Putting every New Yorker on paper
Jason Polan cannot talk on the phone right now. He is on his way to Taco Bell in Union Square to draw unsuspecting New Yorkers.
At 27, he has made it a mission to sketch every person in New York City, all 8,363,710. From the back, the side, eating a Burrito Supreme, splayed on a gallery couch in the Museum of Modern Art, rolling a suitcase across Grand Central Station, riding the No. 7 subway to Queens, buying pizza in Brooklyn.
He even captured Jerry Seinfeld scratching his head in a Midtown burger joint.
Polan says he is just another New Yorker, never mind that he was born in a small town 20 miles outside of Detroit and moved here a few years ago after graduating from college in Michigan.
“I’m a New Yorker,” he says. “My mom’s family is from Westchester.”
In the great tradition of those cab drivers from the Khyber Pass who are here six weeks and declare themselves natives, Polan had only just dropped anchor in a studio apartment the size of a city bus when he began the dogged pursuit of his expansive goal with nothing more than a black pen and a notebook the size of a DVD box.
The vastness of this city makes a lot of people want to find some way to experience the whole of it. Impossible, of course, but tell that to the woman trying to sample food here from every country in the world or the guy hellbent on eating a slice of cheese pizza from every pizzeria. He traverses the five boroughs concentrating on mom-and-pop shops where you can still get a slice handed to you on a piece of wax paper for $1.50. In his manifesto on a foodie website, he declared, “You may be asking yourself, who is this guy and what does he know about pizza? Well, truth be told I am just some schmuck from New York with too much time on my hands.”
The pizza man e-mailed Polan to ask him to draw him in a sort of harmonic convergence of Don Quixotes.
There is no big hurry, Polan says he told him. “We’ll both be at it for awhile yet.”
It’s been almost two years and about 8,300 drawings since Polan began spending part of every day sketching New Yorkers in random parts of the city and posting his work at night on a blog, everypersoninnewyork.blogspot.com. Sometimes he notes where he’ll be the next day so friends can come by. He picks a bench near a busy corner, museum or park. He’s partial to fast-food (Mexican) restaurants because the workers usually leave him alone to draw as long as he wants. He’s even started a drawing club that miraculously has expanded to 150 members who regularly meet up to draw at Taco Bells in cities across the country.
But mostly, Polan pursues his art alone and prefers to remain anonymous.
The project was intended as a way for him to interact with people, but one of the first things you notice on the website is that many of his subjects are drawn from the back, apparently intentionally as a way to avoid eye contact.
“I never want to make anyone uncomfortable or be intrusive,” Polan says.
When asked why he doesn’t just set up an easel like the artists who earn a living sketching tourists in Montmartre or Central Park, he shudders. “The idea of trying to do portraiture that someone is going to be happy with makes me so nervous,” he says.
He rarely talks to his subjects. So if they’re tourists from Iowa or businessmen from Japan, he wouldn’t know. They are all part of what E.B. White, referring to Manhattan, called “the greatest human concentrate on earth.”
On a wintry morning, Polan draws for more than an hour with his ankles crossed leaning against a marble wall in the majestic main concourse of Grand Central Station. Hardly anybody notices him or talks to him. Except for dark bushy Harpo Marx eyebrows, Polan looks nondescript. He’s another young guy of medium height wearing glasses and a clumpy overcoat lingering not far from the information kiosk where people regularly plan to meet.
But wait. He’s doing something. Is he on a cellphone or reading a paperback? No, he’s using a pen, writing or something.
His hands seem disconnected from his eyes, which are darting from person to person. He looks down quickly, but again concentrates on a man with a neck brace walking gingerly toward the exit; seconds later Polan narrows his scope on a conductor wearing a hat that looks like an upside-down box of chocolates perched on his head.
“No, you’ve got to wait until the 2:10,” the conductor tells an anxious passenger as they pass Polan on the way to Track 26. “You missed the 1:07.”
Polan catches snippets of conversations all day but tries not to listen. “That’s too weird. I think, what am I doing eavesdropping?” he says.
The slap and skitter of high heels across the marble floor and clanking of forks and knives in the restaurant on the balcony drown out distractions as Polan concentrates on the curve of a man’s mustache and the arch of a leg attached to a woman with a Puma bag slung over her hip.
Polan seems hungry to grasp it all, fast-moving parts of bodies, a jumble of jaw lines and square shoulders swirling around him. The quality of the drawings varies wildly from hasty and minimal to elaborate. Sometimes Polan heaps figures and heads on a single page but he can also take time shadowing and filling in patterns.
The project is less about his ability as an artist to capture the unique qualities of any one individual than it is an attempt at what a lot of people in a crowded city think about but never end up doing, says Jen Bekman, who features Polan’s work at her SoHo gallery and on her website 20X200.com.
A Queens native, Bekman, 40, believes New Yorkers are always sketching in their minds as they go through their day.
“It’s an essential New York experience when you’re in a subway or a cafe or standing in line at the post office to look at the amazing diversity around you,” she says. “Jason is trying to quantify and embrace the perpetual motion.”
To her, Polan is a performance artist, but not the kooky kind who sits mute on a stage for two hours and calls it art.
“He reminds us by what he is doing every day that New York is place where you can choose to be bored but don’t have to be,” she says.
Polan supports this curiosity by being remarkably entrepreneurial.
In addition to his “every person” pursuit, which has not earned him a cent, he creates artwork for a furniture chain; illustrations for various publications including Esquire magazine, the New York Times opinion page and two literary journals, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and the Believer; and self-publishes small-edition books such as the “Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art Book” that is now sold in the museum store.
After submitting about 600 cartoons to The New Yorker, he finally sold one that was published involving two gerbils discussing their exercise regime; it continues to produce income from reprints on T-shirts and mugs.
Really, Polan is always up to something.
One afternoon he put a bag of popcorn in the microwave and ended up sketching all 310 kernels, one at time in descending order of size for a book called “Every Piece of Popcorn,” not that he sold many copies.
Sometimes projects change over time, he says. “I was trying to get a job at MOMA and ended up spending a few days sketching every piece of art to attach with my application.It’s amazing what you can do with a copy machine,” he says, explaining that before he found a small press in Michigan to print his books, he simply copied his art and stapled it together to distribute.
As much as the projects evolve, they also change him. After filling 40 notebooks with New Yorkers, he’s noticed his skills are improving and that he feels more comfortable drawing in different surroundings.
He has also discovered parts of the city he may never have found. A new favorite place is the cafeteria of the IKEA in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It has a spectacular viewof the Statute of Liberty.
But he doesn’t venture too much into New York’s seedier neighborhoods or deep into the outer boroughs. Which makes you wonder how he’ll ever get to every person in New York or how he’ll know when he’s done.
Polan doesn’t seem concerned.
He knows he’s not the next Matisse, who with just an abstract line could capture the oneness of any person. But he shares that great artist’s outlook, avoiding troubled and unsettling parts of this city to focus an optimistic eye on the life around him.
When you’re in the city next, wander into any fast-food joint and you might find him. He’s a regular at the Qdoba on 53rd Street and 3rd Avenue. Or check out the Taco Bell in Union Square. He’s there every Wednesday afternoon -- his eyes fixed on someone, his right hand gripping a black pen, drawing.