Brian Dempsey paints, draws, writes, and noodles on his guitar from a small cabin studio in the Pacific Northwest on Vashon Island, WA.
His wonderful children's book The Man With Bees in His Beard (Chatwin, 2019), which Dempsey wrote and illustrated, is a glimpse into the life of a man who above all exists to commune with nature. The foundation of this relationship is stillness and the great potential inherent in emptiness. The theme and presentation were influenced by his study of eastern philosophy, especially Taoism, and the book was born out of Dempsey's desire as an artist and father to provide something different to readers young and old.
Find Dempsey on Instagram @boundless_seas.
A Book To Change A Child's Life
by Julie Greene
What does it take to create a book whose pages seem infused with a sprinkle of magic and a dusting of enchantment?
When Brian Dempsey set out to write The Man with Bees in His Beard, it turned out the perfect mix was a little bit of the West Coast, a lot of artistic talent, and inspiration from his son, who asked: “Dad, what if a man had bees in his beard?”
For years, Dempsey had difficulty finding children's books he actually wanted to read to his kids. But his son’s question made Dempsey realize that he had an opportunity, the chance to create the children’s story he wanted told.
“Dad, what if a man had bees in his beard?”
Well, if a man had bees in his beard, it would look a little something like this: a man walks through a forest and he is different from other people. He doesn’t worry about money or technology or fancy clothes. He doesn’t try to impress people or be anything other than himself. He carries bees in his beard and they are his friends. He is steady, and at peace, and happy.
It might look like a book that sits easy in the hands, one that children and adults lean around, trying not to miss a single breath, a single sound.
But the story of The Man with Bees in His Beard does not start and stop within the book’s pages. It is a tale that began a long time ago with a boy named Brian Dempsey who looked at the concrete jungle around him and dreamed of wild land and stars.
Dempsey grew up in Englewood, New Jersey. He went to high school in New York City. He walked amongst the lights and the sounds of one of the grandest cities on earth. And yet. New York had no place for trees, real trees raised in wild forests with thunder running in their veins. Englewood had no room for mighty mountains whose peaks tried to cleave the sky.
Dempsey wanted that wild nature. Badly. So after living in New York City for a few years after graduating college, Dempsey followed the footsteps of many seekers before him and headed West.
Living with roommates in a ramshackle house in San Diego, California, Dempsey began to paint murals on the walls. The art poured out of him. Always has, always will. He is driven to make art. That longing lives within him, as sure as breathing.
So when it came time to create The Man with Bees in His Beard, it was only natural for Dempsey to act as both writer and illustrator.
A collaboration between the head and the heart. That is the best way to describe Dempsey’s illustrations. They show readers how he envisions the world of The Man with Bees in His Beard. They add a depth and richness that words alone can not convey. They give the pages an air of magic, enchantment, and peace.
Ideas for illustrations arrived in bursts, inspiration quickly immortalized in ten second thumbnail sketches. Enough detail for Dempsey to expand on his ideas later. Enough room for him to still make changes, to let the ideas grow. Eventually, Dempsey fleshed out those thumbnail sketches, making larger rough drafts. But still, Dempsey always left space for something to become more.
Oftentimes, the real world found its way into the imagined drawings. A hat Dempsey owns became the basis for the one worn by the man with bees in his beard. The mighty evergreens and verdant terrain of Vashon Island, Dempsey’s home in Washington, helped inspire the illustrations’ landscapes.
Another story resides within the shading, gradient, and line of Dempsey’s work. A tale of a younger Dempsey, one who lived in a house filled with murals. Surrounded by his artwork, Dempsey decided to attend art school. Packing his bags, he made his way to the Art Institute of Seattle. There, he enrolled in a two-year Visual Communications Associate Degree and focused on illustration.
While studying at the Art Institute, he met Bill Cumming, a teacher and artist who profoundly shaped Dempsey. “Cumming was in his late 70’s” Dempsey recalls. “He was gruff, short tempered and prone to profanity but he was ready to give any student his best stuff if they were interested. I'd speak with him after classes as much as possible and watch him paint which he often did while we worked on figure drawing. He taught me a lot about line, value and composition. His classes were by far the highlight of my experience at the Art Institute.”
The friends we make never really leave us. Not in line, not in form, not in art.
Dempsey’s art in The Man with Bees in His Beard carries a gentle beauty, a wild grace. His poetry, the story’s other half, is image made into word. Gentle beauty, wild grace.
But those words didn’t come easy. Embarking on his first book, Dempsey realized he had no desire to construct a traditional narrative. Instead he allowed the story to happen, letting it be what it would be. A poet, Dempsey already knew he couldn’t sit in front of a computer or piece of paper and make the language appear. Patient, he waited for the language to arrive on its own time. When the words did come, Dempsey carefully memorized them. Writing down was for later. Letting be was for now.
That organic sense of peace permeates his book. The poetry, the pictures, the page under hand, they all say: rest, be easy, be still.
That is what the man and his bees tell readers who take time to listen: be at rest, be at peace, find your still place.
Dempsey believes his story is ultimately “a glimpse into the life of a man who, above all, exists to commune with nature. The foundation of this relationship is stillness and the great potential inherent in emptiness. The bees represent a lifestyle that is simple, unquestioning and sensitive but at the same time highly productive.”
In today’s world, people constantly rush forward. Life is race: the idea seems as certain as the moon or the sun or the tide. But that rush makes it easy to forget the moon’s silver curve, the sun’s amber glow, the magic of the tide.
The man with bees in his beard has not forgotten. As he wanders his trails, he knows the value in living with an awareness of life. Of taking the time to pause, breathe, and wonder. Of making friends with bees. Of being different. Of being happy in that difference.
Dempsey hopes that when children open his book, they will realize it is okay to take a moment and simply be, without running or racing or rushing. To wander down new paths and really see the world.
For on those paths wonderful things happen. The imagination can run free. A million things become possible.
And in between the trees and babbling brooks and afternoon light of make-believe, there might be another wanderer. A fellow traveler who speaks the poetry of mountains and carries bees in his beard.
The Man with Bees in His Beard is now published.