The Interplay of Fear, Love and Light

Gena Grunenberg re-creates the world

By Saad Ghosn

The Thinker, acryclic painting by Gena Grunenber. Photo by Bill Howes.

“Early on I realized that art was the only thing I needed to maintain sense of myself – also to make sense of the world,” says Gena Grunenberg.

Grunenberg is a Cincinnati artist who as a child constantly drew and painted. In fourth grade she won an award for best drawing in her school. Her talent was recognized and encouraged by her mother, also a painter, and by her art teachers.

After high school Grunenberg studied graphic arts, switching later to fine arts. Graphic arts did not satisfy her, the emphasis placed principally on how to create a sellable product, successfully advertise and manipulate the masses. This was at a time when other planetary and personal concerns were preoccupying her and that she felt she needed to express. The world was a frightening place to be, the Cold War going on, nuclear threats imminent, global warming pointing, the AIDS epidemic emerging; and she was directly dealing with issues of violence, peace at home often disrupted by an alcoholic father, abuse frequently encountered in her workplace.

Grunenberg decided to independently study drawing and painting and enrolled under art teacher and artist Hugo Valerio. At the same time she learned various techniques, including pottery, silkscreen, jewelry and stone setting. Her aim was to develop good skills and draftsmanship to use to address the many issues she was facing.

“I was witnessing corporations mistreating their workers, battering of the environment, racism, war, ethnic and individual violence. I wanted to use my art as a message,” she says.

For few years, however, Grunenberg did not paint or draw, afraid to confront the problems she was encountering, but which were simmering inside her. This changed when she was asked to paint a pig for the Big Pig Gig event organized by Artworks. She was then living with a man who was controlling and physically abusive; he did not want her to partake in the project. Determined, she fought him back and completed a pig on the theme of pollution. This gave her the courage to assert herself and move forward. Soon after she left the abusive relationship and started a whole body of work addressing the issues that have affected her until then.

Domestic violence and violence in general became prominent topics in her work. Every Woman, an acrylic painting she did at the time, is about all women. The painting depicts them as parents, as abused and oppressed, carrying their burden into their old age, but also healing thanks to their inner power. Ice Tree addresses the plight of global warming and the insult large oil companies inflict on nature; it contrasts an oil can with a tiny sprig of hope growing next to it.

“There is a progression in the violence that starts at home, within the individual, within families, then permeates society and spreads like a web,” Grunenberg says. “It becomes like a spiritual disease manifested in hatred, bigotry, disregard to others, rampant abuses by our capitalistic system, wars, global environmental destruction. … I want to understand its causes and address them in my work in order to create awareness, make a difference, render the world a better place.”

A couple years ago Grunenberg started building puppets to tackle and personalize the same concerns. Her puppet Fear deals with the prevalent sense of anxiety and fearful living conditions one increasingly experiences in violent modern society. She wants it, however, balanced by a counterpart, Love, that she is currently creating and would like to see take over.

Another area of interest is metaphysics and the science of light. Researching the field, Grunenberg discovered that what scientists believed and postulated ended up for the most part being true. Extrapolating to the world of art, she concluded that, by molding a world according to what the artist thinks and believes, and by expressing it, the artist renders it real and transmits it to others. The work of art thus becomes an empowering part of the creation and an important vehicle for change. She emphasizes, however, in In the Beginning, that to effect this change it was important to be honest and truthful. The painting illustrates the need to remove the mask that conceals one’s identity and obliterates one’s true potential.

Grunenberg also did a series commentary on the ambivalent duality of individuals, holy through their spirit, full of deficits by their human nature. In The Thinker, they are represented like pawns, fixed and paralyzed, full of holes; they are lonely even when in couples. They are connected by a smoke ribbon emanating from a passing train and ending at a skeleton thinker, alone, isolated and immobile despite having legs and arms. Grunenberg meant the thinker as a reminder to every artist to go beyond the apparent limitations and be the connecter, the transformer, the infuser of life. That’s what she would like her art to do.

Three years ago Grunenberg joined Visionaries and Voices, an art studio for people with disabilities; initially the studio coordinator, she is now the exhibit coordinator and curator. She helps the disabled artists grow, develop and assert themselves through their art. Listening to them discuss politics, religion and events that have affected their lives – such as prejudice, racism, abuse, rape – she challenged them to express their feelings through their work, make a statement and share it with others in an exhibition she titled Black and White. More than 30 participated side by side with invited artists; their voices found echo in each others’, resonated, became amplified and multiplied. The show was moving, a visual unfolding of the timeline of ills and violence in our society.

“I want to be an activist with my own art,” says Grunenberg, “and also get other people involved. We need to fight isolation and fear and affirm ourselves. Art has a healing and spiritual power; it gives strength and courage. It helped me making tough decisions; I want to use it now to help and empower others – like for the scientists, it can help us create the world we dream of; it can make it real.”