On 20 February, artist Pamela Sztybel saw a photograph in the New York Times that sparked an idea. The photograph, taken by Jae C. Hong, captured masked passengers disembarking from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, after a novel coronavirus had spread on board. Something about the image compelled her to leave the studio at 80th and Broadway, run downtown, buy a date stamp and a sketchbook big enough to contain a year’s worth of drawings. ‘For some reason, I saw that photo and I thought, I should keep a news notebook for the year—just to see if I could do it, to see me through the US elections. I didn’t really have any thought other than that,’ Sztybel tells me over video call, from the kitchen table of her home.
Initially unaware of the extent to which coronavirus would alter the fabric of our world, Sztybel began filling the notebook’s pages with watercolour illustrations of daily news headlines, sharing each entry on her Instagram page. ‘I just started doing it. Then of course the coronavirus hit, and the world started changing in so many dramatic ways, that it became a virus journal really,’ she says, disbelief still present in her voice.
Looking at the notebook in Sztybel’s hands, half of its pages bloated and crinkled from the dried paint, I get the distinct sense that she is holding an archival artefact. Sztybel’s ‘Notebook Series’ has become a colourful chronicle of the strangest period in recent history. Looking back over her Instagram now is like rewinding a newsreel of the surreal spring months, brought to life with Hockney-esque vibrancy and sharp-witted wordplay. Since that day in February, Sztybel has documented stories like the stock-market dive, the closure of the Louvre, the stock-piling frenzy, record-breaking unemployment claims, the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics and the advent of anti-lockdown protests. She has also highlighted novelty stories like the walking of unusual pets in Spain and the ‘business on top, pyjamas underneath trend’ of video call meetings, as well as dubiously hopeful moments like the supposed return of dolphins to Venice’s canals. Her entries serve as windows to a past that can at times feel like an alien history, given how fast-moving pandemic journalism has been.
Every morning, Sztybel scours newspapers and news sites such as the BBC, Reuters, CNN, Financial Times and The Guardian, looking for ‘visually interesting’ headlines to draw. Her renderings are idiosyncratic and cartoon-like which she puts down to their ‘microscopic’ size. Three by five inches each, she fits two entries to a page. Though unintentional, the distorted scale of her characters resonates with life in lockdown; flickering between the momentous significance of the pandemic and the micro-activities that get you through the day, unsure of the passage of time.
Though Sztybel once illustrated a friend’s book while confined to her kitchen table recovering from surgery—Barbara Guggenheim’s Little-Known Facts About Well-Known People—this project is a departure from her typical pastoral style.
Sztybel is spurred on by the communal element of sharing her entries on social media. For the viewer, the ‘Notebook Series’ is a possible avenue of relief from the desensitisation or depression triggered by the never-ending reel of coronavirus coverage. It provides respite from the headlines through its comical quirks and charm—an important tonic for mental health—while also preventing the viewer from switching off to the outside or losing perspective.
The same is true for Sztybel. Sustaining the project each day has helped her implement a routine throughout lockdown, and the visual challenge has distracted her from feelings of fear or being overwhelmed, by keeping the brain engaged. ‘I’m completely absorbed in the work and very much engaged with the injustices that are happening in the world at the same time,’ she says. Tensions between governments and journalists have been exacerbated by the virus, with reporters vilified for holding politicians to account over their response. In the US alone, Donald Trump has labelled journalists ‘nasty’ and ‘disgraceful’ for challenging his tactics and has even stormed out of White House press conferences. As such, Sztybel’s pictures participate in a dialogue with the vital reportage they’re reproducing.
While Sztybel is technically trained, having graduated from the New York Academy of Art with a Master of Fine Arts in 1992, the imperfections of her illustrations evoke the aesthetics of ‘outsider art’—the subversive forms of creative expression that defy the conventions of a specific contemporary art world. Characterised by artists who have little or no contact with mainstream institutions, outsider art arguably takes on a whole new meaning in the time of coronavirus, which has triggered the literal break-up of cultural establishments and forced artists to work separately in confinement. Sztybel’s self-described ‘oddball’ style harnesses the political dimension of outsider art, and it is from this critical perspective that her project offers its social commentary.
Sztybel prefers not to draw the political players she disapproves of. ‘I drew Trump once, when he made the first Rose Garden speech, but I’m not a caricaturist and I don’t want to spend that much time with those guys. Once I’m drawing them, I have to be with them for a while and I really don’t want to!’ she laughs. ‘I’m more interested in how their decisions affect the rest of us and the adjustments we’ve had to make.’ To avoid drawing the US President on the day he hand-signed relief checks and delayed their distribution, she opted to depict the desk of the Oval Office instead, covering it with junk food because, ‘he’s sort of a glutton and completely unaware of other people’s problems.’
As Sztybel holds up this entry, the untouched half of her notebook poses a question mark. ‘I keep looking at the unpainted pages and I think, what will be on that page? I’m hoping that [this year] will start swinging back up and that we’ll have stories about how we’re healing. I hope that’s coming soon.’ I ask where she’ll take her series when–if—things settle down again. Sztybel hopes to publish it as a book. ‘I would like it to be something people could use to teach their children about what this time was like,’ she muses.
Pamela Sztybel is an artist and illustrator based in Manhattan, New York.
Madeleine Pollard is a freelance journalist and researcher, currently based in Dorset.