Aganetha Dyck is a Canadian visual artist whose career spans almost four decades and possesses a body of work as diverse as the life experiences she has had over those years.

Her current research is based on interspecies communication between humans and honeybees to understand the delicate and fragile nature that exists between these two species. Working in a collaborative process with the insects, she creates sculptural and visual representations of this communication in a way that neither party could have created individually.

Though Aganetha’s career began later in her life, she has become a prominent figure within contemporary Canadian art. In 2007, Aganetha was recognized for her work with the honeybees and received the Canadian Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts and the Manitoba Arts Council Award of Distinction in 2006.

Mason Journal had an opportunity to speak with Aganetha to find out how her life experiences guided her to a career in art, what inspired her to collaborate with other species, and how she compares Canadian contemporary art to an international field.

Aganetha Dyck & William Eakin, “Light” 2011 Apiary Works. Michael Gibson Gallery.

Mason Journal: You describe your work as a method of interspecies communication. Can you describe how this communication happens between you and the bees?

Aganetha Dyck: First, a clarification; I am not a beekeeper. I rent the colonies of honeybees, bee hives, and apiary space from a qualified beekeeper. All my work with honeybees is overseen by a scientist and is always completed under the direction of a beekeeper. The beekeeper takes care of the bees. I am an artist interested in environmental issues and in inter-species communication, specifically interested in the power of the small. My ongoing research asks questions regarding the ramifications all living beings would experience should honey bees disappear from earth.

Communication and collaboration with the honeybees begins with the acknowledgment and understanding of their ways of existing and their methods of working.

To begin a collaborative project with the honeybees, I choose a slightly broken object or damaged material from a second hand market place. I choose damaged objects because honeybees are meticulous beings, they continuously mend anything around them and they do pay attention to detail. To encourage the honeybees to communicate, I strategically add wax or honey, propolis or hand-made honeycomb patterns to the objects prior to placing them into their hives. At least I like to think my methods are strategic. The honeybees often think otherwise and respond to what is placed within their hive in ways that make my mind reel.

At times, the honeybees encourage me to add or delete honeycomb after they have worked on an object. As an example, by overextending their honeycomb, the honeybees encourage me to sculpt into this mass of waxed cell construction and return it to them for further consideration.

Aganetha Dyck, Queen, Beework on figurine of Queen Elizabeth II, 2007, 15 x 10 x 8″, Courtesy Michael Gibson Gallery, London, Ontario.

Aganetha Dyck, The MMasked Ball, 2008. Photo: Peter Dyck

Aganetha Dyck, The MMasked Ball, 2008. Photo: Peter Dyck

Aganetha Dyck, The MMasked Ball, 2008. Photo: Peter Dyck

Aganetha Dyck, The MMasked Ball, 2008. Photo: Peter Dyck

Aganetha Dyck, The MMasked Ball, 2008. Photo: Peter Dyck

MJ: What can be learned from your research in interspecies communication?

AD: As an artist, I continue to question what my research into interspecies communication suggests or where it might lead to. Honeybee communication research continues throughout the scientific and beekeeping world. Scientists and beekeepers, as well as dozens of international artists, plus a growing number of global citizens, are increasingly concerned with the health of honeybees. Communication between species is urgent. Research continues to try and prevent honeybees from disappearing from our world. The reason for the concern of disappearing honeybees is mainly due to the honeybees ability to pollinate over 40% of the world’s food supply.

The scientists and beekeepers who have generously assisted my art work have indicated that my research methods and my art practice makes them think outside their box. Observing scientists working in bee labs has blown my mind and made me think entirely outside my box.

For example, I had no idea it was possible to artificially inseminate a Queen Bee. I almost blacked out during that procedure. I was allowed to observe bee lab students weighing honeybees in order to record the effect that insecticides and pesticides have on the honeybee’s weight. I did not know such a delicate task existed. While looking through the lab’s powerful microscope, I observed a honeybee go into a fetal position as she lay dying. The sight of that was totally outside my box and blurred my vision.

MJ: You have described your work as ‘collaboration’ between you and the bees. Do you see this as an equal collaborative effort?

AD: I see that the honeybees and I collaborate equally by our exchange of materials and techniques all summer long. The honeybees add honeycomb or they remove it from the object given to them. They like to work on glass, they can sign artist’s prints with honeycomb marks, they embroider onto fabric or wood. Most often I accept their decision as to when an art work has been completed. Other times, if they have covered the object totally with honeycomb, I might carve into it or add to their construction. It is a give and take through the beekeeping season in July and August of each year. The honeybees usually make the last creative decision. Their honeycomb construction and their take on structure is totally surprising. I am continuously amazed and in awe of their responses to new ideas. When they follow my suggestion I know that we are communicating and collaborating. If they do not follow my suggestion, I follow theirs, knowing that we are communicating and collaborating.

MJ: What is the significance of the objects that you place into the hive?

AD: The objects I give to the honeybees are always related to my research in progress.

Sports Night in Canada: Helmet 2000, helmet, honeycomb, Kelowna Art Gallery

Aganetha Dyck, Sports Night in Canada, 2000. Photo: Peter Dyck

Aganetha Dyck, Sports Night in Canada, 2000. Photo: Peter Dyck

MJ: What have you learned as a sculptor as a result of working with bees?

AD: Working with the honeybees has taught me patience and that paying attention to detail is important. They have invigorated my ability to imagine. I never cease to wonder at the honeybee’s ability to construct strong, awesome structures using the least amount of material to construct what is required. Architects around the world have studied the strength of honeycomb structures. Both architects and artists have been influenced by the honeybee’s design patterns.

MJ: Do you consider your current work a gradual progression of your early work, or do you see your later body of work a departure due to personal growth and experience?

AD: My last 23 years of working with the honeybees was a big departure from my earlier work. One noted departure was moving from a downtown indoor studio to an outdoor apiary studio for several months during the summer beekeeping season. I would prepare objects or materials for the honeybees in my downtown studio during the winter. In summer the honeybees and I would work together in the outdoor apiaries.

My first visit to an apiary was like entering another world, a foreign land. When the beekeeper first opened the lid of a beehive for me, all my senses were awakened. I became totally alive, filled with wonder and imagination. Under the hive lid is a place filled with movement, scent, warmth, sound and ambrosia. Taking a deep breath I stood in awe at the 50,000 moving beings constructing wax comb, dancing their various dances of communication, preparing to fly off as directed to gather nectar, pollen or propolis, as required by their colony.

When the beekeeper first showed me the Queen Bee as she was laying yet another of her 2000 eggs a day, a project titled “The Extended Wedding Party” surfaced in my mind. I stood beside the hive as the Queen Bee’s huge body moved from cell to cell, expelling one egg after the other. All the while her attendants cleansed her, murmured to her, urged her to continue the egg laying process. Nearby honeybees were busy preparing more wax cells to house all the eggs soon to be laid and soon to become workers, nurses, drones and if need be, a cell for a new Queen that would fight the old Queen to the death in order to become the new monarch.

Observing the honeybees construct their wax comb, I realized these amazing beings were sculptors. My imagination ran wild as I became aware that these warm, lovely, and life giving creatures could become my collaborators. I had no idea how the honeybees and I could work together. The beekeeper, Phil Veldhuis and I discussed the possibilities of collaborating with honeybees within an apiary artist studio. After leaving the apiary, I went to my downtown studio and put all former art work into storage, making room for new ideas. It took much research, travel and assistance from internationally renowned scientists such as Dr. Stephen Pernal, Dr. Mark Winston, Dr. Yves LeConte, and Heather Higo. The last 23 years I have worked with apiarist Phil Veldhuis, a professor of Philosophy and a quiet, generous, knowledgeable beekeeper. He is generous with his knowledge of how honeybees work, what their likes and dislikes are.

Glass Dress: Lady in Waiting 1992-98, glass, honeycomb (beeswax with honey), propolis, pearls, wood, women’s shoes, plastic handbag, necklace, variable dimensions, National Gallery of Canada (Photo: NGC)

MJ: You became interested in art at a later stage in life. Can you describe the process in how you got involved in the visual arts?

AD: I became seriously interested in art at the age of 38. Prior to that, I had taken a drawing and a wood carving course at Winnipeg’s YWCA. In 1972 my husband was transferred from Winnipeg to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. We had 3 young children and I was a full time homemaker/housekeeper. Soon after unpacking our household, I volunteered to work at the Prince Albert Art Centre. I enrolled in the Centre’s batik, pottery and weaving courses as well as taking courses in drawing, art criticism and art history courses at the community college under instructor George Glenn. George thought I had potential as an artist and in 1975 he asked me to share studio space with him and another artist.

I did not have a project in mind for working in a studio, did not have a C.V., and did not know how to proceed as an artist. George and I discussed my hesitation to work in a studio. He suggested, “Work with what you know best and with what you do best”. I informed George that I knew housework the best, to which George gently responded: “Then why not do housework in the studio?”

Because laundry was my favorite housekeeping chore, I purchased an old wringer type, second hand, washing machine, purchased second hand clothing from the Salvation Army store and began washing woolen garments until they would not shrink anymore. The procedure was simple: go to the studio, fill the washing machine with hot water, a little soap and throw in a load of woolen garments. During the day when our children attended school, the washing machine chugged along like a mantra while I read from George’s large library of art books. Before it was time to meet our children after school, I hung up my newly altered laundry to drip dry till morning.

Coming to the studio the next morning I realized the woolen garments had become tiny, incredible sculptures that could stand alone when placed on the floor. After that, every day was wash day in the studio. This process plus an investigation into handmade felt took up all my studio time from 1975 till we moved back to Winnipeg in 1976. The laundry project was titled SIZES 8 – 46, and was completed in 1981, resulting in over 1000 shrunken woolen garments. SIZES 8-46 has been collected internationally and I still enjoy doing laundry. Mending is my next favorite chore but it is impossible to read while doing so.

Close Knit 1976-81, 65 shrunken woolen sweaters, variable dimensions, Canada Council Art Bank (Photo: Martin Lipman)

Aganetha Dyck, I love sports, sports loves me! 1976-1981. Sculpture: wool, metal, textile. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Gift of Peter Dyck.

Aganetha Dyck, Size 8-46: Shrunken Clothing Series, 1976-1981. Photo: Peter Dyck.

Aganetha Dyck, Size 8-46: Shrunken Clothing Series, 1976-1981. Photo: Peter Dyck.

MJ: You have had an opportunity to display your work on an international field. How do you compare the Canadian art industry to that of the international scene?

AD: Living in isolated Winnipeg, within this wide, vast and liberated country of Canada, allows for freedom of expression. Travel to take part in international artist residencies has been an incredible experience and encouragement for me. International audiences are larger than in most parts of Canada and are very open to new work. Having said that, most international audiences are larger due to a larger density in population; there is less space for isolation between art centers in many parts of the world.

Travel has become more affordable. Artists have varied opportunities to exhibit internationally and receive greater exposure to work on an international level. As well, international curators visit Canadian centres, giving artists yet more opportunities to network on a broader scale. The Canada Council for the Arts and provincial funders such as The Manitoba Arts Council support travel, experimentation, projects and studio practices. I think artists now have the privilege of becoming part of a large international community of creative thinkers.

MJ: For those who are just starting in the visual arts community, do you have any advice in developing a successful and fulfilling career?

AD: A few words of encouragement come to mind: study, research, travel, networking, persevere. Knowing who you are and understanding that being an artist and working only as an artist can be really really difficult; but it can also be exciting and rewarding.

MJ: What new projects can we look forward to seeing from you?

AD: Now that I am allergic to honeybee stings, my method of working with live honeybees is at a standstill. I am in rethink mode; developing an idea on how to communicate/collaborate with honeybees, apiarists, artists, designers, technicians and curators.

Using computers and the internet instead of working in my very much alive apiary studio, has potential. It is too early to describe a process or a specific project; it is however an exciting time in my career as an artist.

Pink Pillar with Couple. Lamp, Beeswax, Honeycomb. 2011, 13 x 8 x 5 in.

Squirrel: Lamp, Lamp shade, Beeswax, Honeycomb. 2011, lamp: 17 1/2 x 6 x 6 in.
lamp shade: lamp shade, beeswax, honeycomb, drawing, thread. 2011, 9 x 12 x 8 in.

For more information on Aganetha Dyck, visit her website at or at the Michael Gibson Gallery