WALTER BENJAMIN AND OTHER THEORISTS of the present day argue we’ve turned from a word-based culture back to a visual one like that of the Middle Ages, when the illiterate learned their Bible stories from fresco cycles. Anyone who has been to a medieval church understands the shivery power of visual storytelling: the spires stretching up to heaven, gargoyles whose ferocity wards off the ever-present threat of evil. Nowadays, we’re steeped in the seductive visuals of advertising, like the images of nature that sell us unrelated consumer goods: breaching whales for insurance; canoe rides between cliffs for a herpes drug.
As imagery from all media feeds our imaginations, it grows more and more controlled by those who have a vested interest in how it’s perceived — government, mainstream news and entertainment, the corporations that want us to buy their products and ignore their transgressions. We live in the world of spin, while much modern art remains in the throes of the mid-nineteenth-century idea of ars gratia artis — art for art’s sake. Increasingly, though, contemporary art is pushing its way back into the political arena.
The Beehive Design Collective, headquartered in Machias, Maine, works to take back visual narrative with artwork that offers rich, politically charged stories untold by our news media. On completing their signature mural-type banners, members of the collective travel to schools, rallies, and other events to present the artwork in the form of “picture-lectures” on subjects from monoculture to coal mining. The Beehive group, which describes itself as “word-to-image translators,” has six “backbone bees” who live in a house in Machias when not on the road and dozens of others who participate in Beehive projects.
I drove down to Seattle in the summer of 2011 to see the collective in action at a conference on the problem of our nation’s expanding coal use. The collective sent to the conference a Bee and a banner — a recent project, titled “The True Cost of Coal,” focused on mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. I have coal very much on the brain lately. I live in Bellingham, a few miles from a site where, if Peabody Energy and Goldman Sachs have their way, an enormous coal terminal will soon be built, largely to ship coal to China.
Still in its environmental study and permitting phase, the terminal at peak capacity would mean twenty more trains through my small city, half the trains loaded with unenclosed coal, smudging the air with a new load of particulates. The site already has two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter. I live close to the tracks in this place, still heart-churningly beautiful to me after twenty years, snug on the Puget Sound. I sleep to the cranky, loud grinding of trains switching tracks. I am picturing the trains doubled, my son devolving back to the boy whose asthma, sinusy rattle, and cough have haunted my sleep over the years.
I am fascinated by what the Beehive presentation will be, and a bit skeptical. This is Goldman Sachs and Peabody Energy — the king of mountaintop mining — we’re up against. A poster is, well, a poster: an illustration, a picture summing up what we already know.
I meet Emma Bee, today’s Beehive presenter, a composed and articulate young woman in an urchin’s cap and jeans. Everyone from the collective, she tells me, goes by the name Bee when representing the group (Emma signs her e-mails con miel, “with honey.”) A copy of the Beehive Collective’s “True Cost of Coal” banner, printed on a sixteen-by-eight-foot cloth, hangs on the wall of the Seattle University lecture hall.
The visual power of the banner offers a clear and intricate story that draws the eye everywhere at once, fascinating in its detail — the perfectly rucked cap of a morel, hairs on the legs of a woodwasp — and overwhelming in its breadth. With its symbolism and visual density — a family of frogs drinking black water from a poisoned well, European starlings migrating to Appalachia with Bibles, babies, and bluegrass guitars — it feels like the artwork Hieronymus Bosch would have created if he had been an activist. It sweeps through time, moving from prehistory through early mining and reform to the present-day dynamiting of mountaintops. Human characters are represented by birds, animals, and insects, many endangered, drawing together all of our struggles to survive in a degraded landscape.
To present the banner, Emma leaps from rickety desk to rickety desk, talking us through the detailed visuals. The banner consists of five “chapters,” each representing a stage of the history of mining in Appalachia. The first shows the deep past, with the ferns and horsetail plants that would become the coal fueling twentieth- and twenty-first-century extraction battles. Clear waters flow; a Cherokee drum and discarded treaty represent the Native Americans who first lived on this land.
In chapter two, European starlings appear, symbolizing the arrival of the Scots-Irish and Welsh. With the industrial revolution comes the onslaught of mining. Trees are cut off at the base. Rifle barrels bristle out of the headquarters of the private police force next to the company store with the jacked-up prices that forced miners into a lifetime of debt. It’s a grim chapter of the story, but not without hope; this section also shows the rise of labor unions.
“We have to remember,” Emma tells us, “that in the end the workers won. The right to an eight-hour day, to health care.”
In the third chapter, the banner moves to the present day. A continuous mining machine extracts coal, taking away the need for workers — Emma notes that 100,000 former mining jobs in West Virginia have now fallen to 15,000. A family of frogs represents a coal family, put in the impossible position of having to blow up the mountain peaks they love to earn a living wage. Frogs are bent and ill; some shake out Oxycontin pills — a scourge in mining communities — from prescription bottles. Wells pump blackened water. One frog growing a patch of tomatoes stares in horror at a blotched fruit; Emma tells us of tomato plants in mining towns that have come up from the ground covered with orange slime caused by heavy metals.
The fourth chapter is about resistance. Social movements and organizing come into focus. A group of endangered species, from snails to wolves, gather in the roots of an ancient tree. Two moths represent two grandmothers in West Virginia who sued Massey Energy over coal dust damage and won. Finally, in chapter five we see regeneration — contaminated water cleaned by cattails, mushrooms, and other species that absorb toxins; creatures harvesting rainwater. Wasps in an urban hive, complete with solar panels, show the possibility of a new kind of city — not an “extraction point” but a producer of energy and resources.
The coal poster presents a linear progression from the deep past of untouched greenery to its legacy — coal — and the resistance to extraction. Poster users can also fold over chapters one and five to create a different image, “healing over the linear story of extraction in a circular way,” as Emma says. This image knits together those horsetails and untouched mountains of early Appalachia with a sustainable future: women canning, small-scale farmers packing boxes for community supported agriculture shares.
I find my skepticism gone by the end of the presentation, replaced by the excitement of viewing artwork that feels more like an experience than an image, communicating time, change, story, and possibility. As disturbing as some images are, the dynamism of the whole suggests no single ending to the narrative arc is inevitable.
After the presentation, Emma and I drift outside to talk. It is gently difficult to interview a Bee. Mine has a good-humored resistance to talking about herself or the collective’s founders.
“It’s not about them or about me, it’s about all of us,” Emma responds to many of my questions. The Bees are also an anticopyright group — anyone can access their website (beehivecollective.org) and download posters and clip art. The collective operates on the belief that its work should get out into the world and self-replicate. The hive accepts donations for posters and picture-lectures, but has a policy of giving away half of both.
“We don’t own these stories,” explains Emma. “These are lots of people’s stories. The posters are an educational tool. We want people to use them.” Later, she adds, “The people whose stories are illustrated in the images know how to best use them . . . . We are just translators who try to amplify voices that are often silenced.”
Before the “True Cost of Coal” banner, the collective did most of its work on Latin America, on issues such as corporate globalization and colonialism. Its founders are self-taught artists who began as a mosaic cooperative focused on biodiversity. The “True Cost of Coal” banner took ten Bees and three years to complete, a typical length of time for the collective. Image creation for the bees comes only after a slow process of information-gathering from the people involved. For the coal banner, members of the collective traveled to Appalachia, collecting oral histories and drawing “mind maps” that laid out stories visually and drew connections. They then crafted individual scenes that each represent a story told to a member of the group.
Each Beehive Collective project team has illustrators, researchers, designers, and what the group calls “metaphor crafters” who focus on developing visual metaphors like the wasps’ nest that represents sustainable urban life. Members of the team keep returning to the region in question bearing “drafts” of the banner, receiving feedback, and revising. The completed project is always considered a part of the community it reflects: half of the coal posters printed went to the Appalachian region that generated its stories.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Beehive Collective, during which time the group has distributed 100,000 posters, almost all at Beehive presentations.
I make my donation and take my copy of the coal poster home, stretching it out in my living room, without saying a word, hoping the images soak into the girl-and-video-game-saturated consciousness of my teenage son. When, after a few days, he asks what it “means,” I feel the work of the collective’s pollination begin as I point and launch into the history of coal in Appalachia.
The need for the Beehive Collective’s work is great. When we think about taking back influence over the media, we tend to think of cell-phone photos, images of martyrs spread through Facebook in Egypt, and a corporate news that avoids pictures of unpopular truths. We forget that crafted visuals — art — tell stories as powerfully as captured images do. In an age of visual learners, narrative images capture — and educate — the popular imagination.