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LONDON – Like many artists, Matthew Willey had longed to meet his muse. He had no idea she would fly in through his apartment window.
The bee that buzzed into his room in late spring, 2008 so entranced the New York-based muralist that he embarked on a mission to highlight growing threats to pollinators by hand-painting 50,000 individual bees on buildings around the world.
Having rendered more than 5,500 of the insects in 30 murals and installations over the past five years, Willey says the shared experience of the coronavirus pandemic has made people more receptive to the sense of interdependence he aims to evoke.
“From depression or addiction, to climate change to plastic pollution in the ocean, to systemic racism, it is our choice to separate all these interconnected problems out into fragments that makes them harder to solve,” Willey said.
Matthew Willey poses by a mural of bees at Pipers Corner School in the south-east English county of Buckinghamshire, part of his Good of the Hive project to hand-paint 50,000 bees on buildings around the world, October 1, 2020.Reuters
“A bee is always considering the welfare of her hive. She is wired that way. But humans are wired for choice. So we must choose to see how connected all our problems are.”
Once focused primarily on painting high-end murals in nightclubs, sports venues or luxury homes, Willey painted his first bee mural on a 1920s-style stucco building in LaBelle, Florida in 2015. Passers-by began to donate money, food and coffee to support the 10-week project.
Since then, Willey has sent bees dancing across schools, museums and municipal buildings from San Diego to Washington DC. In October, he completed his first international project at a school in southern England after a 15-year-old pupil wrote to him after discovering his Good of the Hive project’s website.
With bees and other insects facing pressures from pesticide use to habitat loss and climate change, Willey hopes planned projects from Italy to India will prompt more people to rethink their relationship with nature – and each other.
“I am not painting bees,” Willey said. “I am painting us.”