New York City
August 5, 2000
Every day I am a spy for two minutes - and every day I am after a different person. Our paths will never cross again. But that time is long enough for me to sketch the person's posture, clothing details, accessories, shoe style, bag brand. That's all I need to create my Daily.
I first noticed the Monday girl's reddish hair and affirmative shoes. Gradually I noticed how long she stayed in the same place, talking with visible delight to a guy with a buzz cut and a biker jacket. The fog crept over the East Village, she looked cold, but she didn't want the conversation to end. Crowds buzzed by, funnelling from the 6 and the N and R into St. Mark's. She seemed the happiest person on Astor Place. I took out my notepad. Then my friend Katherine materialized on her pink bicycle, almost blowing my cover: "I saw you sketching!"
"Ssshhh!" I said, hiding by the cube.
The Dailies are a project I've been working on, with occasional interruptions, since February 1999, a couple of months after I first arrived in New York. I was looking for a project, outside regular illustration jobs, that would allow me to respond to the strong stimulations of the city and its people. So far, I've drawn dozens and dozens of passersby glimpsed on the street, one a day, in postcard-sized watercolors.
On some days, during lunchtime, the block outside the First Avenue Medinah is solid yellow with double-parked empty cabs, and the Islamic temple's lobby is flooded with pairs of shoes. But on Tuesday, this East Village believer was marching calmly on an empty sidewalk, the house key dangling behind his back. What caught my attention, other than the striking white beard, was his footgear, an improbable fusion of surfer technology and Muslim attire.
Drawing someone who won't stop for you is never easy, especially if you're trying not to be noticed. I'm not ready to address unknowns, explaining my project and asking for a pose they may refuse. But I'm sure taking notes on the shape of one's shoes hardly counts as an invasion of privacy. Pretending to look somewhere else, I sketch as quickly as I can, proportions as rudimentary as they come, but with lots of notes on colors, brands, details. And I may find myself running for a block after my model, if I forgot to see what kind of collar his coat had. All this feigning to look at the traffic, or checking out my watch...a true burlesque I hope goes mostly unnoticed.
Not noticing it was him who I was drawing, this sentinel at Chelsea's Comme des Garçons (Wednesday) asked me: "Are you sketching, or just taking notes? Sketching is not allowed in the store." Comme des Garçons certainly knows a thing or two about pilferage, their store being a rip-off of Richard Serra sculptures. So I understood their effort to stop the chain of plagiarism. Feeling sorry for a gentleman forced to wear such an incomprehensible shirt, I said I was "taking notes." Then I proceeded to smilingly stare at him for several minutes, memorizing every detail, while he fiddled with his Nokia.
Since the Dailies is a project I do only for myself, I don't go out of my way searching for specific characters. (I live in the East Village, so my collection reflects a downtown slant I'm aware of; I wish I had time for more expeditions beyond my turf.) Basically, though, it's normality that captures my attention. My instant models tend to be people I feel I've seen before. I go for archetypes, rather than standouts; and I try to skip obvious outsiders. Of course, exceptions occur all the time. In fact, I don't give it too much thought: more often than not, a mere glance is enough for me to know I found my Daily.
Thursday, Paul Donald and I went to see the The Magnetic Fields at Battery Park. Ever heard them? "69 Love Songs" has been Amy's and my favorite record this year. As pop bands go, they bring together a remarkable audience of sensitive, polite types, listening in absolute silence to every single word sung by Stephin or Claudia. The only interferences came from passing helicopters, or the ushers' walkie-talkies: that's how quiet and mesmerized we all were. Studying the crowd, I kept spotting types, such as the guy with a shirt, tie, and briefcase, his shoes and socks off, standing with his eyes closed. Or this girl, sporting all sorts of distinctive details: flowers tattooed down her spine, the "Free Mumia" button, the high-tech shoes, the cast. It entertained me for a while, trying to guess what happened to her arm.