Treasures from the Vault: Jacqueline May

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

My friends are renovating their kitchen, and in their demo they discovered an old bee or wasp nest in the wall:

A miniature sculpture, it made me nostalgic for spring and productivity. Like a bear, I hibernate in winter and tend put tasks and errands aside until “the snow stops” or “the wind dies down”. I assumed bees did, too, as I can’t recall an instance when I’ve seen a bee in winter; but, they don’t! These productive insects stay active in their hive all winter long, consuming honey and “shivering” to produce heat. Clustering inside to stay warm, they vibrate around the Queen Bee; the center of the hive is around 90-100F! You don’t see the bees because of this: they don’t have time to forage, they are being busy bees inside the hive. With today being the first day of spring we should start seeing bees, like the ones in this print by Jacqueline May, buzzing around soon! What are the bees in The Bee Star doing?

A screenprint of a yellow honeycomb with a red heart overtop it. Around the heart fly a handful of yellow and black bees with white translucent wings.
Jacqueline May, American. The Bee Star. Screenprint on paper, 2001. Purchase with funds provided by the America Art Initiative Capital Campaign, 2013.50.8. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Here, we have a human heart atop a honeycomb with honeybees flying inside and around the comb. The honeycomb is a pattern of repeating brown hexagons against a yellow background. The heart and bees are layered overtop the centered heart. The layers of the screenprint make it hard to decipher bee from honey, but looking at their white, translucent wings I count 14. There is also a 15th bee outside the honeycomb, who appears to be readying itself to land amongst its hive, perhaps returning to the rectangular comb after harvesting pollen. By making the bees overlap and almost indistinguishable from the comb, May captures the chaos and movement of a living hive. Centered and magnifying the combs on which it rests, the heart could represent the the rhythm of a working hive. The soft yellow, orange, and dusky pink are reminiscent of a spring sunset and, centered within the page, the untouched bright white paper acts as a border or framing device.

May, who enjoys gardening and nature, has long-held a fascination for social insects and the parallels she sees between their societies and our own. Referring to The Bee Star, she stated, “Bees are workers, and they produce both sweetness and pain. In Mayan mythology, the Bee Star refers to Venus. Amused by the juxtaposition of bees with the goddess of love, I created a piece in which labor, reproductive processes, sweetness, and stings inhabit a human heart.” In a similar vein, in Celtic mythology it was important for beekeepers to tell the bees about any significant events within the family (deaths, births, marriages, and people leaving or coming back) to ensure they stayed in the hive. A tradition that further binds the bees to humans, the insects are also responsible for pollinating the majority of our crops, and their inclusion in artworks often alludes to cooperation, industry, and the sweetness of life.

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