The summer I started grad school, I was thrilled to begin a new creative journey and the final chapter of my education. Neither my full-time K–12 art classroom nor the MFA assignments felt like much of a chore. In this feeling of true creative flow, I didn’t anticipate the surprise that would come next.
As I flew back home from a summer residency in Los Angeles, I started prepping for the classes that I would be teaching in the fall. When I got off the plane in Chicago, I could feel that something was wrong in my body. It was silence. The hearing in my left ear was gone; replaced with vibrations that I could feel through my feet and hands as they moved over surfaces. The hearing in my right ear was fine, even deafening. I assumed that the turbulent flight had stuffed-up my ear and the imbalance would recalibrate within the day.
But that day of hearing loss turned into a month. As I started teaching that fall, it was evident that something was horribly wrong. When I could no longer decipher the tearful woes of first graders and when the seventh-grade class became both dizzying and nauseating, I decided it was time to make an appointment with a specialist.
I was diagnosed with Cholesteatoma - a rare, non-cancerous, protein-eating growth on the back of the eardrum that destroys bone. A CT scan revealed that the bones of my middle ear had collapsed, which caused the loss of connective hearing. Think Beethoven - kinda.
The diagnosis was both a surprise and a relief. I had so many questions about what the next creative season would look like. How would I finish grad school? What would my studio practice look like? Would I have to give up teaching?
I had ten surgeries to remove, replace, and reconstruct various parts of my middle ear. Throughout the surgical process, I learned to work with the disruption. Doctors’ waiting rooms became a new studio space as I developed series of miniature sculptures inside lozenge tins.
Mixed media in lozenge tins: L to R Disconnect/ The Plague/ Conductive Loss
In one pre-surgical consultation, a doctor told me:
“The mastoid bone should look like a honeycomb, but yours is as dense as a cue ball.”
“Huh, so wild,” I thought to myself. I had just been having a series of conversations with my professor about the choice of materials in my artwork. I was beginning to work with beeswax. The information from the consultation allowed me to see this medical set-back as an opportunity to build a new body of work.
I ordered a package of honeybees.
My family had kept bees on our property for years. The day our very first hives were installed, I was stung behind my left ear. The significance of this first encounter with bees was not lost on me as I re-created an apiary twenty years later.
In the years between the first apiary and the one I began in grad school, beekeeping changed significantly for two reasons: colony collapse disorder became a thing and farmers became more reliant on migratory beekeeping to maintain the “fruitfulness” of monocropping. In short, bee health had drastically declined. I specifically observed this change through the silences and vibrations of my beehives. They were much quieter than I remembered.
For many apiarists, beekeeping is a silent and mediative practice. My favorite beekeeper, Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey, was known for saying: “Listen to the bees and let them guide you.” Brother Adam began working with bees in 1915 when apiaries all over England were in a similar state of crisis. The Isle of Wig
ht disease was decimating colonies at pace that was unsustainable. Throughout the WWI years, Brother Adam and his mentor Brother Columban worked tirelessly to repopulate colonies across England. Brother Adam’s work provided me with insight into the silence that I was noticing in my apiary.
Alongside my work with the bees, I began researching the historical understanding of the bee sounds from Aristotle to Jason Hayward’s encounter with a swarm at the Cubs spring training in 2016. From this research, I developed an exhibition centered around four beehives. The hives were each equipped with a solar powered sound system that livestreamed the auditory activity of the hives into a gallery space. The sounds of each hive were then translated into a series of four silent video projections.
L to R: Lauras installation of cymatic images generated from bee sounds. / One of the pieces 350 hz / Lauras bees
Across the gallery from the projections, visitors could listen to Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony reduced to the sound frequencies of bees. The recording, in the form of a reference acetate on a turntable, disintegrates with the number of times that it is played. Eventually the sound of the symphony will become static.
My journey with hearing loss ended happily after a final reconstructive surgery. The time that I spent in doctor’s waiting rooms, shaped the way I make. I no longer rely on the four walls of a studio or long periods of uninterrupted time. I do the most of my making in increments of fifteen minutes or less. Like a honeycomb, those tiny spaces of time can be productively filled. A jar of honey is merely a thousand tiny combs combined.
I quit working with bees, the month that I discovered that I was pregnant. That surprise once again re-shaped my studio, but it’s a story for later.
Some of Lauras knitwear patterns: L to R The Happenings Wrap/ The Wintersonne Cowl/ The Black Mountain Cowl
Laura Tabbut is based in central Ohio and is the owner of New Huffman Studios, a knit pattern design company. She also works in installation, new media, and textiles. Her work considers current ecological issues and questions the rituals and routines of the American landscape. She holds undergraduate degrees in Fashion Design and Sculpture, an MA in English from The Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College, and an MFA in Visual Art from Azusa Pacific University. She currently teaches at Mount Vernon Nazarene University and serves as the
Gallery Administrator for the Schnormeier Gallery.