I finished painting lobbies at 10:00 arriving in Times Square at 10:30. I set up on 47th near Broadway, right in front of the Starbucks. I was barely done loading my clipboard when an Indian family approached. A girl in her teens was pointing at my self portrait. "Yeah, but I don't want it on a map," she was saying to her mother. "Can you do it on white paper?" she asked me.
"Yes, I can." I said, feeling disappointed, I really wanted to draw on the map.
"How much is it?"
"On the map it's $40. On white paper it's $20." She looked at her mother. Her mother creased her brow reflexively and shook her head scowling.
"Too Much!" she huffed.
"No, it's not. That's a great price." I smiled. There was no way I was going any lower if I didn't get to draw on a map. The daughter was looking back and forth between me and her mother. The price didn't bother her, I could tell, and she looked determined to get one.
"Over there" her mother waved across the street, "5 dollars!" Her eyebrows leaped to indignant heights.
"Those are CARTOONS!" I stood up. "I make PORTRAITS. NICE ones." I reached in my portfolio case and pulled out a white pad. "Those guys," I pointed, "do portraits too, but for 35 DOLLARS! Go ask them." I set the white pad on my easel. Her daughter had one hand on the chair. The mother was still scowling. She had been speaking in broken English, but I could tell she understood what I had said perfectly. I suddenly concluded that she had already talked to the Chinese guys and was putting on a show. I picked up a litho crayon. "C'mon. Sit down." The girl sat and began preening her hair. Her mother huffed away saying something in Indian, which I assumed was "It better look like you!" The younger siblings and father stayed to watch.
I did a nice job and when her mom came back she was all friendly. They paid five extra for a mat and left happy. I packed up and moved to my usual spot on 7th ave. as it was after 11:PM.
11:PM on Friday is mayhem. The amount of people walking by is staggering. You might think this would be good for business. I did, and I was wrong. Half the people going by couldn't even see me through the other half, and half of both halves were escaping societal overload by staring up at a gajillion watts of advertising overhead. Those who did notice me had barely a chance to react before being ushered down river. So I sat for well over an hour making flickering eye contact with about 10 thousand people. A 20 something photo guy parked his cart to my left when I first sat down, asking me the rules for selling in Times Square. At 11:30 a shish kebob vendor aggressively asked us to move down by jamming his cart against my easel, and saying "Move." We gave him space and he proceeded to do what these guys do best, that is, pouring marinade on an open fire, producing ludicrous amounts of smoke. Enough for thousands of people? Yes. Thankfully, he seemed dissatisfied and left after 10 minutes.
3 Chinese guys blew in and collected at the South end of our spot. They started drawing as soon as they sat down. They have a great knack for hopping in the river and coming out with a fish. Whereas I am compelled to sit and wait for the fish to come to me, sit in my lap, and beg to be drawn. Why? It appears to be who I am. The Chinese guys never get personable. They never show like or dislike for anybody. They never converse. This is not because they are unfeeling robots. (I know you didn't say that.) It's how they protect their culture from being swallowed by American culture, which is quite big on swallowing. This is wise. And good for business in Times Square. Me, I couldn't divest myself of emotion if you paid me. I can't sell anything without getting personal. My salesmanship depends on charm and don't confuse that with comedy. or cuteness. Charm is putting your heart inside somebody else's, understanding their emotional needs and providing them, making yourself indispensable to their happiness. I've found the best way for me to sell is calling out things people want to hear like "Hey! I Love your shoes!" or "feeling tired?" or "You ladies look lovely tonight." (My friend Habib, who I've promised to write about, is the master of complimenting the ladies without sounding sleazy or desperate.) Basically I can say any genuine thing that comes to mind in good will towards the person as long as it's not rehearsed and in no way tries to sell a portrait. If the passerby engages in conversation, I lay on the charm, but still never alluding to making portraits until they ask something like; "so you draw people?" At this point I'd say I have a 75% chance of getting them to sit.
Around 12:20 the crowd finally started to thin. I looked up as a patch of people cleared and saw a white lady of about 52 years on bended knee holding out a single rose to a black man and singing in a faint voice "You are so beautiful... to me." I could barely hear her. He was about fifty and obviously a seasoned hustler by his body language which telegraphed patient amusement. When she finished, she handed him the rose and got awkwardly to her feet. He gave a gracious bow saying "Thank You" and she gave him a delicate hug. Then holding his shoulders gazed deep in his eyes and said "Peace, Hope and Love." It was here I noticed the big bouquet of roses in her other hand and it dawned on me that he was not her only victim. I was too late. Turning from him she caught my eye and without ever looking away from my face began swimming a bee-line through the crowd to me. My brain was frantically kicking my optic cables screaming "look away! look away!" It was no use. I was somehow paralyzed by her intent. It wasn't until she was standing in front of me, leaning down, asking "May I sing a song to you?" that I landed on one way to make this bearable.
"You may," I said politely smiling, "if I may sing one back to you." Having taken my cue from the black man, I did not use the word 'retaliate'.
"Sure!" she said, delighted to have some form of company in her lonely endeavor. "That would be great!" And then, kneeling on one knee, she held out a pink rose and looked searchingly in my eyes. I was hoping for a different song, but no, the very same. "You are so beautiful... to meee" in a small, quavering voice. Quavering, perhaps, because I too was searching deep in her eyes. I was looking to see if she meant it. "Can't you seeee...what you do-oo to meee?" I was trying. I raised one eyebrow very slightly. There was a noticeable flutter in her voice, but she forged on and made it to the end of the song. As she gave me the rose and began to stand, I put out my hand.
"We had a Deal" I said.
"Oh Yes." she settled back on her knee.
Now I've been singing various Sam Cooke songs in the shower and occasionally when I'm painting elevator lobbies and no one's around I'll let loose a bit, because I really like to sing loudly and I don't get to do it at home for more than 10 seconds before my entire family (including the 2 cats and the turtle) have all suddenly remembered that 'very important thing' they were going to tell me. "Michael, did you check the mail?", "Look at my lego ship, dad... DAD! LOOK at my ship!", "Meow, feed meow?", "DA-AD! I'm THIRSteee!", Sploop Sploop Sploop Sploop Sploop (that's turtle frantically trying to swim straight up out of the water.) All these things sound trivial and mundane, but when I'm projecting 90- 120 decibels their importance sky rockets. But the point is; I like singing loud, and here was the perfect opportunity. So I blasted her.
"DarLIN' YOO-OO send me! I KNOW YOO-OO send me, DarLIN YOO-OO send me, honest you DO," I leaned in and half closed my eyes, "honest you doooo." My voice softened, "at first, I thought it was iiiin-fat-u-a-tion, Ooohh but it's lasted" loud again "SO-Oo Long. Lately I find myself WANTing... to" this "marry and take you home!" was the first place I wasn't able to sing with sincerity. Every other line there was someway my mind was able to mean it. So as I sung it, I broke eye contact and found a big semi circle had formed around us on the sidewalk. I was staring directly into the faces of about 14 women aged 35-50. I looked quickly back, and forged on, quavering a bit. "Whoa-oh-whoa-o-oh-whoa, darLIN' YOO-OO... thrill me, I kno-ow YOO-OOO... ThriLL mee, DarLIN' YOO-OO THrill meee, honest you dooooo." I supposes it was cruel of me to hold her captive and blast her but , man, it sure felt good to sing loud. She got shakily to her feet and I stood up as well and tried to hand the rose back. "No, you keep it" she said. And since I felt a little guilty, I let her hug me, but she didn't say "peace, hope and love." I had blasted that out of her. She slipped into the crowd and I turned around. 14 women were staring expectantly at me. I stood for a moment surveying them then said, "Anybody want a portrait?" sweeping my hand at the easel.
"Oh...No!" They put up their hands in protest. "We was just listennen to you sing." They shook their heads like breaking a trance and dispersed within seconds. I sat back down with this strange feeling that maybe I was in the wrong business. Eventually I did land a couple from Boston and someone on the heels of that, and the night became worthwhile.
I've been kicking around an Idea for a while for a new kind of portrait, and today I finally got to work on it. The Idea is this: draw portraits on NY Subway maps. Right on the Map. This idea is good for a number of reasons-
1. Free paper. The Map (as it is titled by the MTA ) is available free at any Station Master's booth in quantities of one per visit. When I first had the idea months ago my wife and kids made a habit of collecting one every subway ride.
2. Since my Litho Crayons are fairly smudgeless the maps can be folded upon completion and easily carried in luggage unlike 16" x 20" mats or rolled up portraits (which very rarely escape crinkling and always suffer heavy curling.)
3. The Maps with their muted colors provide a natural background that gives a sense of artistic maturity to the pieces with no extra work on my part. This is a gimmick I've been taking advantage of in some of my work; if you've seen my Elena series- the girl dancing on highway maps- you know to what I refer.
4. I can't think of a more authentic souvenir of the New York experience.
So in the afternoon I got to work drawing myself for a sample piece. It turns out, maps are the exact width of a masonite clip board I found dumpster diving at Pratt. When clipped in one folds worth overlaps the bottom and is easily wrapped round and held with binder clips. I spent a frustrating half an hour capturing my face using the only chair height mirror in my apartment. Frustrating because no matter how I swung the door the mirror hangs on, my head was still back lit by a large window casting all but one edge of my face in shadow. When I stepped back it looked overly dark and dishearteningly insubstantial. It wasn't going to work. Then I remembered my white China Markers. (China markers are almost identical to Litho crayons, made with a slightly stiffer wax.) I sat back down and hit all the highlights with white then filled in the whites of my eyes. This was much better. I added a final touch of orange China Marker in my irises, which, mixing with the black, turned my eyes brown, and I was satisfied. Not the best self portrait, but adequate for a sample.
I gathered my stuff and headed to Pace Gallery to paint from 5- 11:00. I made it to Times Square around midnight. I took my time setting up. Same location. I removed the self portrait from the clipboard and taped it to my portfolio case and set it on my easel. Then I wrote in graphic block letters above my head "On The Map." As I wrote the comments were pouring in. "What's he doing?" "Oh look! He draw on maps!" "That's different" "How much is it?"
"40 dollars." I turned around to see a Chinese man with a big expression of surprise.
"40 Dollar! The other guys only 5!" He held up five fingers.
I smiled big. "I can do you one for 5 dollars, but it's not going to look like this!" I was still smiling. He waved his hands in disgust and walked away. It was then I realized I recognized him. He was one of the other guys.
I finished up the lettering, switched seats and went about clipping a fresh map to the clip board. The comments changed to people reading "On. The. Map." then, "Look at that mustache." then "Oh! That's him!" and a lot of grins. Three more Chinese artists ambled past in the next 5 minutes. Two made no eye contact. All three read out loud: "On. The. Map." One smiled and bobbed his head. "Thas You?" I nodded. I guess word travels fast.
About this time this dude with a ponytail shows up and starts talking in broken English. He's from Turkey. He likes my self portrait. He is an ex-libris artist. (This is someone who creates stamp portraits of people who want to personalize every book in their library.) He says 'hi, how are you' to Chinese people. He says hello to Indian people. He says good evening to French people. He tells me he is working on a brand new mathematical approach to art. I'm not sure what he said to the Italian people. He knows the meanings of biblical names. He can speak in 13 languages, 6 fluently. He has a wife and a one year old. He named his son Wisdom Heart (in Turkish.) His name is John Hunter (in English.) He fell in love with one look at his wife. He talked a lot. But I didn't mind. He was fascinating. Eventually a Korean guy from Seattle broke in. "How much are the drawings?"
"Oh." he started to turn away.
"I'll do you for 30." This was acceptable. His name was Paul. I did a good job while John pried Korean phrases out of him and wrote them down in a small book. I told Paul he was my first Map customer.
Halfway through he smiled and said, "It looks like your competition is checking you out." He was right, two Chinese guys stood, slightly embarrassed at being caught, staring over my shoulder. I finished and wrote ' The First One' at the bottom. He was very pleased and gave me $35.
I took me about half an hour to do Paul, but the streets were already quiet. John bought me a water (It was 90+ degrees) and we chatted amicably for an hour before heading home. I was happy. I had broken the ice on map portraits and gotten a very favorable response.
Monday night, the 18th I worked till 11:pm painting elevator lobbies in the Pace Gallery high-rise on 57th. Afterwards I wandered down to Times Square and set up between 42nd and 43rd beside a lone Chinese portraitess. I only had 3 sample pieces to display, but I didn't fret; if someone wants a portrait, they are not looking for quantity in a display. My work differs from the Chinese in that I draw with a litho crayon, not charcoal. This makes it impossible for me to get that silky smooth blending and shading that makes their work so attractive, nor can I erase to make highlights and corrections. I must rely on a more graphic approach and work without making mistakes. To my advantage, I finish faster and my work stands out as different.
After setting up, this kid with a wannabe hipster goatee stopped by to overpatronize me with smarm. "Oh, man. Wow! These are SO good. Can I have your card, man?" I think he was so annoying because he reminded me of myself when I was 17.
"Sure." I say flatly and hand him one.
"I'm gathering together the world's LARgest artist collective!"
"Yeah. It's gonna be GREAT!"
"..." Blank stare.
"This stuff is really cool. You know, making and creating things is, like, what holds people like us together."
This is the point, I suppose, where I should have said- 'Sit down, I'll draw you.' and then wrangled a price he could afford, even offering a free one to pull in business, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.
"Well, it was good to meet you." he said and held out his fist in the 'Brooklyn Respect' shake (two fists pressed together on the flats of the knuckles.) I acquiessed and gave him my fist, and he moved on. A minute later I looked over and he was being drawn by the Chinese woman next to me. She handled his exuberance by talking loudly in Chinese on her cell phone for the entire 25 minutes she was drawing and still managed a fair likeness. He gave her what looked like 30 dollars and left. She packed up as well.
I had a lot of casual interest but no bites until 1:30 when a policeman, A really nice, soft spoken guy from the Bronx, started asking me questions about my trade, and we talked enjoyable for nearly half an hour. During this time despite the thinning crowd, numerous people stopped to ask the officer directions, and many others. because I was engaged in conversation, were able to stare at my art without feeling threatened by a sales pitch. Eventually someone tentatively interrupted, "Um excuse me, How much are these?"
"20 dollars." I could already tell they were going to get one.
"Could you do us both on one?" She asked, hopefully looking at her boyfriend.
"Sure, but it's $20 a person." Their faces fell. "I'll give it to you for $30." They exchanged glances nodding. "Sit right down. Where you guys from?"
"Vancouver." She had sat in the chair and he positioned himself standing perfectly still beside her, one hand on her shoulder. After about 3 minutes of drawing her, I realized he thought I was drawing both of them at once.
"Hey, you can come around and watch, I can only draw one at a time." He was much relieved.
Her face had me worried. It was the first of the night, of the season for that matter, and it often takes one to warm up. Plus, she was part Indian and she had one of those jawlines that changes with the slightest turn of the head. It's really hard to avoid making it lumpy or fat, but somehow I managed. As soon as I put the jawline in, I heard the oohs and ahhs of the onlookers and I knew I wouldn't need to finish in great detail.
His face was easy- big dark eyebrows, thick lidded deep set eyes, large nostrils, lips with defined edges, and a moustache and beard (which makes any jawline trouble reworkable) and even though he gave me a 3/4 pose I had quite a crowd singing my praises halfway through. "Oh my! He is GOOD!" and "Why, that looks just like him." and "You really got 'im, Chief!"
I stopped drawing much earlier than I wanted to, hoping to get another customer and not wanting his side of the page looking far better than hers. They were more than pleased and tipped me 5 dollars, but when I turned around the streets were suddenly empty. My crowd had vanished. Everyone but my officer freind and his partner who both stood there smiling. I started packing up. "That's it?" my friend asked.
"Yeah. It looks pretty dead." They watched me load up, we said good night, and I headed home.