I once saw Jason Polan drawing at the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan.
I think he was wearing a yellow jacket.
Polan was a New York City-based artist known, among other things, for his goal to sketch every person in New York. I can’t remember exactly when I first discovered his work. Maybe it was when I read an article about his Taco Bell Drawing Club in The New Yorker. I followed him on Instagram, and fell for the drawings, and his overall vibe, immediately.
The bulk of the drawings I’ve seen are deceptively simple and heartfelt black-ink sketches of New Yorkers. You can feel his empathy in even the scratchiest of lines: men sleeping on the subway and washing windows, a woman eating pasta slowly at the Museum of Modern Art, or a child trick-or-treating, dressed as Spider-Man. In New York, a city defined by people darting from place to place and pathologically tuning each other out, he was an anomaly: Someone who actually stopped what he was doing to understand and appreciate everyone around him.
Complementing his drawings were more personal posts, snippets of what he found interesting, how he saw things differently. I learned that he loved comics, drew the cover of a Spider-Man issue, and did some designs for Uniqlo. He once took out an ad in the New Yorker to promote the United States Postal Service, encouraging people to write letters to each other. If Jason’s work resonates with you, maybe you can even buy some stamps. After all, the USPS is going to need all the support it can get this Fall.
At some point in early 2020 I realized that Jason hadn’t made any Instagram posts for a while. The last one was on New Year’s Eve, 2019: a picture of a multicolored stack of folders. I Googled his name and learned that he died of colon cancer on January 27, 2020. He was thirty-seven.
For those who haven’t been to the Angelika Film Center, the large theater lobby is also a spacious cafe, great for people-watching, and apparently great for people-drawing. On the day that I saw Jason, he sat quietly with his signature art supplies: a Uni-Ball Vision Elite pen and a pad of Strathmore drawing paper. I think he was wearing a yellow jacket. I was meeting with a filmmaker with whom I wanted to collaborate, but became distracted by Jason’s presence. I remember speaking louder than normal, perhaps because I wanted Jason to hear me, for him to find me interesting.
I didn’t know Jason at all, and I’m curious as to why he entered my mind, why I feel compelled to pass along his life and work to anyone who stumbles upon this piece. I often over analyze my own work into oblivion and lose sight of the joy of playing with the creative process. It’s not surprising that I’d be drawn to Jason’s work, with its earnestness, its playful truth.
I just looked through my emails to find out when I met with that filmmaker. It was November 18, 2018. On that day, Jason posted this drawing of Daniel Day-Lewis and Rebecca Miller waiting in line at the Angelika. Jason didn’t stay for long, and left about midway through my meeting. As far as I know, he didn’t draw me and, in hindsight, it’s kind of embarrassing to admit that I raised my voice so that a public figure might notice me. But it also makes sense. I liked the way Jason interpreted his world, and I wanted to be a part of it.
This story is my own drawing of Jason Polan. I wonder what he would think about a fellow New Yorker (I.e., stranger) writing about him like this. I wonder if he would be okay with how little I really know about him, how many important details I’m undoubtedly leaving out. I wonder what made him happiest, and what made him sad. I wonder what was going through his mind when he stopped making posts for Instagram. I wonder who or what was in his last drawing. I wonder what he would be making and sharing these days, in light of all that’s happening in the United States, in the world.
Jason will never get to complete his Every Person in New York project, so I hope he would approve of me adding this sketch of one more beautiful New Yorker to the collection, if only in words.