Artists sometimes collaborate with each other, but it’s rare the “other” is an insect.
But human-bee “cooperation” has become a growing part of the work of Ladislav Hanka, a Michigan-based artist. The result is mixed media with bees heavily in the mix.
Hanka inserts etchings into a living beehive, where the bees “continue the creative process” by adding layers of wax, he said.
“Initially, I paint my artwork with a thin, translucent layer of hot beeswax, which soaks in and makes the strange object at least familiar to the bees,” Hanka said. “They tend to accept it more readily, and, if I attach some honeycomb, they’ll generally initiate work right there, adding to it or moving it around.”
One of two outcomes is likely, he said. Either the bees cover the art completely and obscure everything with a deep layer of capped honey, or they may push the “offending materials out of their environment.”
Either way, Hanka explained, he relinquishes control of the final product “to the bees in an act of creative collaboration.”
An exhibit devoted to this collaboration is now on view in the Lobby Gallery of the Susquehanna Art Museum. Entitled “Embraced by Honey Bees,” the show includes such works as “Brook Trout Enfolder in Beeswax by Honey Bees” and “Dragonfly Embraced and Enveloped by Honey Bees.” Both are etchings with drypoint and beeswax applied by living bees in a hive.
Another work, “Myself Emerging from the Mire and Embalmed by Honeybees,” is a photo-etching, using the same method.
The exhibit’s concept “is hard to understand without seeing the work, plus we have extensive labeling,” said Lauren Nye, SAM’s director of exhibitions. “What comes out is purely a matter of chance. These are three-dimensional pieces, as delicate and beautiful as honeycombs.”
Hanka is also a printmaker and does works on paper. And, naturally, he’s a beekeeper.
“He’s a unique kind of guy,” Nye said.
Bringing together etchings and bees, which Hanka began in 2010, is “neither brilliant nor untoward,” he said. “Instead, it’s the self-evident and child-like impetus with one in the left hand and the other in the right, to bring them together.”
It seems intuitive that anyone working with bees and beehives will expect injuries, but Hanka sees it differently.
“I don’t get injured,” he said. “Stings are not only harmless in general but often healing, and hardly constitute an injury. You do have to be ready to be stung, of course. It goes with the territory.”
The impulse toward art in general started early for Hanka and only intensified from there.
“From around the age of 6, I had the habit of sketching from life,” he said. “At 73, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and the way plants grow.”
His work is based on equal parts of observation and studio work and is exhibited in many public collections. He has mounted more than 120 one-man shows.
The SAM exhibit will not be the only opportunity for central Pennsylvanians to see Hanka’s creations. Two other exhibits are taking place concurrently. Messiah College’s Murray Library is showing “Book Arts by Ladislav Hanka,” featuring his handmade volumes of etchings and text, made in collaboration with Jan Sobota. Meanwhile, Messiah’s High Center, the performing arts venue, is exhibiting “Scriptum Arborum,” which includes bee collaborations and other large-scale work.
Hanka will speak and demonstrate at several events at both venues before the shows close.
Stephen and Cherie Fieser, who own Robinson’s Rare Books & Fine Prints in Harrisburg, discovered Hanka’s work around 2013 at an art auction.
“We were hooked on the spot and bid until it was ours,” Stephen said. “This was our first knowledge of him. The pieces that went to our gallery found immediate favor with our visitors.”
The couple is now representing Hanka in the region.
Friends of Murray Library had already purchased one of Hanka’s books for the library’s Artists’ Books Collection—a special collection in which the book is the art form and that often challenges the assumed definition of a book, said Cherie Fieser, the library’s director.
Hanka’s bee work isn’t totally unique, but it remains rare.
“Other artists have looked at bees and wondered what might come of that collaboration,” he said. “Maybe a half-dozen folks. I suppose it has the look of an idea whose time has come and which might well have arisen independently [among these artists] as these things so often do.”
“Embraced by Honey Bees” runs through April 29 at the Susquehanna Art Museum, 1401 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.susquehannaartmuseum.org or call 717-233-8668.