Jason Polan’s Lines Will Live Forever

The Jewish artist passed away this week, but his unique way of chronicling New York City will live on.

Jason Polan — the artist whose goal was to draw every person in New York — had a way of drawing that leaves you breathless. His lines exude infinite energy — it feels like they will never stop.

It is weird to think that Polan, who was as part of the New York landscape as gummy black sidewalk stains, the smell of pizza wafting through the streets, and the Union Square Taco Bell where he held his semi-famous drawing club, is no longer breathing his unique life into this city. But the Jewish artist, who was just 37, passed away this week. According to the New York Times, he had cancer.

For me, Polan’s art was omnipresent. It was on the pages of the New Yorker and the New York Times, in my Instagram feed, on the Uniqlo shirts of effortlessly fashionable New York strangers.

Polan, who once said his creed was Jewish (though he wasn’t raised very religious), was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was also there he went to college, studying anthropology and art at the University of Michigan — his artistic endeavors in life encapsulated his passion for the two.

During college, he worked on a project called “I Want to Know All of You.” He drew 800 portraits — one of every person at his art school. He sold the portraits for $10 each, then gave the money to the person whose drawing it was — in a way touching, or hoping to touch, every person he drew. The title for that project seemed to be the ethos for all his ensuing work.

He drew all the works in the MoMA, hoping to get a job there (he didn’t). He then started a project to draw every person in New York. In 2015, he published the first tome of his catalogue, featuring 30,000 individuals — a New York Times’ bestseller called Every Person In New York. (He continued the project on his blog until a few weeks before his death.)

Our friend Claire gave me and my husband a copy of his book for our wedding. I would never say that it was the best wedding gift we got — that would be gauche. But it was definitely a gift that was in our spirit.

Inside the book is a bookplate: a couple walking hand in hand, hurriedly drawn, barely more than stick figures but so expressive. “I would take care of you and protect you fearlessly,” says one to the other. A simple overheard sentence we all would’ve missed and yet, in the din of New York City, Polan heard it and caught it before it floated away.

Polan’s goal was to document everything around him. In the age before photography and film, the artist’s role was witnessing, and Polan was that, a witness to New York, a witness to things we have accustomed our eyes to filter out and not see as we move through our day, especially in the time of endless swiping and noise cancelling earphones and the pressure to always overwork. There’s the celebrity walking across the street from us, the woman sitting in the corner reading a book, the lady carrying a lamp through Grand Central Station. Little moments of magic we often miss — captured for eternity through his pen.

Polan’s work might have been a Sisyphean effort, but in a way, he did truly know us all. Leafing through my copy of Every Person in New York, I see myself and my loved ones in so many of the images. The man holding a baby in the subway, the woman walking her dog, the people with their headphones, walking down the street, working at a cafe. The way he captured them all, so specific yet universal with each quick sketch.

There was nothing explicitly Jewish about Polan’s work, but he is one in a line of Jewish artists who drew relentlessly and beautifully, who invented an art of their own, one that isn’t what some consider highbrow, but is just as soulful. He was a fan of the Jewish artists and masterminds behind Marvel comics like Spider Man and Captain America (including Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and many more). He even created a line of Uniqlo tees inspired by these Marvel characters, redrawn in his own unique style. But he was also in line, literally, with Jewish illustrators like Saul Steinberg, Ben Shahn, and the shaky poetics of Liana Finck. They’re lines that I can see in my dreams.

Now that he’s gone, I want to see New York City the way Polan did, with eyes connected to pen — wide open. For those who love it, drawing is living, drawing is witnessing, drawing is everything. A good artist makes you want to draw — because you want to feel what they feel when they put pen to paper.

Drawing is also hard and, for those pushed to do it, incredibly joyous. When I draw, it is when I feel the most centered. When pen hits paper and keeps moving and moving, it’s the greatest sense of release I’ve ever felt. I don’t draw as often as I want to, but when I see Polan’s art I am inadvertently drawn back to it, a siren’s song beckoning me back.

In that way, Polan lives forever. In the way his shirts will end up at thrift shops. In the way his books will live on bookshelves in bookstores, calling out to us. In the framed drawings and bookplates adorning hallways and walls and galleries and museums. But also every time someone opens one of his books and is drawn to draw. In that way, his line will always be alive.

Image of Polan by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images. Background by Jason Polan via Travel + Leisure.

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