Matt Willey is on a mission to ‘ignite radical curiosity’ for the health of the planet through art and storytelling
Matt Willey, a commercial artist, was working in his studio in Manhattan when he noticed a honeybee on the carpet. It was moving slowly, nearing the end of its life. So he grabbed a magnifying glass and got down on his hands and knees to look at the bee in more detail.
‘I connected with her,’ he said. ‘I connected with the beauty of this little creature I’d never noticed before. That’s really how this whole story began.’
The story is how, at age 47, Matt decided to become an art activist, committing to hand-paint 50,000 honey bees – ‘the number necessary for a healthy, thriving hive’ – and to ‘ignite radical curiosity for planetary health issues through art and storytelling’.
‘When I see a bee, I think of everything they bring to us humans,’ said Paula Alexandra, the director of Sustainable Business and Innovation at Burt’s Bees, one of the locations of Matt’s murals. ‘They’re so complex…And they’re so important. They’re responsible for one in three bites of food we consume.’
Bees and other pollinators are hugely important to our food production and the declining populations of honeybees around the world is a cause for concern. Matt notes that between 2015 and 2016, 44% of bee populations in America died.
‘Every problem with the honeybee can be linked to human activity. Widespread pesticide use, diminishing habitats, development, mono crop farming. Until we turn everything around and start making healthy environments for them, so they can make healthy food for us, that’s our biggest issue.
If they aren’t there to help, we’re going to be in trouble.’Matt Willey
Raising awareness of the plight of the pollinators through art and speaking engagements is what Matt does through his organisation The Good of the Hive.
He has painted over 5,400 bees in the last five years. His 27 murals – and counting – grace the walls and roofs of schools, farms and fire stations in rural areas as well as more prestigious locations like the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC and the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York City.
‘Painting has this way of being a little bit magical,’ Matt said. ‘It shifts people’s perceptions about what’s possible because where there was nothing, there’s suddenly something.’