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A bee's eye view: Artist takes a deep dive into pollinators' perspective

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Artist Susan Curington recalls reading "Gulliver's Travels" as a child and being fascinated by the shifts in scale that occur frequently in the course of the novel.

"So the concept of the scale and perspective has always been interesting to me," said Curington, who lives in Gaston, a small town in Oregon's Washington County.

Combine that interest with a love of nature and another lifelong interest — "I really like to eat" — and you start to understand the genesis of her new show, "As the Bee Sees: A Pollinator's Perspective," now on view at Oregon State University. The show features 19 Curington paintings — some of them huge — that aim to depict what flowers and vegetables might look like from the viewpoint of a bee.

Well, not exactly, as Curington noted: bees have compound eyes, unlike humans, so she's taken a bit of artistic license in creating these images. 

The whole idea, she said in an interview this week, is to create an environment in which viewers can get a sense of empathy with bees and the vital role they play in pollinating not just flowers but crops as well — more than 90 commercial crops depend upon bee pollination for survival. 

"As the Bee Sees" already has shown in other locations, including a recent show at the Beaverton library, but Curington thought it would be a good fit at OSU. So, she said, she started "hounding" Tina Green-Price, the curator of the Giustina Gallery in the LaSells Stewart Center, to gauge her interest.

Green-Price didn't need much persuading. "They're beautiful pieces and their message is just as important," she said this week. "You really feel like you're a little bee in the garden."

But there was a problem to be solved: The Giustina Gallery is huge, and Curington had 19 paintings. Although impressive, they weren't going to fill the gallery space. "This is a huge place," Green-Price said. "To fill this gallery really takes a lot of work."

And it didn't seem fair to tell Curington to go back and produce another hundred or so paintings to fill the room.

Green-Price had another idea: She issued a call to artists to participate in a separate show inspired by Curington's work. That show, "Pre-Farm to Table: A Bee's Work," has opened alongside Curington's work.

Green-Price was thrilled by the response: In all, "A Bee's Work" features 95 pieces from 49 artists, including some who haven't shown at the Giustina previously. And the work covers a variety of media, including (appropriately) encaustic paintings, which involve using heated beeswax to which colored pigments have been added.

And Curington said she was delighted by the suggestion: "It takes all of us" to make a difference, she said. "I love community involvement."

For Curington, "As the Bee Sees" gives her a chance to advocate on behalf of the insects, who face a number of challenges. (The show's opening reception on Friday, Sept. 6 features Curington talking on that topic and another presentation by Priyadrshini Chakrabarti Basu, a research associate at OSU's Honey Bee Lab on bee biology and threats; see the sidebar story for additional details.)

Curington said she's currently working on paintings depicting starfish: "I seem to be focusing on keystone species," a plant or animal that plays a unique and crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions.

"I just think it's pretty simple," she said. "Beauty and survival is what's at stake."


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