by Grace Hatton, Reverb Editor
Sage café was full to the brim of students and Asheville residents on the evening of Thursday, Oct. 11 as the artist and activist group known as the Beehive Collective descended upon Wilson to share their large graphic work, The True Cost of Coal, with the community.
The True Cost of Coal, a mural telling the story of mountaintop removal and its effects in Appalachia, was hung in front of the windows of sage and all the chairs in the café were turned toward the piece. A buzz filled the air as students and residents browsed the table of by-donation posters and prints. In addition to the Beehive’s collection of information, a table was set up to provide the audience with information about mountaintop removal and the Environmental Justice Crew, who were hosting the event, urged members of the audience to include their information on the ‘activist’ signup sheet.
As soon as the presentation began, Sage café was bursting at the seams, a standing room only event. Molly, Ugg and Tyler, who look like a little like grown up Wilson kids, introduce themselves to the crowd. They are members of the collection and are known as bees.
The Beehive Collective was established in 2000 and is based in a small town in eastern Maine. They are a volunteer organization consisting of artists and organizers. Molly describes the collective to the crowd as “a bunch of radical, tree hugging anti-capitalist folks” who are “always looking for ways to make the world better, but are mainly known for our large scale graphics.”
In the 12 years that the Beehive Collective has been around, they have distributed over 75,000 posters, completely by hand, through their presentations and community service, and each year ‘bees’ go out and present narrative picture-lectures at over 300 locations in the Western Hemisphere.
Molly stresses the fact that the collective spends a lot of time researching issues in communities and then going back into the communities to show the finished work.
“Uplifting unheard voices is a big part of what we do with our pieces,” Molly said. “We’re making art that’s useful, that guides us towards social change, and art that can live within a community as posters etc.”
After Molly has finished the introduction of the collective, Ugg and Tyler join her to begin breaking down the impressive graphic The True Cost of Coal. I had seen this piece before during my freshman year for my art history class and for a pure art perspective the intricacy of both the artwork and the storytelling in The True Cost of Coal is astounding especially when you consider ten different highly skilled volunteer artists worked on the piece at various times. The piece is so well drawn that you would think one master craftsman spent years sketching every single detail from the wisp of the fox’s hair to the billowing smoke emerging from the coal plant. However the true power of the Beehive Collective is that their art is not created simply for the sake of art, it is created to directly address an issue and to send a message.
The True Cost of Coal addresses the topic of mountaintop removal and the coal industry as a whole which is quite a large topic. In order to create a compelling narrative the piece is divided into five sections, the Story of the land, industrialization, mountaintop removal and the system (the big picture/ the effects in Appalachia), resistance and regeneration.
Tyler emphasizes the process the bees go through to create such a piece.
“We took stories, turned them into metaphors and then into drafts,” Tyler said. “Ten folks from the Beehive made this poster but there were thousands from Appalachia who gave us their stories and input.”
The three bees spent a long time breaking down each section of the artwork, talking about the formation of coal, the process of mountaintop removal, environmental disasters that surround the removal sites, the ‘reclaiming’ process, the Battle at Blair Mountain and more. All the while their projector is showing close ups of the parts of the art that resonate with the problem. The bees asked questions of the audience throughout the presentation and the audience eagerly responded, getting more and more irritated with the issue we were discussing as the evening progressed.
One particular fact that irked the crowd and myself was that the top three things built on old removal sites that have been flattened and sold to corporations are Wal Mart stores, private prisoners and golf courses. Ugg laughed as he described the horror of an ancient mountain being destroyed and replaced with a Wal Mart.
Another emphasis the bees made was the ineffectiveness of the green trend and how many of the ways the new green trends are being created are through major environmental no no’s such as coal abuse.
“It’s so important that we think about where our good intentions are being effective and where we’re just being scammed,” Ugg said.
After the bees shared stories of the people that were affected by the issue at hand in addition to the plethora of environmental facts, there was a general depression hanging in the air. The bees had painted a very accurate and dark portrayal of a system that seems impossible to break from. Yet that dark picture of reality was exactly what the bees wanted the audience to see.
“If we want to make positive change we have to recognize the roots of our problems,” Molly said.
Beyond the oppressive system that’s been created , the bees also wanted to show that people all over Appalachia and beyond are beginning to fight that system.
“Week by week we’re meeting more and more people who are waking up and getting motivated to make real change,” Tyler said with a smile, and a sigh of relief filled the crowd since, in a way, we had been waiting for 45 minutes for some good news.
From that point on the bees focused on the positive changes the Appalachian community is making to prevent mountaintop removal and seek alternative energy sources. Just as they had painted such a vivid picture of what was wrong with the current system the bees did an excellent job of highlighting what was right with the people taking a stand in their communities.
“If we could just listen to the Earth,” said Ugg at the end of the presentation, “instead of constantly trying to adapt our environment to fit some dream lifestyle, we can change the story and make it look healthy. That’s our story. Thanks for listening.”
As soon as the presentation came to an end cheering and clapping erupted. It was clear the event was a success as students and Asheville residents alike picked up posters, handed in donations, signed the activist form and bombarded the bees with thought-provoking questions.
The Environmental Justice Crew who were hosting the event hoped that the buzz surrounding the Collective would inspire students to take action.
“The Beehive Collective are a really great way to illustrate issues and provide more knowledge into the impact of our environmental choices,” said Anna Grant, a member of the Environmental Justice Crew. “They help showcase the fact that we as students have the power to change these systems through simple starting points and then move onto greater things.”