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Artist Jason Polan is Illustrating Every New Yorker – all 8.3 Million of Them

There are ambitious projects and then there’s Every Person in New York. Since 2008 artist Jason Polan has been creating observational and anonymous sketches of random New Yorkers. Over seven years Polan’s collection has grown to include thousands of illustrations, which have recently been published in Every Person in New York. Yet even with a book on the shelves, Polan knows that this is an artistic endeavor he has absolutely zero chance of completing.

Why? He’s resolved to draw every New Yorker – all 8.3 million of them. And, says the artist, he’ll die trying. “The end date (is) when I’m no longer living,” he says with a laugh.

Polan says the idea to sketch everyone in New York took hold when he thought of the title; he was immediately enamoured by the impossibility of it. “I knew right when I came up with the title and the idea that I wasn’t going to succeed, but I liked the idea of a project that included every person in New York,” Polan says.

He also thought an interesting drawing project would be a great way to familiarize himself with blogs, so he set one up with the hopes that people could follow his progress. Each day Polan posts new sketches, fluid line drawings that capture the essence of his subject. Some days he draws famous people. Some days, nameless figures on a street. Other days, his work is more detailed, such as the time he documented undercover cops arresting a man for posting bills on Thompson Street.

And indeed people – many of them – have followed along, including Maria Popova from Brain Pickings and actress Kristen Wiig, who uses Polan’s drawing of her on her website and who wrote the foreword for his book. “She’s just this really nice lady. I asked if she would do a foreword and she did,” Polan says matter-of-factly.

This is not the first time Polan has obsessively studied a subject through art, perhaps a condition of his formal education. Polan moved to New York after a completing a double degree in anthropology and drawing and painting at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbour in 2004. Aside from illustration work for The New York Times, The New Yorker and Metropolis magazine, he’s completed several small personal projects, such as An Entire Bag of Popcorn, which consists of Polan drawing exactly that.

“I popped a bag of popcorn and I put the pile of popped popcorn to my left, and then I put the one individual piece that I was drawing in front of me and then after I finished drawing it I would move it to the right. So the pile on the left got a lot smaller and the pile on the right got a lot bigger. I could feel I was accomplishing something as I was working on it,” he explains.

Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art, another project, has been completed twice and compiled into books that can be found in the gift shop at the MoMA. “It was everything that a visitor would see if they went to the museum. I started at the bottom and then I went up, because I wanted it to be like a tour, if you were walking through the museum. So I was doing a tour of the museum, just very slowly,” he says.

I’ll try to draw them from a distance because I like the idea of them not knowing whether I drew them or not and then it appears on the blog.

The goals of Every Person in New York are both practical – “I wanted to get better at drawing people,” Polan says – and personal: “It was getting a little bit more comfortable being in New York,” he explains. “New York, sometimes … there’s a lot going on around me and this is a way for me to slow it down a little bit.”

Other than drawing 8.3 million New Yorkers, which includes visitors to the city — “As long as the person is in New York while I’m making the drawing it counts for the project,” Polan says — he has no goals set to help him achieve completion. Some days he’ll draw two people, other days 200, like when he does crowd shots at Grand Central Station. He draws people on subway trains, and diners at Taco Bell. He draws famous people and those behind the scenes.

One of his favourite portraits is from an early morning at the Natural History Museum before it had opened its doors.

“I got to go before they opened because I was getting interviewed for something. There was a guy up on a ladder dusting the bones of a dinosaur. It was this enormous dinosaur and he was wearing this shirt and it said ‘Size’ on it and I just thought that was so weird. There are things like that that will pop up occasionally and it almost feels like I’m being rewarded for working on the project,” he says. “I’ll see certain things that are just so interesting that I probably wouldn’t have realized or seen if I wasn’t paying attention in this way.”

Polan invites New Yorkers and those visiting the city to contact him if they’re interested in being drawn, though subjects shouldn’t expect him to say hello.

“I usually don’t interact with them. They tell me where they’ll be and I try to make it an easy thing for them to do, like be outside of where they work or where they live or something that’s handy in case I can’t get there,” he explains. “I’ll try to draw them from a distance because I like the idea of them not knowing whether I drew them or not and then it appears on the blog.” And if they’re lucky, there’s potential for their portrait to appear Volume 2 of the book, if and when that happens.


Headed to New York and interested in being drawn by Jason Polan? Email him at art@jasonpolan.com.

Published Wednesday, December 9th 2015

Header image credit: Jason Polan



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