Over the years Nanaimo artist Rod Corraini has turned to humanity’s collective relationship with food, cats, crows, clouds, aliens, childhood cars, and even a 2017 near-drowning at the Nanaimo River’s notorious “gun barrel” for inspiration to fuel his colourful, surreal and sometimes satirical collections of paintings.
The latter resulted in a series of paintings called Lux, which went on display at North Town Centre’s Art 10 Gallery in March of 2020.
However two days after it opened, the whole gallery closed down due to COVID-19 restrictions for months, which means very few people viewed his last collection.
Corraini is now back with a new series inspired by the pandemic itself, called PD and Hazmat: A Love Story, that opened at Art 10 Gallery on April 1.
Like many artists who responded to the COVID-19 era by creating, Corraini became preoccupied with what was going on around him — like seeing people walk out of London Drugs with shopping carts full of toilet paper — and began to paint it.
“I was on the phone with my old high school buddy Richard and I said, you know, God damn human beings, God damn human beings. They don’t think of anybody else,” he recalled.
“But I had an epiphany. I told Richard, ‘How about I have some guy in a plague doctor suit?’ Because I’ve been always kind of fascinated by those suits. And he’s in some drugstore, loaded down with toilet paper. You know, sitting on the toilet, he’s got way too much toilet paper… It was just, oh, out of anger that I did this. And I thought, ‘I’ll do something funny.’”
The next image that similarly fascinated Corraini was seeing construction workers completing a house demolition in Harewood.
“They’re in hazmat suits, and it’s warm, like it’s in May or something like that… I think it’s freakish. We’ve got a pandemic, and there’s these guys, people, I don’t know who they are, they could be guys or gals, or something wearing hazmat suits. And so I came up with this idea, how about like, somebody in a hazmat suit and somebody in a plague doctor suit, they meet each other at work,” he says. “They find each other fetching, and after work, they play leapfrog, they do what lovers do. They play little games and stuff, just like those old movies. A love story.”
The paintings follow this love story throughout all its iterations, both dark and funny, including marriage, a honeymoon in a tropical locale, the birth of their child and death.
In one painting the family rides a roller coaster at an amusement park. In another, their child — in a hazmat suit like his mother — digs at the beach with his plague doctor-suited father.
I ask if this is somehow an echo of his own youth.
“Going to Piper’s Lagoon and shucking oysters on a Sunday and digging clams,” says Corraini. “Yeah, that’s partly my childhood, but my childhood in a totally chemical toxic environment.”
Corraini says he didn’t get much time with his parents as they were “busy all the time” and his father worked night shifts as a first class steam engineer at the Harmac mill.
He pauses and looks over the collection of paintings, spread out in his garage on a large table.
“It really is therapy. It’s kind of something that I didn’t have very much of when I was a kid, you know? Like the family time. I’m still not a very good oyster shucker. I drove a shucker through my hand once. I think I was in my 20s,” he recalls with a laugh. “We didn’t do it that often. And it was so great. And you’d go home, and it was Sunday, so we’d be watching the Beachcombers and Disney.”
I ask Corraini about Lux, the last show he did pre-pandemic. The barely-seen nine-part series of paintings is a luminous study of what happened one hot day in July of 2017 when Corraini went down to the Nanaimo River to hang out and pick wild garlic.
“Well, I took my shoes off and my socks. And I put my feet in the water, ‘Oh, nice and cool.’ And then I slipped, and then I fell on my arse in the rapids, and I sort of slid all the way down through the gun barrel. This was like a surreal thing,” he says. “Then I went through this gun barrel and then all of a sudden I was underwater. And I see this little — a little circle of what — you could see the trees and everything. It’s like a lens. And my glasses are up there. So I, oh my god, I swim as fast as I can. And I grabbed my glasses and then I come up and I’m just tired.”
When he surfaced, he spotted a teenage girl floating on the water in an inner tube.
“Mister, I saw you go down that gun barrel. People die doing that,” he recalls her saying, before allowing him to hang on to her tube and be transported to shore.
The experience had a profound affect on Corraini, who then completed nine paintings on the subject. He said he told the girl she could have any painting she wanted, but “she hasn’t come to claim a painting yet.”
PD and Hazmat: A Love Story runs at the Art 10 Gallery in Nanaimo North Town Centre on Rutherford Road until April 29.