I asked the Art Connection about doing an installation project. I wanted a new routine. This type of project scale isn’t new to me. However a non-commercial project with complete artistic control was the idea. Same as if if an orchestra musician has had it with playing someone else’s score and wants to write the symphony. Often I wonder what life would be like if I just enjoyed daytime TV or watching sports teams instead of following these crazy ideas of mine.
The project officially ran from December 2014 through June 2015 and involved five individuals from Massasoit Community College’s Brockton campus, one husband [Don], and myself.
I was doing tests over the summer of 2014 to figure out how to say ‘honeycomb’ visually. One day, without much thought, I used a staple gun to attach some chicken wire to an old picture frame that was lying around with no purpose. It was immediately so obviously perfect for the job.
Then the collaboration started at home with Don. I scavenged and disassembled hardwood from discarded shipping material at work. I liked some of the wood’s organic imperfections. Don ripped the wood for each honeycomb-to-be frame on the table saw and set up a biscuit joiner to assemble it. Biscuits, wood glue, and brads were used to hold the frames together. The project provided an excuse to acquire a new air powered tool which makes for a happy husband.
I next got inspired by the shop drill press. It was used to create holes in detail panels that would be attached to each frame. Why do this? In an apiary, bees enter and exit wooden hive boxes through very small entryways. These bee ‘doorways’ aren’t attached to the frames in a real hive set up, but the visual language of the access points was both pleasing and the nonsense of putting it in a ridiculous location reflects how I think.
Drilling unnecessary holes made me very happy. I encourage anyone do simple things like making holes in wood or whatever it is you enjoy. Daily life will be better for it.
If I’m making art and the muse directs me down a fun path I never question it, I honor it. A brief digression for example: A sudden obsession a few years ago to make platter-sized edible egg tempera art cookies for some friends. Ralph Mayer won’t be calling me anytime soon to update his Artist’s Handbook bible regarding egg tempera recipes. Still, pure inspiration is the most wonderful gift to receive from the universe. I practice trying to keep those channels open regularly. But back to our story…
The image below was a day of action; thinking about scale, design, and layout in the driveway at home.
Once wire was stapled to the frames they were ready for my collaborators to run with starting in December. We applied the rice paper, then added coloring and epoxy ‘honey’.
Next up was working to depict a backdrop scene for the hive elements. We used a variety of free form painting and printmaking techniques on polyester 110 silkscreen mesh. The length of mesh took up the entire width of the Massasoit art studio floorspace. Many paint tarps were taped together underneath as a protective layer and to act as a wrap in between each work session.During the first layer collaborators were encouraged to find their inner Jackson Pollock or move paint around without an agenda, like children do. Working this way opens the door for the unexpected. What comes out informs how to develop the next layer. Art making can be a discovering of what is not known yet and allowing ourselves to follow.
Early Paint Left Side
Early Paint Right Side
In the middle of all the paint layers, we added printmaking. Adhesive foam designs were cut with scissors and scratched with super high tech tools [sarcasm]. We used things like a screwdriver or whatever else was around that was ‘pointy’. The adhesive foam side was applied to cardboard construction form tubes. These tubes are typically used in building construction to pour cement forms and can be found at any Lowe’s or Home Depot type store in 8′ lengths. The segments were cut easily with a saw-zall tool before adhering the foam print ‘plate’ to the tube form.Below is a test print to pre-check the ink load. This was a also way to also preview the previously round print block which enabled us to decide where to roll the design onto the mesh. It was a surprise to see how the design appeared the first time in 2D.
Two more different tree designs are shown after being rolled onto the backdrop. We collaboratively invented this technique during the project. Round printmaking needs no press or elaborate equipment, and can travel anywhere. It is cool and fun I can hardly stand how exciting it is. I do not expect to grow tired of this technique any time soon.
Design by R. Blanchette
Design and Artist S. Thomas
Final paint details were added after the printmaking. On the left I’m adding yellow dots all over the screen. They are like playing with sprites. I love dots. On the right, Rolly and I are placing plastic wrap stencils on the screen. We sprayed some subtle paint color around these. The plastic created a mask and the color spray was misted around it. In the foreground, the mask to make the moon was used with more heavy paint application than elsewhere. This is why the moon appears in the finished screen images while the other misted areas provide only subtle color changes.
The next step was to test fit everything in the cafeteria installation site. There is a fire door located on the far left underneath the screen and three heavily used electrical outlets. We needed to navigate the design around these challenges. Some things just things to be figured out in their own time. We talked about it a LOT.
In the end we cut the screen. No one wanted to do it. Sometimes creating is like jumping off of a cliff. Cuts were made so that the gaps became part of the entire design. This helps to eliminate the eye focusing on the door or outlet ‘problems’. We still hadn’t addressed where to put all the honeycombs that were so enjoyable to build. There were so many of them. What was I thinking! Like everything, with some time and energy that was figured that out too. It was shaping up to be a busy composition. Have you ever watched bees around their hive? It is a VERY busy place.
…And then things got really challenging. In a state building, fabric must be fireproofed. Of course this is a good idea. Dharma Trading Companyto the rescue. They are a fiber art supply house. They carry a product specifically for fireproofing public art. Thank goodness we could meet the requirements communicated by the Fire Marshall. Failure was not really an option. We had been working for months by this time. Never give up. Good thing the screen was in pieces. This made fireproofing on both sides logistically possible. We made makeshift clotheslines in the studio to hang all the pieces from to treat them. Installation disaster averted.
Following fireproofing, the screen pieces were hung and honeycombs placed.
The time had come for some bees, actually many bees. Rolly wanted 100 bees. I thought maybe 50 of them. Either way it was a tall order. So many possible ways to say ‘bee’. A three dimensional component seemed most fitting for the work. How to have the project remain a satisfying, rather than frustrating experience for the collaborators was crucial. Not every idea in life is a winner. Rolly aptly named our failures ‘Bee Tremors’.
After the false starts it was evident that the sheer volume of bees desired was going to require a mechanical production step, maybe use of Don’s 3D printer? I was avoiding that option so the work would remain hands on, but the printer path was becoming the only one that made sense. Don made a prototype in SketchUp software one day while I was away working with the other hive collaborators. He has experience in making other critters on his printer. I also found a Bee puzzle online at Thingiverse, created by an artist named Mutsuki. Thingiverse is an online resource where creative people share digital designs for creating objects. Mutsuki’s bee was available for non-commercial use, just like the way I provide art to the Art Connection. Use of the bee puzzle for a volunteer art installation project at an educational institution fit.
We tested both ideas on the 3D printer.Below are images of Don’s prototype bee and Mutsuki’s puzzle design. Unfortunately each design was going to take multiple hours to print. With no equipment malfunctions, downtime, or other unforeseen mechanical snafus, 2 hours x 50 bees would be at least 100 hours of production. This figure did not include any cosmetic clean up needed on each piece nor any assembly of the cut pieces. At that rate we could have built another painted hive city many times the size of the current one. Hmmmmm…
The left image below is Don’s design posed in a Rhododendron. It’s charm and cuteness steals my heart. It lives with us at home. I greet it every morning while I brush my teeth and hair to get ready for the day. The right image is Mutsuki’s puzzle, assembled, spray painted, and sitting in a Japanese Andromeda bush for effect.
How to solve the bee production dilemma? Enter Mike Tripp of Tripp Printing Company. Our angel in waiting. There is a saying that goes something like …the universe conspires to assist you when you are on a true path. The philosophy is from Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist. The book has been translated into 67 languages. It must be right about something. That is the only way I can explain why Mike took the time to help us. He has an entire company to run and despite the grind of the real world, Mike’s and his staff opened their hearts and organization to our project. They provided both equipment use and cutting assistance. T o say we are forever in their debt is an understatement.
A little about modern technology. Laser cutters are subtractive. They cut designs out of material, then individual loose pieces can be assembled. 3D printers are additive; by slowly melting a thin steam of plastic a physical object is built up from nothing. These are two very different machines. The production speed of the Laser Cutter far exceeded the 3D printer. The equipment is also very reliable and cuts clean lines.
Mutsuki’s bee puzzle design was the path of least resistance in the end. Below is the set up a Tripp Universal Laser Cutter. It’s fascinating to watch and beautifully simple. This cutter unit is placed on a stable table, and a basic vent fan in the ceiling runs during operation. If you need a production machine to do this type of work give The Tripp Company a call. These amazing machines have unlimited creative possibilities. There are far more choices and capabilities as well in terms of equipment models available.
And so we built a bee colony. In the end just over 50 were made. Each bee puzzle consisted of approximately 27 individual pieces. It may sounds daunting but our creative army was up to the task. We got to know each bee intimately. Glue guns were used to ensure all pieces stayed together for durability in the display.
Assembling Bee Parts
K. Curran Making Bees
Bees Riding in Cars to the Installation
The last stage was making flowers…food for bees and food for the soul. The flower centers were made as found object assemblies, coated in epoxy. The epoxy was painted, drawn on with a marker, sealed, and then glued into petals. The petals are cut from an old outdoor grill cover that was no longer of any use for the grill. I had it left over from a residency last summer. It was a gessoed, sealed, and spray-painted raw material for petals. Everyone seemed to enjoy using it.
Weapons of Mass Construction
S. Thomas Painting Found Objects
The flower assemblies were mounted on a painted vine of bittersweet, forming a lovely manifold design. The vine was mounted in a spray-painted wooden bracket installed over the screen on the project wall.
And there you have it. The install is in the Massasoit Brockton Campus’s Community College Student Center Cafeteria with proportions measuring approximately 6′ high x 25′ long on one wall. Additional sculptural accents hang on a perpendicular brick area. The project was a collaboration, meaning volunteers added their own artistry as they followed a loosely directed process. I’d like to add here that our talented collaborators came from non-art program backgrounds such as liberal arts programs, as well as the Facilities, Human Resources, and Sociology Departments at Massasoit. So if you ever meet me on the street don’t ever tell me you can’t make art. I won’t believe you because its not true. This was the first experience of serious scale art making for these individuals. Their accomplishment speaks for itself. I am both proud of and honored by their contributions.
During this project we forged a living hive community with connections that extend well beyond the finished art form. Roland Blanchette’s description on the plaque next to the work reads: The Hive is a figurative rendition of the life of bees. The backdrop, the flowers, and the honeycombs create a place like no other. This is also true of Massasoit’s cafeteria. Each bee in The Hive is unique and different, like our students: endlessly active, endlessly interesting.
Donna Beals, Roland Blanchette, & Sue Thomas. Massasoit staff, co-creators…with Roland providing organizational support and engineering in addition to creativity at every necessary and normal obstacle. He did this often, always exceeding my expectation.
Don Browne. My better half in life, and a master of carpentry power tools. He keeps all my creative limbs intact for the next adventure.