Making Art for the Bees


It’s almost too easy to joke that Seattle artist Cheri Ellis has a bee in her bonnet. Formerly a bespoke milliner known for fanciful hats that won her many fashionable clients, Cheri evolved over the years into the multifaceted, multi-dimensional artist she is today. Along the way she added couture designer to her resume, creating embellished, handsewn dresses that appealed to women who loved her quirky style. When she started reading about the environmental crisis posed by the loss of honeybee habitat, Cheri then merged her creative life with a defining mission: to raise awareness about bees and their significance around the world. With that commitment a new all-encompassing art project has given rise to this prolific artist’s latest creative renewal. Cheri has devoted the last four years of her career to studying bees and drawing lessons for how people can follow the bees’ example to work better cooperatively and creatively.
The Bee Story, as she calls it, includes Cheri’s original bee-themed artwork, couture fashion made from her custom fabric, a popular line of paper goods and, most recently, unique cloth dolls that embody the artist’s signature sense of style wed to a higher purpose. Absolutely everything she’s created for The Bee Story originates with imagery taken from her paintings and drawings, which are themselves a frolicking dreamscape of interwoven patterns and colors. Within her high-impact visual fields lie delicate bee silhouettes, sacred symbols, and scrolling organic webs reminiscent of Moorish geometry or the knotted bands of Celtic borders.
At the heart of every Cheri Ellis design there are bees at work. When asked if this is an obsession of hers, she is quick to laugh but freely admits to being “bee-dazzled” by the life of bees, from their community dynamics to the vital role they play in sustaining life and food production on the planet. “Bees work for the good of the whole,” Cheri says. They are matriarchal, essential, and powerful. “We can’t imagine life without bees, so why are we not protecting their habitats? Why are we crippling them with toxic chemicals and eliminating their ability to do their important work?” After researching colony collapse disorder and its devastating impact, Cheri began creating new paintings with bees as the central theme. From there, an entirely new creative world opened and continues to flourish. She read about bees in mythology, literature and in nature. She drew conclusions about how artists, in particular, could emulate bees in their own communities. Cheri envisions a growing network of collaborators, from artists to musicians and the models who wear her designs, all bringing their strengths and talents to advance the message that bees matter to us all.
Calling on her decades of experience as a milliner and clothing designer, Cheri began creating custom dresses made from her own bee-printed fabrics. She has revealed her Bee Story couture collection cautiously in Seattle over the past three years in small venue shows but would love to create a large-scale exhibition and performance for a major art venue like the Seattle Art Museum. Cheri’s polymath approach to exhibiting encompasses strong environmental messaging, sustainably produced clothing, live performance and multimedia installations to astounding effect. It’s for the bees, she says, to grab people’s attention and get them to realize what’s lost if we lose any more of them.
Cheri’s most recent reinvention of a familiar everyday object, the cloth doll, is a natural evolution from earlier dolls she made nearly twenty years ago when her own daughter was a little girl. “I had remnanat fabric from my custom dresses, bags and other projects around the studio and started looking at the dolls I used to make by hand,” Cheri recalls. “I never thought I’d come back to the dolls, but when I started it brought back so many memories, and showed me a new way to tell the Bee Story.” The original dolls were entirely handpainted, and the new generation feature printed fabric taken from original Bee Story artwork. Cher still paints the faces by hand, taking her time to bring out each doll’s identity and personality. They are at once sculptural, figurative and imbued with distinctive human traits.
So much more than a toy, Cheri’s Bee Story dolls become alter-egos, wise women spirit guides with colorful braids and beautifully hand painted expressions. They seem knowing, worldly and completely beguiling. You can imagine whispering secrets to them, tucking a lucky talisman into their pocket or giving them an inventive backstory. She takes her time with each new doll, giving each her own unique identity, clothing and custom made accessories. When Cheri displays the dolls at Seattle’s famed Ballard Sunday farmer’s market people stop in their tracks, immediately taken by their otherworldly charm.
Each doll is its own complete creation and no two will ever be alike. Cheri loves the idea of making these dolls in honor of a special event, to commemorate an important milestone in someone’s life, or to offer a source of comfort and solace to someone going through a major life transition. “They are there for healing,” Cheri says. We can heal ourselves and heal the planet by changing our point of view. “I add the adornments from different countries and cultures because I’ve always been drawn to how certain places, like in India, China or Mexico, embrace pattern and color. There are also tribal motifs that appear often in my work.  I also want to honor the sacred, mystical elements at work in the universe.”
Cheri’s Bee Story has many chapters and her dolls will remain a part of that ongoing narrative in her work. She forging connections between so many diverse communities, from Seattle’s fine arts world to the farmers and urban honey producers selling alongside her each Sunday. Judging by the response she gets at her farmer’s market booth when people realize what she’s created and why, this is a story that is certain to have a very happy ending.