Ladislav Hanka ’75 has a mind that buzzes with constant activity, always attracted to the sweetness of an idea with a twist. His degree is in biology, and his love of the natural world is evident in his art. His etchings, prints, and drawings illustrate the intricacies and mystery of nature: craggy trees, elegant fish, round-bellied frogs, fierce raptors and delicate song birds, dank mushrooms, the occasional napping old dog.
So the idea of combining living bees and his etchings seemed, well, natural. He saw it as collaboration.
Some five years ago, a friend had given him a box of bees.
“There was a little bit of sugar water in there, something like mosquito netting, and the bees were climbing around inside the box,” Hanka says. “And I thought, so cute! Like having a puppy!” He laughs. “Suddenly, I was a parent. It was on that level of forethought that I became a beekeeper.”
Where the idea came from to place his etchings inside the beehives, among the living bees, Hanka can’t say.
“Who knows where ideas come from,” he shrugs. “You wake up some night, and there it is. It seems such a simple idea, too, but I’d never seen anyone do it. So I put the etching in after soaking the paper in hot beeswax, brushing it on, and the bees seem to like that paper. Typically, they start on the chunks of old, recycled beeswax and avoid the lines of the etching. Perhaps it’s the flavor? Or the waxy aromatic paper? Otherwise they tend to chew up and destroy any foreign substance intruding on their hives. Then again, they may just be critics.” Hanka grins.
Standing in his studio, a building he constructed where the garage once stood at his residence in Kalamazoo, just a few blocks from Kalamazoo College, he leans in close to take a look at his etchings. He has them lined up in a row on a small ledge along the end wall. The etchings closely match what he exhibited in ArtPrize 2014 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
ArtPrize is an annual art competition judged both by popular vote and a jury. This past summer more than 1,500 artists from across the world exhibited their work in and around downtown Grand Rapids. Hanka’s panoramic etching in ArtPrize 2011 won the Curator’s Choice award and was purchased by the Grand Rapids Art Museum for its permanent collection.
Hanka’s 2014 ArtPrize entry, “Great Wall of Bees: Intelligence of the Beehive,” is his third since the competition’s inception. Contained inside a glass case along the length of a wall just inside the entrance of the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art (UICA), live bees buzzed and danced and chewed over three rows of Hanka’s etchings—detailed images of toads, salmon, trees, insects, birds—building honeycomb along the curves of his lines, indeed in surprising collaboration.
Great Wall of Bees was collaborative art and environmental message. In a description of his work on the ArtPrize website, he wrote:
“The additions bees make to the etchings are as inevitably elegant as the gently curving veils of honeycomb you find hanging from the domed ceilings within a bee tree. There is an undeniable intelligence at work in a beehive. You learn to respect that and care about these highly evolved creatures, which brings me inescapably around to bees being in trouble—not just here but worldwide.
“The cause of bee die-offs is hardly a mystery. It’s much like the growth in cancer rates. No single factor causes it. The crisis is due to a summation of assaults on the organism, until it’s all too much. Bees face a gauntlet of toxins, habitat loss, electromagnetic pollution, exotic diseases and imported parasites. …”
Hanka’s living exhibit drew a great deal of attention. He estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 persons viewed the Great Wall of Bees. His work was short-listed in the top 25 in both popular and juried categories for three-dimensional entries.
“For the three weeks of the exhibit, I was the bee-man,” says Hanka. “I heard people talking about the bees in cafes and on the street. People still come to talk to me about the artwork and the bees, even though the show is over.”
It was profoundly gratifying, he says, to interact with the public coming to see his art and to watch the bees build their honeycomb around it. Bees crawled along the glass where children pressed their noses for a closer look. Some expressed concern over dying insects, and it gave Hanka a chance to explain something about the four-week life cycle of a bee and the difference between natural daily die-offs versus the massive losses bees currently suffer in beehives everywhere.
He dips a bare hand into one of his hives, set in a circle beside his house, and the bees emerge, almost lazily, spinning a hum of circles around Hanka’s head and landing on him. They swarm over his bare hands and land in his beard.
“They are not aggressive with me,” Hanka says. “Frame of mind is important. They respond much like any animal would. You have to be sensitive to their mood and show some respect..”
The bees do sting him occasionally, he says, especially when stressed, but Hanka shrugs it off. All a part of the art and all part of the natural order of things. As for the way the insects weave their intricate combs along his drawings, Hanka shrugs about that, too.
“I try to be realistic about that, how much intelligence is in the bee,” he says. “There is a spirit. I have no explanation for some of it.”
Hanka considers ArtPrize carefully, now that the citywide exhibit is done, his wall of bees packed up and brought back to the hive again. During subsequent weeks he contemplated the moment of fame.
“The space is clean and no evidence remains of the effort invested,” he says. “Honey gathering and art are both among the first recorded events in the mists of human history. My work invited people to partake of genuine, unfalsified sacraments. I saw they were truly moved by the beauty they encountered and by their concern for the fate of bees.”
Landing on the competition’s short lists gave him a few seductive moments of contemplating the financial prize (ArtPrize awards two grand prizes worth $400,000, and eight category awards worth $160,000). Those moments quickly evaporated in the final stages of the competition.
“Of course, there was a build-up and then disappointment,” Hanka nods. “Though we may ardently desire the accolades and money these votes confer, it isn’t why we make art.”
What remains, Hanka says, is the message he wanted to deliver: the interaction he had with his audience and his art, the near-mystical experience he had with another tiny life form. He acknowledges the influences that have remained with him from his years at Kalamazoo College, where he studied with Marcia Wood, Johannes Von Gumppenberg, Peter Jogo, and Bernard Palchick (all former professors in the art department). Equally, in biology, he credits Professors Paul Olexia, David Evans, and Fred Cichocki.
“I still keep in contact with many of them, and I value their influence in my life,” Hanka says. Ideas, he believes, are born in the buzz of many minds working at their purpose; they are built one upon another.
Hanka walks between the aisles of his beehives in the same way he walks between the tables in his studio. Both are covered with pieces of his work. He leans forward to study a detail, and then he leans back to contemplate the whole.
He is done with this particular project, this artistic collaboration with the bees that carried over years. Now, the bees will return to what they do best: making honey. The artist will let his mind spin and dream and buzz a little, until it lands on his next big idea.