Jason Polan: The Man Who Tried to Draw All of New York

By Morgan Walsh

Cartoon people made up of squiggly lines, missing arms, and blank faces might not sound like a realist drawing to most people. Despite that, Jason Polan’s work was made up of mismatched bodies, coffee cups, and newspapers, and he only drew what he saw. 

Jason Polan was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and after graduating from the University of Michigan, he moved to New York to pursue his life’s work as an artist. As mentioned earlier, his masterpieces were a bit eccentric, to say the least. He could often have been found sketching people on the streets of New York in whimsical doodles while they carried on with their lives, never knowing he was there. He did not believe in adding his opinion to any of the people he drew, so he only drew what was right in front of him. The second someone or something left his field of vision is the second his pen would leave the page. His drawings didn’t warp reality; they were reality. An unfinished face means that either he never saw their face, or they walked away before he could finish. A person drawn with three feet may have changed their seating position in the middle of him duplicating them in his notebook. These street drawings eventually led to his magnum opus, a project in which he made the ambitious attempt to draw everyone in New York City.  

It is outrageous to claim that anyone could draw (and ensure they drew) 8.623 million people, and Polan knew that. Yet, despite people and himself calling the whole idea crazy he still believed in giving the project a go. After spending some time sketching the seemingly mundane happenings in the life on the streets of New York, he released his work in his book called Every Person in New York, which contained 30,000 sketches and was only the supposed first volume of more work waiting to come. He also started a blog for his project (also called every person in new york) and has been uploading all his sketches of people since 2008. The blog now has a whooping 4,192 sketches he chose to release on it and each image is labeled with the exact time and place it was drawn. Polan hoped that if someone realised he had drawn them, they might email him. Once he was satisfied with his work to consider the project done, he planned to organize a get together for everyone who had been drawn. 

Jason’s somewhat absurd projects didn’t end there. Jason had started the Taco Bell Drawing Club where he and other club members would meet at a local Taco Bell and draw people as they came and went from the store. To prove they were indeed no joke, they kept laminated membership cards with their names on them. In addition to his other bold ideas, Jason also drew every painting in the Museum of Modern Art in an attempt to hopefully land a job there. Only, he didn’t just do it once, he did it twice. He had completed the project soon after moving to New York and the book he published of his illustrations kick started his career as an artist. It helped him gain attention from larger companies such as the New York Times and Marvel Comics, though he unfortunately never got a job at the museum. 

Happy things are never covered as much as the bad, and that was a fate that Jason Polan suffered. Last week, Polan died of cancer at the age of thirty-seven, but until hearing this terrible news, I had never before heard of the artist. His art showed the beauty of real life and he stuck steadfast to his ambitions, no matter how extreme they may have seemed. While I wish I had known about him while he was still alive, I am happy to know of his art and his life now. All artists will eventually die, but their art is eternal. The same is most certainly true of Polan’s work. His art appreciated the simple things in life though I am afraid he was appreciated as an artist till much too late. Still, it is comforting to know that sometimes your life’s echo gets louder after you’re gone.

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