2015-04-22 / Arts & Entertainment News

LaBelle abuzz with excitement over mural

BY GLENN MILLER
Florida Weekly Correspondent


Artist Matthew Willey’s mural calls attention to the perils faced by the world’s bee population and also serves as great advertisement for the Curtis Honey Company in LaBelle. Artist Matthew Willey’s mural calls attention to the perils faced by the world’s bee population and also serves as great advertisement for the Curtis Honey Company in LaBelle. Very large bees, ones big enough to star in science fiction movies, are popping out on the side of a building in LaBelle.

They look about the size of golden retrievers but these bees don’t bark and they don’t flit about or pollinate.

They are the creation of artist Matthew Willey, a muralist who has been in the Hendry County community for about a month painting the side of the Curtis Honey Co. building on Bridge Street.

Mr. Willey is a fine artist from Asheville, N.C. He has painted murals all over the country and has been profiled in The New York Times. Until a few months ago, though, he had never heard of LaBelle.

Mr. Willey has had an interest in bees for several years and has studied the peril they face from pesticides and what the extinction of honeybees could mean to the human race.


GLENN MILLER / FLORIDA WEEKLY GLENN MILLER / FLORIDA WEEKLY “If all bees go in the next seven to eight years we will not be able to feed ourselves as a species,” Mr. Willey said, standing in the air conditioned comfort of Curtis Honey. “That’s how integral they are. There are other bees that pollinate but honeybees are more effective. … The honeybee is the best pollinator and so I want to raise awareness about the honeybee struggle and at the same time I want to celebrate humans and what they are doing for the good of the hive.”

A friend told Mr. Willey there was a wall that needed a mural. That’s when he learned about the Curtis Honey Co., which began in 1954 and is housed in a building constructed in 1928.

His mural, which should be completed this week, is a large undertaking. He estimated it’s about 120 feet long and perhaps 30-to-35 feet high.

The building’s ridged stucco surface presents an artistic challenge.

“It’s like painting on an English muffin,” the 45-year-old artist said.

He’s adjusted his technique, using smaller brushes than normal.

When the idea of a mural was first broached several months ago it wouldn’t have been legal in LaBelle.

There was, Mr. Willey said, a city ordinance against murals. But the city commission took care of that.

Shellie Johnson, a city planner overseeing Labelle’s planning efforts, said the city commission voted 5-0 to change the rules and allow the mural.

It’s all part of an effort by the LaBelle Downtown Revitalization Corporation to spur economic growth. Now, the mural is helping to spark conversation.

“It’s got the whole town talking about downtown,” said Ms. Johnson, a principal with EnSite, a Fort Myers-based planning company, and president of the revitalization organization.

Anybody driving north through downtown LaBelle can’t miss the mural. Ms. Johnson said about 11,000 vehicles a day drive past the painting.

Rene Curtis Pratt, whose grandfather started the honey company, said the mural has already had an impact. Customers tell her, “The mural pulled us in.”

Painting murals pulled in Mr. Willey long ago.

“There was always something about getting on a ladder and getting my whole body into a piece that was so much bigger than me,” Mr. Willey told The New York Times in 2010.

That’s still the case. When Florida Weekly stopped by last week there were two ladders leaning against the building. The mural dwarfs Mr. Willey or even an NBA team’s starting lineup.

He started work on the LaBelle mural around St. Patrick’s Day, he recalled.

Although his parents reside part of the year in Naples, that’s too far away to commute to LaBelle every day. So Mr. Willey has stayed in a donated recreational vehicle in LaBelle.

This is a long way in more than miles from his other homes in Asheville and New York. Despite the cultural differences from those cities, Mr. Willey has enjoyed LaBelle.

“It’s been amazing,” Mr. Willey said. “Everybody took me in. … I’ve gotten to know a lot of people around here, salt of the Earth, good people. I’ve been embraced by the community. My truck broke down and I had several offers to drive me anywhere I needed to go. Mechanics helped me out.”

He’s learned not only to paint bees but also to paint within swarms of actual bees.

“I haven’t been stung once,” Mr. Willey said.

He said bees sense people’s moods, something he noticed when he started painting one day while stressed out about a personal issue.

“I was walking up to the mural in this just tense frustrated mood and the bees were just totally reacting differently,” Mr. Willey said. ”They know when you’re afraid or being aggressive so I had to calm myself down.”

He hopes to make this mural the first in a series of honeybee murals. Nothing has been decided on where his next bee murals will be.

The mural is, of course, more than a pretty picture, it’s about the future of bees and what they mean to the human race.

“The bees are so worth it,” he said. ¦

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