LOGAN SQUARE — Chicago’s artist community is mourning the death of beloved New York City-based artist Jason Polan, who was known for his sketches of everyday people and his ambitious project, Every Person In New York.
Polan died of cancer Monday. He was 37.
The artist had many friends and fans in Chicago and across the Midwest. He grew up in Franklin, Mich., and attended the University of Michigan before moving east to New York City.
“He had a really big impact on a lot of people,” college friend Mollie Edgar said.
Edgar, who runs the Chicago-based design firm Hour, described Polan as a “really generous” and “incredibly encouraging” friend. The two met at University of Michigan and stayed close friends even after Polan moved to New York.
“The thing that I was always really amazed by is I knew him about 20 years ago and the person I knew then was exactly the same person he was just a few days ago,” Edgar said.
“His work ethic was just unbelievable. He was always making stuff, always producing stuff, always had an idea about what his next project would be. I don’t know anybody that is like that.”
While in New York, Polan would observe everyday people on the subway or in public parks and draw quick sketches of them. He ended up drawing more than 30,000 people. The drawings started as a blog, Every Person In New York, and were compiled into a book in 2015.
Polan also started The Taco Bell Drawing Club, which was just that — a drawing club at Taco Bell.
“It was just about hanging out and making stuff. You could be anyone, you didn’t have to be an artist, you didn’t have to know how to draw,” Edgar said.
Jay Ryan, a popular Chicago-area artist and longtime friend of Polan’s, described the drawing club this way: “We got some food, we sat down and people would pause near the table and Jason was very forward about trying to involve others in what we were doing — very welcoming.”
Ryan met Polan in the late 1990s or early 2000s back when he was playing with the indie rock band Dianogah. Polan, who was under 21 at the time and a stranger to Ryan, sent him a letter asking if he could get into the Dianogah show. Ryan wasn’t able to get him in, but the two stayed friends.
Ryan described Polan as a “a very warm and energetic person who was really interested in other people.”
Another one of Polan’s longtime friends, Logan Square-based artist Derek Erdman, is holding a Taco Bell Drawing Club 7-8 p.m. Wednesday at the Logan Square Taco Bell at 2432 N. Milwaukee Ave. as a tribute to Polan.
Erdman first met Polan back in the early 2000s when Erdman was working at record store and art gallery in Wicker Park. Polan came in during a visit to Chicago and the two hit it off.
Over the years, the two would hang out when they were in each other’s cities.
“Even if he had things to do, he would work you into his schedule,” Erdman said. “He had such a great way of making you feel like he was a big fan. … It was a real wonderful part of his personality.”
Like Ryan and Edgar, Erdman was always impressed by Polan’s work because it came from a place of kindness and curiosity.
“Anybody can draw but it’s really hard to see things that are around you, to find what’s important about your everyday surroundings,” Erdman said.
“I think he showed people that there could be great joy in seeing someone sitting on the train — without even knowing it, people learned that there is great joy in things that are around you all the time.”
Michael Worful, another one of Polan’s longtime artist friends who is based in St. Louis, said Polan’s death has left him “absolutely heartbroken,” but it’s comforting “to see all of the lives he touched.”
“To see the celebration of him as a person and an artist — that has been very difficult but comforting at the same time,” Worful said.
Erdman said he’s finding comfort in Polan’s work, which other friends said was so much apart of his personality.
“We can be sad we lost him, but he did enough stuff for two lifetimes,” Erdman said.
“We’ll always have so much of him.”
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