Local artist Nara Lee captures slices of pandemic life in tiny drawings

This drawing, titled Baby with Face Shield, was among Nara Lee's 100 pieces of tiny artwork.
(Nara Lee)

Nara Lee had originally planned to spend 100 days drawing dogs.

In April, after just the first few weeks of COVID-19 lockdown, the downtown San Diego-based graphic designer was preparing for the Instagram 100 Day Project — a social media art project intended to motivate artists to be creative every day for 100 days.

Lee participated in the project twice before, but never made it the full 100 days. This year, with fewer distractions, she set out to try again with the goal of drawing by hand — specifically, drawing a dog every day.

Once Lee began to see just how intensely the pandemic was starting to affect everyone, however, that all changed.

“I wanted to just draw to get my creative juices flowing,” she said. “I was reading the news that morning, and that was when the Wisconsin primary was happening, and California was having shelter-in-place, and everything was getting serious. And it was ridiculous to me that during this moment people were being asked to risk their lives. I was upset about it, and I saw this photo on Twitter of a woman standing in line to vote, with all these people wearing masks, and it just really resonated with me.”

So instead of dogs, Lee decided to capture images from the pandemic in the U.S. with ink drawings on two-by-two inch squares of paper, calling the project #100daysoftinyslicesoflife.

A drawing of Black Lives Matter protests in South Korea by Nara Lee.
(Nara Lee)

Her first image was inspired by a photo taken by Patricia McKnight of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The picture shows a woman in a mask standing in line at the Wisconsin Primary holding a sign that reads, “This is ridiculous.” (Lee’s photo of the drawing also includes a quarter placed next to it to show scale.)

In the days that followed, Lee’s drawings included a woman shopping at a grocery store with empty shelves, a transit worker disinfecting subway car railings, a socially distant Easter Bunny and later on, images from the Black Lives Matter protests that took place following the death of George Floyd. Some images were drawn from photos that Lee took herself — like one taken at Little Italy Mercato — but most of the inspiration came from news and magazine photos, including from the San Diego Union-Tribune, all of which are credited in her posts.

Lee said that’s the irony of drawing from life during a time of social distancing.

“The funny thing is, I want to draw more from life, but unfortunately because we’re supposed to be staying home, I couldn’t draw from life,” she explained. “So the majority are from news articles and media, but I also see things on people’s Instagram accounts. I took one or two myself from being at Trader Joe’s, like an employee disinfecting shopping carts.

“I like those tiny slices of life, like some kid bored behind the window and staring outside,” she continued. “And that’s just as important as the big headline-making images. There’s also just pictures of people eating at restaurants with masks on, and things that started becoming the norm. Essential workers and how they’re at risk.”

Lee had only planned to do the tiny drawings for herself, but midway through the project she ended up submitting a grid of 49 of them to a contest held by philanthropic organization Mozaik that works toward social and environmental justice.

Tiny news photo drawings by Nara Lee.
(Nara Lee)

She earned a Special Mention and a $1,000 honorarium, which was an unexpected bonus. And after completing the project on July 15, she’s entertaining the idea of showing the series somewhere, should the opportunity to do so come up (and safely at that).

“I might like to show them,” she said. “I never had any other plans. I didn’t think it was a cohesive project. They were all slices of life, but they’re all so different. All of these images aren’t really mine, since they’re based on other people’s photos. But I’d like to show it somewhere if I can. I’m scanning them just to have them for myself.”

Whether or not Lee’s drawings end up in a gallery — virtual or brick-and-mortar — the process of creating her COVID-19 series worked as it was originally intended. The challenge may have wrapped up, but she’s not done drawing.

“I don’t plan to do it daily,” she said. “But I definitely want to continue drawing.”

See Lee’s drawings on her Instagram, @naraleestudio.