Mask Crusader

Shinebolt illustrator Jessica Esch

Jessica Esch likes to get to the point. “Life’s short,” she laughs. “Use hearts.” That’s what she did in the early days of the pandemic with her first COVID-19 illustration: “I love you. Stay home.”

Jessica shared the illustration with her friends and family on social media, and they shared it with their friends . . . who shared it with their friends. More than 50 illustrations and 1,800 free downloads later, she keeps distilling hard messages in simplistically charming ways. “These illustrations are little conversations that might be uncomfortable to have—like asking people to wear a mask before they come into your business—but the illustrations can say it for you,” Jessica says.

Studying journalism at the University of Maine and earning a master’s degree in mass communications and public relations from the University of Denver, Jessica learned to refine a message to its essence. Over her 16-year career with United Way of Greater Portland, she also employed visual storytelling, often incorporating her own illustrations. “I look at public policy and social issues as communications challenges,” she says, “and ask how I can get you to pay attention to something that is so unsexy.”

Jessica had always described herself as “a writer who draws.” But, at 48, she flipped that script. In February 2019, she formed a partnership with Angela Smith, who had been representing internationally known writer and illustrator Brian Andreas. “I had believed in Jess’s work for a long time and was in a position to help get It out into the world,” Angela said.

They named their company Shinebolt, out of an aspiration to “make a brighter world by bringing people together, stories to life, and art and ideas to market.” As they got the business going, it was bringing art to market that initially filled their days.

“We had been going all out for three months to be ready for New England Made, a gift show where we could reach thousands of buyers,” Jessica says. Then, COVID-19 hit, and the show was canceled.

“I had been so focused on New England Made that the virus was just in my periphery,” Jessica says. “Then I lost the distraction of the show, and the virus was scary. I just wanted my friends and family to stay home and be safe. The illustrations were my response.”

Jessica drew a simple figure with a mask and a whole lot of love. Then, day after day, she kept illustrating messages that convey new norms of showing community, respect, and kindness—wearing a mask for the safety of others, keeping 10 feet apart if you meet, touching only products you plan to buy.

Thanks to a new Shinebolt website completed for the show that didn’t happen, the company had a way to offer the illustrations as free downloads. That was just the beginning. The Portland Press Herald began running the illustrations, sometimes even a full page.

When John Fay, owner of Atlantic Sportswear, saw the “Sloth the Spread” illustration in the paper, he recognized T-shirt potential and a chance to do something good for the community. Jessica, despite some skepticism that people would want a pandemic T-shirt, donated use of the illustration to raise money for Cooking for Community. Shirt sales enabled the nonprofit to produce and deliver 330 meals to people who are homeless, disabled, or isolated.

“Beyond that, Cooking for Community helped to sustain restaurants and their employees, as well as local food producers,” says organizer Ellie Linen Low. “Ironically, a ‘Sloth the Spread’ illustration reminding us to stay apart brought people together.”

Meanwhile, despite saying she doesn’t describe herself as a designer, Jessica’s COVID-19 illustrations made the Top 10 in the International Design Awards. “Sometimes you get going so fast on that wheel of what you think you’re supposed to be doing,” Jessica says, reflecting on those months of preparing for the gift show. “Then, in the blink of an eye, we were in a touchless, socially distanced world. When we had to stay home for an extended period, we had a chance to think about what we really want. Now Shinebolt is evolving into exactly what I’d have wanted it to be but never thought possible.”

One of those things she could barely dream of, Jessica says, is collaborating with Scott Nash and Nancy Gibson-Nash, co-founders of Illustration Institute, a Peaks Island-based nonprofit that raises awareness of and appreciation for illustration. A regular at Illustration Institute lectures, Jessica uses a method of visual notetaking that distills big ideas and captures quotes as “sketchnotes.” In fact, her work is among the samples in The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde.

“Jess takes something that a lot of us do to understand the world—notetaking—and turns it into an art form,” says Scott. “I’m interested in the humble ways in which we use drawing, and Jess’s work is very egalitarian. And, of course, for the past six months, she has been giving her work away.”

Nancy adds, “She’s using her talents for a positive force. Though it seems so simple, it can take a lifetime to learn to draw like that. It takes an insightful person, a critical thinker. And she’s been so generous.”

As Jessica sees it, letting the COVID-19 illustrations go viral via free downloads is only common sense. “We’re in this together, whether people want to believe it or not,” she says. “This pandemic ends when we end it, and to do that we have to do some basic things like wearing masks.”

For COVID-19 illustrations and other works by Jessica Esch: www.shinebolt.com.

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