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Beehive Collective talks art and activism in Horn Gallery

Students who visited upper Horn Gallery last Thursday evening encountered a massive banner spanning the front right corner of the room, illustrated with intricate graphics of animals and coal mining scenes. The poster was created by activist art group Beehive Collective and presented by Molly Shea, one of the group’s “storytellers,” who holds presentations throughout the country.

Beehive Collective, based in Machias, Maine, began in 2000 starting with a  stonecut mosaic installation that aimed to counter globalization. The name pays tribute to the sense of equality and unity found among most species of bees. The group found posters to be a more effective form of combatting large-scale development projects and ultimately shifted their focus from mosaics to graphic design, creating posters that, as Shea put it, “read like a comic book.” Beehive Collective sells their posters online and at presentations but is anti-copyright, encouraging the sharing of the group’s work to maximize the awareness of various causes.

Shea, a Columbus resident, visited Kenyon for her third year in a row to discuss the group’s work and brainstorm effective forms of environmental activism. The Environmental Campus Organization (ECO) has spearheaded Beehive Collective’s presentations at Kenyon over the past several years. “I really like presentations that remind people that you don’t have to just do one thing for the rest of your life,” ECO Co-President Erin Keleske ’18 said. “All these things you’re interested in, you can find a way to collaborate in a way that we don’t typically see as activism but which is still important and impactful.”

Beehive Collective functions as an activist group with a small central location but a large, fluid network of supporters throughout the U.S. While the 10 or 15 core “bees” in the Collective mostly work as professional artists, Shea said, the group’s intersectional approach to activism involves work in the scientific, artistic and political spheres, drawing a diverse range of “bees” with various levels of involvement.

Shea described the process through which the artists, or “bees,” as the collective calls them, visited coal mining communities throughout the Appalachian Mountains to spark conversations and foster meaningful relationships with locals. Despite the fact that some are high school dropouts and some have graduate degrees, all those involved with Beehive Collective are bonded by a passion for the environment.

Shea’s presentation centered on the banner, “The True Cost of Coal,” which focuses on mining within Appalachia. Nine “bees”, with one tattoo artist and one professionally trained graphic artist at the forefront, then worked to create the banner.

Shea explained how mountaintop removal mining, a process by which explosives are used to remove the layers of of sediment covering the coal within mountains, strips the areas of wildlife and contributes to contamination of Appalachia’s water — which provides some of the cleanest drinking supply in North America. Shea told attendees that coal mining disrupts the ecological and the social order of life in the mountains.

“The True Cost of Coal” conveys the history of Appalachia through images of plants, animals and construction projects. The left side of the banner, a rich scene of foliage and wild animals, depicts the human colonization of the East Coast as interactions between plants and animals indigenous to the region, with European birds donning the hats of Spanish conquistadors. The middle section of the poster shows the systematic destruction and cultural control of Appalachian communities related to coal mining. From bottom to top, the poster transitions from micro to macro focus on these developments, depicting animals combatting runoff in a river at the base and moving upward to show images of coal mining carts, factories and the replacement of hospitals, schools and small businesses being destroyed to make way for a Walmart and prison. The top includes several government buildings and a factory with smoke plumes creating a vortex in the sky. The banner’s right side shows the process of recovery and healing; for instance, a dead hemlock tree was speckled with an invasive species of mushroom known for its ability to relieve heavy metal poisoning, which afflicts many residents of current and past coal mining communities.

Shea dedicated a large part of the evening to addressing the effectiveness of various forms of resistance against government policies. At one point during the presentation, Shea asked attendees to move around the room to one of four locations labeled “high or low energy” and “high or low impact.” Participants stood in whatever location they thought represented the difficulty of organizing activist efforts and the impact of different forms of activism that Shea named, from mass mobilization to court cases. The activity matched the organization’s method of posing questions about society to stimulate discussion and maximize the reach of their message.

Throughout the presentation, Shea stressed the value of striving for policy reform, whether through practicing law or creating posters. “Some people just drop out and live in the woods, and that’s great, but that doesn’t create this systemic change,” Shea said.