512 Arts Merges Art and Science in Cross Pollination

Your average bee typically goes unnoticed. Only seven out of the almost 20,000 known species of bees in the world actually produce honey – the rest pollinate the earth’s plants. They live on every continent, and keep about a third of the world’s crops alive. As many as 500 species call New Mexico home. As part of a series of public programs, 516 Arts’ Cross Pollination opened on Saturday, August 19th, with an open forum, reception and pop-up shop. Cross Pollination seeks to honor these essential pollinators and what they can teach us about ourselves and the world around us.

516 Arts has long made it a point to fuse the worlds of art and science, creating a space where seemingly disparate viewpoints can overlap and spark new ideas. In a conversation with Suzanne Sbarge, the executive director of the arts nonprofit, said “One of the things we’re always trying to do is to do things that are relevant to our place in time and in the world. We’re at this point in world culture where science is absolutely critical. Scientists look to artists now in a more formal way for help because artists see things in different ways than the scientific world… It goes both ways – scientists and artists illuminate each other.”

To that end, the artists in the exhibition run the gamut from collectors to activists, techies to jewelers. Jennifer Angus, an artist from Wisconsin known for her arresting installations, created a vast swath of real insects in a wall-paper like pattern on one side of the gallery. Local artist Kelly Eckel’s photopolymer etchings combine disparate images of of pollinating insect parts together in organic forms. A “human-scaled native bumblebee nest sculpture” by Jessica Rath and Robert Hoehn from California invites visitors to peer into giant cup-like units, where they can listen to bee sounds. In Ren Ri’s video piece, a swarm of bees slowly moves across his uncovered body, briefly making a home there. In another performance piece of his, bees began to build their honeycomb on his hand.“Through art and animals and stories that make it real, it profoundly changes people’s consciousness. You can’t always get to that sense of consciousness strictly through science or strictly through art,” Sbarge said in a conversation before the exhibition opened. “Sometimes it’s that crossing over that deepens people’s awareness.”

Valerie Roybal, the curator of the exhibit, is a beekeeper and artist herself. For this exhibition and series, which has been in the works for two years, she wanted to bring attention to the locality of bees and the communities that form around them, but also to touch on more nebulous themes like the “exchange of ideas” and “a profound reverence for the natural world of which we are a part” (Cross Pollination exhibition catalogue). She told me that she had known friends who moved away and tried to start beekeeping practices, only to realize that there were fewer people in the beekeeping community. She told me, “It occurred to me that because our community is so strong here, that it would be a really ideal project, and to approach it from all sorts of perspectives.”

The public forum on Saturday included a number of the featured artists, as well as Julieta Bettinelli, a PhD Candidate at UNM’s Department of Biology studying bees, and the president of the New Beekeeper’s Association, Jesse Brown. Topics of discussion ranged from where to find ground-nesting bees, to anthropomorphizing bees in children’s’ books, to bee dreams, to the creation of bee corridors through Albuquerque to protect their habitats.

To learn more, stop by 516 Arts, where the exhibition will run through November 11, 2017. The Bee Market pop-up shop, where you can pick up small-batch honey from New. Mexico and Patagonia, printed textiles, honey-comb and pollinator jewelry by Chela Gurnee and Susan Skinner and more, will remain through the duration of the exhibit.

For a full list of more public Cross Pollination events and programming, including a botanical mural at the Sanitary Tortilla Factory, a showing of short films about pollinators, and a family workshop on insects, visit 516arts.org.

516 Arts
516 Central Ave SW, Albuquerque

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Sophie Putka is a Massachusetts transplant in love with New Mexico. She writes, makes lattes, and haunts Albuquerque eateries in search of a good bagel. She can usually be found in the kitchen trying to use up as many leftovers as possible and plotting her next adventure.