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The Daily Heller: A Postage Stamp for Jason Polan

Jason Polan died in late January. He was fighting cancer but his passing nonetheless came as a shock. He was perhaps best known for his incessant sketching, in particular the grandly titled Every Person in New York, being representations of thousands of people in his beloved city. “These were not sit-for-a-portrait-style drawings,” Neil Genlinger wrote in Polan’s Jan. 27 New York Times obit. “They were quick sketches of people who often didn’t know they were being sketched, done on the fly, with delightfully unfinished results.” His loyal friends included many artists, designers, writers, filmmakers and more. He left a void that some are trying to fill with a memorial to his short life: a commemorative postage stamp. I asked one of his passionate advocates, Richard McGuire, to comment on Polan’s life, art and the plans for getting such a stamp produced. (Kelli Anderson created the stamp mock-ups.)

Why is Jason Polan such a significant artist? Jason Polan found his voice and it was one with real urgency. He was always drawing, always documenting, he was a deep witness of his lived experience. His work is always saying, look at this, and THIS, and THIS!!

His Every Person In New York book is just teaming with life! I looked at it again this morning and it seems especially bustling since the coronavirus lock-down. He was very sensitive to the human drama unfolding all around him. In the most simple, economic way, he would record what he saw, and there is a joyfulness in what he made. The act of looking would take over the act of drawing, so his line can be kind of jumpy and disjointed, and this became his signature style. These were real life moments, things that go unnoticed by many—it could be a very tender moment of a dad with his son, or someone sleeping on a subway, or someone eating in a diner.

Being so hyper-aware of his surroundings, his radar was especially good at spotting all sorts of celebrities in the wild. It became a kind of sport with him. He would jot a few lines and add a name along the side. Many of these drawings look unfinished but are unquestionable. A curl of hair, the curve of a forehead—yes, I see it, of course it’s Danny Devito! I loved that he got a few of these celebs to sign the drawings he made. Suddenly it became a collaboration, or a kind of a performance as they added their line to his. It’s another example of his inclusiveness. A famous face or a complete unknown, they are equal; his work is about everyone and for everyone.

When he was first starting out, he organized an informal get-together that he named the Taco Bell Drawing Club (I think it started at a Taco Bell but then it started to float from place to place). There was a memorial this past February at the Uniqlo store on Fifth Avenue—they hosted “The World’s Biggest Drawing Club.” There was a large video of Jason at a book signing in Japan from a few years before. Drawing stations were set up in the store, and they had pens available, the kind of pen he preferred to use (Uni-ball Vision Elite)—but these pens had his name printed on the side. Drawings were then posted on the walls and online. This event also extended to MoMA around the corner. He had established a relationship with the museum after he made his book Every Object in the Museum of Modern Art.

He did this funny project with an ATM machine on Canal Street—you can punch in a code and out comes hand-drawn money that he made. The rainbow cash ATM is associated with The Color Factory, at Canal Street Market. Jason created a new colored bill every two months. The bills are free, but you need the map to know which code to enter. From what I understand it is still operating.

His projects all had an element of fun to them. He got a drawing of his on the cover of a Spider-Man comic! He was super proud of that. Maybe this was the kind of dream he had as a kid, but knowing Jason’s work it seems totally crazy that this even happened. After that it seemed anything could be possible.

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