A Graphic Campaign That Uses 'Superpowers for Good'

One week ago Saturday, I was fortunate enough to catch a presentation by a group known as the Beehive Design Collective. Their brief stop in Elkhart was one of many throughout the country to talk about “Mesoamérica Resiste,” a large-scale graphic campaign that addresses “globalization in the Americas, focusing on resistance to mega-infrastructure projects that are literally paving the way for free trade agreements that devastate local economies and communities.”

Meaningfully summarizing what the "Bees" do is difficult given the breadth and number of projects they take on. In a nutshell, however, they are collaborative storytellers, generating copyright-free graphics—drawn in black and white and devoid of human representation—that serve as rich, visual narratives and educational resources. The graphics, printed on fabric for display, are impressive in terms of their scale. However, the dimensions are nothing compared with the sheer complexity and detail of the imagery. Several days after seeing it up close, I’m still trying to get my brain wrapped around the stylistic and compositional nuances embedded in “Mesoamérica Resiste," though I can certainly appreciate the 10 years that went into completing the work. (With layer upon layer of symbolism, the end result is the kind of illustration that you could probably spend another 10 years deciphering.) Pretty amazing stuff.

As mesmerized as I am about the work of the Beehive Design Collective and all of the great things they are doing, I keep coming back to the question of what impact (if any) the experience of hearing about this project will have on the way others and I think and act. While the activist part of me wants to use this inspiration as motivation to pursue new and wonderful artistic endeavors, the reality of teaching, writing, working and the deluge of never-ending deadlines tempers my enthusiasm. Yet, I keep asking myself, “What is stopping me? What is preventing me from practicing what I preach and finding ways to use my superpowers for good?”

I can certainly argue that teaching exempts me from any additional obligations related to helping humankind; I’m already doing my small part to try and make the world a better place, right? Unfortunately, rationalizing the merits of non-participation does nothing to stop the flow of nagging questions and counterarguments.

And so, for the last week, I’ve been fantasizing about temporarily moving to Machias, Maine, where the collective is based, to spend some quality time absorbed in pen-and-ink drawings. I can’t realistically swing that kind of trip, at least not within the next few months. But if Machias is off the table for the time being, what options are still within reach? Well, if the goal is to help bring stories to the surface in the form of a collaborative, highly stylized, culturally appropriate, location specific visuals, which would serve as both a historical record and a challenge to future residents, the Maple City might provide plenty of material to work with. From its history as a link to the Underground Railroad up to the current revitalization efforts taking place in Goshen, the potential for narrative development connecting us with our environment is limitless. I’m imagining local residents and business owners, artists, historians, biologists, musicians, farmers, politicians, city planners, teachers, lawyers, students, healthcare providers—everyone, basically—united by a visual story that speaks beautifully, but also truthfully, about the complex ecosystems and relationships that make us who we are as a community.

Imagine, too, if the aforementioned composition that resulted from a cross-disciplinary collaboration was copyright free? Perhaps, then, this grand visual narrative would genuinely belong to all of us. The imagery would be ours to re-envision, remake, reinterpret, share, and could, most importantly, take on a life of its own. We don’t often talk about art or design in such a way -- that is, as something that should be passed on to others so that they can do whatever they want with it. (How many of us are willing to surrender control over what we create?) Yes, I’m appealing yet again to the better angels of our collective nature by suggesting such a thing. Still, the thought is a refreshing one.