PRINT has published variously conceived and produced CoviDiaries since the beginning of this pandemic over 14 weeks ago. Essentially, they have been records of experiences, research, musings and other pastimes of our contributors more than diaries in the conventional sense. Pamela Sztybel, a New York–based painter, previous visiting artist at The American Academy in Rome and teacher at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, has lately and continuously created a daily COVID-19 diary of her art on Instagram. I’ve heard her work described as a “vibrant political journal,” that “has found unexpected humor in the daily news.” After being introduced to her drawings, which for me recall the joy-cum-spiritualist wit of Ex-Votos, I became a fan. I recently spoke with her about this obsessively purposeful intricate art produced in this unrelenting, joyless, explosive time.
Artists, it appears, are not as hard-pressed to fill their creative time as others working from home. What was your impetus to go Moleskine, as it were?
I went Moleskine because when I started the diary I looked for a sketchbook that would be portable and one that would accommodate a year’s worth of entries. The Moleskine that I have is about 5 x 8 inches with about 200 sheets. I figured I could make a year’s worth of notations if I drew around two per page, one side. The book has thin pages, not really meant for watercolor, but once I started, and things got more complicated, there was no going back. I decided to work with what I had.
Did you have an idea of how and/or what you wanted to have fill your book once you saw those blank pages?
My original thought was to keep a notebook of headlines with drawings as we went further into the election year. I did not know if I had the stamina to go for a full year, but I thought I’d give it a go. I don’t consider myself an illistrator. My work over the years has been landscape paintings and gardens and flowers. I showed at Spanierman Gallery for many years, and was scheduled to have another show of landscapes at Jill Newhouse Gallery in May. Postponed indefinitely for obvious reasons.
The first drawing I saw that got me going was of the passengers leaving the cruise ship in Japan wearing masks. I did not know at the time that the COVID pandemic would dominate my notebook. After quarantine, and I had more time, the drawings became more elaborate since I was not in my studio and had some time on my hands. Just home, with the notebook, a set of Winsor Newton watercolors and some Micron pens. As I progressed I very quickly started composing the drawings to illustrate the headlines, rather than just drawing from a news photo. And I felt very engaged that way. Very different from my usual work, but I didn’t mind. It kept me occupied and also engaged with the unprecedented and frightening situation. I posted on Instagram daily from Day 1, originally for my friends, who seemed to have a positive response to what I was doing.
It’s been over 14 weeks of self-imprisonment. Where are your subjects coming from?
I read the news pretty carefully. All headlines are from “reliable” news sources, like BBC, CNN, The Guardian, NPR, ABC, AP, Reuters, etc., etc. But I have to admit it is anxiety inducing.
Have you made any discoveries about you or your surroundings that would have remained undiscovered if not for COVID?
I suppose I could say, I really don’t mind sitting at a table and working in a very small format. (I did it once before, after knee surgery when I was also confined to my kitchen table, and illustrated a book for my friend Barbara Guggenheim, called Little Known Facts About Well Known People. (So I had a little practice, but that was four years ago.) I like thinking about how to make a visual out of the words. And I enjoy the words. Sometimes a headline can be quite poetic.
It is challenging to draw detail, and meaning (hopefully) into an area that ends up being less than four to five inches including the headline. It’s new for me—the other miniature work for the book was portraits.
Will you keep this going once (and if) the pandemic subsides?
I am going to keep going till a natural ending presents itself—either the last page of the notebook, the end of the calendar year, the end of the pandemic or the 365th day. I really hope it’s the end of the pandemic, before any of the other endings, for the sake of us all.