On 20 February, native New Yorker Pamela Sztybel dashed downtown to buy a new Moleskine notebook. And a date stamp. “I don’t really know why. I just felt compelled,” says the painter, who began using the 13cm x 21cm sketchbook as a visual journal, pairing daily news headlines with watercolour illustrations. “It started with the picture of people coming off the cruise ship in Japan with their masks on. I thought, ‘I’m going to make a little notation of this.’ Then I wondered if I could do a drawing like this every day for a year.” So far she’s managed at least one, sometimes two or three a day. The tiny, half-page entries – posted on her Instagram account @pamelasztybel – document the unravelling of the corona crisis with broad brushstrokes of humanity and humour.
But the pandemic wasn’t the prompt for the 63-year-old artist’s new endeavour. “It was the upcoming elections in the US I was thinking about, then the virus took over,” says Sztybel, quarantined in her Upper East Side apartment, sitting at the kitchen table – headscarf on, make-up applied – where she works on her journal for six hours a day. In normal circumstances she would be in her studio, creating the very pretty watercolour and oil paintings of landscapes and flowers – delicate zinnias, violas and delphiniums – that she shows at a clutch of uptown New York galleries.
“These new drawings are way more politicised than my previous work,” she laughs. “Sometimes I feel like I’m running this little baby news service here by myself, searching out a story each evening to draw the next day. I try very hard not to draw our president, though. I did it once, when he declared a national emergency. I felt I had to. And I drew Pence the day he was appointed to head the task force. But other than that, I avoid drawing those guys. It’s enough to have to listen to them. And in the case of Trump, I probably don’t have enough orange paint.”
Hence, her response to the Treasury order that Trump’s name be printed on all relief cheques places the president out of shot, just his hand sneaking into the depiction of the Oval Office. “I drew every single item of food he’s known to like on that tiny table,” she says proudly, adding that the can of Diet Coke, KFC bucket and McDonald’s burgers are each drawn smaller than a fingernail. For while every headline is quoted directly from news sources, the images have morphed from versions of press photos into Sztybel’s own idiosyncratic compositions. Another favourite entry, for instance, documents the possibility that dogs can detect coronavirus, imagining a corgi/bull-terrier mix as a nurse and an Australian Shepherd as a stethoscoped doctor.
Dogs – and animals in general – are a recurring theme. Sztybel’s take on Queen Elizabeth’s televised address to the Commonwealth in early April is augmented with a perky crowned corgi. “The headline about our Governor Cuomo ordering people to wear face masks in public was just made to order for me and my sense of humour,” she says of her post that depicts a line of people on the New York subway wearing not PPE but carnival masks. To accompany the headline “To Get Around Stay-at-Home Orders, Spaniards Have Been Walking Some Unusual Pets”, Sztybel conjures up a convivial scene where a chicken, a fish (on wheels, of course) and a baby dinosaur are being taken for a stroll.
“There is a motive to document this time we are going through, but I’m also enjoying myself,” she says. “Painting a landscape or a garden doesn’t make me chuckle, but sometimes I’m sitting here laughing at these things. Humour is a good thing for everybody. At any time. Even in the most horrendous times. If what I am doing brings someone even a moment of pleasure, then it’s worthwhile.”
As you’re scrolling through Sztybel’s Instagram feed, the series somehow feels inherently joyful. It’s incredibly vibrant, from the fields of wildflowers that have sprung up as councils stop mowing roadsides to the snippets on giant pandas finally mating in a peaceful, public-less Hong Kong zoo and dolphins swimming playfully in Venice’s canals. Other artists’ responses to the crisis are also recorded, with David Hockney, Ai Weiwei and Yayoi Kusama adding further colour. But that’s not to say Sztybel is glossing over the harsh realities. She marks that “Over 10 million Americans Applied for Unemployment in March”; she occasionally adds a note of the tally of US deaths.
“I always look at the big news story, but I also seek out the really wonderful things that humans are capable of,” says Sztybel, whose personality exudes the same vim and optimism as her drawings. She clearly revels in the little things: her daily walks in Central Park (“at its most beautiful. Either that, or we are now paying much closer attention”); learning on YouTube how to cut her husband’s hair (“we figured whatever I did, it couldn’t look any worse”); and shaking her tambourine energetically out of the window in solidarity with the city’s healthcare workers.
Her images are absorbing but not escapist; light-hearted yet knowing. And they’re clearly striking a chord with her Instagram followers, which started as a small group of friends and now number nearly 3,000. “It’s not that many, but it’s very nice. I’m completely shocked and thrilled that so many people are picking up on it. I’m hoping it will be a book at the end – if there is an end of all of this,” she says, flicking to the back of her already-bulging Moleskine. “I’m just so curious, so very, very curious to see what’s going to be on this page.”