How Art is Helping Children (and Adults) Cope with the Pandemic

As staying at home has become the norm, children are finding ways to cope and express their creativity through surprising artworks, aided by adults and cultural institutions.

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On a sunny, tree-lined street in Los Feliz, Dan Fields’ fence has become a surprising space for art — specifically, children’s art — during the pandemic. Over a dozen drawings and paintings guarded in plastic sheet protectors hang on binder clips along a green cable bolted to wooden slats. Neighborhood kids have been putting up a wide breadth of works, from crayon drawings of smiling trees, to Pikachu scratch art and a Black Lives Matter sign. Fields’ son folded 21 colorful origami cranes that are now dangling between two trees above the outdoor gallery.

Dan Fields’ Los Feliz fence gallery features children's artwork hanging from a cable.
Dan Fields’ Los Feliz fence gallery features children’s artwork hanging from a cable. | Jean Trinh

On a superficial level, much of the artwork may appear to be items that would normally make their way onto a refrigerator door at home. However, as Los Angeles just passed its sixth month of the safer-at-home order due to COVID-19, these pictures are becoming artifacts in an unprecedented time in our recent history. They give a glimpse into how children are processing their current reality, one that is spent mostly at home, away from school and friends, with the backdrop of a global pandemic and a civil rights movement for Black lives. The innocence of their artwork is also acting as a balm for both children and adults during these heavy times.

Two little girls work on a small parade float.
The Sims sisters work on their float. | Courtesy of David Eads

Fields said he first came up with the idea of a neighborhood gallery after getting off of a work conference call where people were speaking about resiliency and making it a priority to “take care of ourselves and our family and our neighbors within the limitations of what was safe.” It has gradually become a friendly space that gives passersby a reason to stop and chat with Fields, and for neighbors — both children and adults alike — to see the familiar names of kids they know accompanying the artwork.

“It’s serving as a good reminder that we’re still a community, even if a community is just the random collection of people that live on your street,” said Fields, who works as the executive creative director at Disney Parks Live Entertainment.

Click through below to see more artworks by neighborhood children from Dan Fields’s fence.

The Autry Museum of the American West at Griffith Park is also treating artworks made during COVID-19as artifacts. In late April, the museum did a callout to the public asking for digital submissions of family recipes, written accounts of sheltering-at-home experiences and photographs of face masks. It’s part of its ongoing project, Collecting Community History: A Regional Collections Initiative of Exploration and Preservation, and has since grown to include handmade protest signs and clothing in connection to the Movement for Black Lives; as well as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube videos. The staff will eventually make a curatorial decision as to which submissions will make it into the permanent collection and physical exhibition spaces. While they are still culling through it all, they’ve already found some poignant children’s artifacts.

One of the submissions that have stood out is 6-year-old Franklin Wong’s journal entry about sheltering at home in mid-March. It was his first homework assignment that he turned in at the start of Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) remote learning shift. In it, Wong wrote about how he had to stay home all day and played indoors because of a virus. It was accompanied by a drawing of a sad face.

Six-year-old Franklin Wong’s journal entry describing what life is like during COVID-19.
Six-year-old Franklin Wong’s journal entry describing what life is like during COVID-19. | Submitted by Holley Replogle-Wong to the Autry.

“[Franklin Wong’s] account really gives a very innocent and sensitive portrayal of this moment for him as well as his family,” said Tyree Boyd-Pates, the museum’s associate curator of Western History.

When Franklin Wong’s mother, Holley Replogle-Wong, submitted the journal entry, she included a note that the date her son wrote was incorrect. “ … The entry says March 15, it was actually March 16. This was my fault, I told him the wrong date; in those early days of things shutting down I was having trouble keeping track of the days.”

This note hints at how parents are dealing with the pandemic as well. When LAUSD schools closed in mid-March, 700,000 students were learning from a distance. Remote learning has since extended into the new school year. Parents then were — and many still are — juggling work and childcare in a time of uncertainty.

A child's colorful abstract artwork featured on Sarah Woo's Art at a Distance Instagram account.
A child’s artwork featured on Sarah Woo’s Art at a Distance Instagram account. | Courtesy of Sarah Woo

Boyd-Pates pointed out that family photo submissions have been particularly important in telling these stories. “Their accounts really give a direct line as to how they parent through sheltering in place, but also how they exist in this moment for their children, who are creatively making art and/or homework assignments that identify with their experiences,” he said.

Sarah Woo, an L.A. mother, had been reading into how parents were rearing their children during the pandemic through their kids’ artwork. She originally started her now-shuttered Art at a Distance Instagram account in mid-March as a way to keep kids engaged and boost their morale by having them document their art and digitally display it in one place. The ultimate goal was that they would have an in-person gallery exhibition of the artwork once COVID-19 was over.

A child's artwork of a purple face featured on Sarah Woo's Art at a Distance Instagram account.
A child’s artwork featured on Sarah Woo’s Art at a Distance Instagram account. | Courtesy of Sarah Woo

The posts included drawings of Pokémon characters, a comic about a scientist saving the world from COVID-19, and cutouts of the solar system. Woo had been receiving submissions from around the world, as far as Seoul, South Korea.

However, her last post was in June. Woo said the project fizzled because of a lack of submissions. “My hunch is that parents are burnt out and emotionally drained,” she said. “Maybe the children’s art project no longer brings excitement or joy. I wish I could revitalize it, but it’s hard to do so organically.”

The Kerley children show off their dinosaur-themed float.
The Kerley children show off their dinosaur-themed float. | Courtesy of David Eads

Woo is still considering pivoting her project to something she said is “more pertinent to the current times,” like asking parents for submissions of their kids’ journal entries and quotes, and photos of distance learning.

While Woo didn’t find any specific unifying themes in the artwork from her Instagram project, she attempted to read between the lines. “I’m just trying to read the context, like … I can see the parents at home trying to keep their kids occupied maybe with little lessons, or keeping them outside and trying to wear their kids out,” she said.

A child's colorful abstract artwork featured on Sarah Woo's Art at a Distance Instagram account.
A child’s artwork featured on Sarah Woo’s Art at a Distance Instagram account. | Courtesy of Sarah Woo

Woo found it interesting that a mother who teaches fashion design sent in photos of outfits her daughter designed for her dolls. And because Woo had been seeing a lot of chalk art, it made her think parents were trying to keep their kids busy outside.

It also spoke to children’s understanding of the pandemic at this moment. “I do think that art can be a way of seeing how children are processing what’s happening around them, and it’s also a reflection of what they are and are not picking up on,” Woo said. “It has to do with age [and] what parents are actually discussing with their kids.”

When the Tournament of Roses partnered with Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena for a virtual Rosebud Parade that streamed on Facebook Live May 28, they received over 220 videos of floats that families from around the world made with household objects. While they ran the gamut of a motorized Star Wars tank to an Earth Day fairy garden, many of the floats dealt with COVID-19 head-on.

In one clip, a child’s float entitled, “Hope Outside My Window,” featured a window framed by a rainbow looking out to happy times of brightly colored flowers and teddy bears dressed in doctor’s coats. Many others used their floats as an opportunity to thank frontline workers, expressing it through Barbie dolls donning nurses’ outfits and a replica of a hospital.

David Eads, the executive director and CEO of the Tournament of Roses, saw the virtual Rosebud Parade as a chance for families to have a creative outlet during tough times.

“Everybody is under enormous stress and pressure that we’ve never experienced before,” Eads said. “I think art and children’s ability to express themselves through art is very much a healing process. And it’s very necessary that kids are able to express themselves in a way that maybe they can’t do verbally, or in a traditional manner. Finding art provides that creative outlet.”

The Padilla children's finished nature-themed float.
The Padilla children’s finished nature-themed float. | Courtesy of David Eads