Becoming Buoyant by Janis Mars Wunderlich

Janis Mars Wunderlich, Still I Rise, acrylic on wood panel, 30” x 40”, 2020

Artists give ourselves visual problems to solve, and mine is this:

How can I visually communicate the emotional immensity of 2020? An ocean of symbolism is poured into my imagery as I tried to convey the complexity of navigating this global pandemic landscape:

Janis Mars Wunderlich, Still I Rise, acrylic on wood panel, 30” x 40”, 2020

Spring arrives, but Covid blinds us to it as we focus on everything that has to be cancelled – no celebrations, reunions, neighbourhood barbecues, graduations, weddings, sporting events. Even the comfort of a simple handshake or warm embrace is taken away. Calendars become unnecessary, businesses and campuses shut down. Getting dressed each day seems superfluous. Going to the grocery store becomes dangerous – staying socially distant, constantly masking and sanitising, walking a wide berth when you pass someone on the sidewalk- it all feels dehumanising.

I have a growing fear for the safety of my older relatives- my remaining fragile grandparents, even my baby-boomer parents fall into the “at risk” category. I think about the sting of the last global pandemic, the Spanish Influenza, which stole my great grandparents, leaving their newborn son, my grandfather, orphaned. I think of my own children, in high school, college, and beyond- how their lives are affected, how they are robbed of crucial social interaction and their tactile learning opportunities have been replaced by zooms and virtual classrooms.

Janis Mars Wunderlich, Her Heritage, acrylic on wood panel, 30” x 24”, 2020

Unsettling news is shared on our college campus of precarious financial instability, and our academic community is asked to navigate a downsizing that results in the loss of employment for friends and colleagues. I start having dreams of large, uprooted trees floating away, shepherded by families forced to move on in search of employment. I begin to mourn the loss of friendships I would have, could have, made but are now lost. I imagine great piles of abandoned books littering campus, and engorged rivers flooding the land.

Summer comes, but there is no place to go, so we stay home and focus on the flagrant political divisiveness alive on our social media streams. I’m secretly ashamed of how much time I waste on posts and comments, trying to convince acquaintances and strangers to consider new perspectives. Unrest is growing as national leadership fails, and friendships unravel in battles of opinion.

We witness the violent loss of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and are reminded of the deaths of so, so many before, exposing serious flaws in our systems of justice. Protests, curfews, and more political division ensues. Complacency is no longer an option as we realise the deeply rooted layers of racism in our social systems and the immensity of the task to achieve equity. The burden belongs to all of us as we try to amend injustices to communities of colour. But others don’t seem to notice any problem at all.

Just when we think it couldn’t get worse: RBG dies, Presidential debates and behaviours shock us, fires rage in the West, and the daily reports show Covid infection numbers and death rates rising. Hospitals are full. There is no leadership or national plan to reduce the spread, only dysfunction.

Janis Mars Wunderlich, The Swimmer, ceramic sculptural bust, 12” x 7” x 4” , 2020
Janis Mars Wunderlich, The Swimmer, ceramic sculptural bust, 12” x 7” x 4” , 2020

Fall arrives with spectacular colour, but we witness a hostile election season, and our nation’s leader is unwilling to accept election results. Somehow even the simple act of wearing a mask becomes a political fight.

There are extraordinary moments to counteract the gloom: golden rows of corn swaying in the breeze, brilliant sunflowers rising tall, red tomatoes weighing down the vines, brown bears passing through the neighbouring town, babies being born, warm banana bread, a thoughtful note from a friend, the kindness of strangers, and the unconditional love of pets. Perhaps the greatest silver lining of COVID is that we are forced to remain at home, where we can find beautiful moments of creative clarity. We can use this to fuel our buoyant rise above the dangerous currents and uncertainties of this year, to find resilience and optimism for tomorrow.

Related to “Her Heritage”

When I was a child, my grandmother married a Native American Cherokee artist and storyteller, so I grew up hearing beautiful and mysterious legends of the enormous expanse of the natural world and its connection to humans. The relationships between humans and animals particularly fascinated me: I remember once that my Grandpa put his cheek to the ground, and in Cherokee whispers, he conversed with the ants. He told me stories of their importance and how they helped to create beauty in our world.

When my grandpa painted, stories and symbols flowed from his mind and heart to the canvas, and I was mesmerised by the crowd of colours and patterns and how he wove it all into complex narratives explaining how we got the Milky Way, or how the all-seeing plants and animals of the forest shared their knowledge with the Medicine Man to create cures for human illness.

Now I am grown, and I must navigate a frightening pandemic with my family. I find myself going back to those beautiful and mysterious Cherokee legends, looking for solace and wisdom to navigate this uncertain time. I think about my heritage, the people who gave me my foundation. I rise upon the strength of their wisdom. The natural world around me gives me buoyancy and resilience as I traverse the trials and complexities of today.

Find out more about Janis Mars Wunderlich’s creative practice on her website or IG