‘It’s really hard to imagine this number’

In art and words, nine illustrators from across the country grapple with 100,000 lives lost to covid-19

Tonya Engel for The Washington Post

(Tonya Engel)

One hundred thousand Americans dead and counting. Three months. The coronavirus in the United States has unfolded with a velocity and a ferocity that seems unfathomable. How to even express all the emotions bound up together? There is fear and confusion; devastation and numbness; anger and depression; heartbreak and hope. So we turn to art. The Washington Post asked nine illustrators from around the country to portray their feelings about this horrible milestone. What follows is their work and their thoughts about what inspired it.

The following interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

New York

1,000 deaths

500

7-day avg.

0

March 1

April 1

May 1

May 27

Nicole Xu

25, is an illustrator in Brooklyn. She was born in China.

(Nicole Xu)

Reversal of worry: My mom returned back to China to celebrate Lunar New Year with her family, and the coronavirus pandemic happened while she was there. Around February, she was Skyping me and telling me about all that’s happening and warning me that I should be staying put, before the New York lockdown. But I was worried about her. She was where the outbreak started, and it was very unclear whether she would be allowed to go back to Canada. She stayed until the outbreak slowed down in China, around late March, but that’s when New York got started. At that point, she started sending me masks and supplies, hoping that I would be okay. It was a real reversal of worry.

100,000 deaths: It’s really hard to imagine this number. It’s pretty horrifying. And it’s strange to hear that this is happening in the U.S. and that it’s gotten this bad. Everyone’s just coping with it right now — like it’s normal to be living through this. In the beginning, it was a lot harder to cope with, but now, sadly, it’s become every day.

Her art now: I have been drawing way more people interacting with each other, especially in my personal work. Usually I’m a very solitary illustrator, I draw one person that’s basically me and how I’m feeling. Now that I haven’t been able to interact with a lot of people, there have been more and more crowds in my work, I’m just yearning to get back out there. Usually my work is very reflective of my emotions. And now it feels too trite to really just draw sad pieces or, like, lonely pieces.

Personal interactions: The only interaction I really have is when I go on walks with my dog. There’s a lot of people who stare at my dog and want to pet him but can’t; he’s an unusually proportionate dog with really short legs, so he looks odd when he’s walking down the street. … Luckily, I live with my boyfriend, so we can support each other during this.

Screaming in frustration: There has been a man outside who at night will be screaming just like out of frustration. I don’t know why he’s screaming, but it’s very similar to how everyone cheers at 7 p.m., except he’s just screaming “No!” for a long period of time with his entire breath. It really sums up how people are feeling.

Washington

7-day avg.

20 deaths

10

0

March 1

April 1

May 1

May 27

Kelly Bjork

35, is an artist living in Seattle.

(Kelly Bjork)

My art: I’m using runes, tarot and an astrology book to kind of just make sense of what’s happening, since things are so uncertain and confusing. I’ve been searching for other meaning in other places. It’s been pretty frustrating. Especially viewing other people’s lives through social media, you can see people like getting on the making-the-bread train or being super productive. … I felt kind of paralyzed for a few months. I just couldn’t do anything or even work on my own art, and it was really frustrating. So I wanted to show just the different ways that people are going through this situation.

Seattle’s early outbreak: It was really surreal when we realized we were the epicenter. … There were mixed messages on how seriously to take precautions. It felt like every day we were going to get the stay-at-home order and not be able to go out at all, like Italy. … We didn’t know how safe it was to even go for a walk. When things started to get pretty bad here, I brought everything to my home to have a home studio, but I wasn’t able to work at all during that time. I couldn’t get the motivation or inspiration to create art. I started going back to my studio when I felt that I could return safely, and that’s been really helpful for me, getting out of my apartment and being able to go to a new space.

100,000 deaths: It’s so frustrating to watch. I feel like the people that are suffering are the marginalized communities. It’s just devastating to know that it’s gotten to this point and that we’re going to have to see this continue for I don’t even know how long. My heart just really goes out to those who have lost people because of this.

Adjusting expectations: I had to really come to terms that there might be days that I just don’t do anything, and maybe just getting out of bed is an accomplishment. Because mentally, I just, I couldn’t go into a place to find any reason to create. It would be like, “Well, what’s the point? Like, why? Why even? Why bother?” And that’s a very sad place for me to go in and, luckily, like I have a therapist that I can talk to. Doing stuff on my own — I just haven’t been able to the past few months. And that’s also very frustrating, because that’s something that really nourishes me and keeps me excited about life and happy in my life is making art. And when I’m not doing that, I feel terrible. It’s been really frustrating, especially when you hear people talk about like, “Hey, this is a great time to get all those things done that you never have time for.” And I’m just like, “No, that’s not what this feels like for me.” This isn’t, like, vacation time to get all those projects I wanted to get done.

The new stamina: If I do too many Zooms in a week, I really feel it. The next day, even communicating with people via text, it’s like I’m exhausted socially. … I’m usually energized by interactions. It’s kind of amazing what the new stamina is. There might be a day where I go to the grocery store and that can be exhausting in itself. It feels stressful, there’s kind of this anxiety in the air there and when you get home, you’re kind of like, “That’s all I can do today.” We have to just take a step back and be really kind and gentle on ourselves. That’s been something I’ve been trying to practice, like not feeling guilty about what I’m not doing. Just feeling okay with what I do get done in a day.

Colorado

100 deaths

50

7-day avg.

0

March 1

April 1

May 1

May 27

Daniel Castro Maia

23, was born and raised in Brazil. He lives in Commerce City, Colo.

(Daniel Castro Maia)

When it all started vs. now: When the stay-at-home order came in, you could tell the difference in the store or when you went outside or when you looked outside. Just fewer cars, fewer people. People wearing masks, people using wipes. But over time, it seems like people are starting to get sick of all those precautions. So now we’re starting to see traffic again or people jogging more or, in general, people not wearing masks. And it’s pretty frustrating, actually.

Family: When I’m talking to my family — who is still back home — I can’t really go see them. I have siblings in other countries as well. And it’s great that we have this tool that allows us to communicate. It’s almost like you want to reach over and just like make sure that they’re okay. And just being in the same room as someone is totally different than seeing them through a computer screen.

Artwork: Generally, the topics of my pieces have been kind of unaffected, but the pace at which I do them feels all out of whack. It almost feels like half my brain power is being used worrying about [the virus] instead of actually being 100 percent focused on whatever piece I’m doing.

Keeping up with the news: It’s definitely overwhelming, merely because I feel the responsibility to keep tabs on things in different places. I generally try to keep tabs on Brazil news even outside of covid-19. There’s a lot happening back home. Which is why I tell myself: “No, you need to stop this. Give yourself a break from news.” But then something happens and I feel out of the loop and I go right back into it. So that definitely feels overwhelming, but it’s a mental health risk that I think I’m much more willing to take just to make sure that the people that I care about are okay.

100,000 deaths: It’s just … it’s devastating. You know, that something that’s so easily avoidable, is happening like this. It seems like no matter how big the numbers get or how bad this virus affects different communities, it seems like there are some people that just aren’t willing to listen and cooperate.

Pennsylvania

400 deaths

200

7-day avg.

0

March 1

April 1

May 1

May 27

Noa Denmon

25, is an artist who recently moved from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

(Noa Denmon)

My art: The Trader Joe’s line is super positive and sweet. The employees have been so nice and friendly and chatty. We were having a conversation with one of the guys who was cleaning the carts and he asked: “How are you guys and how are you doing in this crisis and everything? And what are you watching?” We started talking about “Tiger King” and he said, “Oh, my goodness, I am, too.” As we were talking three or four people in line said: “Oh, my God. You watch that? I watched that, too.” And it became this really sweet, community moment where everybody was watching the same thing. TV was kind of connecting us in this, and it was a moment where everyone was laughing and having a good time.

100,000 deaths: That number is so hard to process. It’s extreme. Something about this time has been really surreal and bizarre to us. And I always kind of feel like a very present level of fear and insecurity right now. It’s a weird numbness, because it happened so quickly and you’re so disappointed in the way that this was handled that you almost expected it. And that’s really upsetting and depressing and horrifying. There is no neat way of wrapping it up in a bow. We saw it happen in other countries. We knew it was going to affect us here. You feel powerless, like it’s not going to end because you can’t see an end in sight and you don’t know what to do about it. It puts you in a depression spiral. I don’t know what the future is going to be.

Different generations: I’m an anxious person, and I’m nervous about doing the right thing. I’m asking everybody around me questions like: “Is this doing this the right thing? What are you doing? Is this safe?” Comparing and contrasting because we don’t have answers. When my sister and I think about it, we have no idea where to go next. We look to our elders who don’t really have a clue. We still feel like children in this and we just want to be shepherded. The older generations are more focused on finding the solution and the younger generations feel like we’re in a bizarre world where we don’t know what we’re doing.

Creativity and inspiration during this time: I feel kind of claustrophobic. Sometimes I’m getting a lot more inspiration by just being outside or watching people from a distance. I’m getting a lot of inspiration from looking at fantasy novels again and movies; I feel like we’re having a moment of escaping into different realities. This time has made me more interested in making art that speaks to present-day life. It’s made me a lot more observant. It’s made me reflect upon some of my past art and pieces that I’ve seen and think about the kind of art I want to produce. My inspiration before the pandemic was a lot more introspective. It was about self-acceptance, and now it’s more external.

Easing restrictions: I feel like people are just so excited to come back together that they’re going into it a little bit prematurely. I’ve been thinking about how some people are getting so frustrated about the restrictions and they’re saying: “You know what? Whatever will happen, will happen. I need to get back to my life.” I completely relate with those people, but I’m also thinking: “Please, hold on a little while longer. We can get through this if we band together as communities.” There’s a lot of frustration in the fact that we’re opening so quickly.

Texas

40 deaths

20

7-day avg.

0

March 1

April 1

May 1

May 27

Tonya Engel

47, is an illustrator from Houston. She lives with her daughter, Zoe, 8.

(Tonya Engel)

My art: I imagine there’s a lot of single moms out there with one child. I think those families may be having an even more difficult time, especially when the kids are younger. [Zoe] understands to a certain extent what’s going on, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that she is alone all the time with me. She doesn’t have anybody to play with. And she doesn’t have sisters and brothers or cousins to hang out with her, and she’s just lives as a solitary little girl for quite a while. So her looking out that window — I see that every day. She’s just longing for some interaction. She doesn’t understand 100 percent why she’s stuck at home most of the day.

The virus: Outside you notice that the plants are overtaking the earth again, in a way. There’s a lot of things that have grown neglected. The trees outside are starting to scratch the windows outside of my building because no one’s come around to cut them in a while. And it’s almost like a metaphor for the coronavirus, in a way. The plants are kind of becoming this thing that’s encroaching, moving in closer and closer. It seems like the more frightening the news gets, the more media you watch, the more it feels closer to you.

Her daughter: I have to fight her to keep her mask on. I have to constantly grab her hands to make sure she’s not biting her fingernails or touching her face or just picking up everything on the counter like kids do and examining everything. It’s just their nature. You’re just on high alert in all these different directions. You’re like: “Don’t put that in your mouth! Don’t breathe on my child! Don’t touch that! Keep away from the man with no mask!”

The news: I try to skim these days instead of getting deeply enveloped in the whole media world, because I've found that that just adds to my tension. I just want to know the facts, but I don't overload myself with it. I feel like that could be dangerous. You could just be mentally freaked out.

Black Americans: The actual numbers show that a lot of black Americans are contracting coronavirus. A huge number. And then there’s the fact that these are the factors behind that. Maybe the unhealthy eating habits, because of the disparities of living in certain communities and not having access to fresh fruits and healthy food items. Or maybe it’s the fact that a lot of black people work in the service industry, and they’re the ones that are on the front lines who are delivering food to our doors every day.

100,000 deaths: One hundred thousand deaths is an astronomical number. To me, it’s unfathomable. How is it possible that it’s come to this? For a country that has access to every possible thing we could think of. Why haven’t we had enough tests available? Why haven’t there been enough ventilating machines? A lot of those people were people’s friends, people’s family members. Those are people who were part of our communities. I really hope that by the time this all is over that we don’t see that number double.

Lessons: One important thing is to not take relationships with people for granted. When we have the chance to hug them or be close to them or spend time with them to cherish every moment.

California

100 deaths

50

7-day avg.

0

March 1

April 1

May 1

May 27

Leonardo Santamaria

28, is a Filipino American illustrator in Alhambra, Calif.

(Leonardo Santamaria)

My art: My partner is holding my hand, leading the way as we’re walking in above-waist-high water. There’s a lot of tension in what you don’t see off the bottom of the panel. It gets darker and more ominous — a sense of dread and unknown. There will be some very subtle lighting that creates a small glimmer of hope, but what it actually is, we’re not sure. There’s a lot of mystery.

Time moves, deadlines don’t: Since graduating, my partner has worked on quite a few big films, but it will take awhile before these films will come out, and she’ll be able to use it on her work visa application. Until then, she is on an OPT [Optional Practical Training] program that allows her to work for a few years before she has to get the work visa. The coronavirus has basically stopped live-action filmmaking and the work she does. … With everything on pause, the amount of work is really limited, and she’s worried about what the next steps are; the office of immigration isn’t changing the deadlines. And if you miss 60 days of work under OPT, you have to pack up your bags and leave, which is also another issue: Good luck trying to buy a flight home, because all the flights are packed right now. … And there is the pandemic. There’s so many things that are just layered and stacked on top of one another. We’re dealing with it pretty well, because we have each other, we have proximity to each other and we can support each other through this. But now it’s like we’re in suspended animation.

A harbinger of things to come: In February, before any of the lockdowns were happening, my partner Kino, and I had gone to a dumpling restaurant. On the TV in the back, they were playing news about [the virus in Wuhan, China] and the server was wearing a face mask as he was taking our orders, before the WHO or CDC had recommended face masks. People in America were buying masks to send to their family in China, so there was a shortage. Kino asked the server where he was able to get the face masks and he mentioned buying them online a few days before and gave us some. It was foreshadowing everything that happened. … Even before California issued the stay-at-home order, my partner and I were starting to cancel our friend meetups. We thought we should play it safe, that maybe it’s not a good idea to go to the climbing gym or go hiking with friends.

More than just numbers: All you see are numbers, right? Usually they post “The death count is 250 in New York” or something like that, but it wasn't until I was reading this obituary page in the New York Times where they showed the pictures of these people and how old they were, what their name was, what they did and their significance to the people around them. You read through it and then you'd see people that would have lived happy, fulfilling lives. Reading through that list and seeing all the faces was when the gravity of the deaths started to fall on me. It's hard because there’s a disconnect. People in my social sphere have not been directly affected. It's like we are insulated from the realities of it.

Waiting for mourning: I feel like we’re still in shock, it does not feel like we are mourning together. How I felt when Kobe [Bryant] died versus how it feels now — it’s so different. Then, there was mourning not just in America, but internationally.

Hawaii

10 deaths

5

7-day avg.

0

March 1

April 1

May 1

May 27

Ariana Lum

29, is an artist from Oahu, Hawaii. She previously lived in San Francisco.

(Ariana Lum)

Living on an island: Because I'm on this island, I do feel a little bit more protected. I feel like Hawaii is doing a pretty good job of managing everyone that comes in. People that decide to come to Hawaii, they are under quarantine for two weeks. They have to sign a document saying that if they leave their home, they'll go to jail. And they even have a social worker that calls them. There are a lot of people that are afraid, but I feel like everyone feels really lucky that we're here in Hawaii versus other places.

Travel: I was traveling for the past two months, and I came back literally the week when the quarantine started. I went to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Austin, Texas, London, Berlin and Amsterdam. When I was in Berlin, I just felt a lot of fear. That’s when I felt like, “Oh, this is getting bigger than I thought.” And I think that was in the beginning of March. That was right before I came back. And then I came to San Francisco. And the energy in San Francisco felt so different already.

My art: This is more the dark side of it. I imagine the virus as like these vines. It also just represents the fear; I do have a lot of fear, especially for the economy. I think adding the orbs outside with the spikes, the virus got to them [representing people] and they passed away. We’ve had 17 deaths so far. It was remembering the people that passed away from it. And I looked at the stars as light; they’re humans’ lives, and then they’re in the sky now.

100,000 deaths: The fact that we’re opening up at different times is making it bad, and it’s just really sad to realize this because our numbers are crazy. It’s so much worse than all the other countries, and I feel like we could have done more and prevented it better.

Life now: I love Hawaii so much. And Hawaii is my home. And I always wanted to come back here, but I feel like for me, it’s just like a new step after this whole thing. And I think it’s weird because I feel like this pandemic is making me just take my time and get ready because I do want to move. But I’m just getting myself mentally prepared for the move and taking time to spend time with my family.

Minnesota

30 deaths

7-day avg.

15

0

March 1

April 1

May 1

May 27

Marlena Myles

34, is an artist from the Spirit Lake Dakota tribe in St. Paul, Minn.

(Marlena Myles)

My art: It features a gloved hand and an elderly hand and in the middle is a food package. Above is an image of the three sisters, which are traditional foods to Native American tribes: corn, squash and beans. It represents how food is medicine and how we’re using it to feed the elders. After the pandemic started, people wanted to take care of the elders. There was a restaurant at the Minneapolis American Indian Center that shut down, so they repurposed the food and cooking to feed the elders. It’s important that our elders continue to stay home, that we continue to feed them, protect them and look out for one another because I don’t think we’re anywhere near the end of this.

Wisdom from past pandemics: My friends have been asking their elders what happened in the 1918 pandemic and the smallpox on our reservations. Their elders would go out and try to find natural medicines to help the people, even though these were new illnesses that were affecting our people. Even now, in South Dakota, the Cheyenne Sioux tribe and Oglala Sioux tribe are setting up borders to protect our people, because we still remember how people looked when they got smallpox, how many people died from tuberculosis, and we understand the importance of respecting the power of these illnesses. Some people want to go and keep having fun like things were before, but native people understand that we have to take this very seriously. We understand how many people died from past illnesses. Death is permanent, it’s not something you play around with. If someone tells you to wear a mask, you do it, because it’s minimal effort and you may prevent other people from getting sick.

A community of artists: It’s like you’ve just been working in a vacuum on your art with your own thoughts when you don’t have other people giving you feedback. A lot of colleagues who are native artists and I have different things we express in our art and thoughts on contemporary native art and where it’s going. You learn more, you add more to your oral traditions through other native artists’ work. Native artists are not necessarily individual artists. You represent your community. So the things we share are teachings that we want to pass on. Our cultures didn’t have a written language, so artists have always been the ones who help keep track of the history.

100,000 deaths: It’s tragic how people don’t seem to realize how big a number that is, how they just want to go back to how things were before. It’s unbelievable how people don’t seem to realize we have lost 100,000 Americans. And there are still countless more people who are going to get sick, who are going to die. People are just bored with it. They just want to go on to the next thing.

Finding solace outdoors: Since we have the time to visit nature, really look at the plants around you and not see them as just a weed or just a bush or something, but really think about what value they have and sort of restore your spirit and your connection to the greater world around us. I’ve been going for hikes and visiting our traditional sacred places. A lot of our burial mounds and our origin stories — the places that we speak of — I live near those areas. I’ve been going to these places and thinking about the stories that I’ve heard my whole life and just placing it at that moment at those locations, thinking about your ancestors and the things they lived through and how we honor their spirits to this day, centuries later. If I go outside and just enjoy that moment — enjoying the breeze, enjoying the sunlight, watching the plants and live in that moment — that helps me a lot more than looking at stats online or reading the latest news.

Louisiana

100 deaths

50

7-day avg.

0

March 1

April 1

May 1

May 27

Jessica Strahan

39, is a born-and-raised New Orleans artist and mother of three children.

(Jessica Strahan)

Before the virus hit: People were worrying because they didn’t know. Early on, if you coughed or if something was in the back of your throat, it caused stress. But now you have an idea that when you get back from the store or a relative’s, you’re fine. You have to build back confidence.

Where there is life, there is hope: My children aren’t caught up in this. I’ve seen a lot of kids in masks and not touching each other, but we’re still alive and I wanted to express that [in my art with two of the children]. We’re still enjoying life even though this is going on. When the sun comes up, we get another chance at life.

Essential worker: I’m an essential worker as a mother. Life didn’t stop for me. It’s challenging; I have my days, but for the most part, my kids and dad give me life.

Life now: We’ve been hearing about so much death and we take for granted each breath. My neighbor passed March 31 [not from the virus]. She went to the hospital and never came back. Miss Annabel couldn’t have a proper funeral because of [the virus]. The way we [usually] mourn is totally different than your traditional funeral. We bring out the brass instruments and jump around and celebrate life, and we’ve been told that we can’t do that. I’ve been living next to her for 11 years, and to not see her on the porch and be able to celebrate her life, I’m not ever going to forget that.

100,000 deaths: I don’t keep track because I don’t want to carry that in my daily life. It’ll cause me to worry, and I want to show up for my children. So I don’t think about it. I’m waiting for everything to come back, and I don’t know if it ever will.

Planning for this: With Katrina, we saw hurricane and flooding, but to not know [is hard.] If you go outside and someone tells you that you can catch something that will kill you, that’s different. It’s the unknown. It’s happening everywhere; there’s nowhere to escape to. We all are experiencing this all at once. With a hurricane, you can pack your stuff up and come home once the skies are clear, but with this, it’s 100,000 human beings gone. I don’t know if it’ll ever be the same … that’s big.

Opening up the country: They’re trying to really crack down on the restrictions, but we’re high on creativity in New Orleans and we’re free people, so even with the rules in place we’re going to make the best of it. It’s in our DNA.

Tyler Remmel

Tyler Remmel is a news designer specializing in visual storytelling across print and digital platforms at The Washington Post.

Suzette Moyer

Suzette Moyer is a senior design editor at The Washington Post. She has been at The Washington Post since 2015. She co-directed the virtual reality film "12 seconds of gunfire: The true story of a school shooting."

About this story

Editing by Ann Gerhart. Copy editing by Jordan Melendrez. Design editing by Virginia Singarayar. Design and development by Tyler Remmel and Lucio Villa. Graphics by Brittany Renee Mayes.

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