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Art is therapy for Detroiter Frankie Piccirilli.

So when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's Stay Home order was issued in March, Piccirilli, a mom of two young daughters who has always loved to doodle on work meeting agendas but isn't a professional, naturally started drawing. She drew large pictures of animals on huge pieces of paper with oil pastels. Piccirilli, a fundraiser for Henry Ford Health System, posted her drawings on social media and even started taking requests.

Before she knew it, she had dozens of animals, including a brightly-colored snake, koala, deer and panda. She decided to frame each print and hang them on a retaining wall outside her home in Indian Village. The St. Paul Brick Wall Zoo -- also known as the Social Distance Zoo -- was born.

Opened two weeks ago, it's drawn neighbors and visitors from all over Metro Detroit. It was even featured on the Instagram account of actor John Krasinski's popular "Some Good News." Some of Piccirilli's work also won a national contest sponsored by a New York art gallery.

"I’m pretty humbled by the whole experience," said Piccirilli. "What it's done for my little corner is it’s given us something else to come to talk about." 

Piccirilli's Social Distance Zoo -- look for #socialdistancezoo on Instagram and TikTok -- is located at the corner of Iroquois and St. Paul Street in Indian Village. It features 24 animals all painted on large newsprint paper with oil pastels, displayed on a retaining wall along Piccirilli's backyard. Beautiful irises now in bloom along the wall make it even more colorful.

Every day, weather-dependent, Piccirilli tries to get the the paintings on hooks adhered to the wall by 10 a.m. and leaves them up until 9 p.m.

"People come by in their masks or they drive by and talk about their favorite animals," she said.

And during such a tumultuous time, it shows the power of art to boost your emotional state, says Piccirilli.

"This project has been my prayer," she said in an Instagram post. "It’s been a gift of peace and escape and creativity and positivity. It’s opened my mind and heart to a talent I long forgotten."

Nicole Lake of Harrison Township and her husband, 15-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter drove from Harrison Township to visit the Social Distance Zoo in mid-May. It was their first time in the car together as a family since the quarantine started.

"My whole family thought it was really cool," said Lake, whose daughter dances with Piccirilli's daughter, Penelope. "To see how much work went into each animal was really cool to see in person. It was a great way to see art and zoo animals during all this craziness."

Piccirilli never set out to create a zoo art exhibit. 

She said she always used to doodle on meeting agendas at work but art took on new meaning when the pandemic hit. It was an outlet during so much stress, and a distraction. Her daughter, Giselle, 3, started asking about what would happen if she got COVID-19 and "what happens when you die."

"Our household desperately needed a shift. I wanted to do something to bring positivity back to the community, especially for children," said Piccirilli. 

So she started drawing animals with oil pastels, using photos as her guide. Sometimes her daughters, Penelope and Giselle, would help paint backgrounds. And she started taking requests.

"In the beginning, there were a few posts on Facebook and Instagram. People didn’t know I could draw. And my reaction was 'I didn’t know either!'" said Piccirilli with a laugh.

On a recent weekday, three people walked about the zoo in a matter of minutes, including a toddler who pointed out his favorite, the pandas. A man on a bike called out to Piccirilli, asking her if she puts it up every day.

"As long as the weather is good," she called out.

So what's next after the Social Distance Zoo (it's unclear when the actual zoo, the Detroit Zoo, will reopen? Piccirilli is already started to work on her next art exhibit: an aquarium. And where will it go? On the same wall where her zoo stood.

"There will definitely be a mermaid in it," she said. "I've gotten a lot of requests for a mermaid."

Social Distance Zoo

  • on St. Paul Street between Iroquois and Burns
  • weather-dependent
  • search social media with #socialdistancezoo.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

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