Joseph Pope III was in New York City a few weeks back, slated to play two shows with his band, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. COVID-19 was already spreading through the city, and the band ended up canceling its second gig, not wanting to encourage people to come together.
“We felt like we were fleeing a war zone,” he says. “That was two weeks before things were hit hard there.”
Pope and his bandmates flew home to Denver early, and he immediately put himself in quarantine, along with his wife — cellist and singer-songwriter Julie Davis of Bluebook — and their son, June. Shortly after he arrived, his kids, both in Denver Public Schools, were sent home for an early spring break. His daughter, who was staying with her mother, self-isolated across town with two of her friends; his son went into full-throttle home-schooling mode. Pope hasn’t seen his daughter since he returned home.
“I’ve been taking social distancing pretty damned seriously for a while,” he says. He hopes the family has all been locked down long enough that they can catch up — at least in the back yard.
Realizing that he and his stay-at-home neighbors in the Baker neighborhood would be stuck with the same view day after day, and hoping to inspire them to continue observing social distancing best practices, Pope dug up some old supplies from his house-painting days, projected images on the side of a garage in the alley, and —armed with his father’s hunting knife, in case anyone jumped him — painted late into the night, after his family was in bed.
"It was cathartic," he says. "It was interesting to take a projector and a laptop into an alley at three in the morning, even though it was vacant and apocalyptic."
Over a couple of days, he created a mural of two images of Rosie the Riveter, separated by a six-foot curved diagram showing the projected difference between the spread of COVID-19 if people stay at home and if people go out, inspired by graphics in the Washington Post. The phrase “Can We Do It?” is above the diagram, and there is a huge “6’” written on one side of the garage.
The point: Can we stay six feet apart in order to curb the spread of the virus? Do we have the will to each do our part to take care of one another?
“It’s not to be pessimistic to say, 'Can we do it?' I should have said, 'Will we do it?,'” he explains. “Can we accept that we’re part of a collective? We’re part of a whole here. It’s not about America. It’s not about protecting Americans. This is about everybody.”
Pope, an expert musician, has never been a muralist, though he definitely has respect for those artists.
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“Going into this project, I was utterly an amateur at this,” he says. “Fortunately, I had some tools lying around from my past trade. I wanted to make something that was stark. I knew that I couldn’t pull off any major artistic feat.”
At one point, he saw that he needed a color he didn’t have. For a moment, he considered going to the hardware store, but “I realized that would be the antithesis of what we’re trying to do here,” he recalls.
The demand to stay home and self-quarantine has taught him to break old habits of consumption, to make do with what he has.
“We’re all in this mess together," he says. "I have to do what I can to be hopeful and optimistic and dig in to try to come up with some creative solutions, and just try to breathe and be present in this moment and be exactly where I am.“