‘A Better Nectar’ – Nature’s Ecstatic, Interactive Buzz

A woman bends and leans into one of the fiberglass pods representating a bumble bee nest.

Besides its usual roles, to decorate galleries and delight viewers, art can act on other levels, with other aims. It can inform, educate, open eyes to strange worlds, spark the imagination.

The two artists sit in front of advanced audio equipment and computers while talking.
Artists Robert Hoehn and Jessica Rath collaborate on the score for “Resonant Nest.”

“A Better Nectar,” the multimedia, interdisciplinary installation with pieces at both Stetson’s Hand Art Center and Gillespie Museum, does all that and more. It offers profound insights into the everyday lives of bumble bees, agricultural workers who provide essential pollination yet are so taken for granted that they may seem invisible – or, even, potential pests, stinging irritants.

There is none of that in the exhibit of works by California artist Jessica Rath. “A Better Nectar,” the latest evolution in an ongoing ten-year collaborative project with fellow California composer Robert Hoehn, evokes a sense of childlike wonder with the simplest of materials: color; shape; sound.

Translucent fiberglass pods large enough to cradle an adult seem to hover in the Hand center, their gently cupped sides glowing golden and strange sounds wafting from their centers. At the Gillespie, Staminal Evolution, kidney bean-shaped double purple forms rise to eye level, mounted on a stark white base, while eerie notes hum, echoing around the open space like the voices of alien sentinels.

The luminous forms are irresistible, their gleaming surfaces and mottled depths inviting not just to touch but also immersion. The constantly shifting minimalist symphony that is a central part of each sculpture adds to the fascination: droning, whining, soothing tones lure viewers closer to the pods’ openings until it’s hard not to want to reach, or even to crawl inside, and to curl up. Lulled by the blend of form and sound, the viewer becomes the bee, the creature that emerged from a golden pod to forage for pollen from the dim secretive recesses of the stamen.

That was Rath’s intent about 10 years ago, when she began to draw on her youthful background and initial college focus on the biological sciences. “I come from a family of poets and farmers in Missouri,” she said, taking a break from installing the exhibit last week. “I ended up with a major in sociology and a minor in fine arts, then went on for a master’s degree in fine arts.”

A woman bends and leans into one of the fiberglass pods representating a bumble bee nest.
A viewer listens into a single cell in the human-scaled bumblebee nest emanating a score of foraging bees.

Rath, who teaches at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and Hoehn went to the same college, she said. They met not in college but more recently, when a neighbor introduced them, and he began to compose “Song to Snore,” Hoehn’s composition that was based on birdsong and the breathing of Rath’s then-14-month-old daughter.

Hoehn, a composer and sound designer whose 2014 Wind Sound Sanctuary was performed with a 50-foot pipe organ that was windmill-driven with custom Aeolian harps, stepped away from fine-tuning his score for the golden pods in the Stetson art center. He explained that it was specific to its current location: information from the DeLand Airport that is fed into the computer, and determined the activity of the bees in the area.

“There is a program for January, February and part of March, and depending on the feed from the airport – temperature, air pressure, wind speed, sunniness. Those are all cues, and a combination of factors causes changes in the composition,” Hoehn said, “as the weather or the season changes, the score changes.”

The music may sound otherworldly, but it is very much of the bee’s experience – and, as viewers immerse themselves in the bee’s nests or peer into the stamen, scores such as “Cold Huddle,” “Languid Wander” or “Early Forge” are hypnotic. The voices in Hoehn’s score were produced by the 40-to-60-voice Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir, and they were layered into unified sounds: buzzing, soaring, drifting as the bees do in nature as the wind picks up, or the temperature drops.

A woman stands in front of a deep red part of a flower, looking at it. It's about seven feet high on a white base.

“Staminal Evolution (Arctostaphylos)” is a seven-foot version of a tiny anther within a manzanita flower. The sculpture emits a score based on pollen flowing from the anther hole.

“The bees have all kinds of jobs – doorkeeper, undertaker, guard, nurse for the larvae in their nests, and their jobs can shift based on pheromones,” Rath said. “A guard bee may not always be a guard bee.”

Hoehn chimed in, making final adjustments to the score on his laptop. “The music is the bees’ reactions to the environment, which is always shifting; the environment is what changes their mood, the mood of the hive.”

-Laura Stewart

“A Better Nectar” will be at the Hand Art Center, 139 E. Michigan Ave., and the Gillespie Museum, 234 E. Michigan Ave., through March 3. 

Admission is free and art center hours are 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday and noon-4 p.m. Saturday. Gillespie Museum hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

For more information, call the Hand Art Center at (386) 822-7270 and Gillespie Museum at(386) 822-7330.