Later this year, artist Matt Willey will complete a large mural in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, depicting a number of honey bees. It’s part of a larger project, dubbed “The Good of Hive,” which eventually will include murals around the world depicting a total of 50,000 bees. Willey is currently seven years into the project, and he has created more than 9,000 bees in murals and installations so far. However, this mural also is part of an even larger project, called the Magnify Initiative (co-funded by the Cosmic Foundation and the Plastic Solutions Fund), which aims to raise awareness about plastics pollution and industrial transition — and possible solutions — on a global scale. The Magnify Initiative brings together three renowned artists from three continents in regions that are strongly connected to some of the largest petrochemical hubs in the world (Baton Rouge, Port of Antwerp, Belgium and Taipei, Taiwan).
When Willey first met Camille Duran, the producer of the Magnify Initiative, he knew he wanted to be involved. ““The Good of the Hive” has always been about more than bees,” he says. “But as a bit of an accidental activist, I often feel alone in trying to figure out how I can best shape a message around my work. Magnify not only offers a vehicle to help amplify a message, it offers a way for me to feel supported in the process.”
The idea for The Good of the Hive unfolded organically when Willey had a chance encounter with a honey bee in 2008. “I was in my studio in New York City, and a honey bee landed in the middle of the rug,” he says. “I spent two hours with the bee until she died, and, in that time, I connected with her. My curiosity led to finding that there was a huge mystery happening with bees. They were disappearing by the millions or dropping dead at the base of the hive. I dug deeper and started reading about behaviors like altruistic suicide. When a bee feels sick, she will exit the hive and fly off into the abyss for ‘the good of the hive.’ They take this drastic action because they understand that their immune system is collective. It is based on the health of the hive, not the individual bee.”
Willey decided to paint a mural in order to raise awareness about the decline of honey bees and pollinator populations. As he was painting, someone asked him how many bees were in a healthy hive. He had just learned that the answer is 30,000 to 60,000. This conversation sparked the idea to paint 50,000 bees around the world. “The thing about the largeness of 50,000 is that it is going to take about 21 years to create,” he says. “Not only does it give my work focus and consistency, but it is approximately the amount of time it takes for someone to grow up. It offers a focal point for consistent movement toward a symbolic goal of health, and it’s an optimistic metaphor that maybe we will grow into beings that better understand our own interconnectedness.”
It is exactly this idea of interconnectedness that is at the heart of Willey’s mural — and the Magnify Initiative as a whole. Once Willey understood the connection between a bee and its hive, he began to understand that humankind is no different. “At the root of everything we are dealing with right now — from climate change to plastics in the oceans to systemic racism — is the misinformation that we are separated from any of it by our individual body,” he says. “We are all cells of one body. And in order to get healthy, that body needs to change its habits.”
While Willey’s work is not meant to speak to a specific issue (even issues surrounding bees and pollination), it is meant to raise curiosity in the viewer. The queen bee (who will stop laying brood at certain times to stay in balance with the level of nourishment coming into the hive) is the inspiration behind the mural in Baton Rouge, which focuses on the idea of supply and demand. By using the metaphor of a beehive, Willey reminds audiences that, in nature, there is no such thing as overcapacity and waste — that supply and demand work in perfect symbiosis.
“In St. James Parish, there is an acute local environmental problem that is in danger of getting even worse through petrochemical expansion, specifically the building of Formosa’s Sunshine Project,” Willey says. “The mural is meant to amplify support for the local organization Rise St. James as they bring the issue to the public.”
Through the mural, Willey hopes that viewers will start asking questions about how to stop the production of new single-use plastic, while shifting support to businesses that operate with a reuse-based system. “As the mural progresses, Magnify and “The Good of the Hive” will be offering ways for people to get directly involved in the solution,” Willey says.
In addition to Willey’s mural, two other artists — Pieter De Poortere and Yen-Ting Tseng (a.k.a. Kappa) — will also be creating artwork as part of this global project. In Antwerp, Finnish comic-strip artist De Poortere will use humor to highlight the ridiculous human decision making that led to the plastic pollution crisis, while getting audiences thinking about how to solve it. And in Taipei, Tseng will create an art installation in a science park to take young professionals on an immersive time-traveling journey that questions the relationship between people and man-made material.
Overall, the Magnify Initiative takes a new approach to the topic of plastics pollution. The artistic angle reaches a wider audience by telling a complex, typically uninteresting story in a much more inspiring way. “This project is to help draw attention to complex issues, but in a way that isn’t a turn off to audiences,” Duran says. “The role of the artists is critical because they have the ability to story-tell in a way that isn’t necessarily fact based. They can produce conversation and get audiences to think.” The initiative also supports the work of regional environmental organizations in each location by amplifying a specific call to action that will result in a systemic outcome in the region.