It had been 15 years since Djokoto, 24, let go of his dreams of painting, squashed by the creative restrictions that tormented him in his art class at elementary school. It took a global quarantine — the prospect of spending countless, aimless hours in his home — to consider taking paintbrush to canvas again.
“I’ve learned how fast-paced this world is and how long I spend working, giving very little time to creative stuff,” Djokoto said. “It’s really like the child in me coming out in such times; I think it’ll be something that will become an essential part of my habits.”
The novel coronavirus’s spread across the globe has caused seismic disruptions to everyday life. Daily activities rarely extend beyond the confines of one’s home. Social distancing often feels more akin to social isolation.
With fewer distractions and increased downtime, some have found space to start new projects or complete those long forgotten. When The Washington Post asked readers how they’ve used their time under quarantine or stay-at-home orders, more than 250 people responded with stories about learning to play instruments, trying culinary techniques and tackling other creative endeavors.
A woman from Arlington, Va., took up dip-pen calligraphy. A freelance photography producer from New York started an ASMR YouTube channel for her pug. A grandmother from Owings Mills, Md., taught herself stop-motion animation to entertain her 2-year-old grandchild.
Online learning has seen a surge in activity worldwide. The celebrity-led tutorials offered by Master Class and the language-learning program Rosetta Stone reported spikes in users. Global traffic to Duolingo, another language-learning platform, reached an all-time high in March, when new users more than doubled from the previous month, according to the company.
The rate of new enrollments in Virtual Art Academy exploded fivefold in March compared to the previous 12 months, founder Barry John Raybould said. It’s the most drastic jump in the academy’s 13-year history. Social media has become an artistic outlet, too, with people showing off their creations of “quarantine murals” in time-lapse videos posted to TikTok.
“What we are seeing is that people with a passion for art finally have time to invest in developing their creative side in a more systematic way,” Raybould said.
Taking on big projects and artistic endeavors is a luxury in the middle of a pandemic. Many “essential workers” are still on the job full time. Parents of young children are juggling home schooling and keeping kids with cabin fever entertained all day, every day. Others are struggling to keep their mental health in check as they grapple with stress and a seemingly never-ending cycle of bad news.
But some people have found creative fuel in the chaos of the times, forming new hobbies out of making soap and masks. For Djokoto, the virus inspired his artwork in an unexpected way. His paintings have largely centered on the human face — contorted images of eyes, noses and mouths — a subconscious homage to the body parts that the deadly virus now forbids him to touch.
“Our sense of smell, our sight — those are very essential parts of us that have just been objectified as the root of our problems,” said Djokoto, a columnist and business executive based in Accra. “I want to look back and remember how we all went through this pandemic and the things we tried to avoid. It’s like a struggle against yourself.”
Artist Joey Noble, 28, found a lighthearted way to express his feelings about the coronavirus pandemic.
The furloughed Disneyland worker was about one week into stay-at-home orders in Whittier, Calif., when he found the inspiration to fulfill his longtime desire to become a storyteller. Forced to scour four stores in search of toilet paper, Noble realized it was the perfect tale to pair words with his pictures.
“At one of the stores, they had a blank, hardcover build-your-own book,” Noble recalled. “I joked to myself: ‘Worst comes to worst, I can just use the pages in this.’ ”
“Cory Is in Quarantine” — a children’s book for adults centered on a boy desperate for toilet paper during the pandemic — was written later that evening.
Noble spent three days drawing pictures to go with his words. His first attempt at humorous, Dr. Seuss-style writing was an instant hit: A TikTok video of Noble reading his book aloud had amassed more than 180,000 views by Friday. Now he’s selling paperback versions online.
Many quarantine projects have focused on food. Chef Christina Tosi, the vibrant founder of the bakery chain Milk Bar, noticed first-time bakers and children were flocking to her social media channels for advice and guidance since stay-at-home orders began in March.
Longing for the camaraderie she could no longer experience in a restaurant kitchen, Tosi launched a daily baking club on Instagram Live, where she offers free lessons to aspiring chefs using basic ingredients they are likely to own. The feedback has been telling: Thousands of people watch each day, and Tosi says the 30-minute club provides a sense of routine and community for everyone involved.
“When I’m stuck indoors, my creative spirit is the one that’s wiggling to get out,” Tosi said. “As humans, we all need some sort of purpose as part of our basic makeup. Right now, my purpose is to give people a time and place to let their imaginations roam.”
Under lockdown orders, people are picking up new recipes for kringle bread, laminated pastries and homemade candy bars. Seventh-grader Kaylyn Wilson said she started with homemade spaghetti sauce and fried chicken strips and is now making biscuits from scratch.
The 12-year-old has been home from school since March 17 and said her virtual school assignments take only a half an hour each day. Kaylyn has used the remainder of her time to learn the ins and outs of her family’s kitchen and found joy in learning complex recipes.
“If you had told us a year ago that we’d be quarantined for several months, we would’ve freaked out,” said Mike Johnson, Kaylyn’s father. “But now that we’re experiencing it, there’s a sense of calm that we haven’t seen for quite some time.”
Kaylyn also is learning French with Rosetta Stone. She plans to take language classes when she enters eighth grade — the first year they’re offered at her middle school in Kingston, Mass.
“So far it’s pretty easy,” she said. “I can’t put many sentences together because I haven’t learned a lot yet, but I’m still learning.”
Some stay-at-home projects have struck a more private, sentimental tone.
California’s stringent stay-at-home orders have given Julie Elmen, 63, more time to think about her loved ones, namely her mother, Rita, who died in November. Elmen recalled her mother frequently would ask, “What have you accomplished today?”
Rita sought to accomplish something particularly special in her final days. The 88-year-old was determined to make a blanket for her great-grandchild, due to arrive in March. Even as her dexterity waned, she managed to knit eighteen 8-by-8-inch squares, each made with a different texture and pattern.
“It was incredible to hear about her progress; she was excited when she finished each one,” said Julie Elmen, a retired developmental psychologist. “I wonder if her finishing it kept her around a little longer.”
They planned for Julie Elmen to knit the squares together, and Rita mailed her daughter the final piece in mid-November, two weeks before she died of heart failure. For months afterward, Julie Elmen struggled to bring herself to complete the blanket. The squares rested in a cabinet in her garage.
That changed in March. After Elmen’s grandson was born, the looming danger of coronavirus prevented her from holding him, and she was forced to introduce herself through FaceTime. While under stay-at-home orders, Elmen said she has spent more time than usual reflecting on the lessons her mother taught her.
“I just decided that working with these squares would help me feel closer to my mom, knowing every stitch was created by her,” Elmen said. “I can’t wait to bring the blanket down to San Francisco and actually give it our new grandson.”
The specter of life and death moved Riverside, Calif., resident Karen Bell to take on a quarantine project, too. Bell, 73, had been hitting a mental snag whenever she tried to pen her memoirs.
Bell, who lives in an apartment complex for people older than 65, says she was declared legally dead for a full minute in 2017 after suffering congestive heart failure — but even that experience wasn’t enough to overcome the writer’s block.
It wasn’t until about three weeks ago — as she watched the coronavirus ravage a community home for the elderly about a block and a half away — that she began to grapple with her own mortality.
“I said, ‘This might be it. I’ve got to do it now because I have an ending — the ending is, I might die,’ ” Bell said. “It just started flowing from me when I realized I don’t have much time left.”
Bell suffers from myriad risk factors she said she believes would almost certainly cause her to die of the coronavirus. In addition to her weak heart, she has asthma, diabetes and osteoporosis. She’s also a cancer survivor.
“You name it, I’ve got it,” she joked.
While her apartment complex has so far been spared from the coronavirus, Bell can’t stop writing. The first few sections are finished and she’s sending drafts to everyone she knows.
“I really am hoping to live long enough to publish them,” she said.