To Bee or Not to Bee? Sculptor Garnett Puett Has the Answer: He's Got 90,000 Buzzing Helpers

updated 08/12/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/12/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There are thousands of them. Tens of thousands. In the darkened box bees crawl over an inert human form. They swarm under one armpit and down the arm, cluster two deep on the side of the face, creep over the passive lips and up toward the nostrils. The keeper of the bees looks at the figure, what there is left to see, and notes laconically, "I think I'll take them out by the end of the summer. It ought to be ready by then."

This is not a nefarious torture device from some new thriller. ("Ah, Mr. Bond, I see you've met my little friends.") It is, rather, a work in progress, showing at a new gallery in New York City's East Village. The figure in the box is wax, not human. The bees are building on it, not stinging it. And when it emerges again this fall, it will be a unique example of what beekeeper-turned-artist Garnett Puett calls "bee-art" or "apisculpture," worth upwards of $4,000.

Some artists use a brush, while others prefer the sculptor's chisel. Puett, a 26-year-old, fourth-generation beekeeper, uses Apis mellifera, the honeybee. Working in his sweet-smelling lower Manhattan studio, he creates wax sculptures of the human form. Next he builds a box around the figure, complete with entrance/exit tube and sugar-water or honey dispenser. Then he introduces as many as 90,000 bees from a hive he keeps on the roof of his building.

The bees make the sculpture their home. Swarming on the figure's overhanging features—often the face, arms and genitals—the tiny artists supplement Puett's waxwork with their own honeycomb. The figure Puett removes from its box three weeks to two years later will have been transformed. What was once a realistic human form has become an abstract sculpture of flowing, organic shapes, gridded in familiar hexagons. The distortion is beautiful—and disturbing.

"For centuries," says Puett mildly, "bees in beehives have been a symbol of man on top of nature, making it work for him. In my art it's different; it's bees building organic forms on top of man." This novel turnabout of the usual order of things, combined with the sculptures' striking appearance, has attracted admirers of Puett's work in art's airiest reaches. "It's fascinating and frightening and different from anything I've ever witnessed," says Philip Yenawine, director of the Department of Education at the Museum of Modern Art. "Puett is in the American tradition of the idiosyncratic wacko genius."

Bees have been working for Puett's family for a long time. His father, Garnett George Puett Jr., was a beekeeper, a breeder of queens, who in his spare time wrote short stories about the honeybee and human inhabitants of his native Hahira, Ga. After Garnett's father died, his mother married James Powers, one of the largest independent honey producers in the United States. Twelve-year-old Garnett joined them in a seminomadic existence, moving every two or three years and learning to tend company hives in Florida, Idaho, Arizona and Hawaii.

"It was a great thing for an adolescent," he says, "going to Hawaii and working in the jungle. And I was a natural." Like everyone in his stepfather's firm, he worked the hives with his bare hands, giving up the traditional bee-man's gloves to gain an added sensitivity to the insects' moods. He collected as many as 20 stings a day. "But after the first few," he says, "your body produces so much antitoxin they feel like mosquito bites." (This does not apply to people who are severely allergic to beestings; Puett advises them to stay away from his works in progress.) By 18, Puett had already received informal invitations from prominent apiculturalists in Brazil, Rhodesia, Iran and West Germany to advise their honey industries.

He declined because he wanted to go to college. "A beekeeper's life can be pretty narrow," he says. "I wanted to do something more creative." Midway through the University of Washington, Puett changed his major from biology and management to fine arts, in hopes of "getting away from beekeeping and into art."

He was only half successful. Several years later, while experimenting with a technique for casting bronze sculptures with wax, Puett began to think about sculpting in wax itself, a durable substance that can last for thousands of years under proper conditions. That led, inevitably, to his next question, "Why not let the bees onto it?"

Since then, there has been the occasional mishap. Puett's Italian bees, which he buys at $25 per 10,000, have been known to express their artistic judgment by flying off into Greenwich Village, abandoning their work. Once they took off toward Brooklyn, and he never saw them again. (The New York Times did, however, and reported the news under the headline "15,000 Bees Found Swarming on a Car.") Another time Puett acted out an unintentional piece of performance art when he took up the beekeeper's veil and smoke machine to retrieve his charges from a street construction site in a neighborhood that probably saw its last swarm in the 19th century.

Puett is currently involved in packing the art in his studio for a move to more spacious digs in Brooklyn. One of his favorite pieces is a male figure 34 inches high, to which the bees added ovals of comb from waist to shoulders. "They put wings on him," the artist points out. Indeed, Puett's identification with his co-workers is so strong that he sometimes seems eager, like the statue, to sprout wings and become one. Although his buzzing works have been barred from art shows by a few phobic gallery curators, he claims that bees offer much more to emulate than to fear. "It's marvelous," he says. "They have a sense of being alive, of living to work and working until they die, creating, building and fending off destruction."

But what if an art lover, perhaps even a potential collector, should be stung while trying to observe one of his pieces in progress? If Puett the Artist would defend the motive of the bee, wouldn't Puett the Ambitious Young Man shudder at the bad publicity? New York City's premier artistic beekeeper grins. "I'd rather someone got stung at an opening," he says, "than just walked by and didn't notice the art at all."

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