I’m reading a book called Buzz: urban beekeeping and the power of the bee, by Lisa Moore and Mary Kosut (2013). The authors read the practices of beekeeping through a sociological lens, and call their study an “api-ethnography.” Yes, they have a sense of humour–bees can’t be interviewed or participate in the same way that human research subjects can, but the authors created their own research strategies to successfully manoeuver through the social territory of the honeybee.
One major area of exploration for the authors is our tendency to anthropomorphize honeybees–they are “cute and fuzzy” and lend themselves to cartoon-like renditions rather easily. These characterizations make bees less threatening and more accessible, but we also load heavier baggage onto bees: “Bees are described as industrious (“busy as a bee”), helpful, driven, purposeful, cooperative and smart.” (p.126) Certainly these attributions reflect our cultural expectations and values, and perhaps tell us more about ourselves than they really do about bees. When I read the above passage, I recalled a similar description in Charles Butler’s book of 1609, The Feminine Monarchie. Last year, I used Butler’s bee proverbs in an art piece; I was so taken by his charming collection of phrases. Interestingly, Butler’s descriptions of bees are: profitable, laborious and loyal, swift, bold, cunning…” We haven’t changed that much apparently since the 1600’s in our relationship to bees, or at the very least, in our descriptions of them.
After almost a year, I am back to working on the bees again. (cf post from August 5,2012) A few months ago, a friend of mine, artist Elizabeth MacKenzie came for a studio visit. I showed her my wax bee drawings from last summer and said that I wanted to continue working on the bees, but that I had not yet found the form and the media that suited my purposes. My problem was to do with how I was approaching the bees – tiny little individual drawings that took a great deal of time (basically it would take me about 10 years working everyday – to complete my appointed task of drawing a colony of 40,000-50,000 individual bees). My subsequent attempts at creating groupings, swarms, etc. with more stylized shapes did not satisfy me at all. A bust! ( cf post Aug. 9 &15, 2012).
Elizabeth said that we understand bees not as individuals but rather as a very large mass, a community that has little or no differentiation. And she was right! She suggested I look to the lino cuts of Nancy Spero for inspiration. This I did, and yes, I found my path!
Lino cuts and stamps give me the pleasure of actually drawing bees, but at the same time, it is easier to create vast numbers of multiples. And further, each act of stamping creates a variation in the image – the amount of ink and the pressure applied add to the differences between each impression.
In these past days, I’ve been working on expanding the bee drawing that has the ancient bee goddess as queen bee. In this tiny swarm of black flower-like shapes, there are just over 1,000 bees, drawn on 7 overhapping sheets of translucent silk tissue. (The image is approximately 6′ tall). 1,000 bees done, another 34,000 to go to make a real swarm.