by Rachel Dragos
According to many Kenyon students, the close relationships between students and faculty are one of the best parts of the “Kenyon experience.” Because many professors live in Gambier, that relationship can lead to the surreal experience of being invited into a professor’s home. As will be shown in this series, a Kenyon professor’s home is often an extension of the classroom — carefully crafted over the years to reflect each professor’s passions and experiences.
Over the last 20 years, Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff’s home has grown to reflect his love for travel and art. Set off in the woods of Gambier, the home is surrounded by Ohio’s natural landscape as well lovely gardens. A winding stone path leads through these gardens to Rutkoff’s front door. Rutkoff said that what originally drew him to the house 20 years ago was that “it could have been in the woods in upstate New York. It’s open and it’s private.”
When asked if he could point out some special objects that reflect his interests, Rutkoff replied, “Everything,” while gesturing around him. “There’s West African statues, there’s southern United States carvings,” he said. “I guess I generally gravitate to folk art. I find things that just speak to me.”
One of these objects is a colorful piece of Caribbean art depicting a snake climbing a tree. In bright blue, it stands out among a wide array of art lining his fireplace mantle. According to Rutkoff, it’s called drapeau, French for “flag.” The snake in the drawing is the voodoo god Damballa, who is known for magical protective properties. The artwork itself is an example of “West African deities translated into Caribbean culture,” according to Rutkoff.
Hanging off one of his bookshelves and facing the large wall of windows that look out on the wooded backyard is a “linguist staff” from West Africa. “Every tribal chief in West Africa has someone who speaks for them called a linguist, because you are not supposed to directly address a chief.”
The staff functions as a symbol for the linguist position. On the top of the staff is a figure of two animals sharing the same stomach, which, according to Rutkoff, symbolizes, “We are all in this world together and we need to share it.”
Some may recognize the home as a set from Josh Radnor’s ’96 2012 film, Liberal Arts. Radnor, who was a student and friend of Rutkoff’s, approached Rutkoff early on about using his home as part of the film. “It fit his mind and what he imagined,” Rutkoff said.
It’s easy to imagine what Radnor saw in the home, with its feelings of both homeyness and worldliness. “Spaces always define themselves in different ways,” Rutkoff said.
When asked if he had a favorite spot in his home, he looked around the living room in which he sat, saying, “This is the nicest public space. It’s the place where I feel at home. It’s the place where things I like are out, for people to see. This is a rug I got in Turkey, this is a table my best friend made. It’s like everything has a story.”