As a printmaker, certified in Master Gardener and Sustainable Urban Agriculture, Steven Muñoz is fascinated by nature and works to bring attention to the plight of pollinators in particular.
“On a Wing and a Prayer” is a solo exhibition of his bee-themed woodblock prints, on display at the Blanche Ames Gallery in Frederick through April 24.
In Muñoz’s own words: “At first glance, my work seems scenic and bucolic, but upon closer examination, the themes of man versus nature, life and death, and social commentary on environmental issues stand out. reveal to the observer. …I believe in the integrity of art as a means of sharing thoughts and ideas,” he wrote in his artist statement.
The Washington, DC based artist took a few minutes to tell us about his love and respect for nature, and how visual art and the natural world intertwine in his life and work.
Where did you grow up in New Mexico, and what was it like?
I grew up in eastern New Mexico in a little town called Tucumcari. It’s about a two or three hour drive from any major city – Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Roswell or Amarillo, Texas. I always thought it was in the middle of nowhere. My grandfather was a breeder. I grew up helping him take care of cattle and alfalfa. I also came through 4-H where I started my first vegetable garden when I was 5 and during my freshman year of high school we became the team’s horticulture champions. State of New Mexico. My interest in nature comes from my upbringing.
I understand that you have a long-standing interest in art and earned a BFA from American University in Printmaking. When and how did the bees arrive?
Yes, I got a BFA. I was the only one in my graduating class and had been the only recipient of the BFA several years before. My classmates graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, the difference being that I didn’t have a minor in another field such as economics, polysciences, finance or communications – what you might call “the backup plan “. I got involved in art and all my time was spent in the studio. Of course, my first job after college wasn’t in art; I worked as an administrative assistant for the National Association of State Budget Officers and State Federal Funds Information, which led to over 20 years in the nonprofit and government sectors.
I’m not. I would have liked to, but keeping honey bees is a huge commitment.
My interest in bees is in our native bee species. Bees are the most famous bees, but there are 4,000 species of bees native to the United States, and they go unnoticed by most of us and yet they provide valuable services to all kinds of flowering plants, from wildflowers to important crops. Native bees are under threat. Major threats to these species include habitat loss, pesticide and herbicide use, invasive species, and non-native pathogens.
Tell me about your experiences as a master gardener.
I lived in Arlington, where I gardened for about 10 years, before moving back to DC in 2011. When we moved, we found a place that had a blank slate of a garden. I also decided to get involved in my community and decided to apply for the Master Gardeners program through UDC (the only urban land grant university in the United States). After completing 40 hours of classes, we had to do 50 hours of volunteering, and then we got our master gardener certificate.
I spent my 50 hours volunteering with a fantastic non-profit organization called City Blossoms. City Blossoms was born to address the lack of access to nature experienced by children in Washington, D.C. City Blossoms cultivates the well-being of our communities through child-led gardens. I then joined their board of directors and, over time, I became vice-president and then president. In total, I spent nine years with them (ten years if you include the summer volunteering at the garden), only leaving the board last February.
What fascinates you about bees – enough to create a whole series of prints?
My interest in bees grew out of my love for nature and gardening. And it’s really been revived through the DC Master Gardener and City Blossoms program and of course enhanced by my own garden in the heart of DC. I have spent many years transforming my rectangular lot into an ornamental garden oasis. Looking back, I wish I had planted native perennials in the area, but there’s still this year’s planting season to start that change. It helps build a healthier native ecosystem. There is a symbiosis between native plants and pollinators. Pollinators evolved with native plants; they form a mutualistic relationship where each benefits the other. They are plant specialists, like native squash bees, blueberry bees, and orchard mason bees.
So back to your question: bees are amazing! Did you know bees can count to four and understand the concept of zero? Bees draw maps and give directions while dancing.
How was the Blanche Ames show born? Did you know the space?
Last year, one of the Visual Arts Committee members saw “Biocide” at the On Paper exhibit held at the AnnMarie Sculpture Garden and Art Center. She contacted me and invited me to apply for an exhibition at the Blanche Ames gallery. I was unfamiliar with the space, but came to visit during a lull between COVID variants last fall. It’s a lovely, bright space with a great view of nature that will complement my work – or maybe my work will complement nature.
What did you choose to include in the show?
This is a show of woodcuts or reduced woodcuts. Woodcut is the oldest form of engraving. This is a relief process in which the image is cut into the surface of a block of wood with hand carving tools. The raised areas that remain after the block is cut are inked and printed, while the cut debossed areas do not receive or retain ink and will remain white during the printing process. The woodcut reduction process creates a multicolored print in which each distinct color is carved and printed from the same block of wood by layering each color in sequence from light to dark, one color at a time. Between each color, the print surface on the wooden block is cut and hollowed out, reducing the area. This keeps the previous color and creates a new layer of color. There is no margin for error using this technique.
Tell me a bit about your print studio, Midway Bee, and its name. Which press(es) do you own? Do you open it to the public?
Midway Bee Press is the name of my printing studio and comes from a quote from Hesiod: “The earth bore much substance, on the mountains the oak at its top brought forth acorns and midway bees.”
I started building it in 2005 when I bought my Whelan Xpress, but it was largely on the back burner until 2017 when I started making bee and nature inspired prints. Last year I decided to focus on my full-time studio practice after spending over 12 years running a local art center focusing on ceramics and printmaking.
With my Whelan, I have five presses. The other four are dust collectors. I have two tabletop printing presses (a Kelsey and a Sigwalt) and two small portable tabletop presses. I took one of these portable presses to City Blossoms’ Basil Bonanza Fest where I made basil monotypes with the kids in the rue Girard garden. The other is a tiny 3D printing press, the Open Press, designed to make engraving accessible. I am not currently open to the public, but may host open houses or studio tours in the future.
Engraving, beekeeping and gardening are all reminiscent of an older, slower world. Do you feel a kind of nostalgia or are you drawn to slower, more tactile hobbies, handmade objects or folk art? Do you feel the need to preserve them? If so, why or what attracts you to this type of work?
Big question! Yes, they are reminiscent of a later age and relate to engraving, gardening and stewardship of the Earth. Yes, we must preserve the knowledge we have acquired over the centuries. Printmaking is an art form, and all art forms should be preserved. Through art you can share thoughts and ideas, and what is small, misunderstood or ignored can be given a voice that has the potential to influence and inspire others to action.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.