APRIL 21, 2010, 2:00 PM
Artist Uses the Subway, as Subject and Canvas
By COREY KILGANNON
Corey Kilgannon/The New York Times Enrico Miguel Thomas at the temple of his muse, the 72nd Street subway station.
“He’s the Rembrandt of 72nd Street!” a yellow cab driver yelled at a man on the sidewalk painting the 72nd Street subway station last Wednesday on the Upper West Side.
Not quite: Rembrandt did not use city subway maps as his canvases. But the Rembrandt of 72nd Street does: Enrico Miguel Thomas, who can be found nearly every day outside the station.
Mr. Thomas uses Sharpie markers to make line-heavy, perspective-rich sketches of stations and passengers. His canvas is always a city subway map, which are offered free of charge at station booths.
Since 2007, Mr. Thomas has drawn the city’s subways daily. In warmer weather, he stands on the sidewalk and draws stations against the backdrop of the city. He prefers stations with substantial above-ground structures, and he has portrayed the Franklin Street station and often draws Union Square.
But he is most frequently at the 72nd Street station of the 2 and 3 train at Broadway, which he says he has drawn more than 500 times.
“I could draw this station in my sleep,” he said.
Mr. Thomas is attracted to the perspective of the station and the surrounding buildings, and also to the rush of the passengers.
“At rush hour, the passengers are moving so fast, you only have a few seconds to capture them,” he said. “With all these people rushing around me, it gives my drawings a life, an energy they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
He begins his drawings in the afternoon, in time for the evening rush.
“I like to work fast and draw very quickly,” he said. “I start two hours before sunset, so it’s a race against the dark. I won’t eat or drink till it’s done. The more uncomfortable the situation is, the more pressure I’m under, which makes me draw better.”
To this end, Mr. Thomas will only ask for one map a day from the token clerk.
“I won’t ask for a map until I’m ready to draw,” he said. “It creates the immediacy of possibly not getting a canvas that day.”
At his home station on 215th Street in Manhattan, the regular token clerk began recognizing him and stopped giving him a map, he said, but at 72nd Street, a token clerk who admired his work hands him five at a time.
The current map has the subway system on one side and a map of the commuter lines on the other. Mr. Thomas alternates the side he uses, depending upon how it fits as background into each drawing. There was a Canadian couple who commissioned a drawing of the 72nd Street station, but balked when they saw that Mr. Thomas had drawn it on the “commuter” side.
“They said, ‘No, we want it on the city map,’ ” Mr. Thomas said. So he redid it.
In winter, Mr. Thomas works inside the stations, often drawing on the platforms. The police often order him out of the subway stations, he said, and he once received a $50 summons for blocking a platform with his easel. The summons was later dismissed by a judge.
“It would have been easier to just pay it, but freedom of expression is important to me,” he said.
Mr. Thomas says that art “literally saved my life.” His biological father, he said, was abusive and scalded him with boiling water at age 3, disfiguring his face and leaving him in a coma. As an escape, young Enrico began drawing at age 8 and ran away from home as a teenager to live in a shelter. He later earned a scholarship to the Pratt Institute, he said.
“I use very little — free maps and Sharpies — to show that even if you have very little, you can still do something good,” he said.
Mr. Thomas is having an open studio on May 1 and 2 in his work space at Screwball Spaces, 183 Lorraine Street in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
On Wednesday, a passer-by, Deborah Haimer, spied Mr. Thomas drawing the 72nd Street station. She told him she recognized his drawings from some that he had hung at the Indian Road Café in Inwood.
“It’s an interesting way of making art,” she said. “Using a subway map as a canvas whose theme matches what you’re actually drawing.”
Mr. Thomas said: “I don’t mind people interrupting, but I hate when they try to use my drawing as a map to find a station. I’m like, ‘It’s not a subway map anymore — it’s art.’ ”
Then a young man with a French accent asked about buying a drawing. Mr. Thomas looked him over and told him the drawings “start at $200.” The man said he would be back.
Mr. Thomas said he sizes up his customers and charges them what he guesses they can afford. He said he often charges $500 and up, per drawing.
“I was making $600 a day during the summer,” he said.
“If they offer to buy it right away, I stop and sell it to them, even if I’m not finished,” he said. “Hey, they say the customer is always right.”