Artist Elsabe Dixon doesn’t remember how she learned to raise silkworms. But after she successfully encouraged 8,000 of them to spin silk in the hollows of her experimental living sculptures, the South African native began to wonder.
“I did a little bit of research and realized that I’m a descendant of the French Huguenots, and they have this strange ritual that they pass down to their kids,” Dixon says. “When you’re about 2 years old, you’re handed a silkworm in a box, and you’ve got to name it. When you turn 13 it becomes a way to prove that you can enter adulthood by being responsible towards this very tiny creature.”
She’d always felt “a little on the odd side” in her relationship with insects, so Dixon was delighted to realize she wasn’t alone when she made the switch from silkworms to bees.
“There’s a whole population out there that’s obsessed with insects but they never show it,” she says. “With the bee community, there’s a sacred stance. In an apiary, you’re going through an agricultural ritual, but at the same time you’re thinking very deeply about philosophy and history and the traditions that have gone before.”
Dixon’s latest work is featured in “A Consideration of Bees,” a group exhibition hosted by Chroma Projects. The show includes eight regional artists whose work calls attention to bees as objects of artistic inspiration and, in some cases, as quiet signifiers of environmental breakdown.
From the imaginative figure of a solitary bee in flight, to detailed enlargements of bee faces, to the artful recounting of classic colony behavior versus that which jeopardizes their existence, each work invites viewers to examine what’s truly at stake if we lose them.
Robin Braun says she creates paintings with a luminous, storybook quality. “I can make bees into a character for the viewer, something that they can relate to,” she says. “I very much enjoy the tiny world and dramas that unfold in the microcosm but which we are oblivious to as we rush around in our own, larger world.”
Washington, D.C.-based Mary Early offers an abstract, structural form made from beeswax, while Matt Lively provides a number of “bee-cycles”—fanciful paintings of bees with wheels, clustered and buzzing through the frame.
For engineer and artist Blake Hurt, bees are “a net to collect imagination.” His collages layer technical illustration of gears and apple corers into bee bodies. Jason McLeod takes a similarly mechanical approach, building wasp bodies out of silver and gold. In “A Consideration of Bees,” these tiny sculptures pose atop found abandoned wasp nests.
“Bees are astonishing creatures and bring to mind metaphors for our own life experience,” says Suzanne Stryk via e-mail. “Bees are both wild and domesticated, as are we. They live in societies, as do we. They dance to show their hive mates where the good flowers are. They make honey and they sting.”
The artist, who paints bees on mirror panels, points to the depth of our symbiosis by adding that honeybees “are absolutely essential as pollinators of so many of our crop plants.”
Bees are the canaries in the coal mine, says Richard Knox Robinson, in a voiceover during his award-winning experimental film, The Beekeepers.
The short documentary, which plays on a loop in the gallery, features an interview with commercial beekeeper David Hackenberg, the discoverer of Colony Collapse Disorder, which wipes out entire colonies at twice the normal rate.
During the day, Robinson explains, bees fly for miles, returning to their hives laced with the dust of pesticides and other pollutants. For this reason, they act as on-the-ground indicators of the wellness of the planet.
It’s the subject of Dixon’s most recent work, “Living Hive: A Sculptural Platform for Collective Action,” a collection of drawings and sculptures created in conjunction with German Perilla’s Pollen Collection Project.
Perilla, who works with Dixon at George Mason University, collects honeybee pollen to evaluate toxin sources and levels in an effort to identify the contaminants that cause disorders like CCD.
Dixon’s drawings detail the microscopic structures of pollen, while her sculptures will be built in conjunction with bees. Using her drawings as a model, she uses a 3-D printer to create a multipart sculpture. Each piece fits inside the top super [stack] of a standard beehive, in apiaries from Fairfax to Danville along the Route 29 corridor.
She says these layers of industrial technology, handmade materials and public examination echoes the social problem—and its potential solution.
“Bees are a representation of a broader issue,” Dixon says. “We have gone through a consumer period where our main objectives have been to establish markets. Now we’ve really got to backtrack and see what we have in the hand.”
Pollen, she adds, is an indicator of that larger issue of pollution. “Our environment is tainted with things we have taken out of the ground, our oil products. All these plastics, we’re living with them. They’re not going to go away. So how do we deal with pesticides and pollutants? How do we separate the good from the less tainted? Because everything is tainted now.”
Dixon says she’s seen a wide variety of reactions from bees presented with her sculpture. “The country bees are a little more aggressive and assertive,” she says. “But as soon as you enter the city, [their behavior] becomes very volatile because we’ve got to deal with all kinds of pesticides.”
She hopes her work inspires discussion among those concerned about sustainable agriculture. “Rural Virginia has a lot to give northern Virginia, and vice versa,” she says. “It’s about different people coming together and talking about stuff that they need to be talking about.”