With little opportunity to feed our wanderlust or enjoy exciting new experiences over the past year, many of us have found ourselves finding the beauty in things that we may not previously have appreciated fully.
Whether it’s a conversation with a stranger, a simple walk with a friend, the first visit in months to your favourite restaurant – things that we once considered commonplace have become an opportunity to truly see the beauty in the everyday things that we once took for granted.
Perhaps it’s tapping into this newfound appreciation for the beauty in the everyday that has allowed New York artist Devon Rodriguez to build a following of more than 14 million people over the last year – by drawing strangers on the New York subway.
“4.3 million people use the subway every day,” Devon says, “And each person has a story to tell.”
While the majority of subway passengers come aboard with a book or a podcast to pass the time during their daily commute, there has been scarcely an occasion over the past year that Devon hasn’t taken a seat, searched around the carriage for the perfect muse and pulled out his sketchbook.
Devon’s subjects and fellow passengers, however, are usually entirely unaware that they are sitting for the upcoming artist’s latest masterpiece.
“I try to pick the most interesting person to me,” he says, explaining the process of choosing his subjects, “But it’s kind of hard. There’s the factor of getting caught.”
“So I usually go for the easiest person to draw, who’s far away or who’s not looking at me.”
The artist has come a long way since he first began sketching his fellow passengers back in 2011, when he was just 14 years old.
Having grown up in the South Bronx, Devon’s affiliation with art developed at an early age. At the age of 8, he was already exercising his creativity – albeit in a very different way to his current style.
“All my friends that were artists would do graffiti in the Bronx, so I was like ‘Alright, I’m going to’,” he says of his earliest artistic practices, “I didn’t even decide. Doing graffiti was just natural.”
“Then at age 13, I got arrested for doing graffiti – I was like ‘I don’t really want to do this anymore’.”
Devon may have decided to put down the spray cans, but he had no intention of giving up on the pursuit of a career in art entirely.
Having set his sights on becoming a portrait artist and studying at Manhattan’s High School of Art & Design – an institute which boasts an illustrious list of alumni, including fashion designers Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein – Devon set about building a portfolio to sit alongside his application.
However, Devon found himself feeling like a fish out of water when it came to checking out the portfolio requirements.
“I didn’t have any of the stuff they wanted,” he explains, “They wanted these graphite drawings – I didn’t even know what a graphite drawing was!”
“My whole portfolio was drawn with a pencil and Crayola crayons.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Devon’s novice catalogue of work didn’t make the cut.
It was a blow that left Devon feeling defeated, especially as he began his first term at the local Samuel Gompers High School. It wasn’t long, however, before he found his silver lining – his art teacher, Jeremy Harper.
Determined to apply for his dream school for a second time, Devon enlisted the help of Mr. Harper to assist him in developing his skills to a level that would impress those selecting the new student body. Stakes were high – this second application would be his last shot at entry into the school, which only accepted 9th and 10th grade students.
The pair worked tirelessly to improve Devon’s work, with Devon devoting each and every day to the practice. That’s when Mr. Harper decided to share his own methods of practice with his student, revealing a sketchbook full of observational drawings of strangers that the teacher had completed during his daily commute on the subway.
Devon was immediately inspired. He had to give it a go for himself.
You’d imagine that this kind of covert approach to portraiture could leave any artist feeling a little too nervous to let their creativity truly flow, let alone a budding artist like Devon. He admits that it wasn’t easy to begin with.
“At the time, I was getting yelled at and I was getting weird stares, so I kind of stopped.”
Having spent the last year working endlessly on his drawing and painting skills, Devon finally gathered together the examples that he needed to demonstrate his potential to the Manhattan High School of Art & Design – and he was ecstatic to find that his hard work had paid off.
Devon left Samuel Gompers and enrolled at his dream school, where he was immediately introduced to a wealth of new techniques, tools and creative opportunities.
“I learned everything there that I know now,” he says, “And it changed my life forever.”
He quickly refined his style, working to produce photorealistic portraits of his subjects – though he never forgot where this love of portraiture began.
The influence of his high school mentor can be seen throughout Devon’s work from the past decade, with his most successful work to date being his Subway Series.
This collection of photorealistic paintings saw Devon return to his roots, discreetly snapping photographs of his unwitting subway subjects with his iPhone. He appreciated not only the way that this allowed him a more organic reference point for his work, but just how easy it was for him to find his models, too.
“I don’t have to hire anyone, I just get on the subway and there are paintings everywhere. There’s unlimited subject matter.”
However, while Subway Series was undoubtedly inspired by his former practice of sketching his fellow passengers, he hadn’t returned to the practice of sketching them in real time for a while, instead continuing to take photographs and use them as a reference point later on.
That changed in 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Devon and his fellow passengers were forced to begin wearing masks during their subway journeys.
“After the pandemic started, I wanted to capture people wearing their masks,” Devon explains.
“The mask changed the entire portrait on the subway. I was so used to looking at people’s faces and working out how I would draw them… I thought ‘let me just start sketching again’.”
With that, Devon resumed his former hobby of bringing a sketchbook along for his subway journeys, capturing the likeness of his fellow passengers by sketching them as they travelled.
The pandemic also saw Devon, like millions of others around the world, log onto an app that was fast-becoming the world’s biggest content sharing platform.
“I got on TikTok about three months ago,” Devon told StoryTrender in October 2020, “And I started off posting my painting content – painting portraits and stuff – and the views were decent, but it wasn’t anything crazy.”
Then he decided to share his hobby of sketching people on the subway with his viewers – and quickly saw his content go viral.
“The first one was 6 million views – I posted another one the next day and it got like 8 million views!”
The videos quickly began to capture global attention, with popular pages on other social media sites picking up the videos and sharing them to their own viewers – then it got even bigger.
“It went from TikTok to CNN… then people started to tell me that Andrew Cuomo was including my drawings on his nightly emails.”
Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo had been sending out daily newsletters to New Yorkers since the beginning of the pandemic, updating citizens on the state’s efforts to bring COVID-19 under control.
At a time when so much of this news was negative, Cuomo felt it was important to conclude the updates with something more positive, which led to the inclusion of the ‘Deep Breath Moment’ section of the email – a note on some good news from around the city to lighten the mood a little. One such section included coverage of Devon’s subway sketches.
“It was just amazing to see that Andrew Cuomo wrote about me and included my drawings to New Yorkers. I just thought it was amazing.”
As Devon Rodriguez continues to sketch his fellow subway passengers for his growing fanbase, he has been reflecting on how he got to this point – and on what the future could hold for Devon and his artwork.
“Every artist wants their work to be seen and appreciated, so getting a lot of eyeballs on my work is amazing,” he says.
“At the same time, I come from the South Bronx, I come from poverty, grew up around a lot of violence. There’s a lot of young people on TikTok – I want to start putting out my story and where I come from and how I rose up to inspire the youth.”
“I don’t know what’s going to come of the future. I never would have thought about all the followers and the fame and the going viral. This is something I’ve been doing for years, so I’m just glad that something that’s so natural to me is taking off.”