On Jan. 27, artist Jason Polan passed away from colon cancer at the age of 37. The artist, deemed by The New Yorker as a “New York treasure,'' was best known for his on-going project “Every Person in New York” in which he attempted to draw and document every New Yorker he saw. By the time he died, he had drawn over 30,000 people.
Jason Polan doing what he loved best, drawing. Photo by: David La Spina
Polan’s “Every Person in New York” project began back in 2009. He would draw people as they passed by him on the street, at a subway station, Grand Central Station or wherever he was. He always had a talent for capturing the essence of the people and things surrounding him in his community, wherever that was at the time. In fact, while studying Art and Anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Jason drew sketches of over 800 of his classmates. In 2015, he collected all of his “Every Person in New York” drawings and published them in a book. Polan told WNYC that “as long as I’m living and I can draw I will be thinking about this project.”
Another distinctive phenomena introduced by Polan was the “Taco Bell Drawing Club.” Since the club’s inception in 2005, every Wednesday between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., the draftsman would go to Taco Bell to draw. He would extend an open invitation out to anyone interested in drawing with him, regardless of their level of artistic skill. The club meetings typically took place at the Taco Bell on 14th Street near Union Square, but since Polan often traveled he would sometimes just find the nearest location and set up shop there. “The Taco Bell Drawing Club'' ultimately took place all across the county at Taco Bell’s in Chicago, Tulsa and other cities. Jason’s final sketch, documented in Dec. 2019, was of a man at Taco Bell.
Man at Lenwich"© Jason Polan
The artist’s first solo exhibition in New York was in 2011 at the Nicholas Robinson Gallery. Those who attended his gallery exhibitions recall Polan sitting at a table, drawing in real time. He wanted those attending his exhibit to be able to see his process first hand. Others also said he would engage with the observers by playing ping-pong. Polan’s work has been displayed in many cities throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Jason loved spending time at the Modern Museum of Art. He was even recognized for illustrating every piece of art in the museum. This project by Polan provided the inspiration for starting the MoMa Magazine’s “Drawn at the Moma'' column, which is very popular today. Given his passion for artistic innovation, The New York Times referred to him as “one of the quirkiest and most prolific denizens in the New York arts scene.”
Man at Taco Bell © Jason Polan
Aside from sketching, Polan also had a knack for cartoons—many of which were featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times and Metropolis Magazine. In 2013, Polan illustrated the book Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, a YA Fantasy novel written by Michelle Tea. He also wrote and illustrated his own Marvel Comics collection, which debuted about a year before he died.
Jason’s work, which he often shared on his Instagram, had a significant fanbase. His loyal following granted him the opportunity to work alongside a number of high profile brands such as Nike, West Elm, Uniqlo, and Levi’s. Jason Polan’s fans not only loved his artwork, but who he was as a person as well. Jason Polan will forever be an inspiration to young artists. His talent, craft and impact on the New York arts community will not be forgotten. Our deepest condolences go out to Jason’s family.