Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new exhibition at New York City’s Society of Illustrators displays sanity-saving transit art.
Maybe you’re gagging because a fellow passenger is painting her nails a few seats away, or shards of your neighbor’s chips have piled in your lap. You check your phone every few seconds—the grinding stop-and-start train traffic will definitely make you late, if not nauseated. You’re ready to bail on the subway and walk the rest of the way—or swim across the East River. That’s a good time to take deep breaths and scan the car for a poster to look at.
Take this one: A willowy girl embraces her heavy bass case. An elderly woman in a checkered smock perches between bags of leafy greens. Two dapper mustachioed men in houndstooth suits and red neckerchiefs share a knowing glance. A tourist in a telltale t-shirt cranes to study the map. A rabbi hunches over his prayer book. A couple leans in for a peck.
Sophie Blackall’s 2011 poster celebrates the diverse ecology of the underground world—the vibrant communities that coexist in New York City during rush hour. She’s one of 98 illustrators commissioned by the MTA Arts & Design Initiative to create art to be displayed inside buses and subway cars. Those and many other works are on view in the new show New York View: MTA Arts & Design Illustrates the City at the Society of Illustrators (through August 15).
The exhibition showcases a handful of large-scale temporary and permanent installations, but also focuses on the work that surrounds the MTA’s 2.6 billion annual riders once the doors slam shut: art that tends to the task of fashioning a more pleasant ride as the car lurches between stations. It’s about lessening the deadening burden of the commute. Sandra Bloodworth, director of the MTA Arts & Design Initiative, explained to the New York Times:
In a setting like the subway, art really does something. It gives a certain amount of dignity to your ride and your day.
Let’s be honest: There’s a lot about the subway that’s less than dignified. We need that respite from people clipping their toenails, tossing peanut shells on the floor, or peeing in a corner.
“During the year that the poster was up on the subways, I don’t think there was a single day that I didn’t get an email or five or ten from strangers,” Blackall told CityLab. “The universal message I got was that somehow people found joy and a sense of community and optimism in it.” She was heartened to find that some riders felt a pull towards the illustration. “People would say, ‘At the end of the long day, it’s so nice to look up and see this poster that reminds me of the humanity, and that these are fellow travelers next to me,’” Blackall added. (And while some people lost themselves in the archetypes, creating elaborate backstories for the characters, others believed that they had found themselves in them. “I got six emails from rabbis sure that they were the inspiration for the one in the scene,” Blackall noted.)
Other cities also go this route, using art as a palette cleanser or escape from a harried commute. Tokyo has a notoriously crowded metro system (CityLab’s Eric Jaffe once wrote, “You don't have to worry about holding a pole or a strap because there's nowhere to move: you're essentially a subatomic particle”). But even in these sardine-can conditions, Jaffe noted, there are moments of tranquility. Speakers pipe bird calls onto the platforms. Stations are announced by dulcet chords, gentle piano runs, ditty melodies, or snippets that sound like the beginning of a carnival ride.
Worst case scenario? Tuck a pretty postcard in your bag so you’ll have something calming to gaze at if you catch a whiff of urine.