Faculty Feature: Elise Engler
A Studio without Walls
June 20, 2018
by Sarah Grass
Beyond the walls of her Upper West Side studio, Visual Narrative instructor Elise Engler maintains a workspace in her mind. Counting, sorting and drawing her way through territories unknown, she has architected a method of working to withstand extreme climates, both weather-wise and political. Be it a yearlong plein air drawing of all 252 blocks of Broadway, or working out of a tent in Antarctica, Engler’s method of systematic drawing provides a structure so sound that it doesn’t need walls. Her work is as rigorous as it is playful, as disciplined as it is open to chance. From Broadway to the Galapagos Islands, from Antarctica to Sicily, Engler has always oriented herself with a practice of drawing beyond conventional studio borders.
At SVA, Engler teaches Visual Narrative, a course that broadly addresses narrative art-making both within and beyond the realm of illustration, and the Accordion Book Workshop, a one-day primer on book construction. Whether binding ideas for a narrative or images into a book, Engler’s main lesson is to study the parts to better understand the whole. She applies this analytic method to graphic novels, photo essays, personal memoirs, fine arts portfolios and even experimental-process based works.
We had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in Engler’s studio, conversing amid hundreds of drawings from her most recent project, “First Radio Headline Heard of the Day,” a two-and-a-half-year daily drawing project that she has affixed to the wall in a grid formation. At the bottom right, today’s drawing is dutifully completed: “February 26, 2018: Supreme Court declines to take DACA case, leaving it in place for now.
Supreme Court could gut public-sector unions.”
SVACE: How would you describe your manner of storytelling?
EE: My work is documentary in nature, chronicling particular experiences by drawing/painting all of their components. I believe the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. The content of my work ranges from the personal, such as drawing everything I own or the contents of women’s bags, to the more overtly political, drawing everything American tax dollars pay for, or in my project “Wrapped in the Flag,” drawing over 30,000 war casualties. Most recently my method has been to trace the unfolding narrative of the media with daily drawings in my project “First Radio Headline Heard of the Day.”
How long have you been tracking the “First Radio Headline Heard of the Day”?
I’m at 2 years and 3 months! There are actually 11 days I missed but I had other artists fill in. So there are now 11 drawings by other artists. I originally committed myself to a year but that ended just before the 2016 US presidential election, at which point I knew I couldn’t stop. It’s been an interesting period of time. When I began the project, Trump had just announced his candidacy for president. I really didn’t imagine we’d be where we are today, although my father predicted a Trump presidency long ago—he’s a political economist.
Your ability to commit to projects long-term is so impressive! Can you tell us a bit about your “A Year on Broadway” project? What was it like using Broadway as your studio for a full, four-season year?
“A Year on Broadway” involved documenting each of the 252 blocks that make up New York’s Broadway from top to bottom. I call it a “walker’s drawing” as it takes the point of view of walking through the city—walking the city is what it’s about. The whole thing did take exactly one calendar year, so I was outside for all four seasons. One of my daily practices was to ask someone, at random, to photograph me drawing as a documentation of the passage of time—of the seasons. I now have the drawings in an accordion book format, which is something I show in my Accordion Book Workshop.
What does the Accordion Book Workshop entail?
It’s a one-day workshop in which I teach students how to make an accordion book, but it is also a workshop on organizing ideas into book form. The actual book objects can be as tiny or large, specific or abstract as students like. By the end of the workshop everyone has learned to assemble the accordion from page to hardcover.
Let’s talk about your full semester course, Visual Narrative.
Yes! It’s a 10-week course covering all aspects of narrative art. It’s a workshop first and foremost, so we draw every week, but I always begin by showing work. Each class has a theme: comedy, politics, personal narrative, etc., and I also go over some basic bookbinding and printmaking. I think process-based works are a great way to experience narrative. In printmaking something is forming and evolving before your eyes. Each print is progressively different.
Your practice has taken you to the South Pole. Tell us a bit about your expeditions.
I traveled to Antarctica as a grantee of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program and was essentially an artist-in-residence at McMurdo Station (the large American research station), and I went to various field sites including Dry Valley, two penguin colonies and the South Pole. My proposal was initially to draw everything at a smaller station, but that changed when I ended up at McMurdo and then was travelling around. As always when on a journey, I began by drawing each item I packed. It was a lot as you really can’t purchase much in Antarctica.
Why do you find the subject of narrative important to teach?
Well, everyone has a story. Some are specific, some abstract, visual, or poetic. I teach narrative to help students access their story from a different angle.
This interview originally appeared in our summer 2018 issue of SVA ContinuEd, available now by visiting or calling our office. Read more about Elise Engler in “Heard It First” and follow “First Radio Headline Heard of the Day” on Instagram and Twitter. See more updates and stories on our Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram pages!