The vibrant work of Department of English faculty member Derek Mueller has provided a needed lift for many during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The “Pandemic Bestiary” series features Mueller’s illustrations and appears in Virginia Tech’s Flex Gallery in the Squires Student Center.

The collection is available to view online and reflects stages of the pandemic and how people across the country have responded. Each drawing features a focal beast related to a particular pandemic theme, such as the ban on crowded gatherings at sporting events and an expression of gratitude for infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci.

What makes Mueller’s work even more remarkable is that he’s never taken an art class.

In the following Q&A, the associate professor of rhetoric and writing explains his motivation for swapping the written word for illustrations to produce this series.

Collect #8. A sloth in tight-fitting swim trunks (inspired by the launch of a new emoji) reaches glove-handed in an attempt to capture a colorful butterfly. My daughter, Isabel, requested the sloth. "Collect" resonates with research practices whose timely activities began to feel intensely mismatched with the pandemic's remade structures of time.
Inspired by the launch of a new emoji, “Collect #8” shows a sloth in tight-fitting swim trunks trying to capture a colorful butterfly. “My daughter, Isabel, requested the sloth,” Mueller said. “This image resonates with research practices whose timely activities began to feel intensely mismatched with the pandemic’s remade structures of time.”

Can you describe your creative process for the “Pandemic Bestiary” series?

For the overall project, “Pandemic Bestiary” took shape throughout April 2020. In terms of process, I worked on an iPad, in an app called Procreate, for an hour or two most evenings. You could say there was a dailiness to it — usually one day sketching, another day adding lines, and, finally, a third applying color. Within each drawing, the process changed in small ways; some were more planned and intentional, while others were accidental and unintended, emerging from low-stakes doodling.

A key part of the process was texting the images to my son, Phillip, and my daughter, Isabel, every couple of days, as each drawing was finished. But that’s less a quality of the creative process and more a quality of the communicative process (as if they were separable). Beyond “Pandemic Bestiary,” I found my way to other projects and continued the practice, drawing several of the figures in swimming pools, and then shifting to a series of figures drawn with and without masks. Altogether, I think there were just over 100 drawings last year. 

From which sources did you draw inspiration for your work?

They’re imaginative figures, playing on combinations of animal forms, for the most part, and then infused with references from pop culture and the news. Some point more explicitly to the pandemic, which was unfolding all around us, of course, both in the news and in the adaptations to social distancing, mask wearing, and disrupted patterns in everyday life. For example, No. 5 “Snap” shows a tortoise on a unicycle sporting an “I Heart Dr. Fauci” T-shirt.

Snap #5. A tortoise whistles and snaps while riding a unicycle up a sidewalk chalked with a Coronavirus sketch. The tortoise's orange t-shirt has on its back a version of "I love Fauci," referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an epidemiological hero and beacon of hope.
In “Snap #5,” tortoise whistles and snaps while riding a unicycle up a sidewalk chalked with a coronavirus sketch. The tortoise’s orange T-shirt sports an “I Love Fauci” image, referring to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whom Mueller calls, “an epidemiological hero and beacon of hope.”

The unicycle is there because while walking on campus I’d seen a unicyclist. I think I may have also been rewatching “Breaking Bad,” and so there is a grim and only thinly developed tie-in with an episode from that television series.

The drawing also includes a spherical model of a coronavirus particle in sidewalk chalk. This is because there was a lot of discussion in that moment about what the particle looked like and whether it was appropriate to assign color to it. An episode of a New York Times podcast, The Daily, featured interviews with children who asked questions about what a coronavirus particle looked like and what color it was.

There are a dozen more comparable blinkerings in each drawing. So these small, everyday threads found their way into the drawing, and I hoped for them to engage that paradox in which the world was serious and heavy, but the figure was sort of levitating in defiance of what was so worrisome. 

You didn’t have a background in drawing prior to this series. What has creating this series meant to you?

It’s true that I don’t have a background in drawing. No training. I’ve never taken an art class. For me, personally, the series has been a rewarding, unexpected digression, a chance to learn something new, and, above all, a heartfelt link to my son and daughter across the 500 miles between Blacksburg and Southeast Michigan. Sending the drawings every couple of days allowed us to check in in a way that exceeded what text messages can ordinarily do. 

Bend #26. A snow monkey bends to smell a plant rising from an icy well, onlooking koi, peculiar stem knotted, quiet and still in snowfall.
In “Bend #26,” a snow monkey bends to smell a plant rising from an icy well.

What advice would you offer someone who wants to explore a creative passion but feels self-doubt?

I don’t know that I have novel advice to give about creative passion and self-doubt. I suppose I would say, as much as possible, befriend that doubt. It’s part of you, and you are a wonder. You deserve to have the experience of creating something that may bring joy to others (or only yourself; that’s okay and important, too). Writing and illustration have much in common, in this sense.

I tend to believe the only sure way is just to sit down and do the work, to form a habit around routines, and then to trust that processes visited again and again will add up. It’s not exactly a lightning strike or eureka! approach to creative practice, and certainly there is a place for those kinds of magical breakthroughs. But breakthroughs are nourished by the plodding, steadfast Muse of practice and habit. 

Pace #11. A snail waffle-plated and subject to butter and maple syrup, smelling sweet drizzle, luxuriates in comforts indulgent for April's jokingly doubling as Waffil. Because of the intense administrative demands in the month, Waffil/April stands as an inside joke of sorts with a colleague-friend at another university who directs a large-scale first-year writing program, expressing the timeliness of comforting indulgences.
In “Pace #11,” Mueller said, “a snail waffle-plated and subject to butter and maple syrup, smelling sweet drizzle, luxuriates in comforts indulgent for April's jokingly doubling as Waffil.” Because of the intense administrative demands during the month, Mueller added, “Waffil/April stands as an inside joke with a colleague-friend at another university who directs a large-scale first-year writing program, expressing the timeliness of comforting indulgences.”

Mueller said he’s grateful to Art Program Director Robin Scully for inviting “Pandemic Bestiary” for display in the Perspective Flex Gallery. To learn more about Mueller’s series and the Perspective Gallery, visit the gallery at 225 Squires Student Center or the Perspective Gallery webpage.

Written by Andrew Adkins