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Artist created COVID bubble for triplets

Karen Mobley stands by the mural the children painted.

By Marijke Fakasiieiki

Local artist Karen Mobley wove stories from COVID isolation when she created a daily space of awe and sacred community with eight-year-old neighbor triplets, Kelsey, Madelyn, and Tyler.

Rarely going anywhere without writing down her thoughts, anecdotes and poetic pieces, she compiled a book from notes on their daily experiences, encounters with her cats and creative arts in her home.

Karen's three cats—Betye Saar, Andrew Chonk E. Nugget Wyeth, and Madame Marie Mouse Curie—were regular participants in play dates.

Over a year of confinement, they baked, made art, told stories, did a fashion show and painted a mural on Karen's garage.

"Their humor and goodwill were the highlight of my year. I wrote down some of what they said so I could keep laughing and share their fun with their parents and my friends on Facebook," Karen said.

Living in the limited time and space of their COVID "bubble," they created a space of warmth, laughter and reflection, she said.

Last November, Karen published Catatopia: A Year in Confinement: Little Kids, Art and Writing from the COVID-19 Cloister.

"During COVID when schools closed to in-person learning and children were homeschooling online, my neighbors' children were restless. They came over every day to play with my kittens," said Karen.

"If not for COVID, my neighbors' children would have done other activities, but coming to my home gave them a chance to leave their house to do different things. It was also a good time for me, because I live alone," she said.

She began posting vignettes on her Facebook page where friends commented on them.

"Kids can be creative. Our "Catatopia" and art adventures included making things with Amazon boxes, tape and a linoleum knife," said Karen.

One day, one of the triplets asked if there were any opera singers called Marie, announcing that her cat, "Marie wants to be an opera singer."

Karen looked up a 1957 YouTube video with Maria Callas singing.

"Wow, that's old!" the child exclaimed. "Karen, do you have anything in your house that is antique or at least 30 years old?"

When Karen said most things in her house were over 30 years old, the child responded, "Wow! You must be rich."

Another time one child asked "Where have you been? I've been worried about you." Karen said she went to the hardware store to buy tape. Seeing an option for creativity, the child asked, "Tape?"

When one commented: "Marie, the cat, you are outstanding. You are the best purr-er and the most helpful cat. I LUVVV you. Can I kiss your feet?" Karen said, "Ugh! No!"

The child continued, "Who purrs the most? I know. Marie purrs a billion times a day. Andrew five times and Betye twice a day. We've never heard you [Karen] purr, but I bet you do."

Karen replied, "Purr?"

The child said, "You're a cat and you are in charge of Catatopia. I had a dream about a cat that let us paint on the walls. She was you."

"After I started saving stories, I realized I had 80 scrapbook pages of anecdotes. In talking with friends, I realized that other people could enjoy the material," said Karen.

"I didn't realize how encouraging it was for people to read the silly little quips. We also covered some hard stuff through humor. I wouldn't have been able to do this without their intelligence and wit," said Karen. "Even though COVID has been a sad, problematic time, we had fun."

Slowly, Karen turned the experience into a book, arranging chapters for names of animals, places and things they did from vignettes, short stories and dialogue.

She sent it to publishers last fall, seeing Christmas as an opportunity to sell the book. With publication before Thanksgiving, she thought things would open up again and its relevance would decrease. Since Omicron, fewer people were staying home, but social interactions still had not opened up.

Karen, a member of Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, said her faith weaves throughout her life, art, mentoring, community involvements and caring for these children.

"God calls us to serve others and to be concerned for their well-being—whether it's working with Spokane Rotary on refugees, water and other issues, or at Westminster serving neighbors or reaching out to lonely neighbor children," she said.

"Being called to serve others is an important part of what I do. I can't speak for God, but the expectation that we are going to use the gifts we are given to be of value to others is important in my faith," she said.

Karen, a freelance visual artist who consults for Spokane Arts and ArtsWA, exhibits her work locally. She also does creative writing, oil painting, multimedia and drawing for commissioned pieces.

More than 20 years ago, Karen came to work as arts director at the City of Spokane Arts Department. She was there from 1997 to 2012.

She grew up on the Wyoming Fish and Game Sunlight Basin Elk Refuge, where her father worked. Her mother was a writer.

Before coming to Spokane, Karen was a museum director in Casper, Wyo., and Las Cruces, N.M., from 1987 to 1997. She earned a bachelor's degree in 1983 in visual arts at University of Wyoming in Laramie and completed a master's in fine arts in 1987 at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Not knowing what to do—be a teacher or a lawyer—she returned to the creative sector with studies at the University of Wyoming. She worked at a frame store and other jobs before doing arts administration.

Karen is a public art contractor with Spokane Arts, a nonprofit that builds and supports arts and culture in Spokane.

With ArtsWA and the Spokane Public Facilities District, she does project management for outdoor sculptures and murals. Recent projects include project management for the Podium, Spokane Public Library and Virginia Grainger Elementary in Okanogan.

Karen thought COVID would slow things down, but she continued her freelance work.

Her recent cancer diagnosis and treatment, however, led her to take some time off. She has also documented her journey with cancer treatments, offering reflection many in the community have appreciated.

Karen said Catatopia: A Year in Confinement— which is available at Auntie's Bookstore, the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, From Here in River Park Square and Wishing Tree Books—has opened her to new friends and connections.

For information, visit her website

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, September 2022