NANCY MACKO: Artist Statement

As a social practice, my work addresses life’s fundamental questions. I photograph the process of the life and death of plants that serves as a metaphor of our brief existence. Increasingly threatened by encroaching development, plants remind us how fragile our ecosystem is: for example, there is still a very serious concern over the longevity of the honeybees. As an artist working with many media, including photography, printmaking, and installation, I wish to present the natural world’s often hidden beauty in the photos I take. In recording the life cycle of bee-attracting flora, I hope to shed light on our own brief lifespan. The plight of the bees is a call to action that is a social and political action with its roots in feminism. It requires a mindfulness about our place in the universe and the purpose in our lives.

My interest in nature is ecological and activist. My imagery conveys my social concerns. I am using the natural world to create metaphors and analogies that also reference the circumstances of women. The incorporation of bee imagery into my work enables me to make observations about human society: I studied ancient matriarchal societies in an effort to imagine other ways of living. By drawing our attention to the life of the hive and the bees’ social organization, I am not only educating the audience about the bee’s importance to food production, I am also presenting an alternative to the way we live now. Hopefully my work interests the viewer on visual terms and suggests the need for a different way of thinking.

Since the early 90's I have worked with honeybee imagery and media. This work was fully documented in a mid-career survey exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 2006-7. Hive Universe: Nancy Macko, 1994-2006 included mixed media installation, traditional and digital archival prints and video. It was accompanied by a catalog with essays by Karin Breuer, Mary-Kay Lombino, Gloria Orenstein, and Mary MacNaughton with an introduction by Connie Butler.

In 2009, my focus shifted to examining the flora the bees draw nourishment from and so carefully attend through the process of pollination. Working directly with the camera and a macro lens, I created a body of work I call Intimate Spaces.  This purely photographic work takes the viewer into a space of light, air and abstracted textures. The images are sensuous and seductive, poignant and tender, sometimes abject and unsettling --challenging the viewer to experience an image that is not easily defined by familiar landmarks or visual cues. In this work I am looking at beauty, aging, intimacy and fragility-- characteristics that are expressed by subjects in nature.

This work led to documenting the life cycle of the vegetables I raised in my garden, the honeybees that pollinated them and bee-attracting flora using a macro lens in order to reveal the less apparent, less obvious features concealed within these beautiful specimens. Capturing them from bud to bloom to seed—the manifestations of their life cycles. Hopefully my efforts assist in the recognition of natural beauty and the need to preserve the lives of the bees, which are so important to our ecology and food supply.

For 10 years I documented the flora of native plants that attract bees in different regions of the US and Europe in order to create a lexicon of images that can broaden our awareness of the bees. The bees are a super organism and show us how collaborative work can be done collectively for everyone in the hive. They model to us a better way to survive. The simplest thing everyone can do to help the bees is to plant wildflowers because they provide the bees with the healthy nutrients they need to flourish and survive. My work with botanical specimens underscores my interest in the life cycle, both the bees’ and our own.

The honeybees’ very survival is at risk from pesticides that cause them to lose their memory and thus their way back to the hive. In the exhibition The Fragile Bee, which was first exhibited in 2015 at the Museum of Art and History in Southern California, I look closely at the world of bees, not only to examine their biology and somatic features, but also to study their habitat and highly organized society.

The pieces in this body of work consists of four interconnected multi-disciplinary and multi-media installations:  “Botanical Portraits,” photos of bee-attracting flora; “Lore of the Bee Priestess” and “Bee Stories,” two videos in which digital imagery, combined with sound, connects the bees with social and political themes and explores feminine consciousness and archetypes; “Meadow,” a 12 by 36 foot billboard-size mural of a meadow with detailed insets of the native bee-attracting wildflowers; and “Honey Teachings,” an installation consisting of one hundred panels of bee imagery and referential  texts, of which some are affixed to the wall. This compelling work is not only meant to inform the public about the plight of the bees but also to raise awareness of our interdependent relationship with them. The Fragile Bee-- accompanied by a catalog with essays by Stephen Nowlin, Kathleen Stewart Howe, Carole Ann Klonarides and an introduction by Andi Campognone --has been traveling nationally since 2018 and will have been shown in over 18 venues by 2024.

My most recent work, Decompositions, is a realization and a concrescence of all that has come before. Previous explorations also addressed issues of memory loss, dementia and cognitive decline–changes I witnessed as they affected my aging mother’s mental health. My interest in 'end of life' has clearly informed my photography. The work presents death and decomposition not as a hard stop, but as a change of state. Decompositions is the process by which vegetable matter breaks down to make its nutrients available for other life forms. The compost in these photographs is both metaphor and reality, representing change and transformation in ways that are both beautiful and surprising.