The Pandemic Bestiary is a series of 30 illustrations begun as the COVID-19 virus spread in early 2020, and then developed as its effects fanned out in the forms of public health advisories, stay-at-home orders, hasty adaptations to remote working conditions, and widespread sociocultural upheaval. Each drawing features a focal beast who is augmented with flits and blinkerings indicative of the moment: the spikes of the COVID-19 spherical particles, paraphernalia expressing gratitude for Dr. Anthony Fauci, reminders of food comforts or entertainment asides, and an inventory of secondary challenges from disrupting scholarly research productivity to discontinuing crowded gatherings at sporting events. Initially, I planned to draw just twelve figures and to send them via text every couple of days to my son, Phillip (29), and my daughter, Isabel (14), both of whom live in southeast Michigan. The first twelve drawings were finished between April 5-24, but as the virus continued to spread, so too was there more to process and more to say about it with these playful, experimental digressions. I continued to draw them and send them every few days via SMS text as good morning messages for Phillip and Isabel. I have no background in drawing to speak of; these in the Pandemic Bestiary are my first. Each drawing is numbered and named with a simple verb. The last, #30 Fly, went to them on July 22, and by that time I'd begun working on an off-spin set, the Poolside Series, which has each figure from the bestiary drawn from above as if floating alone in a swimming pool.
As a series the Pandemic Bestiary expresses hints of lightness and joyfulness in the context of a serious and challenging public health crisis. The images reached across a distance made strange by the onset of the event, from Blacksburg, Va., to Ypsilanti, Mich., with the heartfelt goals of okayness check-ins and parental reassurance in stressful, uncertain times. They functioned as phatic communiques, in the sense that phatic communication seeks to confirm social presence, saying, in effect, here we are. Ordinarily, phatic communication is less concerned with conveying information as it signals connection through verbal gestures (e.g., hello; good morning; what's up; all's good yeah?). Digital and social media have subsumed and also expanded phatic communication to include passive, casual approval (emojis and likes are familiar examples; the posting of a food photograph is another for the way it shows what someone is eating without sharing a recipe or inviting anyone to share the meal). The Pandemic Bestiary served—at the scale of family—as an ongoing, extra-discursive (visual, non-verbal) communication practice, a small, familiar touch to say I am here, I am thinking of you, and we're okay.
The Pandemic Bestiary was created using Procreate on an iPad Pro, along with a Penoval stylus. The complete set of drawings is available online at earthwidemoth.com/blog/gallery.
About the Artist
Derek Mueller is Professor of Rhetoric and Writing and Director of Composition in Virginia Tech's Department of English. Mueller regularly teach classes in visual rhetorics, writing pedagogy, first- year writing, and digital media. His drawing practice started in 2020; the Pandemic Bestiary is the first of it. Fore more, visit derekmueller.net.