It started with the Italians, whose arias rose from the balconies. They were on lockdown, but their voices rang out down empty moonlit streets. Ballads, the national anthem, improvised ditties over the barking of dogs.
Cellphone footage of the singing went viral, offering hope amid the horror.
“Italians are like their opera characters: when they suffer, they sing instead of crying,” one YouTube viewer quipped.
As COVID-19 traveled the globe, pictures of other music-makers emerged: A man playing an accordion on his balcony in Hungary; a husband-wife duet on their balcony in Brazil, breathing their prayers for humanity through a flute and a bassoon – woodwinds for the weary. In New York City, a group of habited nuns singing “Lean On Me,” a brunette on the end clanging two spoons in syncopation.
“Spoon Nun’s on my apocalypse team,” one New Yorker tweeted.
In the face of a pandemic, people of every color and creed have responded the same way: by adding to the beauty. They perched teddy bears in windows, hung Christmas lights and colored driveways. They drew images that felt like an antidote to all the masks and morgues: hearts, butterflies, rainbows. They tried to tilt the scales of the universe with tempera paint and sidewalk chalk.
Mo Willems, creator of the award-winning “Elephant & Piggie” series of children’s books, offered Lunch Doodles, free online drawing lessons for kids in quarantine.
“You might be isolated, but you’re not alone,” Mo wrote. “You are an art maker. Let’s make some together.”
Meanwhile, The Okee Dokee Brothers, a family-friendly, Grammy-winning bluegrass duo, released an album early to help put a spring into social distancing. The first track, “Hope Machine,” was written a year ago but feels tailored to our strange new reality: “Plan what you can plan, dance when you can-can. … Keep that hope machine running strong.”
“Songs go where they are needed,” said the guitarist Joe Mailander. “Families need a hopeful message about getting up and trying to find some light right now.”
Quarantine has been a productive time for the award-winning artist Brother Mickey O’Neill McGrath, a 63-year-old Oblate of St. Francis de Sales who has been drawing in the second-story studio of a rowhouse in Camden, N.J.
“I haven’t spent so much time here in years,” he said.
The sought-after speaker had developed the habit of drawing a faith-based coloring page and sharing it in his e-newsletter once a week. But the pandemic has compelled him to do so on a daily basis.
The response has been overwhelming. Newsletter subscribers say it is calming to color each image and reflect on its meaning. “You’re keeping me sane,” one woman told Brother Mickey.
Brother Mickey understands the impact of an artistic ministry. “When we’re in the presence of beauty, we’re in the presence of God, so we pray best before beauty,” he said. “It goes to a place deeper than words.”
The Catholic Church has always led with beauty, drawing people in by building the world’s greatest cathedrals, using gold leaf and stained glass to convey majesty and mystery. Historically, we were patrons of the arts and teachers of the faith – two functions that were intricately connected. The coronavirus has given that old approach new meaning.
Pope Francis expressed it on Palm Sunday, offering a message for Holy Week that continues to resonate: “This is what we need today: the creativity of love.”
The words struck Brother Mickey, who lettered them in neon green against a crimson red, drawing palm branches in the center.
“It’s a human drive to create and to bring joy,” he said. “That’s how I see art. We’re co-creating with God.”
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.