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  • Writer's pictureGri Gri Project

Janet Cook-Rutnik Narrates Her Covid-19 Experiences Through Her Art

In March of last year, my daughter and grandchildren came home for Spring break from Orlando, FL where they had relocated after Hurricane Irma. The next day, Friday the 13th, news of the Corona virus went viral, dominating the news and everyone’s thoughts. My daughter’s work and the children’s school was shut down. We went from a 2 person household to one of five overnight and have remained so ever since. Fortunately our house can accommodate everyone and gradually things have fallen in place nicely with work/study routines established.

As an artist my life was not upended and I was definitely not out of work. The cancellation of upcoming exhibitions was disappointing but not earth shattering. So with less distractions from the outside world and more from the home front; grade school children out of school, I set to work. At that time we had a great crop of mangoes which I am compelled to paint as well as eat so I did a series of them. I also finished a lot of small “slatherings”, which were in process - acrylic paintings of sea views and sunsets done rapidly on paper to capture the emotional essence of the fleeting scene. After awhile I settled into making new work in “the time of Corona”. The first few pieces were paintings that had been in process but not finished. Two of them had silhouettes of reclining figures that looked more like seascapes than bodies. I dove into these pieces and produced “In the Time of Corona # 1” and #2, which for me truly reflect the uneasy, brooding feelings of fear and uncertainty as the pandemic spread.

In The Time of Corona I

In The Time of Corona II

The next 2 paintings inspired by the pandemic ended up looking more like the feelings engendered by the hurricanes, Irma and Maria. It was natural to compare these life changing events: disastrous hurricanes and deathly disease.

In The Time of Corona III

In The Time of Corona IV

From here, in the time of Corona, I turned to silence and wrapping things to still and contain them as well as quiet them. This too was a project I had started some time before as a response to another kind of grief. SILENCED is a room size installation of various objects that have been white washed and randomly set out; telephones, clocks, keyboards, chair, books, baby shoes, camera, etc. Objects no longer in use: silenced and still. In tandem with the nerve racking news of the daily death toll of the pandemic was the horrifyingly increasing number of Black lives lost to police violence and racial injustice. One of the pieces in the SILENCED series is a hanging of a newspaper shrouded in gauzy material making it impossible to read. Another work in this series is a painting with a collaged image of a young brown skin girl’s folded hands resting patiently in her lap.

Silenced - Detail



Also in this series is an ongoing installation composed of clay chess pieces. On one side of the chess board are the traditional 16 figures: King, Queen, Knight, Bishop, Rook, and 8 pawns in white clay. Across from them are 80 pawns in charcoal clay far outnumbering the standard hierarchy. To this I am adding other figures in brown, gold, tan, some with pieces of found fabric attached to them conveying a multi ethnic group. Entitled, “A New World Order”, this work seeks to challenge the current notion of the ruling class’s power structure; the presumed world order so to speak.

New World Order

New World Order

As time passed in the home circle our 4th grandchild who had not visited in some time came in spite of our great concern over the risk as he had a stopover in Orlando, Fl. which in December was still in the florid state of Covid denial. The worst happened and within 24 hours of his arrival he was sick with Corona. Fortunately his young self was over it in a day and a half. Not so lucky was his grandfather who broke out with a serious case of it 2 days later. The rest of the family, four of us, kept getting tested and quarantined with strangely differing results. The youngest grandchild, 8 years old, tested positive with no symptoms or illness, her 11 year old brother tested negative, like me, but their mother’s test was positive. She had had a short period where she felt like she had allergies which were alleviated by allergy medicine. Twelve days later when my husband came home from the hospital where he was treated for Covid, I came down with fever, chills, all the Corona flu like symptoms while continuing to test negative. The fever lasted a week during which time I experienced delirium, waking up in the dark of night, dressing for a lab appointment, not comprehending the time of day, sleeping in my clothes wanting to go the next morning in the same dress. Finally the symptoms subsided but I was overwhelmed with an incredible listlessness and feeling of being totally “flat”, empty of all energy, ambition or creativity which lasted for some days and finally seemed to be cured with a CBD gummy that enabled me to enjoy eating, drinking and talking again. My husband was fine the first week after coming home from the hospital but then had lingering effects similar to mine.

Now almost 2 months later we both feel like born again humans full of normal energy and enthusiasm for the next chapter. For me that means proceeding with a new project, entitled, FOUNDATIONS, which will include 3 interviews with community elders. The first one, with Oscar James, Sr., has been concluded and feels like a big success so I am going forward into the year of the Ox which the Chinese astrologers feel is going to be a fantastic year of healing and positivity.

Day 1 of new project, Foundations, "on the set" with Oscar James, Kurt Marsh and Bill Stelzer.

Janet Cook-Rutnik's Biography-In 1969 when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon I landed in the Virgin Islands fresh from university where I had taken all possible art courses and studied sculpture on the graduate level with Richard Stankiewicz. As a 60’s idealist I was in search of a new way of looking at life; to find out what was universal to mankind and what was specific to the United States. I also wanted to work on my own and find my voice as an artist. The Virgin Islands became my graduate school. My journey over the next 50 years has been to create work that questions the meaning of what makes life in the Caribbean, specifically the Virgin Islands, so unique. Much of my work references the personal drama inherent in mythology as it tells the stories of the transforming power of love, life and death. Finally, how does this relate to the rest of the world and to each of us personally and collectively as we navigate the wide Sargasso Sea of life.

ARTIST’S STATEMENT - Current work involves collaborative and solo multi-media projects, which deal with migration and journeys in a personal and collective way acknowledging the impact of colonialism in the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean. My work has evolved over the last 50 years of art making, from painting, printmaking, assemblage to contemporary art methods utilizing new media. The physical environment, historical archives, the vernacular and personal island narratives are my resources. My process is random and instinctive, inspired by the sensation of the powerful landscape and the glory and power of the history and culture as I have internalized it. As an artist I feel no bounds other than those that I impose upon myself and yet I am driven by the need to get the work out and to document the rapid changes from the last century to the 21st. Some of the recurring themes in my work are: House of Dreams, The Past is Always Present, The Transfer. Recent work, e.g. The Snorkel Man project, takes these heavy themes and presents them in a lighthearted way as the video of 2009, The Rock/Transfer has.

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