Buzzin About Bees | An Interview with Matt Willey

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Matthew Willey is so much more than a man with a paintbrush. His work is powerful and inspirational and his view on art is beautiful. He is living his passion and impacting the world. Through his murals, he connects people from all walks of life, creating conversations around our sweet fuzzy pollinators – the honey bees.

It all started in college while he was working as a waiter, yearning to take a trip to Europe. He convinced the owner to pay him to paint a mural on a blank exterior wall and paint new artwork for inside. Since then, he has worn many artistic hats. While murals are his forte, he has also written screenplays, owned, operated and illustrated for small educational company, painted portraits and done original pieces on canvas. For the past 25 years and still today, Matthew and his painting supplies travel the world wherever he is called.

"Just one small stroke of golden beauty connects us."

Ten years ago, a bee landed on the floor of Matthew’s apartment. Matthew got down to the bee’s level and closely inspected her, finding beauty in her fuzzy little body. Sadly after a little time, this bee died. Inspired by his visitor, Matthew researched all he could about honey bees. “If a bee feels sick, it will exit the hive and fly off into the abyss for ‘the good of the hive’. A honeybee’s health is based on the hive, not their individual bee body. In that moment it rang with me, this is true for humans as well, yet we rarely act like it.”

It wasn’t until seven years later that Matthew got the opportunity to raise awareness and share his adoration for bees. A friend gave him the idea to contact a honey company about creating a mural for them. He called and they were more than enthusiastic about his proposal. There were two problems – murals were illegal in that town and they couldn’t pay him. Matthew said he would find a way to fund the project, if the town’s law ever changed. That is exactly what happened- the company got the law changed and Matthew started raising funds. The community rallied in support and were more than generous in their efforts to help this project along.

"Bees connect people through story."

“During the project a man came up to me with a bee perched on his shoulder. He said the bee seemed to be telling him to come talk with me. He asked me how many bees are in a healthy hive? I’d just learned 30,000 to 60,000. He jokingly asked, “You think you could paint 50,000?” There were only 16 in that first mural. When he asked this, I had a gut reaction that I was going to give it a try.”

At that moment, The Good of the Hive was born. It took a little time to get it off the ground but now, three years and over 3,000 bees later, Matthew is on his way to hand painting 50,000 bees worldwide. He has designed this initiative so that it will take about 15-20 years to complete.

The initiative looks at the perfect balance that a bee has with her hive as a metaphor. My work is about taking a look at our own balance as humans with everything around us. The essence of this work is to connect us all by realizing that we are just like the bees in this way. We are all one.”

"Thinking we are separate because of distance, borders, race, gender, nationality, socio-economic status, money, or any of the myriad of traits that we see as differences, is an illusion."

Through The Good of the Hive, Matthew has given bees a platform. A project in Washington D.C. brought liberals and conservatives alike to come together and talk about bees. “It brought me to a round table discussion with policy people from the FAO, Endangered Species Coalition, Pollinator Partnership, Humanitas Global, USDA, US Forest Service and other incredible organizations.” His work in DC even prompted the Second Lady of the United States to show up and speak for the bees.

“Big beautiful bees on a wall, magnetize enthusiasm and allow curiosity to create new understanding and perception of them. And because art is always a personal experience, it allows people to engage with it on their own terms.”

Matthew just finished an installation called Colony Expanse at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in NYC- in collaboration with the World Council of Peoples for the United Nations, NYC Parks’ Art in the Parks and the Friends of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. The piece is made up of 193 individual bees swarmed together- representing the 193 member states of the UN. The goal is for someone in each of 193 countries to sponsor one of the bees so that when this piece is dismantled, the bees will travel all over the world.

“The Good of the Hive and art in general has the ability to connect people consciously and emotionally to the realities of a situation. In the way that bees have eight eyes and see a different range of color and light than us, we are limited. The potential role of art, as I see it, is choked by compartmentalization. The very nature of art is to open the mind and heart in a direction that is not about money or commerce or all the worldly nonsense we get into a twit about all the time.  It is there to challenge us to have the utmost experience while we are here –from pure beauty to facing that which scares us to death.

I think art’s role in society is under-utilized about as much as they say the active areas of our brains are. The potential of art to bridge all learning – both internal and meditative to external and communicative – is beyond anything we can comprehend. It has the ability to show a society who and what they really are.

Art offers an opportunity to collectively grow. I think the role of art is to heal, inspire, communicate, challenge, and wake us up about how to love… maybe even guide us toward what love actually is. It has taken me nearly 30 years of painting every day to even begin to understand the power of art.”

"There is playfulness in art that has the power to shift culture and society in the flick of a brush."

His belief that artists are tasked with something different is that their role is to show society who and what they are. Van Gogh and Kandinsky are artists that have influenced this through the way they accepted the raw truth of who they were. “Being true to my own path is no small feat. Taking the time to honestly consider what that is, can be riddled with devastating vulnerability.” With that, Matthew also looks to massively influential people like MLK and Gandhi. “Despite the challenges of being human, they never gave up on compassion and connection. That is the kind of guy I want to be.”

"Real bravery requires facing what it means to be human. I believe that aligning with what we truly are is where the gold is."

Matthew is a man full of wisdom  and graciously shared some with us. His advice for young artists is, if they have an answer for the question ‘ what would they be doing if they weren’t making art’, they should do that for a career. “The life of an artist is not for the faint of heart. Making art is one thing. Making art with the pressures of life on you requires real commitment. The reinforcement does not always come in the time you would prefer, nor in the way you like it. But if you have the heart for it, art offers a way to swim in the ALL of us that is unlike anything else. It allows a person to be something and do something that may only be understood in hindsight, but offers the sublime experience of spending enormous amounts of your life in the now.”

By Sarah Elaine Rossi