Remembering Jason Polan to Find our Inner Artist

The artist’s job is to see the world around him.

I didn’t know Jason Polan, or his work, until I heard last week that he passed away. Jason was a 37 year old artist who, among other projects, had the beautiful, outlandish idea to draw every person in New York City. He completed 11,000 drawings, and would have gotten much further had he lived longer. Jason’s drawings are raw, irreverent, deeply human, joyful, and full of life. As Jason once quipped, “I feel my drawings have gone downhill since I was about five.”

I particularly like this one.

Jason Polan drawing
Man on 6 Train by Jason Polan

The writer and artist Austin Kleon starts his homage to Jason with one of Jason’s tweets, “It’s like, anyone can figure out how to draw something. But it’s hard to tell people how to see something.”

If the job of the artist is to see, then we have two questions to ask:

Am I an artist?

What does it take to see?

The first question, ironically, is the easy one. Today, you’ve no choice but to be an artist, even if, to start, you do it with a tiny, lowercase ‘a’.

The artist is the person who does more than she is told, who sees something unformed and forms it, who sees something that is missing and takes the steps to create it. To do art is to create, and no matter how big or small you dare to dream today, what we need from you is the creation of things that only you can see, the making of things that only you can make.

But what about seeing? How, as Jason asks, do we learn how to see?

We begin by deciding that seeing is a thing that we do. For me, that decision came in the form of deciding, in 2008, to write this blog. It’s been reinforced by the daily and weekly decision to keep it up for the last 12 years over more than 1,000 posts. That commitment, week in and week out, to create original content moves me from looking at the world to seeing the world; and the act of writing about what I see makes think harder about what I’ve seen and what it means.

But you don’t need a commitment as big as a public blog you’ll write for a decade. Not, at least, to start.

Creating Space

What you need is a bit more space.

Last week, in a rush of enthusiasm, my 15-year-old son shared a drawing he created last summer. He didn’t think of it as anything special, just something he’d done one day at camp when he sitting at Saturday morning services, a bit bored and trying to pass the time. (Apparently, as we just discovered, he also taught himself calligraphy over the summer.)

Because no good teenage deed goes unpunished, a few days after sharing how beautiful we thought the drawing was (and talking more about my son’s art—he makes beautiful ceramics too), we had a conversation about time.

Specifically, would that drawing have ever been created if he’d had access to his phone, to Snapchat, to Reddit, to YouTube?

And, before we get on our collective high horse about teenagers and screen time, let’s turn the mirror back on ourselves: we can easily replace “teenage-phone-distractions” with our “grown-up” distractions: the crush of email, meetings, our news feed, the latest crisis at work, and, yes, Candy Crush and its ilk.

Boredom is the Artist’s Friend

Think for a moment about what happens when we’re bored.

Our idle mind gets jumpy. If we can remind ourselves not to get hijacked by endless internal thoughts and dialogue, we find a bit of stillness. Our mind wants to turn this open, unstructured space into something.

If we allow it room to breathe,  eventually our undistracted mind will chooses to create something.

This new thing, this interesting thing, is the (metaphorical) corner of the pattern my son drew: the start of something worth creating. Once we put this down on paper, we have a jumping off point. Then, having crossed the threshold from nothing to something, it is much easier to fill in the rest through a process that is as much discovery as it is exposition.

Our choice, then, begins with recognition that being always-on, always-busy eclipses the potential for any blank space. Without blank space, without a little boredom and the prospect of a blank page, we will never begin.

But begin we must.

A small shock to the system can help. Here’s a thought: try a painless, one-month commitment to something you want to create. Use Austin Kleon’s 29-day calendar (recently updated for the leap year), and see what happens when you do some new thing for 15 minutes a day.

Do it for Jason Polan, to make up for a fraction of the beauty lost when he passed long before his time.