On the way home on the train tonight, I pulled out my notebook and scribbled some very ugly doodles in it. I had forgotten my phone, and without anything to read or browse through, I found myself forced to face the nastiness that is a blank page in a notebook. Of course, it had been so long since I’d last done anything even remotely artistic that all I could muster were some abstract shadings and lines that were originally supposed to be a free-hand typographic capital C but turned into a half-assed Sol Lewitt experiment.
The train wasn’t exactly crowded, but healthily peppered with passengers here and there. I usually like to sit by myself, so I can stretch out and do my own thing, but eventually a 30-something guy with a mildly ginger beard sat down in front of me. Imagine Murray from Flight of the Conchords, it’s not that far off.
Anyway, he didn’t sit quite directly in front of me, but the seat next to it, off at an angle. He started reading a softcover textbook, which by the simple line diagrams – rectangles broken by zigzags and black dots – seemed to be some kind of electric engineering manual.
At this point the things being put in my notebook were like the desperate carvings of a writer trapped on a deserted island. It started with: “[Jon] was the last man on earth…but he was not alone” and crashed and burned from there.
Looking away with shame, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the electric ginger was wearing loafers. I’m talking maroon leather, big-loop bow-tied dad slippers. Which, granted, could be classy in the right fit, with a nice pair of pants, and the shine shoes have when a man polishes and nurtures them…but those shoes these were not. And EG was wearing them with black socks hiked all the way up, with his leg hairs sprouting out. The only thing missing were the leather tassels at the end of his laces.
Oh yes, I’m totally drawing these, I thought to myself, and whipped over to a fresh page. I figured I should start at the top of the knee for context, so I doodled that and started moving downward. Then he shifted a bit and the angle changed. Aww, hell, I can do it. I’ll just adjust for the calf and– Dammit, he moved his foot. I’ll draw the sock and then– Dammit he moved again!
I kept trying to look up for reference without being overtly obvious it when it struck me that maybe he already knew. Maybe he was shifting under my intense gaze, and not to stretch out his legs. Maybe he wasn’t reading his book at all! Maybe he was watching me watch him and watching a shitty sketch version of his bare leg slowly come into being under my determined hand. It probably looked super rapey, or at least creepy.
Oh come on. I’m a pretty girl. I look innocent enough, right? I bet a guy would be happy to have his legs drawn by me.
Something about that statement didn’t sit easily with me, and I felt creepier than before. Suddenly he got up and walked away. Oh god, was he getting off or getting up because I’d made him uncomfortable? I looked out the window, but I didn’t see him walking away on the platform. Maybe he went to the next cart.
I tried to finish my sketch by memory, but my memory sucks so it turned more into a cartoon drawing than anything. The whole time I kept wondering, is it ethical to draw random people in public? If I were sitting on a train, minding my own business, and looked up to see some man drawing my legs, that would be completely disgusting, right? (Well, maybe not. Maybe I’m shameless enough to have my curiosity piqued instead). Should I have asked him, “Excuse me, but is it ok if I draw your shoe?”
I kept enacting in my mind a conversation on the platform that went, “Hey, I’m sorry if I weirded you out on the train before. See, I was trying to draw your shoe, but then I figured why not put the knee in for context, and I guess some of your shorts, but then the scale was all wrong so I couldn’t actually fit your shoe in and it looked like I was just drawing a picture of your crotch and leg, but I swear I wasn’t! Is that ok?” And then we would have a laugh and he’d ask to see me drawing, and I’d show it to him and he’d go, “Wow, you’re really good!” People do that all the time, right?
Then I realized that what I’d drawn wasn’t exactly flattering, and in fact I was making fun of him a bit. I meant it to be light-hearted, honest, but I realized I wasn’t the sweet, innocent artist I was making myself out to be in my mind.
This isn’t the first time I’ve draw passengers on the train before. In fact, other people’s legs seem to crop of often in my notebooks. Check out these gams from 2010:
This isn’t the first time I’ve been caught drawing strangers, either. The most notable time being the evening in NYC when I ate supper with my parents in a seedy Chinese restaurant and overheard some highly stereotypical New York intellectuals discussing literary dramas and their friend’s art exhibits – “Laura, you remember Laura, she had a project for the Guggenheim that I was meant to work on with her, but it was cancelled. That Laura.” Really, the things coming out of their mouths was just too ripe to ignore. I started with a rough sketch of their faces (Well, one guy’s face and the back of the other guy’s head. He never turned around the whole evening), with a collage of quotations around them. I meant to rip it out and give it to them at the end of the meal, but they finished before we did and got up to leave. Before they left the restaurant, though, the guy who had been facing me (and clearly noticed my curious eavesdropping) looked me squarely in the eye, then walked away. It made me feel ashamed of myself, which I’m sure was his intent.
Should I have, though? Should I feel bad? Is it really ok to listen in on and study strangers this intently, without their permission? How ethical is so-called “artistic” and “literary” observation? Part of me wants to say, fuck it, I’m not doing anything harmful and I’ll never see them again. Another part of me wants to be nice to everyone.
What do you think?