“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences and failing to create anything useful.”
Margaret J. Wheatley
Contemplative artists like Canadian Sarah Hatton help to fill this void by carefully navigating the confluence of art and activism. Born in the U.K. but raised in Canada and Barbados, Hatton lives in Chelsea, Quebec where she works as a conceptual artist. Hatton’s passion is uniquely beautiful and her messages, arresting. They invite discussion around nature and our human progress while engaging us fully in the canvas of the heart.
Bee Works is the first of four conceptual series produced by Hatton. In 2013, Bee Works won critics who praised her innovative call to action around bees and the harmful use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Hatton’s artist statement pushes us to see “the link between pesticides and the worldwide decline of bees” saying it’s a “crisis that can’t be ignored.”
Her collection of beautiful collages in this series on her website is made with a twist – dead honeybees arranged in geometric patterns. The designs are simple, modern, and unorthodox, yet pleasing to the eye. In fact, I’m not sure why they are so compelling – they simply are.
Upon closer examination, however, small things come into focus, like the perfectly-spaced arrangement of the bees. Their methodical math sequence reminds me of the Hasbro Spirograph toy I had as a child. I’d spend hours swirling one of the clear, plastic disks inside a larger frame, creating sweeping geometric designs with a single ballpoint pen and a few pins to hold the frame in place.
When I look at Hatton’s patterns which create a type of optical illusion with their depth, I get that same feeling I had as a kid. Turns out Hatton employs Fibonacci spirals in her work. The spiral is a sequenced numerical pattern of ordered numbers, with each number being the sum of the two preceding ones, beginning with 0 or 1.
For example, in nature, there are set patterns embedded in the number of flower petals on a rose or the number of avocado leaves. Hatton mirrors the natural world in this way and lulls us into the symmetrical beauty and proportional balance inherent in it. This laborious undertaking is smart!
By using the Fibonacci designs found in nature, Hatton adds a layer of symbolism and turns everything on its head with the composition of dead bees. The dizzying truth is unsettling and stings when you realize it’s exactly what Hatton wants you to feel – what it’s like to be a honeybee whose disoriented from pesticide sprays. Pesticides cause bees to lose their sense of direction and are unable to return to their hive. Nature is lost and so are we because we depend on bees to preserve our ecological balance and the biodiversity of the planet.
I love Hatton’s work because it picks up where environmental advocates like Rachel Carson left off more than fifty years ago. In the world of science and art, Carson made groundbreaking discoveries as an American writer and environmental scientist.
Her 1962 Silent Spring proved pesticides’ links to cancer, birth defects, and attacks on the endocrine and nervous systems. Carson strove to educate millions of people on the destructive use of pesticides and, like Carson, Hatton’s art speaks the same truth.
Migration and Needlepoint Snowflake
More recently, Hatton is building on this call to action in two conceptual pieces that follow Bee Works. Migration speaks to the displacement of freshwater pearl mussels. Hatton draws attention to the consequences of their lost habitat by installing dramatic clusters of mussels perched on tree trunks. They look like giant groups of butterflies spreading their wings in a kind of unnatural arboreal; at once, they are both beautiful and unnatural, as they speak to the changing conditions of our climate and shrinking ecosystems.
Hatton’s third series examines the loss of the beautiful sequoia trees from the drought conditions in the summer of 2018. These sequoia trees are the impetus for Needlepoint Snowflake. In her artist’s statement, Hatton says the arrangement of dead sequoia needles in a “needle-work” pattern is an ode to the feminine practice of knitting and sewing while illustrating the reality of climate change.
Once again, Hatton uses dead materials to illustrate the “big-picture shifts in existing climate zones and their ecosystems, [and] an increase in localized short-term extreme weather events that damage and disrupt every living thing in their path.”
I sense there is no limit to Hatton’s genius in this latest series, which pivots towards the sky in her fourth collection, Detachment. Hatton looks to the stars as cross-cultural signposts – directional maps, if you will – that provide spiritual or navigational guidance.
Hatton pivots in a slightly different direction, although still communing with nature. Instead, however, she builds a celestial wall of remembrance from a collection of 100-year-old brass pins.
The series took shape when the Canadian government decided to digitize the military service records of Canadians veterans from World War I. Hatton decided to use the symbolic pins that held the lives of these servicemen in an office folder in an artful way that would map their sacrifice.
To do this, she recreated the constellation of stars as they would have appeared during decisive nights on the battlefield. Each pin from the fallen heroes was marked both in the stars and history. People can honor the permanency of their sacrifice (all 640,000 pins), and ponder the magnitude of human loss.
What clear in Hatton’s body of work is her commitment to helping us consider our human folly and the need to act responsibly. Whether our weakness in war, the destruction of nature or the pursuit of progress, her art provides opportunities for truth and hope.