photo of Hanka by Dave Kamm
It is done and the show taken down. The space is clean and no evidence remains of the effort invested. I met some fine new people and reconnected with hundreds of friends and collectors who came to see me and my wall of bees. As with any large effort involving the exhibition of one’s artwork and meeting the public in hopes of sales, prizes, approbation or just making the work available for viewing, there is a post partum blues—or perhaps more of a hangover, since there is no progeny to show for the effort.
It was profoundly gratifying to watch the throngs come see my artwork and take home a feel for what it also means to be with bees–indeed what magic inheres in these rites of the ancients that we induce every time we practitioners enter the hallowed precincts of the hive.
Combined with the rites of artists entering the caves at Lascaux or Spain’s Cave of the Spider where honey gathering and art were both among the first recorded events in the mists of human history, it’s an august lineage I invoke.
What viewers encountered was a glassed-in alcove with about thirty etchings that had been placed in bee hives for the summer and covered over with varying amounts of honeycomb. Behind the glass were two living hives and thus the public was separated from perhaps 10,000 bees by a quarter inch of plate glass. You saw them with hands and noses pasted to the glass, moving on only when asked by museum guards to make room for others. The museum had become a sacred space for them in which a miracle was taking place.
People responded as one does, when invited to partake of genuine, unfalsified sacraments. I saw they were truly moved—in their multitudes and continually so— by the beauty they encountered and also in their concern for the fate of bees. Many said so, repeatedly, any time I appeared, which I did often over the course of three weeks.
I estimate that 80 to 100 thousand people saw the work. For much of art prize, the line to get into Urban Institute for Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids extended down the block and often even turned the corner. At the peak time periods, visitors passed through at rates exceeding one thousand per hour. For three weeks I was the bee-man wherever I went. I heard people talking about the bees in cafes and on the street. Buzz was what it was, and in the air as they homed in from Kalamazoo and Saugatuck; from Sparta, Greenville and Lansing—even Chicago and Detroit—all of them with the one goal in mind: gotta see the bees
In the typical exhibition you get a few seconds of eye-time with a viewer as they walk past, texting, disciplining children or discussing where they will be eating. You wonder why they pay the entry fee, and why you bother. This
time they came in multitudes to see that one piece and then, they didn’t want to leave. This
time the Museum staff at the door kept telling me, "They all just want to know where the bees are."
When they got there, the usually jaded public stopped texting and gossiping and just stood there mesmerized. They’d never seen this before, neither visitors nor museum staff. Security guards had to move people along to get everybody in and out by closing time. Museum staff sat by the door and across from the bees, just watching the phenomenon and rearranging their traffic flow plans to accommodate the masses of people wanting to see the bees.
And then I also ran a good well-orchestrated campaign, rounding up the press and radio, and it was well reviewed. I was working the angles of a PT Barnum as much as Leonardo. The jurors and public voted for me initially and I was clearly in the running and getting worked up – and then it all went away. Somebody else got the accolades. But though we may ardently desire the accolades and money these votes confer, it isn’t why we make art. It would just make it easier to stay in the game. And being taken seriously and having the press line up as you launch into telling why art is important and what you really meant by it all—how enticing is that?
Quite seductive, actually. Most of us want it so badly we can just taste it. Then, when the press does show up, they tend to ask the wrong questions and cull the wrong answers from the hour-long interviews. The upshot is that your bully pulpit is lowered pretty close to ground level anyway.
Ultimately we make art because we love to do so; perhaps we have a need to do so, and also because the recipients need to know they are loved and have things that are wholesome to sink their teeth into. Like grannies baking cookies, we, too, need to pay the merchant for our supplies and get something back from society here and again so that we can keep on baking. But the moment we forget that and start putting the cart before the horse is the moment it all starts going awry. We start feeling less than virtuous putting a price on stuff that nobody is supposed to be selling. Stockpiles of inferior cookies start filling shelves in anticipation of orders. They’re made with cheaper materials and emulsifiers and preservatives and extenders and colorants, and they get amortized at tax time—even taxed as inventory—until pretty soon you have commercial products instead of wholesome food made with love.
I like that interchange that happens in a gift economy when we owe each other for the favors bestowed. Paying cash is a tidy transaction without further obligations. But when somebody gives you something a relationship is born. I think the answer to much of what bothers us about art, in a professional sense, lies buried off in that direction.
Of course art contests have the built in let-down effect of any beauty pageant. Lots of pretty girls go home and feel bad about their looks. I was one of those sent home feeling like an ugly duckling. I found myself going back a few days later to pack up my show in that well known post partum blues of the art world, wondering why we do this to ourselves and whom we please or what the point of these exercises might really be.
That, in retrospect, is an interesting outcome, given that so many people saw my work and spoke glowingly of it and took home the message I had hoped they might and wrote about it, and the TV was there and the Huffington Post reviewed it and on and on it went as alumni magazines crowded in afterwards to share the limelight with me and everybody wanted a piece of the action and to hear about it all.
Yet because there was a life-altering amount of money in play for the top prize for being number one, I felt the letdown of not having been recognized by, well…. hmmm, that is the question, isn’t it? Recognized by whom, exactly? The buildup leads you down the primrose path to be dazzled by the visions of sugarplums and to forget all you know.
Soon there will be Art Prize in Dallas and Lubbock and Las Vegas–maybe even in Branson. The party can go on non-stop and restaurants and bars and hotels will be raking in the jack-pots and some new artist in every town in America will be the lotto-winner every week. Somewhere in the background will be the odd Cassandra predicting where it’s all headed, where the money has been and what it smells of.
The learning experience here is I suppose to meld my several life-disciplines with the knowledge of three-score years and intimations of mortality that have begun to sneak in with failing parents and infirmities appearing among friends. The things I thought I knew come up short. You live long enough and you will see that the laws of physics do not always appear to apply, the dead do not always stay dead and that it isn’t actually about death and taxes at all.
I mean that more than you may think. I’ve walked the glowing hot coals barefoot and came out thinking–if I can do this, what can I not do?” You fast for a month and a different person is speaking afterwards. I do
talk to the dead, and they answer. I see the life and consciousness in trees. Sometimes they too, speak. We are all seduced from time to time and set up our own money-changing stalls in the temple; and I too, am occasionally the one who should be whipped and driven as a defiler of hallowed ground.
We get the life we earn, by living it. We keep the company we deserve by tending those relationships. We are what we spend our days doing. It is hard to cheat an honest man—and on and on it goes in truths that we hold to be self-evident, because indeed they are. So simple, eh?
A favorite grandmotherly quote I reach for in these moments came to me from her sometimes delinquent grand-son (and my favorite building trades contractor/professor) when he was going through a rough patch: “Dear, dear Thomas, calm your feeble mind.”
Yes, yes, that’s the answer: calm that poor feeble monkey brain, chattering away in there. Get out pencil and paper and start drawing again.
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