Give Bees a Chance: Jack Rayner talks to Kurt Jackson
"I could probably identify the odd bumble bee species, but I realised I was actually quite ignorant towards that whole world."
Kurt Jackson’s “Bees (and the Odd Wasp) in my Bonnet” is an exhibition that both celebrates the diversity and lives of bees and investigates their current vulnerability in their crucial and vital role in our existence. Jack Rayner spoke to Kurt to learn more.
Could you give me some information on your artistic background?
I come from an artistic family - both of my parents were, and are, practising artists. They have been painters, potters and sculptors all their lives, so I was brought up in an environment of enthusiasm and encouragement for the arts. I had that all through my childhood, and then I developed an interest of my own in the natural world and natural history.
In the olden days, the kids used to be out there looking for birds and bugs and so on, collecting fossils and identifying wild flowers. That was always with me, so I had this sort of 'dual carriageway' throughout my life of the natural world and the arts.
I was offered a place at Oxford to read zoology, which I did, but I was also offered a place at an art college, and I turned the place down in favour of Oxford. I wasn't studying for that long before my excitement for the arts grew, and although I continued my zoology course, all the way through I painted, made art and attended the Ruskin School of Art on an evening basis.
Over the years, I've done lots of projects on different animals and plants that I come across, like groups of trees, species of birds, and so on. I got into bees because I started keeping bees, and I'd done a lot of work over the years with Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, and some of their recent campaigns have involved highlighting the plight of the pollinators, and what's been happening in terms of pesticide use and habitat loss. I was trying to find out more for my own awareness - I could probably identify the odd bumble bee species, but I realised I was actually quite ignorant towards that whole world. Generally, we just think of the honey bee and maybe a stripy bumble bee, but there's actually something like 300 species.
Did you work on this subject because bees are beautiful on an aesthetic level, or is it more that you're trying to put forward a message about what's happening to them?
It's both. It's to do with my delight in the world around us, but also my concern with what's happening to that world. All my work tends to be about that, so it's a celebration of biodiversity, a celebration of the incredible variety of life that we share this planet with. When I started to engage with beekeeping, I started to realise the incredible interaction that there is between humans and bees as a social insect, both for their gain and for ours. How bees live their lives is quite bizarre: this matriarchy of tens of thousands of creatures together. Bees are disappearing at such an alarming rate, but you can only go so far as a visual artist in terms of raising awareness unless you're using quite blatant imagery or slogans, which is not what I'm trying to do with this series. I always say that the artist is there to ask the questions, rather than come up with the solutions, whether 'asking questions' means sticking imagery in people's faces and letting them think about it, or just pointing out phenomena that they might not know is happening. Hopefully, I'm showing both my concerns and my passion.
Have you employed any new artistic techniques for this series?
Not from a technical viewpoint. My work in the past has covered the 'micro' side of nature - my latest book, The Kurt Jackson Bestiary, looks at my drawings, paintings, sculptures and writing relating to the wildlife that I come across, and if you get a chance to look at that, you'll see that whether I'm looking at a basking shark in the sea or a grasshopper on my lawn, I'm totally fascinated by each creature and environment.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on two other shows at the moment. One is going to be opening at Exeter Museum in the autumn, and that's called Revisiting Turner's Tourism. It's looking at the etchings and engravings that Turner did, as he was very much the commercial artist looking for the tourist's buck, which is something that no artist in their right mind would admit to these days. I've been visiting the places in the West Country where he made these engravings, then looking at what's happened to the places now through my own art in the present day. I'm also doing another show, about surfing. My studio assistant is a keen surfer, and I'll be creating a series of pieces based on that. I'm trying to get my head around how other people interpret the lie of the land, and this series is my attempt at understanding how a surfer interprets the world around them.
You sound like a very busy man.
Yes, I'm always very busy! I'm also developing an arts centre down here in West Cornwall to educate people about the natural world through the visual arts.
Kurt's exhibition Bees (and the Odd Wasp) in my Bonnet runs at the Natural History Museum until 29th September.
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