The Korea Herald


He’s only got 8 million faces left to draw

By 김후란

Published : March 7, 2011 - 18:25

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NEW YORK (AFP) ― Artist Jason Polan won’t be running out of live models any time soon ― in trying to draw every person in New York, he’s got at least eight million more to go.

The plan may sound crazy, but Polan, 28, is serious.

Every day he’s out there with ink pen and sketch pad, posting the results on Three years into the project, he’s up to about 14,000.

“I know I’m going to fail, I won’t draw everybody, but I enjoy trying,” he says.

The artist on this quixotic mission is a quiet, non-descript man with glasses and an anorak. He blends easily into the crowds that obsess him so much.

On a recent rainy day Polan stood unnoticed in various corners of Grand Central station, relentlessly capturing new faces on his pad.

Many of his targets were moving, but he’s learned to draw quickly, barely looking at the paper.

A figure took shape on the page within seconds. In a minute or so he had the person down: a man with a leg brace stopping to call on his cell phone; a woman with a long package; a man in a fedora; a man hunched over.

Polan, a professional illustrator, has a thing for cataloguing. He once sketched every single work of art in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Another time he drew every individual piece in a bag of popcorn.

He may have a meek demeanor, but he scans crowds with the intense concentration of a hunter.

And the goal, Polan says, is not to scratch out any old picture, but some defining characteristic of the person’s look. The sketch must be live, not remembered and embellished later.

“I crave authenticity,” he said.

Part of that authenticity is to keep himself anonymous. Polan never asks permission to draw portraits and he stands at enough of a distance so that he is rarely spotted.

An exception is that he invites members of the public, through his website, to set up a rendezvous. Give him a time, place and rough personal description and he will come to draw you ― although you might never realize.

“I kind of hide. I like to get there early so there’s a surprise element for them when they look at the blog that evening and wonder if I got them,” he said.

In his spare time, Polan haunts busy streets, restaurants, museums and the outer reaches of New York. The effort is unscientific, but nevertheless impressively determined.

In Grand Central that day, Polan’s portraits included Susan Dunlap, aged 43.

She was reading a book while waiting for her train and had no idea she was being observed, let alone reproduced as a detailed line drawing labeled “Woman in Grand Central.”

Told about the experiment, Dunlap said she thought it was “cool.” As a native New Yorker, she wasn’t put out. “New York is a weird place,” she said.

Another of Polan’s unwitting subjects was Carlo Dioguardi, an elegantly dressed man of 75 relaxing in one of the armchairs down in the station food court.

“It’s pretty good!” he said, clearly pleased at his likeness, which caught him sitting pensively in the chair, his chin in his hand.

Dioguardi said that half a century ago while sitting in a Manhattan park another artist had sketched him ― it turned out to be the great Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, who’d been undergoing medical work nearby.

“I’m going to put this drawing right next to the one by Dali. That’s exactly what I’m going to do,” Dioguardi said happily.

When Polan shyly told Dioguardi about his plan to draw every New Yorker, the old man said: “I think it’s a great idea. But that’s going to take you for ever.”

Polan says the goal may be elusive, even impossible, but that he enjoys this artistic embrace of an entire city.

“There are times I feel alone, but other times I kind of like it ― I feel separated but also know that people can experience this on the blog, or can reach out and email me,” he said.

What if he were on the other side of the drawing pad?

“I get nervous when someone takes my picture,” he grinned. “I’ll even get nervous when someone draws me.”