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QUEENS DIARY / Portraits From The Underground

REGULAR RIDERS of the F train are likely to encounter a man with

dreadlocks sitting next to them or across the aisle, busily creating pen

and ink drawings on an artist's sketch pad.

Bill Batson, the man holding the pen, would be engaged in a project

he assigned himself three years ago: celebrating the lives of working

people in Queens by sketching them as they appear in the subway.

A collection of the subterranean artwork, "Public Transportation,"

Batson has created is on view daily through July 4 at Dizzy's

Restaurant, at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Ninth Street near the

Seventh Avenue F train stop in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

"We have an obsession in our culture with celebrity, and I want the

average New Yorker to be remembered a hundred years from now as to what

their lives were like," he said.

In mostly simple line drawings, Batson, 35, captures the essence of

his subjects, a lot of them single figures: a man engrossed in reading a

book, a woman seemingly lost in thought, a man asleep, two men the

artist labels as lovers, and a demonstrator, who by the legend on a cap

he's wearing was apparently heading to a rally protesting the police

shooting of Amadou Diallo.

"I'll draw anybody," said Batson. "I draw police, scary-looking

people. I stare at people. People have been supportive to me by choosing

to pose even when they don't know it. My favorite thing is to draw

families. Whenever a family notices, I give them the drawing.

"I love to watch people as they read the newspapers," he said. "You

can almost see on people's faces how they react to certain stories."

No one, so far, has complained or been rude to him, Batson said.

"New Yorkers have a tough exterior but they're some of the greatest

people in the world, and they like artists."

Batson, a trained artist, is a graduate of Pratt Institute in


A trip to Rome inspired him to make drawing on the subways a

serious undertaking.

"Artists come from all over the world to draw Rome. It's truly one

of the important cities as far as art and architecture," Batson

observed. "I was trying to understand Italy through my drawings, and I

suddenly realized, `Why bother with Rome when I live in New York?' The

daily life underground in New York is just as beautiful."

His drawings incorporate scenes he sees through the windows of subway

cars when the train runs aboveground. They also include commentary on

topical events.

"I may be drawing people going home from work, but everything else

that's going on in the city is in the drawing," Batson said. "On my way

in today everyone was talking about the Knicks. You really get to see

the ebb and flow of every day right on the subway."

He records it all on an 8 1/2-by-11-inch sketch pad. A ballpoint pen

is his medium.

"I'm limited because of the location," he said, but Batson has

managed to use watercolors while sitting in a moving subway car.

With people constantly getting on and off the train, though, he is

challenged to work quickly. He completes a sketch in 3 1/2 minutes, he


"That's all the time I have. I would prefer more time."

But during his daily commute from Park Slope to 42nd Street, where

he works as associate director of the Bread and Roses Cultural Project

- a program of Local 1199 of the Hospital Workers Union that provides

cultural stimulation for shut-ins and the ill - he has enough time to

observe a few characteristics of New Yorkers.

"The people in Queens are working people. At the end of the day,

they're usually so tired they make perfect models," Batson said. "Fifty

percent of the people I draw are asleep, and I take advantage of the nap

time to steal a couple drawings.

"Most people on the subway tend to look down. I think they're

obsessed with their next responsibility, or they're reading. It's a very

literate city, because everybody's got a book. I think people need to

look up at the people across from them to see who lives in the city."

He's also noticed some harmony on the subways.

"Despite the frustration and discomfort and occasional inconvenience

of the commute, it's amazing how well people interact," said Batson.

"There's the stereotype of New Yorkers pushing and shoving. I don't see

pushing and shoving. I see people forced to practically sleep on each

other's shoulders. New Yorkers do it with a great deal of tolerance.

"Considering the fact that people are rushing home and in bad moods,

people are more tolerant than we would expect," added the artist. "I'm

always heartened to see how New Yorkers navigate such a difficult daily

commute with such spirit and personality."

The subway is a modeling runway of sorts for Batson.

"I notice the changes in fashion," he said. "Where a couple of years

ago the cut-off T-shirt would come about and everyone would be wearing

it, the fashion now is those big shoes."

Like other commuters, Batson also experiences the underground as

theater, at times.

"New Yorkers tend to celebrate public spaces, public parks, walking

down the street, being outside on the weekend. Some of that spills over

into the subway," he said. "I've been in a train and there's a

performance in front of me. I've seen kids break-dancing on the train,

saxophone players, steel pan players. And there's the occasional


People's altruism comes to the fore in the subways, according to


"The other thing I noticed about New Yorkers is that they're

generous. Despite the many years of homelessness being a visible

problem, people still reach into their pockets and give to those in


Batson, also a committed political activist, finds that drawing on

the subway relieves tension.

"It's very stressful work," he said of his activism around many of

the social conflagrations of the day, such as the Diallo shooting. "When

I draw on the subways I find it more relaxing than anything I could


The artist has also found that his hobby can be an opener for

interaction with his subjects.

"I've had wonderful coversations with people from just drawing

them," he said.

Batson chose the F line as his moving studio because of some

special features.

"The cars are nicer," he said. "On other lines you sit in rows

facing each other like in a waiting room. The F is laid out more like a

living room. I see the seats more like couches."

A wish dear to Batson's heart is to see his work exhibited in the


"I would be honored," he said. "I think there should be one car

that's devoted entirely to art. Why not be inspired on your way to


In taking his ballpoint pen and sketch pad into the cars, the artist

hopes he's setting an example others will follow.

Said Batson: "I hope that by drawing on the train, other people will

begin to realize they can find time for their talents."


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