The beehive collective is a group of activists and artists, organizers and educators, which began in a small town in Maine but has now grown to become a decentralized network of folks all over the US and in Canada, Mexico, Colombia, the UK. Each one of us “bees” works hard to make change in our local places, but we are best known for the work that we do together – collaboratively producing educational story-telling graphics like the ones you see here today.
We use fable-style symbolic animal characters to explain real-life environmental and social justice issues, trying to make these topics, which are hard to understand and often hard to talk about, more accessible to diverse audiences.
You might notice that all of our graphics are in black and white. There are a number of reasons why we choose to do this – the most important one is that all of our graphics are anti-copyright, which means we actually encourage people to reuse, reproduce, and remix them. Also, if they were in color they would be psychedelic… and thats not really the point. 🙂
Our graphics also depict lots of plants and animals, but no humans. Does anyone have any ideas why we might choose to do this? Whats good about using animals? What is potentially problematic about drawing pictures of people?
We begin graphics projects with first-person research trips, traveling to the places where people are most affected by these issues, listening to and learning from front-line communities. To inform The True Cost of Coal, our graphic about Mountain-top Removal Mining, bees traveled all over Appalachia, visiting mine sites…
learning about local ecology and traditional life-ways, how all that has changed as a result of coal mining, and how people navigate these issues in their everyday lives.
We shared our previous graphics with folks, demonstrating what we hoped to do with their stories, and we explained that one of our primary goals is to uplift unheard voices. We asked people, “What do you want us to shout out to the world as big as we can?” And hundreds of people told us hundreds of stories.
We collected all those stories and brought them back to our studios, and then we spent many days and weeks and months sorting, re-telling, and struggling together to understand the nuances of these many overlapping stories. We discovered commonalities between different perspectives and connections between seemingly separate issues, and we layered similar stories together to draw out the bigger picture.
Then we started sketching out our ideas. We spent more days and weeks and months arguing, also known as collaborating, over our ideas and sketches. 🙂
The final illustration was created in a way that is very similar to a comic book, where there is a writer, pencil artist, inker, colorist etc – we often divide into teams focused on research, story development and layout, and then maybe someone with scientific illustration background will draw all these field guide style plants while another with tattoo shop experience will draw all these big monster machines, someone who is good at cartoons will draw the outline while another one who is more detail-oriented will complete the shading, etc. We try to work in such a way that everyone is playing to their strengths, and together we are able to complete something much more elaborate and skillful than any one of us could do on our own.
But… if you ever see a photo of the beehive collective which looks like this, you should know that its a fake! Here illustrators are posing for a promotional picture. Looks pretty good, right? But if we really tried to work on the drawings all at the same time someone would surely get an elbow in the face. 🙂
Even though the Mesoamerica Resiste graphic had help from more than 30 people, it was often only 1 or 2 working on it at a time. Thats why it takes us so long to make these things – over 2 years for The True Cost of Coal, and over 9 years for Mesoamerica Resiste!
When the graphics are finished, we print them as these huge portable murals, and also as paper posters. We take the portable murals on tours all around the US and beyond, telling stories and facilitating workshops at high schools…
colleges, church basements, back-yard potlucks…
protests and global justice movement mobilizations – pretty much anywhere folks will have us – and try to raise awareness, encourage critical thinking, inspire action, and start up new conversations.
We also return the graphics to the places where the stories came from, distributing as many as we can for free so that front-line communities can use them to tell their own stories. Here is a photo of Colombian students gathered around our graphic about the Drug War in Colombia.
And we love to share the skills and techniques for collaboration which we have learned, like here, at a friends art studio in Grand Rapids.
We call ourselves the beehive because we like to think of our work as “cross-pollinating the grassroots” – we travel around the US and beyond collecting folk stories, and we share these stories with all the communities that we visit, bringing the latest news, especially the stuff you don’t see on tv. Our work modernizes the traditions of traveling bards and cantastorians, and it gives voice to those who are too often ignored.
Bees are busy, bold, pro-active agents of connection, reproduction, and evolution, and these humble hard-working nectar-collectors inspire us to collaborate as they do, to strive to create a super-organism that is capable of transforming the world around us by spreading seeds of inspiration and compassion, life and abundance.
We make art that exists outside of galleries, art that is cheap or free, art that is useful and relevant. And we are trying to develop educational models that help us to talk about these complex and heavy topics in ways that are engaging, accessible, and maybe even fun.
I would like to take a moment to highlight the anti-copyright nature of our work. Here is an early sketch from the Mesoamerica Resiste graphic, which tells stories of resistance movements in Central America, especially what indigenous people are doing to protect their land, communities, and culture from the invasive forces of industrial development, global trade, and corporate take-overs. Here we see corn farmers rising up to keep an airport expansion plan from stealing their land, based on a story from Atenco, Mexico.
When some bees were in Guatemala for a Latin American Social Forum, they found this mural painted on the street! We dont know who made it, and that is just so inspiring to us, it tells us that our graphics speak to people and help them to tell their own stories, even in different communities.
This fellow is not a member of our group, he stood up during this presentation of our Free Trade graphic and said “I know these stories – these are stories from my life, and I can tell you all about them.”
Within the beehive we are constantly experimenting with retelling and remixing our stories, too. The 3 of us are currently working on one of those re-mixes. The special presentation we will give tonight combines scenes and characters from both of these graphics, in order to look at complex issues of extreme resource extraction in this region, the Great Lakes. Though the species represented and the specific stories that inspired these pictures come from very different places, themes are remarkably similar – the same issues are relevant all around the world.
We are still developing this story – throughout our tour we have been listening as well as speaking, bringing what we have learned so far so we can initiate conversations that will help all of us continue to learn and discuss and connect more.