It wasn’t pretty. Back in the late 70’s and 80’s, I lived and worked in downtown Manhattan, New York City. So much of what I loved to do was uptown—the museums, the art school, and Central Park. So that meant taking the dreaded subways frequently. At that time (thankfully, this is no longer the case), they were dirty, noisy, crowded and often downright creepy. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are two thousand words spoken by one brave photographer, Richard Sandler, that can describe those unpleasant times far better than I:
Above photos taken by Richard Sandler
It was during this period of the almost daily brutal assault on my senses that I began to discover something quite miraculous. Following my art teacher’s sage advice, I was beginning to regularly keep a sketchbook and draw the snippets of life around me. Descending into the gloomy environment of the subway station, I would have my trusty sketchbook and pencil ready for action. While waiting for the forever off-schedule trains, I would quickly take note of the other subterranean creatures in my field of vision. The man hidden behind the giant newspaper (no ipads in those days!), the woman hunched over on the bench, the two depressed looking people barely saying a word to one another, all became my treasured models for a second or two. As I quickly moved my pencil to capture an angle, a line, a gesture, I found something very strange begin to happen.
It all started with a feeling that I had entered a time warp. What used to seem a tortuous and never ending wait for the screeching train became an almost disappointed feeling of “oh, it’s here already”, when it finally arrived. As the awareness of time began to dissipate, an altered consciousness began to fill my art spirit. It wasn’t a totally new sensation—I had experienced this feeling many times before when sketching at the peaceful New York Botanical Gardens, the fascinating Museum of Natural History, or the attractive model in my life drawing class. But in all these cases I was drawing something pleasant and often beautiful. But what WAS new was the amazing discovery, that even in those dreary subway tunnels, my sketchbook had the awesome power to transform an ugly world into something not only interesting, but at times even beautiful.
I became most acutely aware of the heavy lifting power of my sketchbook transformations one day when I was sketching a sleeping homeless man while travelling from one station to the next. My hand shook from the vibrations of the shaky old train, so my sketch was probably not much more than a 5 year old’s scribbles. But those squiggly lines were filled with a new knowledge--I was drawing not one of those alien beings that we hardened New Yorkers had learned to ignore, and at times even step over, but an exquisite human being who just happened to be far less fortunate than I.
"42nd Street" by Danielle Greene
I have since learned that there is a word to describe the magic of my sketchbook—mindfulness. All of us have the power within ourselves to tap into this enchanting world, whether we draw or not. The vehicles of transportation are many—including, but not limited to, music, photography, exercise, writing, and of course the time-honored technique of meditation.
I invite you to take a few moments to think about your own personal “WAY”. If you are not sure, you can begin to reflect on those special times in your busy life where something that normally would irritate you or make you turn away, did not. What were you doing at that moment, or maybe just a few minutes before? Or maybe you have already found which tools help you navigate our hectic and often harsh world, with calm and love. We would be so happy if you would take the time to share these moments with us in the comments below.
Here’s more information on Daniel Greene, who found enough beauty in New York’s subways to create a whole series of paintings of them:
And here is a collection of photos from that era: