Killing of the Bees Series

Mary Woltz, my wife, has dedicated much of her life to keeping honeybees. Her work on behalf of their health and survival is unwavering. In the winter of 2010, however, an entire bee yard on a local non-profit farm was killed by someone who poured gasoline into the hives and sealed their world.

The following spring, I began four canvases, one for each hive lost. The idea for the series was straightforward but daunting. As sentient beings, I believe these bees realized their impending fate from the moment gasoline was introduced until the end of their apparent life-force. Could four paintings call up what I imagined was their vitality and desperate response? This was, admittedly, a human conceit, but one motivated by pain, anger, confusion, and grief for the enormous loss for Mary and her girls.

I realized that somehow “capturing” their death would be an insufficient objective regardless of the artistic outcome. If I remained in a state of anger and pain from the experience of wonton cruelty, would creating and viewing the paintings have larger value? The way I thought to overcome uncertainty was to overcome the loss itself and know forgiveness. This desire became the theme for the fourth painting, well before I knew such feelings could be reached or what form they would take.

The first three paintings were developed concurrently. Studies were created only for the first, conceived as the queen and her worker. The other two canvases imagined frenzy and fear besetting thousands of bees, a super organism, at the height of the carnage and at near destruction. The canvas perimeter bound the hives of my invention.

The act of painting was unenjoyable. My conflicting feelings confused the means of conveyance. And yet, the canvases were declared complete after eight months. In retrospect, the effort ended, more so from fatigue and to escape the experience, then by their individual or combined resolution.

Their conclusion, however, did coincided with anguish diminished and a desire for peace -- for those involved, including the perpetrator. For a fourth painting, bees remained the central visage but with less entangled, released forms and with unexpected transmutable power. The work was enjoyable. Forgiveness was completed in 2012.

In 2016 I attended a wedding near Kraków, Poland. I made a nearby visit of Auschwitz, the most infamous setting from the Holocaust during World War II. That experience led me to create six assemblages for the Benennen (to Name) series. Afterwards I looked with new eyes at the bee paintings to see if they encapsulated what I felt and understood years before and now, after Auschwitz. The additional effort improved the paintings as compositions, but they didn't achieve sufficient emotional depth or story cohesiveness. I resigned from the work a second time and begrudgingly accepted the effort.

In 2023, my workspace of six-years, once Bill King’s studio, ended after his wife, Connie Fox, died. I moved into the largest studio of my career, one owned by another deceased artist, Warren Padulla, and his wife and artist, Elaine McKay. (Warren assisted me with Homefront in 2013.) For the first time in six years, I unwrapped the first three bee canvases and for the first time, examined them side by side. Forgiveness was in North Carolina.

The new setting and passing of years brought about a reassessment of the series. The events and the paintings meant too much to me for them to remain unresolved. Fresh questions arose. Can one be truthful to the unobserved death of insects by using compositional ideas and mnemonic language? If so, can the atomized, juxtaposed forms reflect an organism's oneness? And if the four paintings could be thought of as an emotional statement, did they communicate sufficiently, allowing others to experience meaningful yet open contemplation?

With trepidation, Mary was told that work had begun...again...on the three. I conveyed my feelings for each with one or two words. She noted that when a hive is first disturbed, it exhibits confusion, and then it expresses anger. Her observation suggested a reordering of what are now paintings 1 and 2, and the further alignment of my imagination and feelings for what the bees experienced and the visual adjustments necessary to convey those feelings. It also suggested how painting 3 could be strengthened and link all three to the very different fourth artwork.

Though the paintings have never been exhibited together, the website provides a semblance of doing so. An opportunity to exhibit them is envisioned.