Even if you don’t know Jason Polan’s name, you probably recognize his trademark black-and-white pen portraits. If you’re a New Yorker, it’s possible that he doesn’t know your name, but has nonetheless immortalized you in print.
Polan, the man behind the art project Every Person in New York (now a book featuring a foreword by Kristen Wiig), has a penchant for what he calls “sets of things.” He’s previously drawn every artwork in the Museum of Modern Art, an entire bag of popcorn, and everyone in his art school.
Admittedly, New York City, with millions of residents, offers a more imposing challenge to Polan than even as large a set as MoMA’s displayed collections. Despite the Sisyphean nature of the task, he told HuffPost via email, “I am willing to work on the project forever.” Polan shared a few more thoughts about his process, his new book, and whether he will draw YOU.
What attracts you to the idea of doing projects that depict each individual part of a large group, like New Yorkers or popcorn kernels?
I like sets of things, or, I guess, the idea of sets of things. For the bag of popcorn project I was able to draw the entire set (in about three hours). I did a project (twice) where I drew every piece of art at the Museum of Modern Art (that a visitor could see). I made a book of that (I like that you can hold the whole set in your hands). For the Every Person in New York project I am aiming for (but failing at) drawing that whole set. I know it is impossible, but I am getting enjoyment along the way (and I hope people are also enjoying the project as I continue to work on it).
Some of the portraits are very detailed, and others are rough and sketchy. Do you try to capture the individuality of the subjects, or is some anonymity desirable?
Most of the time, the level of detail is based solely on how much time I have to make the drawing. Usually the more detailed drawings are just because the person was eating, or doing some other activity (looking at artwork, reading, nodding off on the train) where they stayed relatively still for a bit. The really loose gestural drawings are usually that way because I am drawing the person while they are moving or I only see them for a moment.
What do you use to create your drawings?
I use a Uni-ball Vision Elite Bold black pen. They are a relatively common pen. I draw on Strathmore Medium Surface Drawing Paper. I use the pen because I like the line (usually pretty thick and dark) and I use those pads because I like the surface of the paper and they are a good size to fit in my pocket.
Do you ever draw New Yorkers from memory, TV, or otherwise not in person?
Nope, not for this project (sometimes I will draw people from pictures, TV or movies for other projects). To be included in this project I have to be looking at the person in real life while I am drawing them.
Does anyone appear more than once in the book?
Yes, there is a guard at the Museum of Modern Art that I like to draw a lot that appears a bunch. I have drawn the photographer Robert Frank several times. I try to draw him every time I see him (because I am always so excited to see him). I have some friends I have drawn several times. Also, I think there are probably some strangers that appear more than once that I am not even aware I drew more than once!
Do you appear in the book?
You've drawn so many New Yorkers, but just a fraction of the millions who live here! Do you plan to continue until you've drawn them all?
I am willing to work on the project forever.
I live in New York; can you draw me? (Do people ask that a lot?)
Yep and yep.
Check out more images below, excerpted from Every Person in New York by Jason Polan, published by Chronicle Books, 2015.
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