Ever since New York installed free WiFi on the subways a few months ago, riding the 5 train has become significantly more depressing.
“I can’t draw people looking at their phones!” I complain to my husband often. “The angle is horrible.”
He just laughs. As a writer, one who types on the subway no less, he doesn’t understand. “You don’t want WiFi on the subways because it’s harder to draw people?” he challenges me. “You shouldn’t be staring at people anyways. It’s creepy.”
But I know what all painters know; the subway is made for sketching. It’s expected. It’s our right, our pay, our reward, as artists putting the effort to stay in this small, hectic, overpriced town.
Which isn’t to say it should be done out in the open. That would be awkward and uncomfortable. And creepy.
There’s an unspoken subway craft, passed down from artist to artist, through creative osmosis. The notebook is to be positioned at a high angle so that no one- except maybe a nosey person on either side- can view it. Someone across the aisle staring off into space, looking thoughtful, or trying to sleep is your first model. You put them down on paper.
Someone actually talking to a neighbor is the best; oblivious and full of life. A real subway prize.
As you sketch, your insides will fill with the delight of witnessing the common person in all their common yet intricate glory, so delicately designed, their own little distressed or blissed out universe.
Inevitably, they will sense you looking at them. At this point you must shift, stare pointedly in the other direction, pretend you were drawing someone else the whole time, and then actually choose someone else, a few seats down, and resume your capturing. Don’t feel guilty. Never feel guilty. Remind yourself that this is your right.
At least, that was then. Before WiFi moved in.
Now, like unwanted, ungrateful college students, the phones invaded. They’re everywhere.
Everyone’s reaching for one. Like life support, a security object, or their second lung.
It’s the expressions that kill me. Those blank, downward faces. You don’t know emptiness until you try to draw someone on their phone. All the power of the human spirit, the complexity of the muscles on the human face, for this? For Candy Crush?
Would a person sleeping be better? Yes, absolutely. The expression is different, open, alive. Thinking, if not conscious.
Would a person staring off into space be better? No question, yes.
The phone is like a dead weight, a black hole, taking the person’s vitality and stuffing it into a subway sock drawer. Anything is better than blankness.
The other day, I witnessed an honest to goodness conversation going on the subway. You wouldn’t believe the amount of facial expressions a face goes through while talking. Like two modern metropolises lighting up the sky.
I think it was between a mother and daughter. One woman was significantly older, and the younger one seemed to be asking her advice in a very daughterly type of way, acting as if she really took the older woman’s opinion seriously, and really wanted to share her life with her. It was quite heartwarming to see. I didn’t capture it on paper; it was too sacred, though I did sneak a photo of it to ponder over for future reference.
Look at the sleeping guy next to them. Total subway artist gold.
Subway interactions, however, are one in a million. I know. It’s bleak. In these phone-obsessed times, what’s an artist to do, on a New York, WiFi-ed subway?
I’d like to share some tricks that have sustained me throughout my subway journeys, in hopes that they will help you as well.
1. Let go of the phone users. I know, you will think to yourself, “Maybe I can capture something interesting with this person, even if he’s just looking at his phone.” No, let him go. It will not succeed. It will only eat you up inside, burning like a hot coal shawarma sandwich.
2. Keep your eyes open. There are always people scattered in between the users. People whose phones have died or who fell asleep while trying to watch something. Find those people and get them down on paper.
3. Unite with other subway drawers. Break subway sketching taboo, and scout out and find each other. Draw each other. You and another artist, staring at each other from across the aisle, busily scratching likenesses onto notebook paper. How romantic. Don’t worry about anyone being creeped out if they notice. No one will notice. They will all be looking at their phones.
4. Keep the faith. The time will come. The time will come when our faces will miss the experience of just looking and seeing, of reading and pondering, that they will demand less screen-time. Our faces will revolt against us. Your subjects will return.
Until then, keep a stiff upper lip.
Nobody said that being a subway artist is an easy life. We don’t do it because it’s easy. We do it because it’s what artists do.