The Daily Heller: Calamitous Climate Changes Soothingly Illustrated

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It is so easy to suffer from climate change stress disorder — a sense of despair and fatigue over the plethora of media prognostications about the disastrous impact facing the Earth as we know it. So, when I initially saw the special issue of The New York Times Magazine (Envisioning the Future After Climate Change) on Oct. 30, my first instinct was to ignore it. But that was impossible. The cover and interior illustrations produced in a contemporary minimalist, linear comics style by Anuj Shrestha were compellingly real and surreal at the same time. The cover included a grid of four drawings that on their own were mysterious. They were aesthetically appealing and conceptually depressing, but not off-putting — gloom without doom (illustrating how tragic an increase of one or two degrees can have on the ecology of the planet).

Prior to this issue, I was unaware of Shrestha’s work, and was so impressed by the modest power of his art that I was compelled to know more about him and his process, resulting in the interview below.

Ironically, his depictions of our seemingly inevitable ecological disaster will doubtless put him on the map … assuming the map does not change too much, owing to the climate.

Where did you study, and what were your inspirations?
I received a BFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1999 and completed my MFA from the Illustration as Visual Essay program at the School of Visual Arts in 2005. I grew up reading Archie comics, then became captivated by the comics of the Hernandez Brothers and Chris Ware in college. He was also drawn to the socially conscious works of Goya and the printmaker Luis Jimenez. As a result, much of my illustration contains political overtones within a style that is line-oriented and relatively clean.

Let’s talk about your Times Magazine artwork. Tell me about the process of doing such an extremely detailed suite. How long, from start to finish, did you have?
We started the project back at the end of August, so it was roughly two months of work. We adhered to a weekly delivery schedule the entire time, which involved a relatively rapid process of initial sketches, revisions and then final inked and colored art. 

Images courtesy of the artist.

Have you ever participated in a project like this before?
I had previously worked on projects where my illustrations were eventually animated for clients, such as Pop-Up Magazine Productions and the creative studio Varyer. But working on a project of this scale was a new experience for me.

When I first saw the issue, I was impressed with the layout of the articles in relation to your images. Who assigned this to you, and how rigorous was the art direction?
The art director, Kate LaRue, and design director Gail Bichler initially contacted me with the proposal of a long-form illustration project that would involve a series of static illustrations for print as well as an animated version for mobile and desktop platforms. Kate set up weekly meetings in which we discussed the various art assets that needed to be created. Kate was adept at streamlining the schedule so the number of drawings that needed to be created did not feel overwhelming. Ben Grandgenett designed the layout for much of the interiors and fluidly incorporated my illustrations into each section.

The drawing style is so, well, nonchalant, yet the subject matter is horrific. Was your intention to create a sweet and sour experience for the viewer?
Since we had to create numerous drawings within a limited timeframe, I didn’t think so much about the grim nature of the content as much as I wanted to clearly communicate it visually. Maybe the nonchalant drawings make the bleak content more palatable.

Your artwork drew (no pun) people into the story—people like me, who are not deniers, but try to put climate change out of sight, out of mind. Did you think of it in that way?
To an extent. I think on some level many of us living in these times share a cognitive dissonance about the destructive and cumulative effects of late capitalism on the environment. I hope this project is part of a larger clarion call to the gravity of the climate crisis.

Who was responsible for the animations, and were you happy with the startling result?
I worked with animator Esther Cheung, and I couldn’t have been more satisfied with the way she made the drawings come alive. She expertly created looping movements in a clear and compelling way. Jacky Myint also provided further design and development for the interactive digital versions.