There are some people who, when you meet them online, you immediately know are your people—long before you ever cross paths in person. For us, Matthew Willey personifies that sentiment. SVV discovered Matt via Instagram well over a year ago, and we both started following his every brush stroke from afar. We were intrigued by his mission—painting 50,000 bees across America as part of a greater movement to promote awareness about pollinators, but even beyond that, uniting communities through art—and in love with his very detailed depictions of bees. And we knew that, come Hell or high water, we would get Matt to come make Tennessee part of his the Good of the Hive tour. We just weren’t sure how yet.
image courtesy of the Good of the Hive
But when you’re a fledgling mural movement, you sometimes just have to bide your time. First, we connected with Matt on Instagram, let him know who we were and told him we wanted him to add Tennessee to his roster. Art, like anything else, is all about relationships and trust, and we both prefer to spend months getting to know someone before committing to hosting them at our house, inviting them to decorate our community, or taking on the challenge of painting an epic and thoughtful mural on the side of a concrete train trestle.
And then, there’s the funding side of the equation, which to date we’d done through private donations from local businesses like the First National Bank of Manchester and L&H Distributing and our own bank accounts. Then, we discovered the wonderful world of grants and got busy writing them over the winter last year.
Finding grants for murals
The opportunity to work with Matt came when I found Tennessee Arts Commission’s Creative Placemaking Grant last fall. We took the grant application to the Tullahoma Art Center, for which we are board members, and the Manchester Parks and Recreation director, who had already agreed to let us curate art along the greenway. The directors for both organizations loved the idea, and so we collaborated on separate applications with each of them.
The Little Duck River Greenway in Manchester, Tennessee
This specific grant opened in the fall, and we submitted our applications in January; in March, we found out that we were finalists for both grant application, then Bonnie, SVV and I went up to Mount Pleasant the following month to go in front of the full board of the Tennessee Arts Commission to answer questions and defend our proposals. It was fast, formal and went incredibly well. Two months after that, while chewing our fingernails with impatience and nerves, we found out that the board decided that our request for $8,000 of public art in Manchester and $6,100 for art in Tullahoma was a good idea for the communities. Not bad for our first attempts at grant applications pertaining to public art.
For other Tennessee communities interested in the TAC’s Creative Placemaking Grant, the application typically opens in October with a January deadline, then is awarded in June for the following fiscal year; you have July through June to use it. Check out the process here. The Commission awards millions of dollars to missions just like ours every single year, with the first phase of the fiscal 2020 awards totaling $4.7 million that, for the most part, come from speciality license plate fees earmarked for the arts. We are thrilled to be a part of the goal outlined by the chairman of the organization:
“The Tennessee Arts Commission is honored to award these annual grants to support Tennessee’s communities and schools through the arts. These investments help cultivate the arts for the benefit of all Tennesseans and offer all of us a better quality of life, provide our children with a more balanced education, stimulate economic development and help attract tourists to our state,” Tennessee Arts Commission Chair Joe Kilgore said in a statement.
Commissioning the Good of the Hive
As soon as we found out that we had secured the grant, Bonnie gave us permission to reach out to Matt and solicit a bid. He’s one of the most responsive artists I’ve ever met and quickly wrote back to our request to set up a phone call. We hopped on the phone on a Sunday and, an hour later, knew that Matt was part of our tribe. Our conversation ran the gamut, but we kept coming back to one central point: how disconnected technology has made us all and how the three of us saw art as a way to change that.
While Matt was fresh off some pretty time-intensive projects—including three-and-a-half months painting the Ape House at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.—he’d been toying with adding smaller-scale projects like ours to his own mission of spreading pollinator love into all corners of Earth, and Manchester’s greenway—with its serene paths and burbling creek—somehow dovetailed right into that change in ritual. Certain people are meant to come into your life for a reason, and for us, Matt is one of those people.
Matt then put together a proposal and a sketch for the train trestle we had long targeted as our next mural wall and submitted it all to Bonnie to take to the Parks and Rec commission at their July board meeting; because it was a 4:1 matching grant, they had to commit to chipping in 25 percent.
The board voted to approve it right away, and Matt carved out a time the following month to come paint, despite being booked solid for nearly 18 months in the future. We lucked out in that he had a small window of time between completing a behemoth of a mural project in Narrowsburg, New York and creating a bee priestess installation at Burning Man, but that also meant the timeframe was very crunched—less than 10 days, compared to his normal process of six to 14 weeks—so we hoped and prayed and did an anti-rain dance that the weather would be on our side. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t rain … much. That anti-rain dance totally works!)
The Good of the Hive arrives in Tennessee
Matt rolled into town on a Monday afternoon, just days after we completed our last big mural project on the other side of the county in Tullahoma. Meeting muralists for the first time is akin to going on a first date with someone you’ve met on Bumble; you know you have some connection through the texts, emails and calls you’ve exchanged, but it’s still a blind date of sorts. Luckily for us, Matt’s energy and enthusiasm is infectious to anyone, and we’re not immune to the charms a kindred soul.
Matt brought all of his own painting materials, but Parks and Rec rented the Nifty Fifty for him from local shop Christopher Equipment, from whom we have gotten lifts for all of our personal house projects and also the other mural installs that have required any kind of aerial platforms. The train trestle is about 40 feet high, and Matt said it’s the highest he’s ever been up while painting!
After Matt arrived, SVV left him at the mural site that first day to contemplate the project ahead, and by mid-afternoon of the next day, lines of inky brown began to shape the forms of his pollinator creations.
Matt’s little solo cups strapped together with blue tape and fistful of skinny brushes were a new method of application for us, and we watched with interest as he methodically birthed these lovely creatures to life on a forgotten corner of the little league fields, underneath the blazing sun while singing old school Beatles and Led Zeppelin (mixed in with show choir, he admits).
He also did a couple new things in this mural that he’d never done before: incorporate color and also paint in the dead bee that landed on his carpet a decade ago and launched a lifetime devoted to pollinator awareness.
Matt was here to work, and that much was evident: He absolutely slayed each of the nine 10-hours days up on that knuckle lift. I escorted him to do an interview on Thunder Radio, and Bonnie put on a little presentation exhibit and talk for him at Ada Wright Center, but it was sparsely populated because of scheduling and, well, the internet doesn’t always work in this small town to get attention about something this cool.
It didn’t matter. Matt’s mission, drive and passion for saving, at its essence, humanity from starving to death due to lack of insects to pollinate our food is engrossing, and existential. We’re thrilled to get to be a tiny part of this movement.
The mission of the Good of the Hive
While Matt painted from sun up to sun down daily, we had many a late-night chat in our kitchen. We were thrilled to host him for nine nights to shovel nutrients back into his depleted body, and by day three, we were ready to adopt him.
The Little Duck River Greenway before (Aug. 5) and after (Aug. 13)
It should be remembered that the concept of painting bee murals is just a hook into a larger issue of very common disconnectedness from nature, disconnectedness from each other, and this idea that one spark, fanned enough by people that care, can and will make a difference in the long-term health of our species—and upon those buzzing creatures that we rely on so heavily without even thinking about it.
Without heavy pollinators like bees, we wouldn’t have natural honey, of course, but do you know that without midges in the jungle we wouldn’t have chocolate? The thought of cacao fruit never fruiting again sends shivers down my timbers—seriously, chocolate is an important and non-negotiable commodity in our household—but what about other tiny creatures that are doing God’s work and spreading the magic amongst all fruit, nuts and vegetables? Birds, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, wasps and even small mammals contribute to this unbroken but struggling chain of food supply constantly pouring into our grocery stores.
There are estimates that up to 75 percent of all flowering plants need pollinators, in some shape or form. Figuring out how to keep them healthy and producing the tedious work of plucking powder from a flower’s pistil and moving it to another one is mind-blowingly complex activity, and us mere mortals cannot do this work ourselves.
Why a goal of 50,000 bees then? Because Matt learned early on that a healthy hive spans anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 bees, so he is symbolically painting that healthy hive, connecting communities across the world as he does. Currently, he’s up to 23 murals and somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,200 bees, but he said he always anticipated this to be a long-term project that took 20 years to create, so we can’t wait to follow along as he does just that!
images courtesy of the Good of the Hive
We need the hive
Matt’s doing important work traveling the country and educating schools, businesses and local communities on the importance of the hive and the crucial nature of its survival. But guess what? You can be a part of his mission, too. Purchasing from his online shop will make you a champion of bees, but so will bringing him to your own community. Once you have funding and a location locked down, you can reach out to Matt via his site if you’d like him to come paint in your town—and trust me, any city would be lucky to have his fine brush work gracing their walls. To check out Matt’s past projects, visit the Good of the Hive website. For an up-to-date look at where he’s painting now (and next), follow him on Instagram. And for a super bad-ass glimpse at a project he completed in an elementary school in D.C., take 10 minutes to watch this inspiring mini-documentary. Have tissues handy.
A big thank you to the Tennessee Arts Commission for supporting creative placemaking in small rural communities such as ours, to Bonnie and the Manchester Parks and Rec Commission for understanding our vision, and—of course—to Matt for being the type of artist who inspired us to launch a mural movement in the first place.
Want to start a mural program in your own town? I’ve got a guide for launching a creative placemaking initiative. For a look at some of our favorite mural towns, check out these cities:
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- A Work of Street Art: The Best Murals in Nashville
- How Portugal’s Grittiest Neighborhoods Became Works of Art
- The Best Murals in Oklahoma City and Where to Find Them