Royal blue and star dropped yellow, their artist trademark rouged cheeks, ginger hair, and an open gaze, the image text – “trans women are magical.” It’s one of my favourite Bee Illustrates works, created by them at an Adidas and Creative Debuts live drawing event. Bee tracks the progress of this work in an IG reel, grins and bubbliness dappling. In this piece, Bee calls for the meaningful assistance of the trans community. The comments are wholly positive, affirming their message and thanking them for sharing it. To nearly all of them, Bee responds, oozing gratitude and – as their bio claims, internet friend energy.
Back in 2019, for Unicorn’s first issue, Bee chatted to Unicorn’s Executive Editor, Lucy Everett. Eloquent then as they are now, Bee expressed their wish for their art to be a place of representation and listening, of healing, visibility, and community.
It seemed the right moment to call back an OG, with Unicorn’s tenth issue coinciding with the taking of a new turn of our own – the launch of the Unicorn Fund. This fund will celebrate, spotlight and pay artists and writers who are similarly breaking boundaries, all while Unicorn remains a charity magazine.
Vying to bend, melt and harmonise the hellscape, we wanted to learn more about the origins of this punk enby, where those springboards led since Unicorn last chatted with them, and how Bee’s rioting next.
Bee animates my screen with one of their standout, seventies-inspired slap looks, hair choppy and coppery, much like their fast-paced wit, their eyelids shimmering with eyeliner and metallic hues. They push their phone to the side, apologising for its insistent humming. Bee’s energy is a pandemic, perennially mobile and lucent from the moment we launch our call. It is not a wholly new sensation – they had been flourishing my digital landscape with nascent positivity and reassurance for quite some time.
Hailing from Devon, Bee, whose art tracks the reality of an overworked generation boomeranging between under-stimulation and overwhelm, is a London-based artist and creative.
They started their account @beeillustrates circa 2015, overlapping with their first professional training in art at Exeter College, where they were studying for a diploma in Fine Art. Following this, they found themselves in Scotland, taking on an Illustration Degree at Edinburgh University, where, gleaming with pride, they told me they graduated with a first.
The IG account was not, at first, prompted by their current goal of sharing their work, advocating for the causes closest to their heart, namely mental health and queerness, and – acutely – paying rent. Initially, the account was personal, earning them compliments, a few commissions, and a heightened digital footprint. Bee’s IG rose to its current blossoming during the pandemic. Their productivity peaked as they had nothing to do but draw, post and awe at the community, commissions, sponsorships and sales they were building.
During the period surrounding their A-Levels, they began to struggle more significantly with their mental health, and drawing became a haven. Born out of necessity rather than discretion, Bee’s love for art peaked while in and out of hospital, recovering.
Bee glides over the details of their story in a way those whose lived experiences vary from the “norm” fast become adjusted to doing, conscious that the contents of their life may be too heavy, may scare those unaffected by mental illness or neurodivergence.
Scrolling through their Instagram, you will notice that many of Bee’s characters resemble them, and they clarify this is not without cause. Growing up, Bee recalls hesitantly, they experienced bullying, “I had freckles, red hair and big ears – I also would get so what I know now was anxiety.
I would get so embarrassed all the time speaking in front of people that I would constantly be blushing – I would be bright red soon as I felt the tiniest discomfort.”
It comes from those memories, that everyone I draw has rosy cheeks, and many have red hair. Now, I have a little army of illustrated people that look a bit like me and allow me to reclaim myself.”
In my favourites of Bee’s works, the eyes are wide and curious, innocent yet sepulchral, a path to somewhere knowable. They capture the insecurity of self, a base that flows and asks us to, also. Often, I feel Bee’s characters are in that stage of self where nothing is sure, a stare often in Bee’s unrestrained selfhood, the – of a life phase sepulchral, and labyrinthine with overwhelm.
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Bee’s work is a medley of references, interpolating influences and honouring. The vibrancy of Edinburgh is palpable in their work and, in later illustrations, the gladly jaded savvy of a successful small business owner. The tired gaze of London meets Schiede’s self-referential intimacy. Rego’s aqueous meditations meet Matisse.
“I’m particularly inspired by advertisements from the sixties and seventies.” They pause, rethinking this claim. “Though it’s all sorts, it’s a bit all over the place. If I see it, I’m probably inspired by it.” It makes sense that Bee cites an era characterised by rebellion, love, liberation – but also, and often invisibly – oppression, racial injustice, homophobia, and transphobia, to name a few. It was also a period when Section 28 was functioning in Britain, a series of laws introduced by Thatcher’s government in 1988, active until 2003 in England and Wales, and 2000 in Scotland – these laws prevented the promotion of homosexuality and non-heterosexual unions, of any kind. There’s an irony in our community’s effective censure co-existing with the blinker-style celebration of our aesthetics, philosophies, and visionaries, one accentuated by the reality that in this age of rainbow wash, it’s quackery that falls on adjusted ears.
Like most queer, anarchy-influenced creators, the need to pay rent prevails parallel with that of maintaining integrity, “I do kind of have a war on my mind when it comes to Pride Month, and the job offers come in. I am quite wary of brands that have never taken an interest in me beyond June or are profiting a lot from queer people by whacking up a flag once a year. I try to work with brands that support the queer community throughout the year, if possible, Though, I’ve been very lucky with the people I’ve worked with.”
It’s a qualm Bee seems to be navigating successfully, receiving encouragement and praise from her audience. So far this Pride, they have worked with, amongst others, Tangle Teezer, Instagram, and Mubi UK.
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Illustratively and intentionally, Bee provides a nonbinary, bisexual representation in the digital and art world, with visuals that strive to represent the global queer community and not just the thin white queers that tend to populate our screens.
“While there is better queer representation than before, often they still look like me. Black and brown nonbinary folk are still underepresented. As much as I can, I try to not be a walking billboard and let my art speak for me. My art and what I stand for are very intertwined. Anti-racist pro-trans. We might say anti-Tory is my policy.”
It is a vision of intersectionality that has begun coming to fruition with Bee’s curational debut, the community exhibition, Hysterical, held at No Format Gallery, London. Co-curated with Eliza Hatch of Cheer Up Luv, Hysterical embodied Bee’s and Hatch’s desire to uplift marginalised voices and underrepresented artists, emerging and established. Despite the rejection of their funding application to the Arts Council England, community donation met the funds required to pay artists, panellists, interpreters and other necessary costs. And so, Hysterical, featuring a multitude of creative disciplines and social issues, came into being, with all money raised and 20% of artwork sales going to charity partners UN Women and Mermaids.
With necessary caution, Bee places their health, and the pursuit of it, into the work. It’s a risky move that most mental-health advisors would probably shirk against, but uncollared passion rarely aligns with wellness culture, and I would argue this is a blessing. It’s punking norms, microcosmically, making the work the strike – and their former suffering into the sunlight that heals all those in their shade. They note that growing up, it was a very different story, “I was so regimented in what I would – or wouldn’t – let myself do. I think a massive part of that was because I was hiding so much of my identity – I was so in denial. Now, I allow myself to exist authentically as myself. I try not to worry about the expectations I might have of myself, creatively or otherwise and let myself be free to do the things I was told were impossible.”
What I find most punk about Bee, or why their fantasy-scape appeals to me, is not the political nudity – but the vulnerability produced. Utilising the converging vessels of art and media, Bee moves firmly against a violent world with utter love. They capture Unicorn’s vision, one where sexual borders have less need to be so policed, a queer world with no gold-star systems, where all queer people can see themselves. And so, I asked someone who to me, embodies the complicated spectrality of queer joy what it was for them, “For me, at least, it’s being around other queer folk in queer spaces when you don’t have to think about justifying or self-preserving, to be around people that kind of understand, without you ever having to say anything.”