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The Arts Interview: Give bees a chance says environmental artist and trained zoologist Kurt Jackson

Gary Cook, Ecologist Arts Editor

1st August, 2016

Kurt Jackson's artworks of reflected, captured light show his obvious love for the wild ecology of the UK's favourite coastline and have made him one of the country's most respected art activists. Arts Editor GARY COOK learns more.

I wanted to say how precious bees are and it seemed obvious to cast them in precious metals - gold, silver and bronze. I was delighted to see that every little detail was captured in the process. I then did the same with honeycomb

"So, why bees?" I ask. When the reply broadens out to embrace Hymenoptera in general, rather than solely bees, I know I'm in the company of an expert. Kurt Jackson, the Cornwall-based artist and polymath's deep honeycomb of knowledge began at Oxford where he studied zoology in the 1980s. 

As an undergraduate he undertook a research trip to the Amazon, where he discovered a few species of wasp - part of the Hymenoptera family which includes bees, wasps and ants. He painted his insects and their nests and this sparked an early interest that naturally gravitated towards bees.

In the 33 years since his graduation, Kurt has produced intriguingly textured paintings, mainly of Cornwall. His artworks of reflected, captured light show his obvious love for the wild ecology of the UK's favourite coastline and have made him one of the country's most respected art activists. His undisputed talent has led to a variety of ecological-influenced projects such as being artist-in-residence on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza and at the Eden Project but it is with his latest exhibition 'Bees (and the odd wasp) in my bonnet' that his artistic skill, passion for the environment and granular study of his subject combines to greatest effect.

 "My aim was to celebrate the extraordinary world of the bee - honey and the many wild species, portray the relationship between beekeeper and bee, show their beauty and diversity and, hopefully, open people's eyes to the pressures upon them," Jackson says. "Without sloganeering and then combining the art with a little science you pull people in, to engage with the subject, become interested and ultimately find out for themselves. I know it works because of the feedback I get."

The show will run at his alma mater in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Oxford until 26th September 2016 and is a beautiful but, ultimately, shocking eye-opener to the stresses under which our bees are forced to live. Jackson and his wife Caroline are long-standing beekeepers and he has personal experience of the strains on our bee populations. "Recently, our own beehives all collapsed. Some sort of toxin reached them and resulted in the majority of the bees dying through poisoning." 

It is a mixed media show that includes strikingly vibrant paintings such as 'The bee girls, sunshine and smoke, May 2014' that almost hums with the evocation of lazy, hazy bee activity and summer warmth.

"I enjoyed making the studies of the beekeepers and the hives. The feeling in the air when watching a beekeeper work is very special - concentration, communication, compassion, care. The hives themselves have a real presence almost animal-like - this object sitting there that has a sense of breathing, pulsating - full of life. Extraordinary."

A nod to his previously highly successful "Cargodna, the Cliff Paintings" series is present in a mixed media clifftop view. "I sat on the coast and painted my surroundings and waited for the bees to show themselves to be incorporated in the painting. Surprisingly, although bees are eye-catching and very visible when focused in on; they are subtle on a landscape scale - I tried to get this over in the paintings of bumble bees at the back of the beach. Often our eyes find the flowers first, then the bees - this is the same in the paintings."

But putting together this series also keenly demonstrated the extent of the current crisis. On another expedition, Jackson headed to the Somerset levels. "I decided to count the bees and maybe do a painting or two of them. We walked all morning across pasture, observed by cows, along vivid nitrate-green watercourses, without seeing a single bee. There are no flowers, just closely grazed cropped short grass, no bee food; it's a desert for them."

Asked to play 'fantasy rulemaker', he says we should legislate that all farms and public-owned land must have areas that are flower-rich and, therefore, bee friendly. He also advocates that we take scientific advice on neonics - systemic pesticides - and other chemicals seriously.

"You have to believe the science rather than the agrisalesmen. Scientists here and around the world have found the same results - it's pretty convincing now; that neonics are destroying the ability of bees to navigate and process information and ultimately survive. This combined with the other stresses in our world is making them prone to colony collapse and depletion."

The exhibition also features some of Jackson's sculptural work that echo his hand-crafted, meticulous style. "I wanted to say how precious bees are and it seemed obvious to cast them in precious metals - gold, silver and bronze. I was delighted to see that every little detail was captured in the process. I then did the same with honeycomb - all using the ‘lost wax technique' - the logical method."

It's not all work and no play for Jackson, though. I spoke to him shortly after his return from the Glastonbury Festival where he has been artist in residence since 1999 and where that zoology degree surely comes in very handy.

The Arts Interview: Kurt Jackson

Turner or Pollack?


Audio working inspiration?

Music, but only when indoors

Top environmental tip?

Look after your own s**t (i.e. green energy, recycling, sourcing etc). If us ‘environmentalists' can't then who can?

Studio clothes: painting overalls or civvies?

Everything is lagged in paint

Lark artist or late owl?

Writing early, painting late

Pen or pencil sketch?

Everything goes

Studio OCD or organised chaos?

Organised chaos.

Our most annoying environmental error?

‘Annoying'- understatement - ignoring climate change for so long

Studio or plein air?

Both - but plein air feeds the studio 

Regular breaks or work through?

Work through

Post-work: run or box set?

Long walks and gardening, beer then movie. With Caroline. 


Where to see Kurt's work?

‘Bees (and the odd wasp) in my Bonnet' is on until 26th September 2016 at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Oxford.

Kurt Jackson has two exhibitions opening in September. 

‘Revisiting Turner's Tourism' at Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter from the 10th of September - 4th of December 2016.

‘Obsession, following the surfer' working with Surfers Against Sewage at Jackson Foundation Gallery, St Just in Cornwall from the 14th of September 2016.








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