By David Winkler

COVID-19 has challenged us all to make changes both large and small to our normal routines. At the outset of the shutdown, we were overwhelmed by the scope of the unknown. But what took us away from the normal operation of our daily lives also provided us the opportunity to explore new ideas and practices that we would otherwise never try.

During the first two weeks of the shutdown—before the schools had finalized their plan—I was trying to find interesting subjects to explore with my kids as their newly appointed “teacher.” My disorganized nature suddenly turned into a maniacal search every night for homeschooling “best practices” with internet search topics on history, science and math. Most of my frustrated efforts pushed me deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, and I sent sincere apologies across the ages to all the teachers I had known growing up.

One of my few successful searches led me to an article on the history of fireworks. I then connected the topic to the artworks of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang ( and his Netflix documentary called Sky Ladder. Cai (pronounced “sigh”) is an international art superstar best known for his firework events as well as making paintings by exploding colored gunpowder on canvas. It is an amazing process to behold.

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, a Netflix documentary.

The next day I told the kids we were going to watch a movie during school and they were all in. We read through the obligatory page of history I had printed up and set into our documentary, popcorn and all.

The kids loved it. We were so amazed how the artist painted with these explosive forces and that he used colored smoke and lights for his daytime firework events. They are elegant, powerful works beautifully timed to be moved slowly by the wind in preparation for the next display.

Once the video was done, we were out on the patio making abstract firework drawings with wood ash, charcoal, paint sticks and chalk inspired by what we had seen. This activity was perhaps overly adventurous on such a cold and windy March afternoon but our energies were high and the whole affair was promptly followed by a bracing cup of hot chocolate.

My kids’ expressive firework drawings.

In normal times I would have sat and enjoyed that documentary with my wife, as she loosely tolerates all of my art obsessions, and I probably would never have thought to show it to the kids—or have them make their own firework drawings—without the pandemic forcing us to alter our routines.

The drawing I made that day left an impression on me but I wasn’t sure why. It was just supposed to be a lesson staged to be fun and informative for the kids, nothing more. Nevertheless, the drawing lived in my studio over the next few months and I would catch a glimpse of it now and again. Each time I looked at the work I found familiar gestures that resonated with me from what started as a throw-away activity done with materials I would normally not use.

My firework drawing from March 2020.

Quietly, patiently the drawing had something to tell me and it would wait for me to listen. Five months after our impromptu school day exercise, I was looking over several old drawings and saw the piece again. Suddenly I understood what the artwork wanted me to know. The drawing reminded me to loosen up, to have more fun, to stop trying to make “Art” and let the decades of work and study filter through the beauty I see each day. It reminded me that sometimes it’s alright to not know what lies ahead or what the final outcome is going to be. There must always be room for the unknown.

David Winkler is a landscape painter in Melrose who is always on the lookout to find inspired places that exist in conflict and beauty. He has been a stained-glass craftsman, the Art Director for a Boston Art Gallery, and has been extremely fortunate to teach several classes at FYACS. His artwork can be seen on his website at and on Instagram at

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