I've been kicking around an Idea for a while for a new kind of portrait, and today I finally got to work on it. The Idea is this: draw portraits on NY Subway maps. Right on the Map. This idea is good for a number of reasons-
1. Free paper. The Map (as it is titled by the MTA ) is available free at any Station Master's booth in quantities of one per visit. When I first had the idea months ago my wife and kids made a habit of collecting one every subway ride.
2. Since my Litho Crayons are fairly smudgeless the maps can be folded upon completion and easily carried in luggage unlike 16" x 20" mats or rolled up portraits (which very rarely escape crinkling and always suffer heavy curling.)
3. The Maps with their muted colors provide a natural background that gives a sense of artistic maturity to the pieces with no extra work on my part. This is a gimmick I've been taking advantage of in some of my work; if you've seen my Elena series- the girl dancing on highway maps- you know to what I refer.
4. I can't think of a more authentic souvenir of the New York experience.
So in the afternoon I got to work drawing myself for a sample piece. It turns out, maps are the exact width of a masonite clip board I found dumpster diving at Pratt. When clipped in one folds worth overlaps the bottom and is easily wrapped round and held with binder clips. I spent a frustrating half an hour capturing my face using the only chair height mirror in my apartment. Frustrating because no matter how I swung the door the mirror hangs on, my head was still back lit by a large window casting all but one edge of my face in shadow. When I stepped back it looked overly dark and dishearteningly insubstantial. It wasn't going to work. Then I remembered my white China Markers. (China markers are almost identical to Litho crayons, made with a slightly stiffer wax.) I sat back down and hit all the highlights with white then filled in the whites of my eyes. This was much better. I added a final touch of orange China Marker in my irises, which, mixing with the black, turned my eyes brown, and I was satisfied. Not the best self portrait, but adequate for a sample.
I gathered my stuff and headed to Pace Gallery to paint from 5- 11:00. I made it to Times Square around midnight. I took my time setting up. Same location. I removed the self portrait from the clipboard and taped it to my portfolio case and set it on my easel. Then I wrote in graphic block letters above my head "On The Map." As I wrote the comments were pouring in. "What's he doing?" "Oh look! He draw on maps!" "That's different" "How much is it?"
"40 dollars." I turned around to see a Chinese man with a big expression of surprise.
"40 Dollar! The other guys only 5!" He held up five fingers.
I smiled big. "I can do you one for 5 dollars, but it's not going to look like this!" I was still smiling. He waved his hands in disgust and walked away. It was then I realized I recognized him. He was one of the other guys.
I finished up the lettering, switched seats and went about clipping a fresh map to the clip board. The comments changed to people reading "On. The. Map." then, "Look at that mustache." then "Oh! That's him!" and a lot of grins. Three more Chinese artists ambled past in the next 5 minutes. Two made no eye contact. All three read out loud: "On. The. Map." One smiled and bobbed his head. "Thas You?" I nodded. I guess word travels fast.
About this time this dude with a ponytail shows up and starts talking in broken English. He's from Turkey. He likes my self portrait. He is an ex-libris artist. (This is someone who creates stamp portraits of people who want to personalize every book in their library.) He says 'hi, how are you' to Chinese people. He says hello to Indian people. He says good evening to French people. He tells me he is working on a brand new mathematical approach to art. I'm not sure what he said to the Italian people. He knows the meanings of biblical names. He can speak in 13 languages, 6 fluently. He has a wife and a one year old. He named his son Wisdom Heart (in Turkish.) His name is John Hunter (in English.) He fell in love with one look at his wife. He talked a lot. But I didn't mind. He was fascinating. Eventually a Korean guy from Seattle broke in. "How much are the drawings?"
"Oh." he started to turn away.
"I'll do you for 30." This was acceptable. His name was Paul. I did a good job while John pried Korean phrases out of him and wrote them down in a small book. I told Paul he was my first Map customer.
Halfway through he smiled and said, "It looks like your competition is checking you out." He was right, two Chinese guys stood, slightly embarrassed at being caught, staring over my shoulder. I finished and wrote ' The First One' at the bottom. He was very pleased and gave me $35.
I took me about half an hour to do Paul, but the streets were already quiet. John bought me a water (It was 90+ degrees) and we chatted amicably for an hour before heading home. I was happy. I had broken the ice on map portraits and gotten a very favorable response.