An archaic illustrated volume of natural history has once again inspired a body of work by Nanaimo painter Yvonne Vander Kooi.
On June 5 Vander Kooi unveils her latest exhibition, Bestiary, with a live-streamed opening from Gallery Merrick. The collection is named after the medieval book of animal illustrations and stories she found in the rare and collectible books section of Well Read Books. Those shelves are also where she discovered Greenhouse Favourites, the 150-year-old illustrated gardening manual that inspired last year’s show, Strange Botanicals.
Vander Kooi said the creatures depicted in bestiaries range from recognizable to “caricaturish,” as the artists based their drawings on the accounts of others and in some cases were very imaginative in their interpretations. The images are accompanied by stories promoting Christian morals.
“I just thought they were super unusual and I felt like they were some kind of medieval cartoon and then the more I read about them, the more they interested me,” Vander Kooi said. “And then I was fascinated by allegory and moral tales and how … cultural values and belief systems of the day actually play a huge part in influencing what people think to be true, even though it’s wholly fantastic or we discover 500 years later that it’s so inaccurate.”
In her paintings, Vander Kooi said she sought to “capture something of the essence” of those illustrations. She said those images were typically painted on gold leaf with decorative patterns and frames and she follows those examples in her work. Her paintings were done on wooden panels, a Renaissance practice, and she dipped into her collection of old gilded wooden frames.
“Aside from being excited by the beauty of their illustrations and their colour and the fantastical stuff, the grotesque, I also wanted to translate it in more contemporary terms and have us think about our relationships with the natural world,” Vander Kooi said. “But I also think it’s interesting and funny. There’s a lightness to the imagery in that I’m having as much fun experimenting with my materials as I am with the content.”
Vander Kooi said she feels her Bestiary series has a lot of potential and the pieces she’ll be showing amount to an “introduction” to that oeuvre. While she’d prefer to have typical in-person reception, Vander Kooi said with the online format she can still support the gallery while opening up the show to people who wouldn’t normally be able to attend. She said she has friends and family from out of town who will be tuning in.
“I think it’s just really important to figure out ways to move outside of our comfort zones a little bit because of the situation that we’re in to continue to perpetuate conversations and dialogue around the arts,” Vander Kooi said. “Initially I was a little bit tentative about the virtual opening but now I feel really good about it.”
WHAT’S ON … Yvonne Vander Kooi presents Bestiary at Gallery Merrick, 13B Commercial St. on June 5. Limited attendance in-person sneak peek from 5 to 6 p.m., online opening at 7 p.m. on Instagram and Facebook. Show continues until June 16. Gallery reopens to the public starting June 9 with limited attendance, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. Private viewings available.