Artist Joanne Leonard on Coronavirus Curves and the Art of Everyday Life

Internationally-renowned photographer and collage artist, Joanne Leonard, has captured the magic and intimacy of the domestic sphere in her work for decades. Her early photographs depict everyday moments in ways that shed light on the connections between the personal and the political and provide a glimpse into her inner world.

Since 2005, she has created an ongoing collage series titled, “Newspaper Diary,” that pairs newspaper clippings with art historical images in ways that juxtapose the past with the present and the particular with the universal. Leonard says that her practice of connecting images from the news with paintings and pictures from history enables her to “register the day’s passing” while “responding to things in the world” as an artist. 

In this installment of Medicine @ the Museum, we talk with Leonard about her recent work, Little Prince and Covid Curves (above), joined by Dave Choberka, UMMA Curator of University Learning and Programs. Leonard is a retired Distinguished University Professor from the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan and UMMA is home to fifty of her works. Her Newspaper Diary series is a favorite for students who visit the museum’s study rooms for personalized classes tailored for their group’s learning goals. 

Leonard’s recent piece, Little Prince and Covid Curves, juxtaposes a page from the children’s book, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, with a clipping from The New York Times from April 7, 2020. The Little Prince page contains two illustrations, “Drawing #1,” and “Drawing #2,” sketches undertaken in the story by the book’s narrator as a litmus test of the discernment of those he meets.  Both sketches represent an elephant that has been swallowed by a boa constrictor, but the top image is confused for a hat by those who cannot imagine what might be inside.

The New York Times image in the latest addition to Newspaper Diary contains two curves showing the changing number of coronavirus cases in China. The shape of the now-iconic COVID curve mirrors the sketches of an elephant swallowed by a boa constrictor from The Little Prince. 

This symmetry is an opportunity for discernment and invites comparisons between the two contexts. What would the narrator of The Little Prince think of our responses to the COVID curve, and what universal themes are we living through in this moment of pandemic? How are children and their parents coping with the pandemic in their everyday routines?

In this Medicine @ the Museum interview (video embedded below) with Joanne Leonard and Dave Choberka, we discuss our experiences with coronavirus and how art helps us process the tragedies and trauma of death. Leonard tells us about her process of making the Newspaper Diary series, and Choberka shares how students have responded to her work in the classroom.

In an unprecedented era when marking time has become surreal as the weeks of social distancing float past, the Newspaper Diary and its juxtaposition of tragedy with art is more relevant than ever.    

In addition to her many works at UMMA, Joanne Leonard’s art is in the collections of the Detroit Institute of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, and other venues.  She has exhibited her photography and collages at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the De Young Museum, the Oakland Museum, the Norton Simon Museum (formerly the Pasadena Museum), the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, the Whitney Downtown-Manhattan, and others. 

Image: Joanne Leonard, Little Prince and Covid Curves, from the Newspaper Diary Series, April 7, 2020, inkjet print on paper, image courtesy of the artist

Medicine @ The Museum

Explore COVID-19 and our global pandemic through the lens of UMMA’s Collections

About the Author

Amanda Respess is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan, where she is also completing a Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies. Her dissertation uses shipwreck artifacts from the premodern Maritime Silk Road to explore the global history of medicine. Amanda was a Rackham Public Engagement Fellow at UMMA and is currently a Curatorial Research Center Assistant and Art Handler.

Author Image: Vinod Menon

View more from Joanne Leonard in the UMMA Collection

Joanne Leonard, Ebola and Christ, Joanne Leonard, 2014, inkjet print on paper, Gift of the artist, 2016/2.163