The Artist on Rediscovering the Muted World of New York Subway Riders
In 2008 I returned to work 3 years after our son was born. Working at the Met, I picked up the habit of sketching during my subway rides home until it became routine. Sketching kept me wide awake during the trip and it kept me sane.
After more than 9 years, I can say that my “treasured collection” has grown.
Riding the train — sketchbook and pen within reach — provided me with one of the most tolerable workspaces. I learned to adapt, to change. Here I was, bleary-eyed and tired, continuing my passion. Finding my art at any given time and place, I feel slowly transformed: juices flow, the blank page waits and my pen finds consonance with the object/subject before my eyes.
I rediscovered an underground world. The rider’s empty spaces of emotion are silently framed, bringing life to their solitary isolation. Their anonymity makes me feel deeply connected.
In filling the pages of my sketchbook and allowing the pen and lines to flow, my journey continues towards a home only art for Art’s sake can provide.
– Nanette Villanueva
OOV: What gave you the idea to continue sketching subway riders and developing a portrait series?
NV: Nowhere else but on the city’s subway cars can one witness a parade of Diversity. Sketching allows me to create work. Not only do I get to practice handling my pen and lines on a moving platform but I also step away and out of the routine of life. These sketching times are moments when I act on the rush of creative energy and feel connected to the subject before me.
OOV: What time-range of rush hour did you do your sketches or can we assume you sketched only during non-rush when you could freely see your subject opposite you?
NV: Yes, usually non-rush hours between 3 and 4pm and between past midnight and 1:30 a.m. Approximately 45 minute each ride.
OOV: What subway line was your best ride for sketching?
NV: Any, where there are moderate amount of people and none blocking my view.
OOV: I notice you have more male portraits than female. Why is that?
NV: My entire collection is huge. I don’t remember whether I drew more male than female. But If that is correct then I probably favored male faces because of their strong line details.
OOV: Do you ask permission before beginning your sketch?
NV: No, I would like circumstances to be as natural as possible and I try to be discreet and as non-invasive towards my subject.
OOV: Were you bothered someone might be looking over your shoulder while you were sketching?
NV: Sometimes. But there are times I am so caught up with my drawing that I don’t pay attention to who’s looking unless they start asking me questions or start annoying me.
OOV: How long must a subway ride be to complete a sketch?
NV: It depends. Not long.
OOV: what happens if you just began sketching and your subject stood up for their stop?
NV: That happens a lot, when the subject leaves, or moves around, continues to stare back at me or is blocked by some annoying riders. But it depends on how interesting the subject is. If that happens, I look around to find someone with a similar facial angle and I merge the two. Or until someone more interesting comes along. Sometimes I go through multiple sketches at a time.
All this time I notice her pen is restless on a napkin. Is she sketching me? Thank goodness, she’s just doodling….