Diamond Princess Franklin and her mother, JoAnn Robinson, don’t know the boy whose vivid rendering of a rainbow has brought them so much joy — as well as, they believe, a message from heaven.
Still mourning the COVID-19 death of Robinson’s mother and Franklin’s grandmother, Ida Rebecca Robinson, on April 24, 2020, the family was thrilled last week to receive the boy’s artwork through the Double Rainbows project. The Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia Contemporary, and Temple Contemporary are collaborating to distribute rainbows drawn by Philadelphia kids during the pandemic’s anxious early weeks to families who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus.
Displayed in the windows of Philly rowhouses and in homes around the globe, the colorful, fanciful, and sometimes three-dimensional creations were, and are, handmade expressions of resilience and hope by ordinary families struggling amid extraordinary circumstances.
“We know this rainbow was done by a 4-year-old boy named Malachi,” said Franklin, sitting with her mother on the patio of their East Mount Airy home.
“There’s a Book of Malachi in the Old Testament, and the name Malachi is from a Hebrew word that means messenger,” she said. “My mother and I are believers, and we believe this rainbow is a message from my grandmother that all will be well, and that she is safe with the Lord.”
Double Rainbows is the brainchild of Robert Blackson, curator of citywide initiatives at Philadelphia Contemporary. “I have two small children and we were making rainbows and walking around spotting them in Pennsport, our neighborhood,” he said.
“People were finding a way to connect with their kids and share a love of art. Despite all the isolation and sadness, parents were encouraging kids to draw something beautiful.”
Brad Lindell, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, was among the parents who helped make looking for rainbows a family event amid the lockdowns and quarantines of the early pandemic. Then living in Queen Village, he created a Google form that evolved into Philadelphia’s Rainbow Connection; other neighborhoods, such as Fishtown, also posted online maps or tools for local rainbow-finding.
“The kids were all isolated in their homes, not getting to see their friends, and a lot of families were going out for walks,” Lindell said. “My daughters had drawn a rainbow, we put it up in the window, and we thought it would be fun to coordinate a kid-focused art experience” through what became the online rainbow connection.
Grassroots rainbow-making and viewing were enabled by social media and attracted conventional news coverage. But what became a grassroots movement was propelled by children, as well as adults, who found themselves isolated from friends and neighbors and found a way to make a statement by drawing and displaying an uplifting symbol.
“I like the fact that [Double Rainbows] is focusing on individual choices people made to try to make other people happy,” said Emily Boda, an engineer who lives in South Philadelphia and donated her faded, but intact, rainbow.
“And I really like how the [project] preserves something that individuals did during the pandemic,” she said, adding that many histories of the pandemic likely will focus elsewhere.
“People were walking around the neighborhood looking for rainbows. It was like a scavenger hunt,” said Laura Valdmanis, a teacher who with her two children painted a three-foot rainbow, accented with cotton-ball clouds, that filled the front window of their Fishtown home.
Along the surrounding streets, “there were yarn rainbows, all kinds of rainbows, and they were such a wonderful way to bring joy to the neighborhood,” she said.
Late last summer, Blackson noticed that many of the rainbows in Pennsport and other neighborhoods were slowly disappearing.
What he calls his “curatorial sensibility” kicked in.
Spontaneous artistic expressions by ordinary people “don’t always have a second life,” he said. “I realized that something could be done with the rainbows once they came down from the windows. They could be gifted to families who had lost loved ones to COVID-19.”
Blackson solicited donations of rainbows, primarily through social media, and has picked up some of the artwork from the donors himself. The individual pieces typically are identified only with the child artist’s first name and age, he said. People who would like to receive a rainbow can email him at email@example.com.
Fifty donated rainbows have been provided to health-care institutions, and the Double Rainbows Pop-Up Exhibit at Please Touch has 78 of them on display through June 27.
Museum officials said visitors are being encouraged to create their own rainbows in the Creative Arts Studio at Please Touch. Children are invited to hang these new creations in the studio for inclusion in the exhibit.
Jessi Kavanagh, an architect and mother of two who lives in Fairmount, said her daughters were eager to share their five-foot-long rainbow (which includes a single cloud) with the Double Rainbows project.
“It gives you a connection with somebody you probably will never meet,” Kavanagh said. “Something we made can help somebody else get through a tough time.”
Ida Robinson’s family members said coming to terms with the loss of their beloved matriarch has been a struggle. A retired Philadelphia Museum of Art security guard, expert Southern-style cook and baker (hummingbird cakes were a specialty), and dedicated member of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, Ida Robinson left her children and grandchildren an abundance of fond memories.
“We always visited her at the nursing home on Saturday to lay out her clothes and her jewelry for Sunday, when she would go to church,” said her daughter, 63. “She loved to go out to dinner, but her favorite meal was for me to make her something, like my pinto beans with cornbread, and bring it to her.”
Despite having been paralyzed by a stroke years before, her mother remained an active and vital presence in the lives of family and friends, said her granddaughter, 23, a trained singer.
Handsomely framed, the rainbow now occupies a prominent spot on the wall of their home.
“It soothes us,” Robinson said. “It gives us another memory to cherish. Even though she’s not here with us, we can feel the love.”
Said Franklin: “I think Grandmom would be very touched that a little boy named Malachi, which means messenger, made this rainbow.
“I think that’s why she sent it to us.”