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One Artist's Never-Ending Mission to Draw Every Person in New York

A new book collects 30,000 of Jason Polan’s gestural sketches. He’s got about 8 million to go.

Man playing the piano in Lexington Avenue 53rd Street Station, March 31, 2015. (Jason Polan)

Jason Polan wants to draw every person in New York. He’s chipping away at it, one sketch at a time.

He’s long been obsessed with collecting and cataloguing objects. (“I like having things around me,” he says. “I don’t know how people are minimal.”) As a student at the University of Michigan, where he studied art and biological anthropology, he staged an exhibit of hundreds of portraits of his classmates, entitled “I Want to Know All of You.” He’s also drawn every work on display at the Museum of Modern Art—twice—and each popped kernel in a bag of popcorn. And for a year, he fastidiously documented banal objects for a column in The New York Times called “Things I Saw.” He collects stacks of magazines and books by J.D. Salinger and Don DeLillo.

Population is fluid, much more so than shriveled popcorn kernels that stay where you put them. Starry-eyed transplants arrive in droves, and longtime residents leave or pass away. Tourists pop in for a visit then go home. These shifts happen in waves, and you can’t slow them down. “That is so way beyond my control,” Polan says. There’s no way to depict everyone. Polan knows that he’s angling for an impossible feat. “I’ve always thought of it as a forever project,” he adds.

So while Polan works on other sketches and paintings, he continues to fill a four-by-six inch Strathmore drawing pad with gestural impressions of city dwellers. His new book, Every Person in New York, collects 30,000 of these drawings on 400 pages.

Polan totes his pad and a black Uni-ball pen to a handful of spots that have become his regular haunts: MoMA, a bench at the corner of Mercer and Prince Streets in SoHo, Housing Works bookstore, and Taco Bell. (He started going to the quick taco joint in Union Square soon after graduating from college because, he says, “It’s one of the few places in New York where you can get free refills.”) He also invites people to email him an intersection, identifying information, and a time. He’ll track them down for a stealthy two-minute sketch. “I don’t interact with them,” he says. “I want it to be a surprise. I want them to look at the blog that night wondering, ‘Did he draw me?’

Jason Polan

The pages contain famous, infamous, and anonymous New Yorkers. Polan has sketched Donald Trump’s coif, actor Zachary Quinto walking two dogs, and Padma Lakshmi hailing a cab. But he’s also captured the folds of a stranger’s jacket as he’s swallowed up by subway stairs, and a bespectacled woman bowing her neck forward, craning over a newspaper as she slumps against a subway pole.

Jason Polan

In the introduction, Polan says he strives to make the drawings as authentic as possible. “I only draw people as long as I can see them,” he writes. The sketches consist of electric lines, buzzing with a sense of furious work, trying to catch something flitting and sear it into memory.  

Polan prefers to blend into the background. “People usually don’t notice me,” he says. “I don’t want to creep people out.” And he finds that he can get a more genuine window into people’s habits when they don’t know that he’s watching. “I don’t want them posing for what I’m doing,” he adds. “It works better when it’s completely natural.”

The project has helped Polan get to know his adopted city. As he roams around, he finds himself tapping into observations others might blow past. “There’s things you realize when you’re looking a little slower: the things people are wearing, or the speed they’re going,” he says. But when he starts drawing, “I try to stop making decisions,” he adds. “I try to look at someone’s nose while I’m drawing it, instead of drawing what I think a nose looks like. Often the drawings come out looking a little crazy or quick, but I try to draw what I see, instead of what I think I’m seeing.”

Jason Polan

The streets of New York are rarely empty. There are bodies colliding, cars weaving, food truck odors wafting mingling with the smell of humid garbage. The city is teeming, overflowing. Polan’s sketches—usually a simply rendered figure against a white background—pare it down. Lights, buildings—they’re all gone. What’s left is a depiction of a single person navigating the streets at a specific moment, transience made permanent with the flick of the artist’s wrist.

Every Person in New York; $25, from Chronicle.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.