To get his message across, visual artist Nick Sweetman took something tiny and made it big. Huge, really. His technicolour murals of bees – some more than 30 feet high – adorn otherwise blank buildings across Toronto.
“Murals are a chance for us to put our values on display as a society, and pollinators are really important,” says Sweetman, who earned a master’s degree in fine art from the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). “Sometimes it takes seeing something gigantic for you to really consider it.”
His mission to draw attention to issues of conservation and wildlife decline began on a slightly smaller scale, however.
In 2015, he took his spray paint to a small traffic box in town, spelling out the words “Save the Bees” with a cluster of the insects on one side, and decorating the other with a jumbo-size version of the pollinator.
“Nature is my most comfortable way of painting, and I try to access emotions through natural motifs,” he says about his favourite subject to splash on grey walls.
The work garnered a lot of attention, including from CTV News, which then led to the Burt’s Bees brand commissioning similar work. For the beeswax-loving company, he got a little more into the weeds when it comes to species, opting to depict the lesser-known green sweat bee. Depicted mid-pollination against a backdrop of swirling skies reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the huge piece brought new life to the corner of Bloor St. W. and Howland St.
As Sweetman’s profile as the local “bee guy” grew, he learned two important things.
One was that art outside of institutions comes with its own set of challenges. “In every art context, there are gatekeepers, and the street art graffiti world is no different,” he says, and the walls of street-art galleries “are very porous. A lot of people will just express their opinion on your work” – or, in other words, deface it.
Another learning was that his knowledge about bees, a pollinator that is essential to our food supplies, had room for improvement. “I didn't really know Toronto has hundreds of species of bees, many of which are not yellow,” he said, referring to the bees that don't live in a hive, make honey or sting. “It was the beginning of my discovery of the amazing world of bees and pollinators.”
Through this newfound passion Sweetman came into contact with the David Suzuki Foundation, and was asked to contribute to its Nature in Cities programs, including the Butterflyway Project, which encourages people to grow bee and butterfly habitats throughout Canada.
In 2017, leading up to an awareness-raising pollinator parade put on by the foundation, Sweetman organized the city-funded painting of butterfly murals on garage doors around Garrison Creek Park. He knocked on doors to try and persuade homeowners to join the effort, and contributed a butterfly mural on his own.
While it was slow to get off the ground, the mural project – a collaboration between the city and the David Suzuki Foundation – proved to have a little butterfly effect of its own. Over the four days of painting, several homeowners who had declined to have their garages included changed their minds once they saw other designs in the making.
“We had this rule with the city that, as long as more would say yes, we would have a blank cheque to provide paint and an artist," Sweetman says. A total of 28 garage doors were painted that weekend. The two subsequent years took the swarm of pollinators to Felstead Park and Art Eggleton Lane, putting the rainbow-coloured works of a fresh crop of local street artists on display each time.
Although an interest in plants and animals helped lure Sweetman outside as a child – he grew up close to Toronto’s Humber River – he wasn’t always such a fan of insects. “I started watching a lot of YouTube videos on them as a sort of therapy,” he says, giving himself exposure to creepy crawlies such as centipedes and spiders to overcome his dislike. Still, it was his ease in nature that led to his awareness of the many crises affecting it.
Nowadays, Sweetman is expanding from the world of pollinators, to avoid being pegged as the bee guy for too long. But he continues to give urban walls a wild side, including a recent mural of the Ukrainian national animal, the common nightingale, painted in blue and yellow in solidarity with the country during its war with Russia.
He is also trying to pass on his love of nature and interest in urban ecology to others, working with a group of young people called the Youth Climate Collective. Part of this work, he says, is encouraging kids to think of the environment not as something they can step in and out of, but as something they are part of wherever they are. “I want to increase people’s appreciation of the nature around them,” he says, “in the hope that that will make them want to protect it.”
All images courtesy Nick Sweetman.
This article is part of a series on rewilding and the arts as part of the David Suzuki Foundation's inaugural Rewilding Arts Prize. Read more about the prize and the winners here: