Artist Sketches Portraits on PATH and Subway Trains

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

If you’re a regular on the PATH or Subway train, there’s a chance you’ve sat for a portrait without ever knowing it. Newark-born-and-raised artist James Wilson is a ninja of sorts, capturing passengers at those personal moments of rest, work, or play between station stops. His Subway Series: 2012-Present is on display at Rutgers Newark’s Paul Robeson Galleries.

“It’s just like a good photographer,” explains Wilson. “You’d rather catch your subject in their natural state and not being affected by your presence and what you’re doing.”

Wilson looks for subjects who are relaxed into their positions, ones who won’t just hop off at the next stop. Beyond that, he’s not entirely sure what draws him to people. It could be anything from a pretty smile to an interesting hat. For him, it’s about creating a record of this period of time through those moments of day-to-day life.

“They’re all signed and dated and timed,” says Wilson. “You need to have the date and time on there…because that’s what we’re documenting, in essence. We’re documenting this moment in time.”

He says, “Some people go to sleep, some people read, others are just drowning in their iPhone.”

The project started as a personal challenge to create a series portraits using every sheet of a discarded stack of dot matrix printer paper. Now three years later, that stack is long gone. Wilson estimates he’s done well over 1,000 drawings at this point on commutes to work, visiting friends, en route to art shows — he’s always ready.

“Because it almost becomes an obsessive-compulsive sort of thing,” Wilson says. “It’s like, you’re on the train, you’ve got to get your drawing, got to do the series.”

Wilson says he spends anywhere from three minutes to 20 minutes on each drawing, it all depends on the length of his train ride. And, if he’s really on a roll, sometimes he’ll fit in two.

Wilson’s speed allows him to catch the manspreaders and the menches alike. He points out a drawing of a young woman standing, while another woman sits.

“The young girl had already been sitting down, and then the older woman got on and she said, ‘Do you want my seat?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ And then she promptly went to sleep. I just thought that was a nice little moment.”

Of course, even with Wilson’s surreptitious sketching skills, he’s been caught on occasion. Most passengers are excited for the free portrait and ask to take a picture of the picture, but he did face one annoyed subject.

“And I just erased the drawing right in front of her, I had only just begun,” he says. “I just went over to the next person and started drawing while she was still standing there mad.”

But usually, his biggest challenge is navigating the bumps and turns of a moving train car and working against the clock. Fortunately for Wilson, though, he’s a quick draw.