On the morning of Nov. 4, Elise Engler woke up early on her couch after falling asleep while watching the presidential election results play out on a computer screen. She’d reminded herself that the results might not be immediately known, that the long election season might carry on for an undetermined number of additional days.
She felt bowled over with uncertainty and a visceral fogginess. She then sat down and drew the story that spoke to her from the morning’s headlines, as she had done on each of the previous 1,836 days. Engler’s “Diary of a Radio Junkie” project, where she draws the day’s current events, had begun on Nov. 22, 2015, as an experimental “year of watching the news.” The drawings are a personalized, immediate response to the news cycle, and a mode of reflection that is at once a time capsule and a human reflection of the news in all its messiness and intensity. To look at Engler’s work is to witness a person’s mental and emotional journey through the cycle of current events, the push and pull between different moments across the United States and the globe.
A 64-year-old artist and educator in New York City, Engler normally turns immediately to the radio in her studio to listen to news. On the morning after Election Day, she looked at her phone with trepidation. When she saw that Trump had fewer electoral votes, it gave her a glimmer of hope.
“November 4, 2020,” she wrote in pencil on a white square of paper. “U.S. presidential election remains undecided.” Using watercolors, she painted a murky and pale version of the presidential seal, with the eagle submerged in blue, and gray streaks breaching the traditional yellow boundaries of the symbol of American democracy.
“The whole fact of the presidency had become this gray area, this messy, this dripping, oozing [thing],” Engler told The Indypendent. She painted over the presidential seal repeatedly, blotting it with a rag again and again, adding white to the image to heighten the bleakness of the gray color. Normally, she likes to start with a fresh slate by replacing the water in the yogurt container she uses to dip her brush into when painting. On that day, however, she opted to use dirty water.
During the first year of her experiment, she set out to draw one story per day about whatever topic she encountered first when she turned on the radio. But when Trump was declared winner in 2016, Engler resolved to keep the project going. “I realized that I really had to keep going, because I was going to be chronicling probably a very extraordinary and frightening experience,” she said.
“Diary of a Radio Junkie” now spans more than five years of documenting the events of each day in ink or watercolors. Her chronicles of the last year will be published as a book, entitled A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020, by Metropolitan Books in November 2021. Engler has drawn these artworks from her home studio, in transit and when she’s far away from New York. With the exception of 11 days when she enlisted the help of guest artists, friends and colleagues, she has not missed a day of processing current events.
The drawings, which are illustrated in a patchwork, comic style, are pinned across the walls of her studio in a collage of vibrant colors punctuated by black-and-white scenes, detailed sketches, and recurring images. Most recently: the blue-gloved hands of doctors, a map of the United States glowing orange to represent the latest spike in coronavirus cases, and COVID-19 particles signifying the pandemic. Engler’s work details the story of the last five years with consistency, in a news cycle that is both constantly changing and simultaneously repetitive, devastating and exhausting.
“I try and think, ‘Okay, how am I going to make this drawing really represent today and not think about what was yesterday?’” Engler says. “Today I’m going to figure out what today is.”
In many ways, the project is an extension of her daily practice and a challenge that flowed naturally out of her artistic approach, which often centers around ritualistic and hyper-focused documentation. Before she decided to focus on the news, Engler illustrated all 13,197 objects in her Upper West Side apartment, her home of almost 40 years; in color pencil she sketched the contents of 75 women’s handbags, a project she describes as a mode of “portraiture”; while on an artist fellowship to Antarctica with the National Science Foundation, she drew all the items necessary to support life at the research stations; and for almost one year, she documented all 252 blocks of Broadway in Manhattan, partly as a reaction to being hit by a truck while riding her bicycle.
As with all of her projects, Engler was curious to deeply explore the environments she — and others — inhabited, from angles known and overlooked, documenting the many modes of existence and ways of being. Once she decides who and what she is drawing, she searches for an image online and does the painting based on that.
“Most of my work starts out in small increments,” she says. “Then, because there’s so many components, it becomes massive.”
The act of listening to current events, rather than watching or reading about them, was a rule from the get-go for Engler, who is a self-described “news addict.” She started reading The New York Times when she was 11, and remembers hiding the transistor radio under the blankets at night, listening to campaigns to get stations to play Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Had she not become an artist, she envisions that she might have become a reporter or radio producer. She grew up in a progressive, politically engaged family, her mother an accountant and her father a political economist. Her parents’ fields and world views, she says, significantly influenced how she thinks about art.
“The premise behind a lot of my work is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Engler reflects. “Between the two of them, I feel like I’m sort of assembling and counting and combining many, many parts to make a bigger picture.”
For many years, she painted with the radio on, enjoying the dynamism of human voices as opposed to silence or music. That didn’t change when she began “Diary of a Radio Junkie”; like she always had, Engler tuned in as early as 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. She listened to local stations, like the NPR affiliate WNYC or community radio WBAI, and to national and global outlets like NPR, the BBC, and Democracy Now! The drawings take anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours, depending on her availability, energy and vision for them.
Her process of choosing how and which stories to depict in drawings has evolved significantly. In the first few days of Trump’s presidency, Engler decided it was necessary to draw more than one news story per day, since it was becoming increasingly overwhelming to select just one topic to paint. She first decided to draw multiple stories on Jan. 15, 2017: Trump had verbally attacked Rep. John Lewis on Twitter, and the same day, the Ringling Brothers announced the end of their touring circus.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is perfect. I can do a painting of these cavorting elephants, and Trump insulting John Lewis,’” Engler said. Now she incorporates multiple headlines into each painting, though she tries to limit the number of stories she draws to seven.
She has also focused increasingly on portraits. While she has training in drawing figures and anatomy, she hadn’t spent a lot of time drawing faces before “Diary of a Radio Junkie.” Over time, she’s noticed improvement in her own skills and chosen to be more intentional about who she draws. She
hasn’t drawn a full-on image of Trump in over a year and a half; instead, she’s gravitated toward sketching his profile or using orange to represent
him. However, Engler has chosen to draw some Trump administration figures, such as Rudy Giuliani. “I certainly do not hesitate to make him as hideous as he is, including putting a lot of green in his skin,” Engler told me.
In a Nov. 20 drawing documenting a press conference in which an unidentified brown slime slid down Giuliani’s face, his cheeks are blended with a dark, ogre-green shade.
Engler has spent lots of time on certain portraits to capture significant moments in the national news cycle — the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the fly on Mike Pence’s forehead during the vice-presidential debate and the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Protesters, doctors, and everyday people also make frequent appearances in her work.
Each day is a mix of intertwined scenes and overlapping disasters, an inked quilt of color. But a few images, such as one from last Sept. 13, focus on one story: a growing fire and mass of apocalyptic sky around the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Engler is obsessively curious and open to drawing anything, but often finds
herself particularly drawn to stories about climate change, health care, the Middle East, Israel-Palestine and Ecuador. These are issues close to her heart and places she has familial roots or has spent significant time in. She consistently follows stories throughout their time in the national news cycle and weaves them into her drawings as they evolve.
She’s also drawn herself when the story is directly related to her own life. For last Sept. 17, she appeared in a blue mask amid a sea of COVID-19 particles, surrounded by Attorney General William Barr, the Centers for Disease Control’s Dr. Robert Redfield, and Michael Caputo, the Trump loyalist installed as spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services. Trump had refuted Redfield’s warning that a COVID-19 vaccine would not be readily available by November and that masks would save lives. Engler’s expression is obscured by her mask, but her eyes convey a residual exhaustion. And yet, she does not look away.
Over the last eight months, Engler has told me that she alternates between exhaustion and gratitude. She’s consistently lost sleep, waking up in the middle of the night thinking of the news or rising unintentionally at 4 a.m., unable to go back to bed. This rhythm was a part of her life before the pandemic, and in a sense, the hyper-focus on the news felt familiar. While she admits to looking forward to the project’s end and being able to focus on other things, she also recognizes what it’s taught her about her own craft.
“I really have more stamina than I thought,” she said during a conversation in her studio in November 2019.
This spring, Engler taught classes to students at City College on the art of inquiry and art education. She adjusted to teaching via Zoom and is learning how to find a way both to ask people to reflect on the current moment and to recognize the myriad challenges that many of her students face. This summer, she also returned to working for the city at Battery Park. After securing a book deal, she’s spending more time thinking about her work as a collective whole.
“It’s a matter of sort of gluing together all the pieces,” she says. “But everybody sort of finds their own place within it.”
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