever, to come together to bring them back to full, thriving health. I also believe that if we can get them back to their optimal state, it will not only be an example of our ability to turn the tides of environmental change, it will release a legion of happy little helpers out into the world to take the healing even further.  Bees do more than we know - and certainly more than meets the eye. And in my limited experience so far, I have noticed that by doing something for them, I have landed a front row seat to observe the beauty of the human spirit.

My intention for the holiday season is to hold the gratitude I have for the people I have met throughout this year. The people that have fed me, housed me, guided and participated in the initiative were more important to this first year than they will ever know. The people that have helped inspire and coordinate murals, donated funds, shared ideas, bought a bee-shirt or print, or simply left me a note to say ‘thank you’ at a mural site, have co-created this year’s murals with me. The people that have stopped and talked to me, or passed quickly saying “nice bees,” have changed my day (at times even my week!). Sometimes I feel alone in the work and, despite the fact that I know I am not, it can play with my head… At times even those that just hang an arm out a car window with a simple ‘thumbs up’ have shifted my mind back to possibility.

So I just want to say thank you. Most initiatives do not make it through their first year, and we have done that with flying colors… literally. But there is an enormous amount of work still to be done.

For all of the holiday shoppers out there, please consider purchasing something from The Good of the Hive online Shop. By giving a product with a bee on it, we keep bees in the front of people's minds... Ya gotta get something for Aunt Gertie anyway, right? ;) 

 

 

 

The Swarm.

The honeybee swarm has been the inspiration for several of the early murals for The Good of the Hive Initiative. I don’t claim to be the expert on bees- I am learning as I go- but the idea of the swarm captivates me because it is a leap into the unknown for the bees (Something I can easily identify with these days). Also, it is a behavior that is misunderstood by many humans as something to fear.

 

Nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, the swarm is one of the most elegant and sublime experiences in the natural world. The bees place themselves and their precious queen in an extremely vulnerable position for the possibility of growth. It is the natural expansion of a healthy, thriving, hive. Since there is no honey or brood to protect while they are in transit to their new home, they are actually at their most docile.

 

The swarm is a symbol of a new beginning.

 

There is a burst of change as approximately a third of the bees leap from the hive and swirl through the air (usually 30 to 300 yards) and then reconnect in a collective ball around their Queen on a branch of a tree, fence or a car tire. This stop is temporary, so they are not quite as picky as they are with the new permanent home.

 

Now what?

 

A process of exploration begins. The eldest of the bees scout out their next home. Possible new locations are found and shared with the others. The incredible waggle dance communicates the locations of the options. More bees go and check out the potentials. And when enough bees agree on a site (some say it is when 51% of the bees agree!), there is a second pulse of movement toward the permanent new home.

 

The artist in me has been on fire about the bees since the first mural in LaBelle, Florida last year- I couldn’t NOT paint bees even if I tried. Artists don’t really choose what we paint. Something calls to us and we answer. Inspiration and creative growth are not planned. We prepare, but when it comes, we simply go with it. I’ve noticed that my own faith is expanding by painting bees. It occurred to me recently that I believe so strongly in this work that it is actually making me believe in my capacity to expand how deeply I believe! Maybe the Queen leaps to expand the hive’s capacity to believe? Not the most scientific thought I’ve ever had, but whether or not she has expanded the hive’s capacity, she has expanded mine.

 

I’ve been fascinated with the idea of faith since I was 10 years-old. I wrote an entire screenplay about it in my 30’s… not religious faith… but rather the experience of feeling -and at times ‘knowing’ - that there is something beyond the body that we are all connected to. To figure out faith, one must hover in the vulnerability and  uncertainty of it. The ability to hover in the not knowing- to suspend the practical mind long enough to let another, less grounded, idea take flight- is where faith kicks practicality’s ass every time. I see the bees as tiny connectors between me and the mystery and complexity of the rapidly changing world we live in. Faith, like bees (and art), can be put in a box, but their nature remains unpredictably wild and free despite any type of structure.

 

The bees, like us, are having a tough time these days. And I see that beautiful flight… that explosive, harrowing leap of expansion… as one of the natural world’s best examples of faith. We all have to take leaps like this in our lives in order to grow… a kid jumping into a pool for the first time… asking someone on a date when rejection is highly possible… going back to school at 40 for something that is not based in money or status... We all leap in our own ways when we are ready to grow.

 

It has been a year and a half since I started painting murals about bees and it has required a series of spine tingling leaps toward the unknown. I mean, really, paint bees for a living? Who was I kidding? Yet here I am. The thing about a leap of faith is that one might not be enough. Like the bees, the first one may just be necessary to get away from where you were. It may take a second or third leap to see the change you were seeking. I haven’t always landed where I wanted to be this past year… But in hindsight, I keep landing where I need to be(e).

 

And when I find myself in a clean, lovely room (like right now) where I can sleep and meditate and write and dream about where the initiative should go next, I simply say ‘thank you’ and try as hard as I can to build a hive where I am. And when it is time to move again because another mural is complete, I will take a deep luscious breath of vulnerability, and leap… knowing that although I cannot see the new home yet, it is out there ready and waiting for me.

 

 

Burt ‘The Bee Man’ Shavitz - (May 15, 1935- July 5, 2015)

Burt Shavitz, co-founder of Burt’s Bees, died one year ago on July 5th 2015. He was 80 years-old. I never met him, but I knew of him at least from my high school days onward. I grew up in New England, and Burt’s Bees was started in Maine. I wish it had occurred to me to go see his farm where he started the business. I would have loved to meet him. He is a man that has captivated people’s imaginations for decades, including mine. Burt was “The Bee Man.”

 

I wonder what Burt would have thought about our mural?

 

The mural is for The Good of the Hive’s mission of raising awareness about honeybees and other pollinators, but it is also in honor of the anniversary of Burt Shavitz’ passing, and since Burt’s Bees was founded by a beekeeper (Burt) and an artist (Roxanne Quimby), I like to think he would have had a special appreciation for what we are creating.

 

There are many factors that go into each design, and many different possible entry points to begin the design process… but as I started researching Burt’s life, a particular part of his story stood out to me… and it is also probably one of the most mystifying and wondrous behaviors of the honeybees… the swarm.

 

Burt Schavitz’ first bees were ones he collected from a swarm that landed in his yard in Maine. By simply appearing, the bees inspired a business. Burt is quoted as saying, “It wasn’t as if I’d summoned these bees down, or gone looking for them. It was an act of God. It was a no brainer. Now I had a way of making some money. I had all of the tools and the knowledge, the literature, the ability to do just as my guru had done.” An age-old relationship of man to bee was honored. He had done the work to learn how to keep bees, and then the bees appeared.

 

The swarm is an incredible, natural behavior of a healthy honeybee hive. It is often perceived as something aggressive and terrifying, but nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, it is one of the most elegant and sublime experiences in the natural world. The bees place themselves and their precious queen in an extremely vulnerable position for the possibility of growth. It is the natural expansion of a healthy, thriving, hive. It is an amazing example of the bees acting as one mind or super-organism. 

 

The swarm is a symbol of profound change and a symbol of a new beginning.

 

I am honored that The Good of the Hive was asked to help commemorate the life and work of this truly original man. 

 

 

 

 

 

Rising.

I love Easter because it symbolizes rebirth. Who doesn’t like the idea of a do-over? I grew up in the Christian church, but Christians have not cornered the market on rebirth. This symbol is in every culture and religion throughout world history- Adonis (Greek), Horus (Egyptian), Jesus (Christian), Krishna (Hindu)… they go on and on. But they all symbolize rebirth and resurrection. It can be deeply personal when it is identified with a chosen faith, but no matter where or how you connect with it, it is a universal symbol that rejuvenates the human spirit.

 

I’m out in Seattle painting the first bee-themed mural of the season. Spring is springing and it is time for the bees to wake from a long winter. For me, hope tends to seep in and permeate my soul on Easter. Some go to church, but I prefer to paint. Even after decades of being an artist, after hundreds of murals and thousands of days with a paintbrush in my hand, painting still seems magical to me.  To me, as an artist, a box of paint and brushes is possibility.

 

It has been about a year since the first bee was painted on the wall in LaBelle, Florida. I spent an enormous amount of this past year trying things that didn’t work. Or… to put a lighter spin on it… trying things that were necessary to bring me to the next step in creating this initiative. I walked through a lot of fear and vulnerability wondering if I was someone that could successfully make the leap from the already precarious nature of being a professional artist to being a professional artist that focused all of his attention on one subject, the bees. I have no desire or intention to martyr myself. And I wondered if people want bees on their walls? I suffered some mild depression as my bank account plummeted. I questioned everything about this choice to do this work. Honestly, if I hadn’t literally known in the core of my being that I had to do this work, I would have ditched it in a heartbeat. A painter paints because they cannot, not paint. I don’t paint for emotional therapy. In fact, being a painter (or an artist of any kind) is often quite masochistic. But I can’t not do it. And what makes an artist an artist, is that we create based on what inspires us… and the bees have washed a tsunami of inspiration over me, so here I am.

 

I do have a method to take some of the pressure off. I have a litmus test for the big faith-based decisions. I lie down on the ground, slowly close my eyes and visualize myself on my deathbed taking my last breath, having my last thought. Then, with the issue in question in my mind, I ask, “As I lie here on my deathbed, do I wish I had done this or not done this?” The answer is ALWAYS immediate. Since I am in Seattle painting bees, you already know the answer I keep getting.

 

Easter, this year, is coinciding with some grateful momentum around The Good of the Hive’s mission to paint 50,000 honeybees in murals across the US (and beyond). As of today, I have only painted 244 honeybees toward this mission... and I bent the rules of the initiative for 225 of them because they were bees that I was hired to paint not in public and not on walls. But these patrons appeared when I really needed the money to keep going. The placement of them didn’t fit with the plan I’d originally envisioned, but a big part of this initiative is letting go and letting things change when needed. This is a collective effort. So those patrons will be honored in this journey with as much gratitude and celebration as anywhere the bees land in the coming years.

 

And as of today, there are 20 sites ready and willing to participate in this initiative. We are booked with murals through 2016 and beyond! So the bee count is about to start climbing… and hopefully the actual bee count across the world will begin to climb simultaneously. On this symbolic day of hope, I took a moment and rather than question whether I will wish I had done this when I am dying, I simply laid there and pictured the bees rising again in perfect balance with the natural world around them.

 

Peace to all.