Michigan native Jason Polan, who embarked on a mission to draw everyone in New York, died at age 37.
Featured photo courtesy of the Polan Family
By the time he started college, Jason Daniel Polan knew he would become a successful artist.
At 37, the Michigan native was a valued and prolific contributor to the New York art scene with drawings in the New Yorker, the New York Times and on the cover of a Spider-Man comic book.
As an artist, son, brother, uncle and fiercely loyal friend, he touched numerous lives all over the world. Jason, who lived in New York City, died of colon cancer on Jan. 27, 2020, surrounded by those he loved most.
In addition to his exceptional artistic talent, his greatest qualities were his sense of humor, dedication to hard work and a passionate commitment to be a nice person.
According to his father, Jesse Polan, his goal was to make people happy through his art and through everyday interactions with friends, colleagues and strangers.
“Every encounter was an opportunity to brighten someone’s day,” said longtime friend and former University of Michigan classmate Jake Brege, who spoke at the funeral service.
Jason was born in Ann Arbor and grew up in Franklin, where he graduated from Groves High School. His innate aptitude and love for drawing began at a young age and continued to grow.
“His drawing was as much a part of him as his heartbeat,” said his mother, Jane.
His father remembers fun-filled excursions to flea markets, sports card, toy and comic book shows, and Tiger games. Cherished family vacations included visiting national parks, touring Thailand and Spain, and watching the Tigers’ spring training in Lakeland, Fla.
“He took his pad and Uni-ball pen everywhere he went and drew and drew and drew,” Jesse said.
Jason attended the University of Michigan, where he received two bachelor’s degrees, in anthropology and art and design. During his student years, he left his mark in various places throughout Ann Arbor, most notably in an alley off Maynard Street on the back wall of the former Borders bookstore. There, he and Brege painted a mural featuring gigantic black ants against a contrasting white background, which still evokes smiles from passersby.
“When it came to seeing the fun in life, Jason was a master. He was a disciple of fun,” Brege said.
After college, Jason traveled to the Northwest and Alaska as a volunteer for Artrain, a nonprofit organization that brings art to under-resourced communities. Once in New York, his career flourished, largely due to his unique ability to take ordinary people and objects and turn them into something special and relatable. His drawings of items in the Museum of Modern Art culminated in The Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art Book, sold in the museum gift shop. His drawings were featured on clothing by Nike, Levi’s, Soludos, Kate Spade, UNIQLO and many others, in addition to galleries, newspapers, magazines, books and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Despite his success, spending time with family and friends remained a priority. Creating a birth announcement or an invitation to a child’s birthday party meant as much to him as any large commercial project.
He founded the “Taco Bell Drawing Club,” which started with a weekly gathering of artists at a Manhattan Taco Bell and expanded to locations all over the country.
“He found meaning and connection in the flotsam of daily life,” said close friend Peter Meehan, speaking at the funeral service. “As a friend, he was loyal and present, and he would show up for you regardless of the ask.”
In 2008, Jason embarked on a mission to draw everyone in New York. The result was the 2015 book Every Person in New York, which depicted 30,000 people in a diversity of places and situations — subway stations, city streets, restaurants and park benches. He continued the project as a blog, which he kept up until weeks before his death, never losing his spirit or his sense of humor.
“That was his gift in life and in art — a keen eye and a relentless drive to make your day a little better, with discipline and dedication and humble curiosity,” Brege said.
Jason is survived by his parents, Jesse and Jane Polan; sister, Jamie (Kyle) MacDonald and nephew Jacob MacDonald. He was the brother of the late Jennifer Polan and the grandson of the late Florence and the late Bernard Polan, and the late Saul J. and the late Renee G. Turell.
Interment was at Franklin Cemetery. In lieu of a donation, the Polans ask those who wish to honor Jason’s memory to consult their doctors about colon cancer screening for themselves and their family members. Arrangements by the Ira Kaufman Chapel.