Canadian artist Jeannie Polisuk often uses her work to explore memories. They are familiar, personal and reflective of not just her own journey in life, but ones many of us can relate to. Deeply moving and sometimes uncomfortable her work speaks of a landscape that reveals the shaping of self identity.
When we first saw her work at The Artist Project contemporary art fair in Toronto in late winter, we were drawn to her unique style and immediate viewer reaction. At first glance, the paintings of stuffed toys immediate draws you in and then it hits you. The nostalgic paintings of stuffed animals are not as innocent as they seemed. We were drawn to not just to Polisuk’s art but also the conversation that followed.
Polisuk holds a a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree but she’s also immersed herself in psychoanalytic theory. Although she has been painting ever since she was a child, Polisuk had a desire to learn about the language and theory she needed to support her artistic endeavours.
Her work is described as the endearing and the strange, the beautiful and the grotesque of the human experience. The series of stuffed bunnies, in particular, have become a visual device to explore how meaning is attached to sites of memory. Many of us, whether as a child, or even as an adult, take comfort in these objects that offer us security. So why uproot our comfort zone?
So why the stuffed bunny rabbit as the focus of your work in this particular series?
Well, I think the bunny rabbit is a subject that everyone understands on some level. For me, it’s become a relic. I feel like there are a lot of stories that I feel I can go into and elaborate on whether it be my own personal story or something that I see that’s happening around me.
How did you go down this memory journey with your art?
It all kind of happened when I was doing some research during my undergrad. I came upon this theorist who talks about how we, as a society, create places where we can go for fond memories. That being monuments and statues. As humans we need that. We need to have this place where we can go to. So from that theory, he also talks about photo albums and this is where family goes together for those fond memories as well. Think about how we all gather around pictures and we all understand the event but we all feel and see the experience different ways. The theorist calls this the site of memory. That was pretty cool. When I started researching this I thought “okay, put this theory in a stuffed toy that is cherished” and it became that place the person goes to. Even memories like “remember when I cut myself?” Well, that bunny is where I projected all my feelings and emotions. That bunny helped me get through it. And that is at the child’s level.
How is the bunny now viewed through adult eyes?
Yes, so that bunny, I took it further and I invited people to come out with objects they had an attachment to. Stuffed toys of any kind and I asked them to share their stories with me. It was a profound experience and actually heartbreaking for some of them. Some of the stories they shared were very personal.
Did you expect that?
I didn’t expect that at all! Not at that level and at that age. That profound attachment of that stuffed toy would be so strong. And that stuffed toy still goes everywhere with them. So, that to me opened up all kinds of areas for me to explore and further research like Freudian research and his ideas of projecting and transfers. We project our emotions onto other things and then it goes further into the collective unconscious. We share our understandings on another level. Then I started exploring child psychology. The stuffed toy is this transitional object that is given to a child to help through difficult times but it opens up so many more things on how we need things to transition through and onto something better.
What stories are told through your paintings?
A lot of the stories are personal but they also resonate on other levels. They aren’t necessarily only personal to me. I’m looking into my own past and trying understand and unpack it all while trying to make sense of it through family photographs. I’m also looking at what’s going on in the world and on social media. I’m also bringing an imaginary world into the real world. I love their scars and wounds. I think all of those individually tell a story in themselves.
Coincidentally, I had a stuffed bunny as a child and yes, I still have it but never stopped to think about why I still have it around, thoughts?
So, you have to stop and think — what is the meaning of that? What is the attachment you have to it? Think about what you’ve shared and what you’ve told to this toy as a child.. Think about how you’ve related to that stuffed toy. It’s more than just a toy.
The series of stuffed toys is just one window into the world of Jeannie Polisuk’s brilliant artwork. She’s also creates sculptures and installations in varying themes. You can learn more at www.jeanniepolisuk.com