Janice Wright Cheney’s unexpected muse

Wright Cheney spoke at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery Thursday and gave a tour of her exhibition (Cara Smith/AQ)

Janice Wright Cheney’s artistic muses have ranged from cockroaches to fleas and most recently, rats.

“It was logical for me to make a body of work about rats,” said Wright Cheney. “They are so loathed and therefore so full of meaning.”

Wright Cheney is a textile artist from Fredericton. She spoke at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery Thursday about her most recent work, Cellar. The exhibition is an installation of hundreds of rats made from recycled fur coats.

“I know that people don’t like rats,” said Wright Cheney, whose research included visiting rat swarmed New York City subway stations at night. “Unsettled is exactly how I want you to feel.”

One of her ambitions as an artist is the boundaries of attraction and repulsion. Her past works have included cockroaches and fleas.

The installation features Norway rats, also known as street rats or sewer rats. They live mainly in urban areas, but have spread across every continent except Antarctica, due to their reliance on humans for survival.

“I’m considering vermin as nature out of place,” said Wright Cheney.

The exhibition is on the bottom floor of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and is designed to look like a cellar, a place people hide things they want to forget.

“I found it very suiting for the atmosphere a rat would be in,” said Jane McLeod, who was viewing the exhibition Thursday.

Upon entering the dimly lit exhibition, there are two freestanding walls with windows. The frames are painted the colour of Paris Green, which is a toxic pigment historically used as a rodenticide.

Beyond the walls, there are cages filled with Wright Cheney’s life sized and realistic looking rats.

“I just thought it was very eerie,” said Michelle Decoursey, another viewer of the exhibition. “The sheer amount of rats was really impressive.”

There are hundreds of rats throughout the room, lurking in the shadows that the cages cast against the walls.

“It’s very engaging,” said Robert Shiplett, who attended Wright Cheney’s talk. “It’s not often that you can go to an art installation and discover something.”

The fur on Wright Cheney’s rats ranges from mink fur, to seal, to sheared sheep. Some rats look silky and smooth, while others appear bulbous and coarse.

Their bodies are diverse in colour and span from shades of browns and grays, to black and white. The tails are made of felted wool, giving them the slick, naked look the rat is known for.

Wright Cheney believes the tail is one of the causes for a human’s particular aversion to rats and not other rodents like squirrels.

She uses her work to explore the alliance between humans and rats.

The Norway rat is the of breed rat used in laboratories. Humans rely on them to advance the understanding of genetics, disease and the effects of drugs.

In return, the rats survive and flourish off of our waste.

Instead of coexisting in this mutually beneficial relationship, we are repulsed by the rats.

Next year, Wright Cheney’s piece will travel to the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, a place where Norway rats have a history.

In the 1950s, Alberta started a rat control program along with a heavy propaganda campaign to get rid of the scuttling, swarming creatures.

They have boasted to be “rat-free” ever since.

Cellar will be on display at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery until February 10.

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