A Letter from
Jason Polan’s Mother
Editing by UNIQLO
At the end of January, as we started planning Issue 03 of LifeWear magazine, we received word of the death of Jason Polan. In the hopes of revisiting our memories of Jason, and to mourn the loss of his enormous talent, we resolved to create a feature in his memory.
After discussing this idea with his parents, we received a message from his mother, overflowing with emotion for her beloved son. Though unable to include it in the print edition, we felt it vital to share it here.
What inspired Jason to become interested in Drawing
Jason’s drawing was a part of him as much as was his heartbeat.
I have copied that line from the words I spoke at Jason’s funeral to express what Jason’s drawing meant to him. It is not a question of when he became interested in drawing, it is literally who he was, how he expressed himself, how he communicated. Jason’s drawing was a part of him as much as was his heartbeat.
Jason drew because that is who he was, but his work had a message. Everyone, whether he drew a man asleep on the subway, a woman holding her umbrella over her children, an executive rushing to a meeting, a child in a Halloween costume…they were all important to Jason, and he wanted the world to feel that as well. I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize that until recently. Jake Brege, a close friend of Jason’s, spoke at the event we had at the New York Times. I like to think of it as a celebration of Jason’s life. Jake felt that Jason’s Every Person in New York was Jason’s way of expressing that every person was of value. This project was not only a lifetime of drawing, but also an expression that everyone was significant.
When Jason was in high school taking a photography class his teacher told me he would have been happier drawing every photograph, and in junior high he had to do a book report, and asked if he could do it in comic book format. He did, using his talent in art to recreate the story and answer all the objectives of the assignment.
We had three children, and often when we would go out to eat our older daughter would have a friend along with us and they would be talking, our youngest, a girl, would be reading, she rarely went out without a book. Jason was in the middle, and he would be drawing, whether on the placemats, on the bill, on napkins…As he grew older he continued to draw, on rolls of paper used to cover New York tables, and in his sketchbooks. He carried one constantly. Many people check to make sure they have their keys when leaving their home or apartment, Jason made sure he had his sketchbook and pen. Whether it was people or a leaf in an interesting shape, dinosaur skeletons in the museum, or on an envelope he was taking to the post office to mail, Jason drew.
The "Every Person in New York" project that draws all New Yorkers can be said as one of his most well-known works
When Jason first moved to New York he wanted to get a job at the Museum of Modern Art. I believe he would have washed floors, dusted sculpture, asked people to please not stand so close to the art; he wanted to be there. A job was not to be, but he spent hours and hours at the Museum. Before Every Person in New York was his book Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art. He drew and labeled everything – and had a second edition as well. He was incredibly proud when the book was for sale at the Museum’s store in the years to come.
He was always drawing people and things – whether people enjoying a taco, riding the subway, walking a dog, the sculptures around the city, the Statue of Liberty, objects in museums, garbage collectors, a plant in a store window, a dress hanging in a cleaners…
We are all proud of this work, and again, have come realize that to Jason each and every person was important, not just something to draw.
I believe he was proud of all of his work, sometimes frustrated if it didn’t come out as he wanted, and had to be redone. Visible to many were his daily drawings in the New York Times for year. When they changed their format they had a synopsis of articles and a drawing on page three as you opened the paper. They asked Jason to do this drawing. He did it for a year (and told them it was time for him to stop – he felt that was better than continuing and having them ask him to stop). Whether an astronaut reading the New York Times in space, or a cat reading the paper over a man's shoulder, or the pattern of clothing the reader wore blending into the format of the paper, the pictures were unique, and enhanced the thought that reading the Times was a good thing to be doing. Other works for the Times included his weekly “Things I Saw.”
I believe the reality is his drawing for a friend’s child’s birth announcement, or a drawing of seven giraffes for a 7thbirthday meant as much to him as projects that allowed him to pay his rent in New York.
What kind of son was Jason to the family
"Jason was much loved. His sister, Jennifer, was six years older than Jason. When her friends were over the informal rule was that Jason was allowed to be with them. If they were doing homework he wasn’t interested, but often they would be playing a game or reading, riding bikes or sledding…and he was included. Often she and friends would play hide and seek with Jason, at a much more juvenile level than their ten year age, for him to enjoy being a part of the game. He later played the role of the older sibling with his younger sister, Jamie.
I have a friend with sons, one Jason’s age and one two years younger. We were at their house one day and the boys were play wrestling. Jason came over to me quietly and said, “What are they doing?” I believe he had a non combative nature, both because he had sisters, and also because that was who he was. He didn’t want to see a winner, he wanted all to win."
Jason has many collections, from original Viewmaster slide viewers, to Pillsbury Doughboy soft sculptures, to Ninja Turtle characters, to comics, to autographs of sports and art figures, to specific record covers, to art work of those he admired, to the small disc put in an old 45 record...I could fill this page with the list. Jesse, his father, would often take him to comic book conventions, or sports card shows. Even at a young age he was very knowledgeable, both about what he was looking for, and the value of items. He was hurt at times that vendors didn’t treat him equally, often spoke to him like a little child, when I believe he was probably as knowledgeable as they were about what they were selling. He was, we all were, incredibly proud to see a life’s goal, the Marvel Spiderman comic book cover, become a reality.
Jesse would also take him on adventures searching for another thing Jason cared for – frogs and turtles. They would spend time at small lakes and swamp areas enjoying the adventure of spotting animals.
When he was in first grade his class had a pet turtle. On the last day of school the teacher asked who would like to take the turtle home. Jason was the first to raise his hand. The turtle was ours, and enjoyed, for over 25 years with us, lounging on slate in the sun in a kiddie pool in the spring, summer, and fall, and spending the winter in a large fish tank in Jason’s room.
Jason drew at an early age, but he was not an early reader, so going to sleep was much enjoyed story time, often for several of the kids together. Also when they were young they would take baths together, drawing on each other’s back and guessing what the picture was.
We can take no credit for Jason’s artistic ability, but I believe our allowing Jason to be Jason, our belief in him and his ability, his talent, his way of looking at the world, helped create the man he became. We were very proud of him.
Jason continued to play a strong role in our daily lives, even as an adult. I would talk to him during the day as he walked and drew, often about something interesting he or I had seen, or a comment someone had made, or how nice…or unpleasant…someone was at the post office. Friends commented to me at his funeral that when their parents called they would tell them they’d call back later, but not Jason – he would ask his friend to hang around for a bit and he would talk to me. We sent notes and cards to each other…many of these notes, along with his work, and giraffe drawings and interesting things he found or purchased, odd shaped wood, small ceramic birds…line my window sills, and cover the inside of my kitchen cabinets so he remains a part of my daily life.
Message to all the people that followed and cared about Jason and his work
Jesse and I have wonderful children. There are many who have expressed their support of us as we go through this grieving process. They feel sorry for us. The reality is they should be jealous, certainly not for our loss, but for the years we had with Jason, the love he expressed, the talent he shared, the fact that he enjoyed our company and spending time with family. I think this is true of his friends and those who enjoyed his talent. He not only shared this talent, but also his time. Many have spoken to us about Jason always being there for them, whether during a rough time, or at an opening of their work at an exhibit, or drawing for and with friend’s children. He gave of himself to others, and it was returned in kind, many fold.
A few quotes/comments from friends:
“Jason drew because that is who he was, but his work had a message. Everything matters.
To the Polan Family: You produced one of the most generous, talented, and delightful people I’ve ever known. He was an inspiration in every sense possible and sometimes seemed to good and kind to be true. I am so, so sorry for your loss and am incredibly grateful to have known him. Thank you for sharing him with us.”
“He was kind and funny and observant – a joy to be around. He once traded me a drawing for a jar of pickles.”
“Jason was such a wonderfully kind and sweet human being besides being so immensely talented and open to all.”
“He made the world a better place and I’m a better person for knowing him.”
“He touched so many lives in person and through sharing his view of the world through his art. But to me the most beautiful testimonial from each friend was his tenderness and kindness. More basic than his artistic talent was his character, who he was at the core of his person.”
“Jason Polan is on a mission to draw every person in New York, from cab drivers to celebrities. He draws people eating at Taco Bell, admiring paintings at a museum, and sleeping on the subway. With a foreword by Kristen Wiig, Every Person in New York, Volume 1 collects thousands of Polan's energetic drawings in one chunky book. As full as a phone book and as invigorating as a walk down a bustling New York street, this is a new kind of love letter to a beloved city and the people who live there.”