Since 2012, the gates of the Ninth Avenue subway in Brooklyn have been populated with a larger-than-life hive full of majestic bronze bees. The four-inch bees seem hard at work crawling around on the giant honeycomb gates, but they stand out as a playful piece of station art.
Built in 1916, the Ninth Avenue subway station is on the National Register of Historic Places – which creates some restrictions in terms of what contemporary art can be placed in and around it.
Fortunately, the pair of thick metal fences marking off the roof of the underground portion of the station provided fertile ground for the sculpted insect world.
Although Russell’s work was commissioned as part of a renovation project, the original station was designed by Squire Vickers, the chief architect of the New York City Subway system. Vickers was responsible for creating what we now think of as the typical New York city subway look — the old-fashioned tiled stations with boldly colored wall mosaics.
The early subway style was heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement that flourished at the turn of the century as an anti-industrialist style of art. The aboveground Ninth Avenue station is both typical Vickers and typical Arts and Crafts style, with tile walls inside, a distinctive white brick exterior and an undecorated copper roof.
Christopher Russell’s artwork is centered on the image of the bee. The artist imagined the station as a kind of beehive, a center of activity, with many individuals converging, like bees, darting in and out, to and from their many pursuits. The historic building with its central entrance and peaked roof evokes the feeling of a beehive. The artist found the image of the bee as an appropriate motif since the station’s architecture is inspired by the Arts and Crafts style. During the Arts and Crafts period, artists and designers utilized the bee, the hive, and honeycomb extensively, in the decorative wall coverings, objects and furnishings.
Incorporating this imagery, Russell designed 2 sets of gates and finials for the fences that surround the open spaces at each side of the station. The cast bronze gates are based on honeycombs, greatly magnified. These monumental honeycombs are populated by equally magnified bees depicted in their crowds, busily occupied. The cells of the honeycomb are open, allowing light to pass through, and bringing out the hexagonal pattern of the comb, which creates depth and visual interest, when viewed from a distance.
The finials, atop each the tallest posts along the fences, feature a single bee, larger than life, working on an equally exaggerated flower head. The bees are intended as an affirmation of nature in the city, reminding passers-by of their fertility, productivity, and community. The artwork was fabricated by Modern Art Foundry.