U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Sacramento Fish & Wildlife OfficeServing the people, conserving the fish, wildlife, and plants of California

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The Art of Bees

July 17, 2017

Photo of Artist Louis Masai

Artist Louis Masai has traveled across the U.S. from California to New York painting murals of the country’s endangered species. Photo courtesy of Louis Masai.

Louis Masai is not an activist. He is an artist who believes that for the human race to survive we need to do more to protect our world. But, he will insist he is not an activist. In his largest undertaking to date, he travelled coast to coast from New York to California and then back across to Florida painting bright, vibrant murals dedicated to educating Americans on endangered species. His most recent tour, "The Art of Beeing," took just over two months to complete and visited 13 cities across the United States (U.S.). Each stop left behind beautiful works of art on the sides of buildings and walls.

"I’m not an activist, I am an artist," said Masai. "If people want to label me into this and that, that’s fine, but I don't see the value in it, and in fact, I think the word "activist" is very un-useful, as the majority of the public will shudder and walk away from these type of words. I'm a voice, and artists have always used their work to be a voice. I don't see why people need to bracket me in a different way."

Not only is Masai not an activist, he is not even an American. Masai is a British-born artist who spent his early years hanging out with his father painting after the family restaurant closed for the night.

"I grew up living above my parent’s restaurant, which meant that I didn’t get a lot of time to hang out with my dad but when he finished service I would join him in the studio to do my art homework. When he wasn’t being a chef, his other passion for painting took over. I guess it was then that my love for painting really started to flourish. I can’t say that I enjoyed education too much, so when I realized that I could study art at university I pursued that and acquired a degree in Falmouth, Cornwall."

Now a resident of London, Masai spends 50 percent of his time in the studio creating art with paints and brushes to earn a living and the other 50 percent of the time he is using cans of spray paint to bring awareness to the plight of endangered animals.

Photo of a Coho salman mural

The Coho salmon is the featured endangered species mural in Sacramento, California. As part of the Art of Bees series, it includes the quilt aesthetic that is incorporated into each of the endangered species murals. Photo courtesy of Louis Masai.

"The Art of Beeing," was a 13-city-trek across the U.S. seeing Masai paint 20 murals in 11 states. Each mural was dedicated to an endangered species found in or around the city where it was painted. In addition to the murals, Masai and his team made 5 short films along the way documenting his progress and educating people on the plight of the endangered species.

"I wanted to do a tour of America and I wanted to highlight the endangered species in the states that I visited. I have two close friends that make films and we realized that it was a project worth making a series of films about."

In California, Masai painted murals of the Coho Salmon in Sacramento (endangered in California) and island fox (which has been delisted) in San Francisco. In Reno, Nevada it was the Lohantan cutthroat trout (threatened). Each mural, although accompanied by a warning, was a message of hope. Masai believes that as individuals we are ready to make the changes to preserve and save our ecosystems, but not as a species.

"Humans are too egocentric and there is little place in change for the ego, it’s time to be the shepherds we weren't meant to be," he said. "I hope I'm wrong, because I would like to think that the beauty of this planet has a glimmer of hope."

Although each mural was an original work of art, they did have a mutual link; patchwork quilts and bees have been a common theme in his murals for the past 3 years. Masai believes that the decline of bees could be a signal for the eventual fall of ecosystems. In fact, earlier this year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) officially added the rusty patched bumble bee to the endangered species list.

"Well, I have been painting bees now for about three years," said Masai. "I became interested in them because: a) they are endangered across the whole planet; b) they are the most important species to the survival of all ecosystems; and c) they demonstrate the importance of biodiversity."

The quilting pattern found in each mural and the toy-like nature of the subjects, speak to Masai’s ability to find a human reference to juxtapose an element that might not be obvious.

"Patchworks are of particular relevance because they were traditionally passed down [within] families by women. I am leaving my patchwork paintings on walls as memories for the children of tomorrow. The bees in this series can be found stitching up the toys because they are the planets’ warriors; they are keeping the planet stitched together. Sadly, bees are under immense threat in the United States."

Masai credits his interest in endangered species to a 2001 trip he took to South America when he was 18. He spent 10 months traveling from the lush plains of the U.S. through Central America to the jungles of South America.

The island fox mural in San Francisco, California is a testament to the success of the Endangered Species Act. Once federally protected, the species has been delisted due to successful recovery efforts. Photo courtesy of Louis Masai.

"One of the destinations was in the Peruvian Amazonian rainforest. I was there at the start of rainy season, working with a pink river dolphin conservation project. I threw myself into a world that I had no idea what I was walking into or why I was really there, other than my inquisitiveness of an environment that I felt I would be mesmerized by. And I wasn't wrong. There is no other place that I have visited yet like it. The power of nature in the amazon is overwhelmingly incredible and it’s the energy that I absorbed from within that month in the jungle that allowed me to appreciate the nature that I see since and will continue to see."

The artist is planning another visit to South America later this year and says he is exited to revisit the rain forest.

According to Masai, the subject of each mural was a result of hours and hours of internet researches. From Google to the website for International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Masai and his team soon became experts on the mural subjects.

"I did generic Google searches for endangered species in America, followed by [searches in] the state that I was visiting. I found many really good sites, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service being one good source. I always cross reference my sources wherever I can with the IUCN Red List. It gets complicated because sometimes a federally endangered species is not necessarily world endangered and so doesn't appear on the IUCN website. Another good cross reference is finding the conservation site for that specific species."

Masai understands that the ecological issue currently facing humankind is possibly the greatest threat we have ever faced, and one that this generation has a duty to address.

"For this trend to reverse, humans must re-evaluate nature and put species protection at the heart of society at every level; from policy to business, communities and individuals. ‘The Art of Beeing’ is calling for individuals to unite, much like bees, to put nature first. The true ‘Art of Beeing’ is humanity coming together to restore the planet. The time to end extinction is now."

by Joe Barker, RFWO External Affairs

Last updated: October 22, 2019