Artists find ways to help families get through coronavirus pandemic

A cartoon page showing a path and people on a journey.

The Giant Snorflaggle, resplendent in a fantastic top hat, wings to fly and a pointed tail, is on the job to help children understand the coronavirus pandemic.

“Parents need to wash their hands. Kids need to wash their hands. Even the Giant Snorflaggle needs to wash its hands – all four!” That’s the message in one of the coloring pages artist and UW-Madison alumnus Will Santino (MFA 2018) drew to help children understand how to stay healthy.

“I knew how strange and scary of a change everything has been for me. How would it be to a five or six-year-old who’s been told: ‘You can’t see your friends.’ ‘You  can’t visit your grandparents.’ ‘You have to stay inside all the time.’”—Will Santino

Santino’s coloring pages are one of three art projects—supported by the University of Wisconsin-Madison “Do Your Part” Communication Collaborative for COVID-19 Response, the Global Health Institute (GHI) and the School of Human Ecology (SoHE)—to help children and adults navigate a COVID-19 world. The projects also include a set of drawings for adults by UW alumna and artist Mary Michaud (B.A. ’90) and a coloring book for children based on 10 best ways to limit the coronavirus spread by UW-Madison seniors Carissa Waldo, Caitlin Marks and Paige Broustis.

“Art is as essential as food and water in difficult times,” says project leader Lori DiPrete Brown, a GHI associate director who teaches in SoHE. She has facilitated bringing art into the coronavirus messaging and plays a leadership role in the task force’s efforts to build messages based on research. The art projects are designed especially for those facing special challenges, including children and essential workers.

“People find healing and comfort in the arts,” DiPrete Brown says. “It’s how we reimagine the future, and this will be essential for resilience and well-being as we go forward. We’ll need art, and thankfully it is inside us.”

Art, stories and cartooning

Santino was the little kid always making up stories, and doodling and drawing as well. The high school Santino vee

Will Santino

red toward writing fiction until an introduction to drawing class in college was so much fun he chose art instead. He earned his MFA in painting from the UW-Madison.

“The goal has always been to tell stories,” says Santino, who works part time at the TruScribe art studio and has created graphic novels, illustrated poems and a children’s book.

Cartooning became a haven during graduate school, when he also lived with and cared for his older brother Ian, who was diagnosed with cancer. “I didn’t intentionally say, ‘I’m drawing cartoons because they’re fun and easy, and I need a break from reality,’ but, in retrospect that’s what happened,” Santino says.

In August 2017, he sent the first of what would become a two-year ritual – sending 10 cartoons a month to the New Yorker magazine. He achieved a milestone when the magazine asked him to submit weekly and, more recently, bought one of his cartoons.

“My goal as an artist has always been sharing stories and ideas and worlds,” Santino says. “People like humor, they like silliness. Pursuing humor and silliness is also a way to honor the bond with my older brother.” The cartoons became the basis of his MFA project, reflecting his journey as a grad student and caregiver, and sharing the pain of losing his brother.

The COVID project began on a sunny day in his backyard. “What do kids like?” he wondered, and the Giant Snorflaggle came out of his pen. Most of the characters in the three drawings are new, but they’re reminiscent of recurring beasts in Santino’s work, tapping again into his love of science fiction, fantasy, making up characters and mapping out worlds.

The coloring pages are available online to download.

A place to pause and take a breath

Maybe you’re living in a very small house. Maybe you need to go to work because your job is essential. Maybe you have no idea what to do with children who are cooped up with too much energy.

Mary Michaud’s drawings are meant to give you a chance to take a breath, regroup and celebrate the small things that can make a difference. Her nine drawings get it: These times are very unusual and stressful. But even more, the drawings show everyday people getting through COVID-19 in simple but profound ways.

In these drawings, workers take time to breathe, families create routines to stay safe, a grandmother checks in with nature, a man who uses a wheelchair gets up early to “take a roll outside.”

“One of the drivers of fear is a feeling of powerlessness,” she says. “Our Messages ask people to share their own strategies and tactics, giving them a way to contribute and letting them see they are not powerless in this phase of uncertainty.”

Michaud hopes the drawings invite people into a conversation about the things they are already doing or can try to make life better during the pandemic. How do you stay hopeful? How do you take care of yourself at work? How do you worry less? How do you brighten a small space?

Creating gives Michaud solace as well. “It takes my total attention,” she says. “I feel very much in the present when I draw.””

Art was not her first career though. “For a couple of decades I was doing left brain jobs with a lot of right brain disposition,” she says of how she moved work in health and data management toward art. “I love data,” she says, “but I really needed to reexamine how I was spending my time.”

Now, she works from both sides of the brain: teaching classes through the School of Law’s Center for Patient Partnerships and the School of Medicine and Public Health Master of Public Health Program and, through her firm, VisuaLeverage, using art to make complex ideas viual. Her public health background gives her extra insight as she creates the COVID drawings.

“Just understanding where people are coming from is so important,” Michaud says. “I think about people I know. I kind of draw people I might know or have known in the past.”

The drawings are available online and will be distributed through local organizations.

Helping children understand

Art has always helped Catlin Marks, a genetics major with a certificate in studio arts, make sense of science.

Carissa Waldo

Illustrating helps her understand her classes better, she says. “If I draw it myself, I can work it out.”

She’s used that talent on other projects, including an A to Z molecular genetics book for children that explores concepts like RNA, DNA and yeasts that make sense to children. She’s also worked on Science Saturdays on campus, another way to introduce children to science.

Two students pursuing their Certificates in Global Health, Carissa Waldo, a genetics and Spanish major, and Paige Broustis, a human development and family studies major, who also participate in the Do Your Part task force have

Paige Broustis

been key to putting words and images together.

“We wanted to find a cool way to target younger audiences,” Waldo says. The book takes 10 messages developed by the Do Your Part task force and translates them into language appropriate for children in kindergarten through second grade.

Children may not understand what’s safe and what’s not, and the book will focus especially on physical distancing. The goal is to use positive language, Waldo says. Instead of “you can’t go outside,” for example, it will encourage kids to play outside but stay further away from their friends to keep everyone safe. The book also incorporates basic reading, county an

Caitlin Marks

d learning the alphabet, Broustis says, calling the project “a fun way to get creative and promote these important messages.”

“We just want to make sure the community knows what’s going on,” Marks says. “A lot of times with something so complex, even adults have a hard time understanding. This will be a simple way for parents to talk to their kids about the virus. … It’s a coloring book with things you can do at home.”

The books will be available online, and printed versions will be available through local organizations. Waldo also hopes to translate it into Spanish. The book will be available online here by Monday, April 27, and printed versions will be distributed the next week.


By Ann Grauvogl/ April 23, 2020