Doors and murals: In Berkeley, creative expression helps process the pandemic

These Berkeleyans are crafting beautiful messages outside their homes — sharing information and offering hope.

Every day since March 17 when the shelter in place orders were instituted, Dibsy Machta has decorated her front door at 808 Shattuck Ave. with colorful construction paper cut-outs. The messages urge her Berkeley neighbors to stay safe. They also tally up the grim numbers of COVID-19 deaths both in the US and worldwide. To mark the number of days we have been in lockdown, Matcha has incorporated Roman numerals, scientific numbers and prime numbers. She’s used playing cards, dice and egg cartons.

One might assume Machta is a furloughed math teacher with a huge supply of materials leftover from classroom bulletin boards. But  actually she is a retired medical office manager who now sees how her hoarding tendencies have come in handy.

Machta comes from a mathematically accomplished family (her father and brother both had Ph.ds from MIT), but she claims modestly that she is only “arithmetically gifted.”  Her late husband worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and she realized early on that the pandemic would spread exponentially. As she is in her 60s, Machta has been largely staying home.

“I don’t go anywhere,” she said. “I don’t want to burden the health care system.”


The goals of her door, which has developed something of its own personality, are to honor the dead and stop the spread. The messages often include advice, such as, “Be Kind. Be Patient” or “Wear Two Masks.”

Machta keeps up with the daily news and, every night between 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., puts up a new door, marking “another day gone.” Doing so has helped her observe her own altered relationship to the passage of time.

“When I started this, I wondered if we would even get to Day 100. Now I wonder, when I can stop?” — Dibsy Machta

“When I started this, I wondered if we would even get to Day 100. Now I wonder when I can stop?” she said.

Machta memorializes every 10,000 deaths, a milestone that is now coming faster given the exponential morbidity of the pandemic and often adds little signs to humanize the loss, such as: mothers, fathers, sons, scientists, librarians, inmates, nurses.

“There is so much grief and pain, it’s unfathomable. Where is the outrage?” she asked.

Along with marking the death toll, other subjects have called to Matcha too: fires, voting, the countdown to the election, anniversary dates and holidays. Her latest theme is mutant viruses. Day 327, for example, showed a screaming Munch-face with giant spiky letters spelling out: “The Mutants are Coming.”

“This project is invigorating, said Machta, “because I have to be creative every day. During Hanukkah, for example, instead of putting candles to mark the eight days, I used hypodermic needles, because I saw the coming of the vaccine as the modern equivalent of the coming of the light.”

Her neighbors come by daily to check out her work and she also posts photos of her doors on Instagram.

These Westbrae murals are a family affair

While Machta’s doors are solitary acts of daily creation, the murals on the 29-foot-long retaining wall that fronts Laurel Carter DeVine’s house at 1640 Belvedere Ave. are family projects.

When shelter in place began, Laurel Carter DeVine took a break from her work as a medical billing consultant to help her 7- and 14-year-old granddaughters with their online schooling during distance learning. They now live with her during the week, while their mother works from home.

“It was difficult trying to find different activities for them since their schools had no enrichment classes back in the first few months,” said Carter DeVine.

Back in April last year, Carter DeVine found a quote she liked, “April Distance Brings May Existence,” and she encouraged her granddaughters to use colored chalk and write it on the wall, and to embellish it with flowers and leaves. Other family members got involved, including Carter DeVine’s daughter, brother, sister-in-law and niece.

For June, the family made a Pride wall, illuminating Love is Love and Black Lives Matter.

When they decided on their third project, the stores had all run out of chalk, so they switched to washable paint. They heard that the Oakland Zoo was in trouble and painted “Save the Oakland Zoo,” adding the zoo’s website so that people could make donations. This wall featured a host of animals, including a monkey, owl and alligator. Carter DeVine’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Larricq, informed her that she was very good at drawing turtles, so the turtle was featured and even got a pair of googly eyes.

A recent mural illustrates “Change is Here” with fall turning into winter plus Biden and Harris, the new occupants of the White House.

“It takes 3-4 days to finish a painting and by the fourth day, the kids have moved on, so the rest of us do it with music, “ said Carter DeVine. “It’s relaxing, we get a feeling of accomplishment and I love it when the neighbors come and take photos.”

She said that as soon as the rains are over, they will work on the next one. She is still thinking about the subject. It will probably include spring and something about the vaccines.