Buzz at Brookgreen: Artist brings worldwide mission to Lowcountry Zoo

23 Apr

Buzz at Brookgreen: Artist brings worldwide mission to Lowcountry Zoo

Bees – although they might not be the first things you think of when considering world peace, humans can learn a lot from these small buzzing insects working cooperatively in their hive.

That’s what occurred to Matt Willey after a honeybee flew into his Manhattan apartment in 2008 and eventually died on his rug. He had no idea that this experience would change the trajectory of his life and affect many people around him. Or that it would bring him, eventually, to points all across the world, including Brookgreen Gardens on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast.

For some reason, though, Willey decided to lie on the floor to get a closer look and that’s when he says he felt a strong bond with the bee.

Matt Willey, a professional mural artist, paints bees at the Conservation Station in the Lowcountry Zoo at Brookgreen Gardens. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

“Right away I noticed a cuteness, and then there was this fuzziness and I saw her big eyes,” he said. “I watched this little bee walk the last two feet of her life, and I connected with her.”

Willey is a professional mural artist who is now working on a 21-year project to paint 50,000 bees – the number of bees in a healthy hive – on murals in different locations around the world. He serves as president of a nonprofit organization he founded, called The Good of the Hive and is also working on a documentary film titled, “The Good of the Hive,” which will be available in fall of 2025.

He recently finished painting one of his murals in the Lowcountry Zoo at Brookgreen Gardens on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast®. The mural, located in Brookgreen’s Conservation Station adjacent to Red Wolf Ridge and an observational beehive, is a visible expression of Brookgreen Gardens’ own conservation efforts affectionately called “Buzzing for Change.”

Page Kiniry, president/CEO of Brookgreen Gardens, said she is honored that Willey chose Brookgreen for one of his murals.

“Brookgreen Gardens is proud to participate in this global art project to raise conservation awareness,” Kiniry said. “Matt’s mural will celebrate these essential pollinators and represent all pollinators, emphasizing our interconnectedness with nature. It’s a testament to the fact that, like bees in a hive, we all play a crucial role in the delicate balance of our ecosystem.”

To support Brookgreen’s conservation efforts, the public is invited to “bee” a global change maker by donating to their newly launched Buzzing For Change Campaign.

Support for this project will fund more than just a piece of art; it represents the heartbeat of a global hive, a beacon of education, and a testament to our commitment to all living creatures,” says Page Kiniry, president and CEO of Brookgreen Gardens. “By contributing, individuals become a brushstroke in this masterpiece of conservation, and together, we aim to create a ripple effect of awareness, fostering a deep sense of responsibility for the world we inhabit.”

Across 9,100 acres of carefully managed land, Brookgreen nurtures natural habitats and woodlands, and restores and preserves art and history. Brookgreen’s mission is rooted in the conservation and restoration of native plants and wildlife, including endangered species like the red wolves and the red-cockaded woodpecker.

“The mural installation has given us the opportunity to raise awareness related to our expansive conservation efforts, said Jamie Yearwood, .director of philantrhopy at Brookgreen “Willey considers himself an art activist and Brookgreen Gardens is the perfect place to share the global hive of interconnectedness being created through his murals.”

Mark A. Stevens, director of tourism development for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, was all abuzz after attending a lecture Willey gave it Brookgreen. He came away urging people to view Willey’s mural at Brookgreen and to visit the artist’s website, The Good of the Hive.

“Matt Willey is not just painting bee murals; he is also sharing a message of conservation and unity,” Stevens said. “On your next visit to South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, stop by Brookgreen to view the bee mural in the Lowcountry Zoo and you, too, can experience a connection with bees.”

Willey said after his experience with the bee on his rug, he started researching bees.

“At the time I heard this voice that said, ‘This is about change,’ and I didn’t know what that meant, but I was fascinated,” he said.

This is the first bee mural Willey painted on the side of a large building for a honey business, called Harold P. Curtis Bee Co. in LaBelle, Florida. (Photo courtesy of Matt Willey)

In his research, he found the term “colony collapse disorder,” a massive and mysterious die-off of bees throughout the world. And he was astonished that he had never heard of that before.

“It was a huge mystery, and scientists were confused,” Willey said. “I thought, ‘How is this huge thing happening and I haven’t seen one magazine article or newspaper article about it?’”

Starting with one bee mural on the side of a large building for a honey business, called Harold P. Curtis Bee Co. in LaBelle, Florida, Willey began his mission – to get people curious about our planet through the lens of art, bees, and storytelling.

“The vision, if all goes according to plan, after 21 years of doing this project, is that people will see the connectiveness between all things, in the same way that a bee sees herself in the hive,” Willey said.

Since beginning this mission, he has had many conversations with people and with bees. During a recent lecture as part of Brookgreen 101, Willey related a conversation he had with bees. He said he usually talks to them about how bees and people are alike, but in this conversation, they were discussing how bees and humans are different.

“I was telling them that we are blessed with a light within each of us, but also burdened with a shadow that covers it,” he said. “Some call that shadow the Devil, others call it ego or addiction or greed or racism. It takes infinite forms, and it is very tricky to maneuver sometimes.”

Willey asked the bees if they had something like this in their hive, the shadow side.

“They said, ‘Yes, we do, but it is not quite the same. We are one being that has thousands of minds, eyes, and lives,’ ” he said. “’We learn who and what we are in the darkness of our hive. We are born into our own shadow. We grow in the darkness of the hive with others we trust as teachers. We do not experience aloneness until we are ready. I asked them, ‘Ready for what?’ And they said, ‘The light.’ ”

This refers to altruistic suicide or altruistic self-removal from the hive – the way bees consider themselves one with the hive, and when they are sick, they fly away to die for the good of the hive.

“They take this drastic act because they are hardwired to perceive that their immune system is collective,” Willey explained. “In other words, their health isn’t based on the individual bee body, it is based on the health of the hive.”

Willey speaks at Brookgreen Gardens about his journey discovering bees and their connection to humans. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

When he realized this, Willey said that was a lightning-bolt moment for him. That was also how he came up with the name of his organization, The Good of the Hive, years later.

“I had never thought about my own immune system at all, beyond my own body,” he said. “I looked around at other people in New York and there was this paradigm shift of how I perceived myself in relation to other humans.”

One of the things he thought about that day was that we are hardwired for choice, not for change.

“We have to choose that change when we are going to do something about anything,” Willey said. “I was fascinated by that, so I became obsessed with bees.”

After the Brookgreen 101 lecture, Kay Filer, curatorial associate with Brookgreen Gardens, said hearing the artist speak was like a spiritual experience and she was eager to see the finished mural.

“This is what we need in the world today, with all the divisiveness in politics, religion, and race tearing us apart,” she said. “This is a message about bringing people together and it needs to be heard.”

Willey had been painting murals professionally for about 20 years before starting his first bee mural on the side of a honey business in LaBelle, Florida. He said when he was painting the mural, people from all walks of life would talk to him — and each other.

“It was kind of beautiful what was happening,” he said. “It seemed to be the combination of bees and art, like chocolate and peanut butter, were doing things to people, creating connective energy like a hive.”

Willey said wherever he goes to paint bee murals, there is always this connective energy, and he has met many people along the way who have felt it. One example of this was while he was painting the Brookgreen mural, a family came up to see what he was doing.

John Fernandez of Mount Pleasant and Chicago was walking by the Conservation Station with his wife, Lindsay, and their children, Maddie, 4, and Myles, 2, when they were drawn to the artist painting large bees. Fernandez said he loved the colors of the realistic bees, some going in and out of the hive, and the “liquid gold” honey.

While painting his bee mural at the Lowcountry Zoo in Brookgreen Gardens, Willey talks with people interested in his work, including John Fernandez, left. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

“It is amazing, almost breathtaking,” he said. “It is a beautiful piece of art because it is you, this is your statement.”

He also wondered aloud about the artist’s statement.

“What does it say, what is the statement?” Fernandez asked. “Is it that we should be more aware of bees and their place in our world?”

Willey did not answer the question but explained that he paints the bees large so they can be seen in detail.

“The whole project is about making them big enough, so they are not just flying things zipping by you,” he said. “So you can stop and actually see them.”

After talking for a while, Fernandez revealed that he and his wife keep bees at their home in Chicago. He offered to check with businesses in the Chicago area so Willey could possibly paint a mural there.

“We would love to have one of your murals in Chicago,” Fernandez said. “I think a lot of people would appreciate the buzz you are creating with this project.”

To learn more about The Good of the Hive and to see photos of Willey’s murals, click here. For more about Brookgreen Gardens, click here.

By Clayton Stairs / tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina’s Hammock Coast®

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