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Puckish cartoonist Jason Polan dies at 37

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Jason Polan, a prolific New York cartoonist whose career was just catching fire, died of colon cancer Monday at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx with his parents at his side.

The Franklin native was 37, and was buried in his hometown Thursday.

Within New York and beyond, Polan gained a passionate following for his ongoing blog, “Every Person in New York,” which he filled with quickly dashed sketches of fellow citizens caught in parks, on the subway, or at Taco Bell.

“It is possible that I will draw you without you knowing it,” he wrote on his blog. “I try not to be in the way when I am drawing or be too noticeable.”

Polan

If people wanted to “increase the chances” that he’d draw them, he added, they should email specific locations and times where they’d be. Many took him up on it.

In 2015, Chronicle Books published a bound volume of “Every Person in New York,” with an introduction by Saturday Night Live star Kristen Wiig.

Polan, a 2004 graduate of the University of Michigan, was a young man given to quixotic ambitions with a puckish edge — his stated intent with the blog was, after all, to actually draw every person in New York. (By some reports, he exceeded 50,000 portraits.)

Jason Polan published this collection of his New York sketches with Chronicle Books in 2015.

Before that, he sketched all the artwork in the Museum of Modern Art — twice — in the hopes that would land him a job there. It didn’t, but won him widespread notice. Shortly after his death, MOMA posted a note on Twitter lamenting his passing.

Ultimately, Polan’s work would appear in the New York Times and The New Yorker. Commercial clients grew to include the home-furnishings outlet West Elm, who used his drawings on their upholstery, Uniqlo clothing, Levi’s jeans, and shoemaker Saludo.

New York Magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz called Polan a “human seeing-machine (who) saw and drew it all. He was,” he added on Vulture.com, “a kind of super-talented American genius,” and compared him to cartooning legends Matt Groening of “The Simpsons” fame and Saul Steinberg.

A 2019 Jason Polan sketch, "Man on 6 Train."

“He emitted,” Saltz added, “his own kind of beautiful psychic sunshine.”

Polan’s approach to art was as marvelously offbeat as his squiggly creations. He founded the Taco Bell Drawing Club, inviting other artists to join him from 4-6 p.m.Wednesdays at one of the franchise’s Manhattan outlets near Union Square.

If he was out of town on Wednesday, he’d hunt down a Taco Bell wherever he was.

Polan drew from the moment he could pick up a crayon, his father Jesse said, but unlike most kids, it developed into an all-consuming passion.

A Jason Polan party invite.

Even in elementary school, Jesse said, “Everywhere we went, he had his Strathmore pad and his Uni-Ball pen.”

Polan’s work attracted the notice of the cognoscenti. He had shows at New York’s Nicholas Robinson Gallery and the Lump Gallery in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“He drew very quickly,” his father said. “His style was very swift.” Indeed, once a person was gone, the artist refused to let himself fill in what he hadn’t yet gotten down on paper.

Polan took part in the Monster Drawing Rally fundraisers at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in 2012 and 2013, where artists are given two one-hour shifts to draw in front of an audience.

“He was super talented,” said MOCAD Executive Director Elysia Borowy-Reeder.

A Jason Polan cartoon looking up Broadway in Manhattan, dated March 18, 2012.

“In a way his “Every Person in New York” project was a grand and generous gesture of our time,” she added, “an uncompromising form of empathy that takes on all the layers of meaning in our cultural history.”

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy