Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Activist-artists create a collective Down East

By Emily Burnham Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - Bangor Daily News The irony of living communally in an old lumber baron’s home in downtown Machias has not escaped the Beehive Collective, a group of artists and activists based in the Washington County town. "Where else can you eat under crystal chandeliers, and have a poster for an anarchist book sale on the wall?" asked Emma Bee, one of the members of the collective, who choose to remain mostly anonymous by not sharing their last names. The Beehive Collective has been based in Maine since forming in 2000, growing out of the work several anonymous Washington County artists were doing in the late 1990s. They operated first out of the Machias Grange Hall, which they purchased in 2001 and which now operates mostly as a community center. As the "hive" has grown, they have added the house. At any given time, six "bees" may live full-time at the house, where they now make the stone mosaics, fliers and the huge, incredibly detailed, deeply political posters that have since become their trademark. "We deal with issues of globalization, of militarization, of conservation. There is a lot of information built into our posters," said Emma Bee. "We try to communicate visually, rather than through text. People can understand images, no matter what language they speak, or if they can read or not." The first big poster the hive ever did was inspired by the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and the adverse effects its policies have had on workers, indigenous peoples and the environment. That poster is currently on display through Sept. 28 at the Without Borders IV exhibit at the Lord Hall Galleries on the University of Maine campus in Orono. They will also give a talk at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19, in Lord Hall. Thousands of prints of that poster and others have been distributed all over North and South America, at college campuses, fairs, conferences and at protests. The hive’s primary means of revenue are fees received from the lectures they give all over the country, but the images remain copyright free, and downloadable from the Beehive Collective’s Web site ( To really grasp the density and detail of one of the posters, you’ve got to see it full size — some of them are more than 20 feet high. It’s similar to reading a map. Each animal and object contained within the poster symbolizes a different concept — from the sheep wearing a scholar’s hat, wrapped in chains, to the mechanical spiders ensnaring the Western Hemisphere with their silk. Together, all the smaller images contribute to a larger concept. "We use a lot of metaphor," said Emma. "We also like to use animals so we can avoid cultural stereotypes. And it’s also hard to argue with a cartoon." The open-ended metaphors allow for a greater dialogue between the art and the observer — people can take away from it whatever they want, though the basic concepts (globalization, the environment) are hard to avoid. "The beautiful thing about images is that you can interpret it any way you want," said Emma. "People can read images. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, or even if you can read. We laid out the banner in Honduras, for some students, and they told the story of it in terms of their own lives." Latin American issues are at the heart of the collective’s latest project, another huge poster explaining the issues surrounding the Plan Puebla Panama. The PPP is a development plan linking the southern states of Mexico with the rest of Central America and Columbia. Though purportedly designed to stimulate trade and create more infrastructure within those countries, much criticism has been levied at it, similar in many ways to the criticism of the FTAA and NAFTA. Every poster the group makes is truly a collaborative effort. No single individual puts his or her name on a piece, and everyone contributes their unique skills, whether it’s drawing, inking or printing. "This is really what it means to be collaborative," said Emma. "We want to break down the art ego, and show that this is many people’s work. We’re just the transmitter for the conversation." The political nature of Beehive’s art leaves them slightly out of the mainstream in both activist and art circles. "The art world calls us political, and the political groups call us art," said Emma. "People don’t know what to think. They aren’t used to seeing something like this." As for the hive’s presence in Machias, they’ve kept a relatively low profile over the years, working quietly and trying not to intrude too much on local life. They host a weekly open mic night at the Grange Hall, and put on several special events, including the Black Fly Ball during Machias’ Wild Blueberry Festival, which has been a resounding success each year. The Grange Hall is still a work in progress, as some more winter-proofing needs to be completed before it can stay open all year. "We’ve been quiet in the community, so far. We all recognize that we have to offer something before we can ask them to be our friends," said Emma. "We’re honoring the DIY culture by fixing up the Grange Hall ourselves. We don’t need the government or a company to help us." Though more resources and bodies might be available in an urban setting, Beehive remains committed to Machias and to rural living. "What’s amazing about Beehive is that it’s an activist organization that isn’t a farming project, that is rurally based," said Emma. "Most groups are based in urban settings, where the issues are more in your face. But all those issues of class, race, gender and the environment are present here — you just have to dig deeper. Plus, it’s beautiful and peaceful and a great place to work." More information on the Beehive Collective can be found at To learn more about the Without Borders exhibit at the University of Maine, visit Emily Burnham can be reached at

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