Shady Characters: Megan Gülick’s Battered Bunnies Bring Fright to Life

Gülick, center, spends some quality time with her bunnies (photo by Virginia Kamenitzer)

A larger-than-life severed stuffed bunny head and a bowl of chocolate eggs greeted patrons at the door of LITM last Tuesday night for the opening reception for Megan Gülick’s “Battered Bunnies.” Inside, Alice in Wonderland was projected onto a wall to pulsing mariachi music and two human-sized bandaged bunnies with black eyes and missing teeth circulated casually through the crowd.

Gülick, 29, a Jersey City painter and illustrator (and erstwhile LITM bartender) was presenting 53 new whimsical acrylic-and-Sharpie animal portraits. There was a baby chick ferociously yanking a worm from the ground, sheep in a range of electric colors, fish leaping ecstatically out of a urinal and hot pink and lime green shrimp with oversized lips. And then there were the bunnies: bandaged, shackled, strung up from the ceiling, bruised and peg-legged, looking adorable — and uncomfortable. With their cheery palate and expressive eyes, Gülick’s subjects are both joyful and a little dark; her cartoon-like figures are hyperbolically animated but their expressions — ranging from passive worry to outright terror — are eerily human.

More than portraits, these are active character studies. Gülick, a Texas native who lives in the Hamilton Park area with her husband and two dogs, Frosty and Pickle, is an illustrator at heart. She’s at work on a graphic novel that ties her creatures of forest, sea and farm together in a tale of harrowing action that involves, as all the best stories do, scuba diving and ninjas. She sat down recently with the Independent to share some of the bunnies’ dark secrets.

First things first: what on earth inspired the Battered Bunnies?

I just kept thinking about these poor sad bunnies that need to be taken care of, and they started snowballing into a bigger idea. They seemed like good characters. Then people started bringing me various bondage material — it’s embarrassing. The piece “Pleasure Bound” [a white bunny in a leather collar, gagged with its own handcuffs] was inspired by a thumbnail of a girl in a similar position on the back of a comic that a friend brought over. I also really like vintage cartoons and old Disney cartoons. I didn’t plan on being a fine artist — I wanted to be an illustrator — so I had to come up with some sort of story. So the bunnies are character studies, but they are evolving into being able to walk and talk and tell stories.

What’s the story they’re telling?

I’m working on a series of stories for Granny Ninja, a graphic novel. Granny Ninja is a human: she’s got big droopy boobs, a little green mask, and wears ninja-bunny slippers that are her secret weapons. The Battered Bunnies are sympathetic characters, although some are antagonistic or just mischevious. The fish are from a gang of mutant pond scum, and the farm animals are part of the Barnyard Buddies. They’re on unnecessary antidepressants — things get in their feed. Basically, the Bunnies and Granny rescue the Barnyard Buddies.

As portraits, the bunnies are cute but sad and often disturbing. How do people react to them?

People absolutely gravitate toward the bunnies. A lot of people put themselves in position of the bunnies; they’re sympathetic characters. One woman bought a bunny based on some really personal things going on in her life. But some people, even some of my friends are like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and ‘You’re sick!’

You grew up in Texas and graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How did you end up in Jersey City?

I’d been living in Toronto for a little over four years. I was a graphic designer, designing home health care inserts for Shoppers Drug Mart — it’s like a Canadian Walgreens. Then my husband, Martin, who’s a professor of philosophy, was offered a tenured position at Rutgers. He wanted to live as close to NYC as possible. I didn’t really want to live in Manhattan because I couldn’t imagine living in a shoebox fifth floor walk-up for a ridiculous amount of rent. Jersey City was recommended to us because we didn’t want to live in Highland Park or any sort of suburban setting. We were totally skeptical at first, but fell in love with this city within half an hour of checking it out. This was even on a super-rainy day and Christopher Columbus was littered with trash bags and bums that we had to step over. Within 24 hours of living here, we were at a dog supply store and someone welcomed us to the neighborhood because they’d seen us the day before with our dogs in the park and could tell we’d just moved in.

What’s the art scene like in Toronto? Did you show often there?

I hit the ground running when I moved there. I’d decided I wasn’t going to have a job — I’d saved up a lot of money. And I approached a lot of galleries, but they have something called Canadian Content (Can Con), which means they give priority to Canadian artists.  You see it on the radio a lot. You’ll hear Joni Mitchell, Avril Lavigne, Neil Diamond, Rush and Tragically Hip all in the same hour. And Gordon Lightfoot! So galleries would say ‘We like your stuff but we have to support local art.’ I kind of lost some confidence for a while in that. It was strange. So I decided to just use that time to find an angle. I thought, ‘I’ll do politicians.’ I started doing a lot of portraits of conservative politicians, working on developing my portrait technique.

What’s your experience been in Jersey City’s arts scene?

There are so many incredible people in Jersey City; just a ridiculous amount of talent. I really feel like this arts scene is fairly receptive. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of competition. There’s room for all sorts of types here. When I first moved here and started to go exploring, I found LITM. They had a show up, by [the Silk City tattoo artists] Russell Kelley and Ruler, and I just fell in love with Russell’s work. I thought, if this is the sensibility in this place, this is where I want to be — I’ve got to show here, or work here, or something. So I applied to work there, and then I wormed my way into a group show in December 2007. It was a cash and carry “off the wall” show, and we could each show four pieces at a time. They just kept selling, I kept making more and selling them. Then they asked me to do a solo show, so that was my first solo show, last May.

What’s next on your agenda?

Ken Bastard [the pop-punk/comic artist] and I are going to collaborate on some paintings. It’s stuff that makes me uncomfortable; putting bunnies into even more uncomfortable situations. For me they’re character studies — its all good research and practice. One of them is based on the famous photograph from Vietnam, of the governor shooting the guy in the head. Ken wants to do things that are more shocking. He feels categorized sometimes by the punk rock pictures he does, and sort of wants to stir that up a little bit and do something more sophisticated. The pictures he’s chosen are definitely going to strike chords. Even as one of the painters I’m not totally comfortable with them. I’m kind of squeamish. I can’t even watch The Sopranos.

a Jersey City–based editor and writer whose work has appeared in Salon, Radar, Playgirl, Time Out New York and The New York Observer.