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How one artist’s viral virtual art class is helping kids around the world

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Individual ingenuity has become a hallmark of the pandemic, with artists producing an array of creative in person and virtual innovations.

Special correspondent Cat Wise has the story of how one San Francisco artist stepped in to help out during the early days and soon found a new calling.

It is part of our art and culture series, Canvas.

Cat Wise: On a recent morning, San Francisco illustrator and graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton put the finishing touches on a drawing. She's illustrated, edited and authored 10 books, including three bestsellers.

MacNaughton has traveled widely, drawing things she sees and people she meets, from boot makers, to hospice patients, security guards, and literary icons, like Joan Didion and Susan Sontag.

In 2019, she spent a week documenting the military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for The New York Times.

Wendy MacNaughton, DrawTogether: I taught myself to draw super fast, without looking down very much.

Cat Wise: MacNaughton demonstrated those skills while sketching our cameraman, Devin Pinckard.

Wendy MacNaughton: To me, drawing is never about making a good drawing. It's about the process of looking at the world and people in it and connecting with it.

That's what I see.

Devin Pinckard, Cameraman: I like it.

Cat Wise: When the pandemic hit, MacNaughton, who has a master's degree in social work, knew those connections would be harder to make. She and her wife, Caroline Paul, an author, wanted to find some way to help.

Wendy MacNaughton: We were talking to my mom and my dad. And my mom suggested, why don't you teach drawing to kids?

Cat Wise: She took her mom's advice and, on Monday, March 16, 2020 she went live on Instagram.

Wendy MacNaughton: Hello. Hello. Welcome to drawing class.

I'd never done Instagram Live before.

Wow. So glad everybody could come.

Caroline picked up the phone and she pointed it at me, and we taught the kids how to draw a dog.

Cat Wise: Were you expecting a few kids to join?

Wendy MacNaughton: We will maybe get 100 people. And we had over 12,000 on the first day. It was...

Cat Wise: On that first day?

Wendy MacNaughton: Yes. It was overwhelming.

That is so cool.

And it was awesome.

Cat Wise: MacNaughton and Paul ended up doing 72 live Instagrams over the following months. She says viewership was highest during the first few weeks, with tens of thousands logging on from all over.

Wendy MacNaughton: Veracruz, Mexico; Saskatoon, Canada.

I think we counted over 70 countries or something like that, like, truly international. And all of the kids would take pictures of themselves holding up their art at the end.

So, this incredible community of kids formed, and they all got to see each other and got to feel connected.

Hello.

Cat Wise: MacNaughton's joyful, unpolished videos, which she called DrawTogether, combined art instruction with dancing and social-emotional support.

Wendy MacNaughton: Does that feel peaceful?

Art assistant Caroline.

Cat Wise: Paul stayed behind the camera, but still had a presence.

Wendy MacNaughton: She is extra shy.

Cat Wise: And their dog Suso made frequent appearances.

Wendy MacNaughton: Art, but drawing in particular helps us with our fine motor skills. It helps us with, like, decision-making and stuff like that. It helps us academically, for sure.

But then there's this socioemotional stuff underneath. So, that is recognizing our own emotions and identifying them. It's learning to be curious about other people and connect with them, right, celebrate differences.

Cat Wise: Early last year, after receiving positive feedback from parents and kids, MacNaughton and Paul built a studio in a local theater. MacNaughton funded the project using personal savings and an advance payment from a newsletter service called Substack.

Wendy MacNaughton: You know what it's time for? Oh, yes, it's time to draw.

Cat Wise: There, they recorded 12 episodes and made them available for free on Substack and YouTube. With Suso looking on, MacNaughton gave me a tour.

Wendy MacNaughton: Everything in the DrawTogether studio is made by hand. Everything's made of cardboard or papier-mache.

All of the books, these are just pieces of wood. This is called "Leaves of Yass" (ph). It's a classic.

(LAUGHTER)

Wendy MacNaughton: This here is our magic portal. Take it away.

Woman: Hi, Wendy. How are you?

Wendy MacNaughton: We visit all different types of people, so the kids really see themselves reflected in the show.

Cat Wise: Paul says there have been a lot of lessons learned along the way.

Caroline Paul, Author: Just push my hand away if I'm too close. And action.

One of the things someone said is, if you're going to be shooting art, you should have a static camera over. And we thought that would, oh, that would be so great.

And then, when we had the opportunity for it, it didn't look good.

Wendy MacNaughton: Come on over here. Let's draw.

Caroline Paul: Basically, When Wendy talks, she's talking to a kid on other side of the camera. I mean, it happens to be me too, but it's also a kid.

And a kid is going to peer. A kid is going to be looking around. So the camera represents every kid.

Cat Wise: Going forward, MacNaughton hopes to find new ways to produce and distribute DrawTogether shows.

And she's also expanding her mission, promoting robust arts education in schools around the country. With a grant from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey's #StartSmall philanthropic fund, she and a team recently launched a pilot project called DrawTogether Classrooms.

Wendy MacNaughton: We heard from teachers that they had been using DrawTogether in their classrooms.

So we said, wow, this would be really useful for classrooms that might not have funding for art in their programs or might not have really kind of fun, smoothly integrated socioemotional learning opportunities.

Cat Wise: The project provides resources and curriculum developed with the help of education experts to 100 mostly high-need schools and community programs.

Anna Sopko, Teacher: This is an actual book that WendyMac made.

Cat Wise: One of the educators taking advantage of the program is Anna Sopko. She teaches first grade at Cesar Chavez Elementary in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood.

Anna Sopko: At our school, we have 30 minutes a week with an outside specialist for eight weeks out of the year, which is pretty minimal.

Wendy MacNaughton: If we can't draw, you know what that means. Let's dance.

Cat Wise: She says she's seen an impact since her students began watching DrawTogether.

Anna Sopko: They really connect with her. At the beginning of the year, a lot of the kids wanted everything to turn out perfectly. And over time, I have seen them become more and more willing to say, that's OK, I messed up, or to offer each other advice.

Like, we all draw differently. You can always turn the page over and start again. I think, the more we can keep that dialogue going, I think that's really going to improve their confidence, not just as artists, but as people in the world.

Cat Wise: As they finished their drawings on a recent afternoon, a surprise guest popped in.

Wendy MacNaughton: Hello.

Cat Wise: It was the first time MacNaughton was able to connect in person with a group of young fans.

Wendy MacNaughton: One, two, three, let's do a show. Oh. Look at all those beautiful butterflies.

Cat Wise: MacNaughton recently raised new funds, mostly from small donations, to provide art supplies to several thousand students. And she hopes to expand the DrawTogether Classrooms project to 10,000 schools by 2023.

(LAUGHTER)

Cat Wise: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in San Francisco.

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