Can doodles qualify as art? I think so. If a drawing can invoke emotion, it’s art. Some of the most grand and detailed paintings in galleries make me feel nothing, yet I can remain staring at a cartoon for ages. Perhaps some of the paintings in galleries are too complex for me, but I’m more content in studying ordinary and unassuming pieces that leave much up to the imagination. In my opinion, art that leans on the imagination of the observer will always be more engaging because you share a thought process with the artist, and I feel this no greater than when I’m flicking through Jason Polan’s “Every Person in New York”.
Polan, who sadly passed away last year, was many things; an artist, a Taco Bell enthusiast, an adopted New Yorker, but above all; he was an observer of life. “Every Person in New York”, his most defining project, was a personal challenge set by Polan himself to draw every person in New York City. This was obviously an impossible task, but the attempt itself created something quite special. As you turn the pages of his book, anyone can be appear amongst the sketches including the likes of Jonah Hill, Roger Federer and Sofia Coppola, however it’s important to recognise that celebrities are not the heroes of this book. The heroes that Polan sketches are the unassuming ones: ‘Man clipping his fingernails on 6 Train’, ‘Lady at the Museum of Modern Art’ and ‘Man at carnival in Williamsburg’. Whether these people know it or not, their seemingly inconspicuous moments were not only captured, they were immortalised as art.
The most interesting part of Polan’s drawings is the way he accentuates certain features of peoples appearance or the activity that they are engaged in. It could be anything, the indulgence of a hot-dog, the cram of the subway or even just someone sitting in the park. The variety of Polan’s sketches illustrates a diversity which is distinctively New York, and the level of distortion in many of the sketches contributes to the image of the city, conveying its pace and how tirelessly it will move from one moment to the next. Unfortunately, as of January 2020, Jason Polan is no longer with us, and with that his ambition to draw every person in New York has come to an end, however his drawings will forever live on as a unique insight into the city in the early part of the 21st century. I look forward to seeing how this book ages so we can reflect and see how things change with time.
Polan also leaves us within an immediate legacy in the way that he prompts us to pay greater attention to our daily surroundings. On my commute, I drive through Streatham, West Norwood and Croydon, parts of South London which are not beautiful, but are certainly lively. With Jason Polan on my mind, I cast my eye on other commuters as I sit in traffic. The first moment that caught my eye was two young women, probably in their early twenties sharing the load of a packed Tesco carrier bag. They held a handle each and chatted as they strolled home after work. The moment was simple enough but it was warming.
A few days later, a more alarming moment took place. As I was driving between East Croydon and Thornton Heath at around 7am, a woman in a pink dressing gown with a four pint bottle of milk stumbled down the middle of the road, shouting at passersby before splashing the milk over a moving car. At first I laughed because the imagery was funny but then it seemed quite sad to see someone in that state at 7am. Before I knew it, the moment had come and gone. I hope that woman is alright now.
The next moment was a bit more relatable to myself. A mother on the school run had stopped her son in the street to give him an animated dressing down. I’m not sure what he’d just done but his face looked as guilty as anything and he seemed to be quite accepting of his mothers outrage. As the recipient on my fair share of dressing downs, it reminded me of being young and mischievous. I hope they worked it out.
My favourite moment of the week came as a disheveled looking man, with long hair and scruffy clothes stormed around in a circle waving his arms and talking to himself. This is not an uncommon moment across South London, we have our share of interesting characters, however just as I drove by I noticed Apple AirPods in his ears and realised he was actually speaking on the phone. In the end I think he was actually a hipster rather than a homeless man, but it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes.
Without Jason Polan, I may have seen these things, but I wouldn’t have identified them as moments that uniquely define the obscure charm of South London. This past weekend, I have ordered two A5 sketch books and a pack of 12 UB-157 Eye Fine Ballpoint Pens which were Polan’s favourite type of pen. I have no ambition to draw every person in London, however being more observant of where I live and where I travel is a tool that I can use to be a better journalist, comedian and maybe even a better painter.
RIP Jason Polan (1982-2020)