Mural artist creates a buzz about connectiveness and preservation throughout the world, and in Laguna

By THERESA KEEGAN

Philosophers may wonder if a butterfly flapping its wings affects the universe, but until artist Matt Willey came to town in February few would have wondered how a honeybee landing in a New York City art studio could affect Laguna.

But thanks to the random encounter between Willey and a honeybee in 2008 there is now a beautiful mural on the Water District wall and anyone passing along Third Street will be reminded of the connectiveness of bees, and also ourselves. It’s been a long journey.

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Photos by Theresa Keegan

Artist Matt Willey discusses the history and motivation for his mural work featuring bees during a recent presentation at the Laguna Art Museum

“It’s not the easiest thing to put together a piece of public art,” Willey explained during a recent talk at the Laguna Art Museum. He should know. He’s spent the past seven years painting murals on everything from public institutions to private businesses.

But members of the Laguna Garden Club were determined to bring Willey’s talent to town after hosting him as a guest speaker in 2022. His far-reaching initiative, known as “The Good of the Hive,” involves Willey painting 50,000 honeybees – the amount traditionally found in a thriving hive – on murals around the world.

The goal of “The Good of the Hive” extends beyond bringing awareness about the plight of bees, which are suffering from colony collapse disorder, but also to encourage people to learn from the bees.

“The bees just have this presence,” said Willey. “They’re truly amazing.”

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Muralist Matt Willey puts his finishing signature on the mural at the Water District. He is assisted by visual artist Orielle Anais who helped him with this project.

He talks about his own journey after that bee died in his studio. He discovered that a sick bee would fly off and die alone rather than bring disease into the hive, and how collective thinking overshadows all their actions.

“The bees are hard-wired to be aware and altruistic,” he explained one afternoon, while painting the mural. “Humans are the same way, but we don’t act like it.”

A professed urbanite, Willey’s bee research exposed him to the intrinsic connection between people, trees, animals, water, land and, of course, bees.

“I wound up becoming slightly obsessed with them,” the muralist said, rolling his eyes upward at the irony of “slightly.”

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The weather did not cooperate when Matt Willey started painting his mural in Laguna. The site had to be tented to keep away rain and moisture and even heaters were brought in to help stave off the cold weather.

Seven years after the bee flew into his studio, a friend told Willey, (who had a successful career painting murals in sports arenas and for private clients) about a blank wall on the Harold P. Curtis Honey Co. in Labelle, Fla., a family-owned business for 60 years. He called the owner, who was very interested in having a bee mural painted. However, there was no money and murals were outlawed in the town. Willey told the owner to get the law changed and he’d figure out the rest.

Two months later the phone rang. Residents of Labelle joined forces and had the mural ban overturned, so Willey built a website, packed his car and rolled into Florida to paint.

“All these amazing things happened,” recalled Willey. Coffee shops kept him plied with complimentary caffeine; other beekeepers dropped off honey with notes suggesting Willey sell the gifts to pay for the mural.

“Other honey companies were essentially paying me to paint on this wall,” he recalled. “It was crazy.” The website received $500 in donations.

As the mural proceeded, diverse residents stopped to watch him paint. The day Willey turned around and saw a 20-something tattooed person striking up a conversation with an octogenarian, and they were nodding in agreement, Willey knew something beyond his control was happening. A documentarian happened to be in the area and stopped by. The director wondered aloud if Willey could perhaps paint murals featuring 50,000 honeybees – the number of bees often found in a healthy, living hive. The idea was hatched, and Willey hasn’t looked back.

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He now has murals from California to New York and many places in between. His work has been on the American Embassy in Beijing and on Burt’s Bees corporate headquarters. His art graces the entrance to the Smithsonian Zoo’s Great Ape House and is found on the walls of schools, libraries and even a post office.

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Matt Willey shows the mural he painted on the library of Rifle, Colo. The town has been through divisive and angry divides, including book banning and discriminatory actions, yet many in the community gathered together to celebrate the mural’s dedication.

Willey has spoken to the United Nations about the need to protect bees, he has beautified a center dedicated to championing the endangered Red Wolf and has even seen fragmented community groups unify around his murals.

“I want to get people excited about this planet we live on,” he said. “Art opens a door. It’s not me telling people something. It’s me showing them something.”

For more about “The Good of the Hive,” click here. For more about the Laguna Beach Garden Club, click here.


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