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Tell us about your process for drawing on the subway: do people stare at you while you’re drawing? Do you like to sit in one spot versus another? Are some people or objects better subjects than others?

Subways feel like very controlled environments, one could almost think of them as short-distance, low-cost airliners of the underground. A group of random people is locked into a moving metal container, doors shut tight, the world a dark blur outside as soon as the train leaves the station. It is a very confined space in which most of the participants are very aware of their surroundings. One has the linear experience of moving from one destination to the next and there is a shared experience of unannounced and constant turbulence. It is not the smoothest ride; the cars here in New York have no rubber tires like the metro in Paris, for example.

I am pretty sure the other riders keep an eye on me, as I draw in my tiny black book.

I’ve actually had a few people react to me drawing next to them. All reactions so far have been very positive. This might have something to do with the fact that some of my drawings tend not to resemble anything or anybody immediately visible in the car, or maybe because I really enjoy the conversations.

I also like to draw in nearly empty cars, in the evenings, or late mornings, on longer rides on local trains.

In fact, few of the drawings you picked out for our gallery have any close resemblance to things you might find on the subway—do you need subjects on the train? Or is the train just there as a place to draw?

Many of my drawings in general start with little clusters of information; one could call them information ‘seeds.’ I place them on a page and then let the drawing grow from them and around them. Some seeds are planted on the subway; some drawings are finished on the train. I can sometimes pick up a little element on the platform and then transform it into a series of pages while the subway is in motion. Sometimes the seeds are little snippets of conversations I hear on the train or maybe elements of advertisements or poetry in motion. They can also be design elements of someone’s clothing or just the strokes of the pen against the page caused by a rocking motion of the train. The drawings take a certain time to be completed and one drawing can take several rides on a train to find its final form.

It is a very flexible process that involves trains, but not every line of each drawing in the gallery was drawn on the New York subway. I can say however that the little black books are definitely with me on the train almost daily and that I try to plant little seeds of information on some pages while locked in a subway car, in motion.

Can you tell us a little about how you came to New York, and perhaps how long drawing’s been with you as something you do frequently?

I was born in Poland. We escaped in the summer of 1981, not long before the martial law closed the borders. I drew very much as a child, of course, but it became much more important when we arrived in Germany, a completely different and foreign culture. I was unable to converse with my classmates, as none of them spoke Polish, so drawing became a bit of an alternative language. I was lucky to be able to pick up German fairly quickly, and my drawing went very soon from a communication medium to something of a daily practice.

I remember working a lot and being very serious and passionate about my work very early on. I illustrated my first book in 1987; I was 17.

I studied Visual Communication at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Offenbach. My passion about the work opened some doors outside of the art college very quickly.

I started working with people like Franz Aumüller, KM7 and Tom Flemming at TRUST, one of the most creative advertising agencies in Germany in the early 90s. I had the opportunity to work on some exciting projects with people like Brian Eno, Terry Jones of i-D and John Warwicker and Graham Wood of Tomato. It was a great time; we had really great energy, and shaped some excellent ideas.

I was called to New York in 1993 for the very first time; a small record label wanted me to be their Art Director. I still remember arriving in the city for the very first time, how the car turned from the West Side Highway onto one of the streets of Midtown. It took seconds to fall in love with New York. The city somehow seemed to contain all the favorite features of all my favorite places, in what I felt was a truly beautiful package. I knew that I belonged here.

I moved to New York in 1996.

Your drawings also don’t seem too realistic, if anything they’re much more fanciful and fantastic, or maybe sniffing on something Beatles-esque from the 60s…where does that come from?

Yes, you are probably referring to The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie from 1968. I think I saw it as a child on Polish television for the first time.

It was really much later that I realized that Heinz Edelmann was the art director on that project. He was a real creativity superhero for me growing up. I am not sure how well known some of his other work is here in the States, but in Germany he is famous for his really intelligent and versatile illustration style.

I remember being blown away by his brilliant work, as it unfolded on the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Magazin, a publication originally designed by Willy Fleckhaus and comparable to The New York Times Magazine in its format.

He was definitely one of the major influences that made me want to work in the creative field. But I am not sure if I learned the playful way of working with the pen from studying his work, or the work of his American contemporaries.

I think it was one of my fellow students I met in Offenbach, Farid Rivas Michel, an artist from Bolivia, who really made me see drawing in a completely new light. He seemed to have the most amazing virtuosity with the lines in his drawings. It appeared as if he carried an entire universe in him just waiting to be put on paper in a style that often involved just a few continuous lines. This was a real contrast to the hundreds of nervous stabs most of us placed onto the pages of our books.

Farid lives in Berlin now. Some of his work can be seen on Supay.de. I think after working with him on some projects, I let go of pencils and started to take very confident ink lines ‘for their walks.’

As for the drawings being fantastic and seemingly not based on reality… they must appear this way because they are the results of curious collections of information seeds followed by a very playful process of growth.

Don’t you ever screw up in your books and just cross something out?

The movement of the subway can be like a giant invisible hand that just pulls and pushes everything and everybody around. Drawing in such an environment is like trying to keep the pen steady during a mild earthquake, or when there are turbulences on a flight. Imagine trying to draw anything fairly small on a packed train that runs on the express track between 96th and 72nd street, or what happens in the shakiest last car of a subway going from a dark tunnel onto the elevated tracks. We are traveling at high speeds, on metal wheels, on metal tracks, through an environment that is under the surface of Manhattan.

There can be a lot of people in the car, a constant shaking, a rocking motion, acceleration, deceleration, the train stops to refresh its cargo and the cycle starts over again. The movement of the car helps to add very unpredictable distracters and disturbances into the drawings, which could probably count as mistakes, but I try to include them in the process.

I have to admit, though, that some elements are added when the train is in the station, or even at my desk, far away from any large moving means of transportation.

What interests you about people on the subway? What are you drawn to, what does your eye hook on, how much of yourself do you see in anyone around you?

I think that just choosing to draw in a public environment like the New York subway and being able to listen and look at people on the train while drawing made me love this city even more. New York appears to be not really one city, but millions of parallel cities, seen from the point of view of every person living here. The subway is a place where very different perspectives are packed onto a common below-ground denominator.

I remember recently seeing a family bringing home a living turtle, possibly for a soup, as it was definitely not about to become their pet. Their New York is a completely different place than the city experienced through the eyes of a lady who traveled on a different train, dressed in a pink outfit that perfectly matched the one worn by her shivering Chihuahua. The boy who sharpened his box-cutters in front of me to impress his friends a few years ago probably experiences a very different city than an older Wall Street gentleman I once saw clean his nose into an open copy of the Wall Street Journal.

New York exists as many times as there are New Yorkers. We just sometimes happen to ride the same train or do other exciting things in the same location, at the same time.

It might be a very naïve and romantic way of seeing the city, but I think it is just multi-faceted enough to give each and every one of us a very unique version of what we just happen to call New York.

So what interests me about the people on the subway might be just that, the idea that their New York is a completely different one than mine, but that we still share the city and that $2 ride.

What do you need to help understand New York? What do you use to make sense of how the days contain their events, surprises crop up, all the contrasts?

I think that much of the magic of New York is born from the interactions and intersections of the different points of view brought to the city. If every New Yorker were just a passive observer, a spectator, then there would be no New York. Most of those who come here bring their solid dreams, they expect to fight for these dreams and they usually act on them. The dream might be to build the next World Trade Center, or it might be one of building a better life. It appears as though the city listens to all the possible dreams and expectations and then includes each of the mosaic pieces into its growing bigger picture.

Most New Yorkers carry rich life stories with them, which might help them be more open to the stories of others. This makes New York a much more compassionate and inspiring place than most outsiders would ever dare to imagine.

Any favorite place in the city and why it means something to you:

Hope you are not expecting me to give away my favorite breakfast place, or where I most trust the skills of the sushi chef?

Let me try a more public answer…

I was lucky enough to work in the Woolworth building (which is truly amazing) when I was creative director at Organic. The sunrises and sunsets on the mountain-like walls of the World Trade Center, just a block away, were some of the most spectacular visual events I can remember. I still like downtown, some of the really old New York. Have you ever walked on that labyrinth right next to Alexander Hamilton’s grave? Or how about just a very simple walk through the Lower East Side?

I always liked and still like very quiet, hidden places in the city. There are some galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that seem to have been made for just one or two visitors and a guard. I like to lose myself in the ornaments of the more hidden galleries of the Asian Art wing at the Metropolitan, at its center the Astor Court, just an amazing place in the city. Or have you ever been to the Luce Center within the Met?

I like to visit the Cloisters as well; the gardens are magical in the spring and the fall. There are some really magnificent views from there and the park, and of course some spectacular little corners in that lovingly simulated piece of Europe.

Oh, and it is a fairly long ride on the A train from where I live, which gives me plenty of time to draw.
 

Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded The Morning News. He is the author of Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down and You Lost Me There. His next novel is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His Kindle e-book for The Morning News Editions, about visiting different American towns called Paris, was selected as a notable essay for Best American Essays 2013. More information can be found at his website. More by Rosecrans Baldwin