The Daily Heller: Jason Polan Still Sketching

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The much-admired New York street artist Jason Polan, who died of cancer at 37 in January 2020, was recognized for his joyful, zealously scrawled, observational sketches of New Yorkers and the city they call home. On any given day, he could be found sketching the scenes around him. He gave free Friday night sketch classes at MoMA, and he even drew every image on display in the museum—twice.

Polan’s unpretentious, under-finished–appearing drawing style captured pre-COVID New York’s frenetic energy.

The city’s speed and vigor, its crowds and its movement, were vividly represented in his first book, the ambitiously titled Every Person in New York, first published in 2015. In it are hundreds of Polan’s small, often surreptitiously drawn black-and-white sketches—miscellany of people and things, the world as it flew by him. Polan’s friend, illustrator Richard McGuire, described these scenes as “moments … that go unnoticed by many.” The images of city life are exuberant, chaotic, tender and sometimes melancholy. His notebooks are simultaneously an antidote to these quieter times of lockdown and reduced occupancy, and a timepiece of a world we all once knew.

Although born in Ann Arbor, MI, New York was the city Polan most loved. It loved him back. His death cast a pall over the arts community with whom he was a welcome presence. Friends—among them artists, writers, filmmakers and designers—launched a campaign to have the U.S. Postal Service issue Polan “Forever” postage stamps, featuring some of his favorite character renderings. That effort continues. Meanwhile, this month welcomes a new second volume of Every Person in New York. While once again it does not, as promised, contain every single New Yorker, there are perhaps enough to make every person in New York happy.