julia foulkes

The (Rural and Urban) Lives of Bees

I had the privilege to go to Mildred’s Lane on a work retreat recently. Founded by the artists J. Morgan Puett and Mark Dion, Mildred’s Lane is a farm by the Delaware River at the border of Pennsylvania and New York. (The nearest town is Narrowsburg, NY.) The farm hosts multiple buildings, most of them small installations with room enough for a bed and an imagination. I was lucky enough to nab the Grafter’s cabin put together by Morgan and dedicated to the beekeeping traditions in her family. Large netted hoods hung above my bed; the walls were plastered with waxed pages of Maurice’s Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee (1901); and the doors opened on to a vista of garden, field, trees – and nearby compost heap, which might attract “a parade of critters,” according to Morgan.

I didn’t see any critters unfortunately. But I saw lots of sky and green and waxy yellow – and visions of Doris Humphrey. One of her first pieces as a solo choreographer was The Life of the Bee (1929), inspired by Maeterlinck and the labor issues and theories infusing the arts of the 1920s and ‘30s. From the little we know of the dance – only bits of reviews remain – it presented a conventional view of a dominating queen bee and the hordes that bowed to her. Morgan had another interpretation of bee relationships: the interdependence of the queen and the drones and seeing the queen as an activator rather than a dominator.

That view of the queen bee is crucial to Morgan’s aesthetic philosophy as well. She is one of a number of artists shaping all parts of their daily life by artistic choices and actions. She constructs buildings, meals, artifacts, installations, and communities infused with her ideas about “comportment,” the social nature of knowledge, and the need for creative action. It’s inspiring to be in it. And yet it’s hard to imagine how to transfer those ways of being to another setting. The place determines the action. That depth of intentionality requires resources, commitment, and sheer persistence beyond the capabilities of most.

And are such choices possible in a city? I was struck by similarities between Morgan and Theaster Gates [link to blogpost on his work]. They value what others overlook; they “re-purpose” materials, giving new life to items around them; they embed aesthetic perspectives in daily activities; they build a community so as to be porous and welcoming but also deeply rooted in one place; and it might be more satisfying to live with them than near them. (As my colleague Radhika Subramanian said of Theaster: what does it mean to be his neighbor? As another tour bus rolls down Dorchester Ave.) The forces of real estate, segregation, poverty, idealism warring with pragmatism, operate in both rural and urban environments. As do bees.

Featured Image: Grafter’s Cabin by J. Morgan Puett, Mildred’s Lane (Photo by Julia Foulkes)