All artwork is from Elise Engler’s Diary of a Radio Junkie: Days and Days of Waking Up to the News.
The premise was simple: a daily visual diary of the news—specifically, the first story she heard when she turned on the radio each morning. For artist Elise Engler, the practice emerged naturally out of the rhythms of her obsessions with both the news and radio, rituals that reach back to childhood. (She was reading the New York Times by the time she was eleven, falling asleep with a small transistor radio under her pillow at night.) Radio, she says—the voices found there—has kept her company all her working life as an artist. And she is, admittedly, a news junkie.
On November 22, 2015, using the morning’s lead story about a corruption investigation in Albany, New York, Engler began what she intended to be a year-long documentary in graphite and Watercolor, gouache and colored pencil. Small works, paper, often six-by-six squares. Day after day, she drew and painted the headlines, which at first were up to chance—deer sterilization in Long Island, the pope in Bangui, El Chapo captured—but which she eventually began curating, arranging stories into sets.
Engler had completed a year-long project before (365 days drawing each of Broadway’s 250-some blocks), so she knew what she was getting herself into, at least in theory. What she did not anticipate was the strange direction the news would take, or that she would stick with it for so long. Five years and 1,888 works later, Diary of a Radio Junkie is a monastic expression of visualized journalism, a project both meticulous and herculean.
A whimsical if gently sardonic sensibility guided her through its early phase. “In the beginning I wanted to be kind of arbitrary, and kind of absurd,” she says. But as the Republican candidates for president whittled down to one, “It just couldn’t be funny anymore.” The seriousness of one of the country’s strangest political phases was unavoidable.
As pretty much any journalist will attest—and as just about anyone who was tuned-in will agree—President Trump’s tenure in the White House, and 2020 in particular, was a baffling, exhausting time to be paying close attention to the news. The leitmotifs were heavy: mass shootings, decimation in Syria, wildfires, American exceptionalism diminished in small and broad strokes. Engler had technically reached her original finish line just after Trump’s election, but she kept going, she says, out of a certain obligation and awareness of the moment. “I wanted to see it to the end. As an artist interested in what happens in the world, to quit when our world was being turned upside down—and was, in fact, interesting—to have stopped at that point would have made it feel truncated. It may not have been fun, but it was certainly fascinating. It may have been more offhand or light or fun to begin with, but then it seemed important, and to stop doing something that seemed important didn’t feel like a good decision.”
Hyperfocused cataloging runs throughout Engler’s body of work, which includes a visual inventory of how American tax dollars were spent from 2003 to 2008 (on missiles, public-school chairs, the contents of a fire engine, among other items); of an agonizingly thorough group portrait of civilian casualties from the war in Iraq—18,200 silhouetted figures, mainly Iraqis, with names and ages; 4,623 more figures representing military casualties from the “coalition of the willing”; of equipment and ephemera from field camps in Antarctica; of what people kept in their cars; of what sixty-five women kept in their bags and purses; of the contents of her suitcase, every trip she took; of her own material possessions, every last one of them—13,127 individually painted items, to be exact.
This fall, Engler will publish a portion of her Radio Junkie work in a collection titled A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020, joining a shelf that’s sure to be crowded with reflections on one of the most tumultuous years in a century. Engler’s work will almost certainly stand alone in its effect, though, with its blend of gravitas and levity, of a frame sharing close global-crisis calls with news of the weird, of our darkest moments rendered with the whimsical sublimity you can only find in the illustrator’s hand.
And while she has no plans to return to the diaristic form anytime soon, she says she can’t help but keep working out of an impulse to pay forensic attention to the little things. “I’m very curious by nature. But I guess it’s also because I don’t have a huge studio, so I work very often incrementally, and I’ve learned that, in the same way that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, that I like the building process. The work comes into formation by the accumulation.”
— Paul Reyes