Exquisite Gorge 4: The Bee Maven

In White Salmon, artist Steven Muñoz engages a hive of community creativity to make art highlighting the danger of ecological collapse


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare
.”

W.B. Yeats wrote these words in the sixth section of his poem Meditations in Time of Civil War, longing for bees. The structures were crumbling, symbol of the destruction wrought by Ireland’s civil war in the 1920s, and rebuilding was direly needed. I was reminded of this poem and the restorative role it assigns to bees, when meeting with Steven Muñoz last week for a studio visit and an art talk in White Salmon, Wash.

Steven Muñoz, printmaker and director of the Lee Arts Center, Arlington, Va.

The printmaker is the fourth of several artists who I visited during their participation in the Exquisite Gorge project, which accumulates individual wood prints for a final printing by a steam roller in late August at Maryhill Museum. If the wait until then seems too long, you can attend an earlier opening of what promises to be a different, extraordinary print exhibition on July 13th at the museum:


Muñoz is a man who walks, talks, breathes, and, for all I know, sleeps and dreams bees. A mere century after Yeats’ lament, with the structures crumbling again, this time destroying the very fabric of nature on which the bees and all who rely on them depend, his work is a call to action.

Steven Muñoz

The artist grew up in New Mexico, exposed to cultivating nature from an early age on his grandparents’ alfalfa farm. He received a BFA with a concentration in printmaking from American University in Washington, D.C., in 1998 and is currently the director of the Lee Arts Center, a program of Arlington Cultural Affairs. As chair of the Board of City Blossoms, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering healthy communities by developing creative, kid-driven green spaces in neighborhoods that would not otherwise have access to gardening, Muñoz nurtures not just plants – although he does that, too, as a master gardener.


THE EXQUISITE GORGE PROJECT

“…a collaborative printmaking project featuring 11 artists working with communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River from the Willamette River confluence to the Snake River confluence to create a massive 66-foot steamrolled print. The unique project takes inspiration from the Surrealist art practice known as exquisite corpse. In the most well-known exquisite corpse drawing game, participants took turns creating sections of a body on a piece of paper folded to hide each successive contribution. When unfolded, the whole body is revealed. In the case of The Exquisite Gorge Project, the Columbia River will become the ‘body’ that unifies the collaboration between artists and communities, revealing a flowing 66-foot work that tells 10 conceptual stories of the Columbia River and its people.”

 Louise Palermo, Curator of Education at Maryhill Museum


Steven Muñoz, four-color reduction woodcut, Monsanto is the Devil (2017)
At work in his studio

His love for bees has grown organically in the context of seeing what damage non-organic farming and commercialized apiculture has wrought. In the age-old tradition of printmakers everywhere who serve as clarion calls for things amiss in the social or political fabric of their time, he draws our attention to what we are about to lose. In turn, the insects themselves attend to him – multiple photographs confirm that the artist attracts them, being literally, physically, peacefully visited by bees.

Muñoz showing images of bees landing on his hands

Muñoz’ approach to his section of the Columbia River Gorge (Browns Island to Miller Island) involved meticulous research of the flora that is endangered by the decline of pollinators. As it turns out, the widespread meadow death camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum) is dependent on a sole insect that can pollinate it: a mining bee called Andrena astragali. If this species is destroyed by agricultural chemicals or changes in climate that affect reproduction or survival, the game is over for the plant as well. I do not have to spell out the chain reaction for any of the imaginable similar scenarios involving all bees as pollinators.

Steven Muñoz’ woodblock depicting a mining bee.

His woodblock depicts this mining bee about to approach the plant; it took over a month and a half for the drawing alone to be executed. He then spent several weeks in White Salmon, away from his patient husband, dogs and East Coast bees, to undertake the carving of the woodblock.

Preparatory drawing for the woodcut.

The importance of bees has been known since time immemorial. Well, spelled out, at least, since Virgil told us about the God Aristaeus. Responsible for the cultivation of bees, wine and olives, he was punished with the death of all of his bees for coveting Orpheus’ wife, Euridice, and causing her death when she stepped on a poisonous snake while fleeing Aristaeus’ advances.

We might also want to think through the rest of that myth: Orpheus thought he could rescue his beloved from the underworld, restoring her to life. No such luck: Man’s impatience and doubts destroyed one last chance for a happy ending. Parallels to our current trajectory, anyone?

Steven Muñoz, four-color reduction woodcut Danger Lurks (2019).

Here is Virgil’s Georgics, Book IVwith details on ancient beekeeping that might be of interest. Less poetic in style, but rich in scientific substance are the writings of a more contemporary champion of bees, Thomas Seeley. A biologist at Cornell University, he is the ultimate authority on swarm intelligence, the pooling of individual decisions that, in some form of distributed process, produces a collective outcome that is beneficial to the group. Aptly, he calls it Honeybee Democracy.

Steven Muñoz woodcut Devil’s Helmet and the Bee (2018).

Some simple principles underly the emerging wisdom of the group; for instance, when they try to find a new home each year that needs to have both an appropriate size and appropriate levels of protection. The first principle concerns enthusiasm, which in turn triggers attention. Bees who come home from exploration of potential sites display differing levels of enthusiasm, expressed by dancing with differing degrees of passion. The more passion, the more fellow bees will go out to inspect the site. The second principle is flexibility. There are rules of communication through dance that allow second-wave scouts to make up their own minds and contribute to the collective decision that way. In the end, whoever recruits the most bees to be excited about a single site will maneuver the swarm in that direction.

Muñoz giving a lecture.

I cannot judge how much distributed decision-making led to the engagement by Muñoz’ community partner in the print project, the White Salmon Arts Council. I can vouch, however, for that group’s enthusiasm and flexibility. Their support for the artist ranged from housing him for weeks on end to lending him a studio to work in, taking care of everyday needs, providing a space to show and sell some of his other work, and inviting him to give a talk to the community to alert one and all to the cause. They were flexible when I showed up, and certainly welcomed me in and helped me gather essential information.

The range of creative focus was definitely distributed, from printmakers to weavers, jewelry makers to ceramic artists, painters and more. I have photographs and glimpses of the work of only a few, but they are indicative of the variety I mentioned.

Gathering for the art chat with Steve Muñoz.

The evening was moderated by Sally Gilchrist, whose prints brought “saftig” to my mind – the German “saftig” refers to something juicy, the yiddish “zaftig” refers to voluptuous round curves, and both are often used in reference to something quite appealing. I had coincidentally seen her work on the walls of Henni’s Kitchen and Bar in White Salmon a week earlier, and it remains a mystery whether my discreet drooling was induced by coveting the art or the best burger I’ve had in a long time….

Sally Gilchrist

Sarah Morton-Erasmus is president of the Arts Council, and the jewelry she makes has etherial qualities. In contrast, her organizing is pragmatically down-to-earth and geared at increasing the public representation of the group, from Art Walks to Art Chats to mentoring programs for local high school students and further artist residency programs.

Sarah Morton-Erasmus

Kristie Strasen has done some remarkable work as a textile designer and colorist, but I was very much drawn to her weaving, which brings elegance to the homespun material. She was by all reports an especially kind host to Muñoz as well.

Kristie Strasen

Others who could not attend the Art Chat but were described as instrumental for the public work of the Arts Council are Meg Bradford, an art collector and owner of Cor Cellars, who according to Morton-Erasmus puts on some of the best events in the Gorge at her winery; Chelsea Heffner, the owner of Wildcraft Studio School; Ben Berger, an art enthusiast and a financial planner with a background in the tech industry; and last but not least, Charlie Kitchings, who is an art dealer and solid resource with connections to Seattle and Los Angeles. 

Art Chat Participant
Lisa Commander, director of the Columbia Gorge Veterans Museum, with the perfect bee earring!

I mention all of these individuals because of my firm conviction that individual engagement is the glue that holds communities together. Particularly in times of absence or decrease of public support for the arts, the resources, connections, help, and input provided by groups like these matter ever more. The role played by community partners in the Exquisite Gorge project cannot be overstated, even if attention is geared towards the artists who provide us with much food for thought and the museum which had this terrific idea in the first place. Three cheers for volunteers!

Makeshift demonstration of the Columbia River Gorge Sections

River Map with designated sections

On my way back from White Salmon in the evening, I got stuck, seemingly for hours, on I84 because of a crash in Troutdale. Mahler’s 1st symphony, conducted by the Oregon Symphony’s Carlos Kalmar, was playing on the radio, and in the lane next to me was a trailer filled with frightened calves. Between the bovine stench, the overly accentuated cuckoo calls coming from the clarinet, and the calves’ all but rhythmic banging against their trailer walls, oh, did I long for softly humming bees. My thoughts were drawn back to Yeats and his assessment in his poem of what the world needs:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

Muñoz’ art serves as a timely reminder of what is needed to repair the world. We, like Orpheus, might not get a second chance.


This is Part 4 in a series of stories and photographs by Friderike Heuer, published on Oregon ArtsWatch in collaboration with Heuer and her web site YDP – Your Daily PictureIt is also published on YDP, on Sunday, June 30, 2019.

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