Walking near her home in Hingham, Massachusetts, Cheryl Dunlap was stunned when a bee zoomed by, inches from her nose. That became her inspiration.
By Annie Graves
Apr 12 2018
The bees wouldn’t leave her alone.
Walking near her home in Hingham, Massachusetts, in the summer of 2010, Cheryl Dunlap was stunned when a bee zoomed by, inches from her nose. That same week, she’d looked down to see one clinging to her shoelaces. And overnight, it seemed, they were everywhere on her deck.
“I kept trying to figure out what I wanted to paint next,” says Dunlap, who’d left a career in commercial design in 2001 to raise her children, and then decided to pick up her paintbrush again. “I vowed if I was going back into art, it was going to be fine art. I wasn’t going back to the corporate world.”
Over the next several years she’d become a veteran of local galleries and art shows, painting Nantucket scenes, flowers, and dog portraits so realistic that people still light up when describing them. Her sensitivity and attention to detail produced artful paintings and photos that cover the walls of her home.
Still, she had found the art scene worrisome. “I found myself getting frustrated,” she recalls. “I was trying to make a living, and I was becoming more concerned with painting things that would sell.”
That’s when the bees began bugging her.
“I was trying to come up with something new to paint for a garden-themed art show. I just didn’t feel like painting another vase of flowers,” she says. “I’d been doing yoga off and on for 10 years, and I was walking my dog and looking around at people’s gardens, and the bees just kept coming after me.” She pauses with a gleeful grin. “And then, a few days later, I was walking down Main Street, thinking, What can I do for the show?, and this bee literally buzzes by my face. And I thought, Oh my gosh, I have to do the cutest little bee meditating, with his legs crossed, and put Bee in the Moment!”
Before long she was sitting by the water at her mother’s cottage on Silver Lake, in New Hampshire, sketching, experimenting with yoga bees. She shows me the original pencil drawings, dozens and dozens in a battered sketchbook—he’s a plump, meditative fellow, sitting on a yoga mat, his fingers closed in a delicate mudra. “A dragonfly landed on the page,” she says, pointing. “I sketched him, too.” But the rest of the page is filled with yoga bees: tilting sideways in triangle pose, barely off the ground in bridge pose, and proudly executing warrior pose.
“For days after that, it was like a download,” she says. “I must have been open and ready for this to come to me. The ideas kept coming—I could do ‘Bee this! Bee that!’”
I flip through the notebook, and there’s a reason to smile on every page. Here he is on his back, there doing a handstand, now a split. Bee a Wild Thing, suggests one. We Bee Jammin’, say the dreadlocked bees. Anything Is Possible, If You Beelieve.
“I’d never done anything even close in style,” says Dunlap, who up to that point had mostly worked from photos and painted realistically. (In her corporate days, she created exacting wildlife images for T-shirts sold in national parks across the country.) “But I knew I had to make this insect look really adorable, because some people don’t like bees. And I like detail, so I wanted the lines and antennas to look fairly realistic, not a cartoon. But I also wanted his eyes shut, because I wanted him to be Zen all the time. I knew when I had it right.”
Destiny took the bees out of the notebook and landed them on greeting cards. Dunlap began working in a local shop that sold fitness and yoga clothing, and when she told the owner about her bee sketches, the woman loved it. “She said, ‘Just do it. We’ll put them on the counter and see if they sell.’” Dunlap smiles at the memory, a pinch-me moment. “People would buy their yoga clothes and they’d start flipping through the cards, saying, ‘Oh my God, these are adorable! Who did these?’”
And then, little by little, “it just took off.” Today, Dunlap’s Just Bee & Me cards fly off shelves from Maine to Florida, with 84 different designs and bees for all occasions. From the start, the bees were eco-friendly, too, printed on recycled paper with a biodegradable sleeve. And every month, a portion of sales goes to the nonprofit Save the Honeybee Foundation.
“Everything in life, it either gives you a nudge and you don’t pay attention, or it keeps nudging you until it gets big: THIS IS WHAT I WANT YOU TO DO. And that’s what I feel it’s been like,” says Dunlap, as we pause to admire my favorite bee, a rotund little guy flat on his back on a pale violet yoga mat. He’s absolutely bee-atific.
To purchase Dunlap’s Just Bee & Me designs, including cards, clothing, and notebooks, or to find a local retailer, go to justbeeandme.com.