French-African Artist on the F-Train

On the F-train uptown one Sunday evening, I absently sketched a man sleeping across from me with a light blue highlighter. He looked Indian, and had a Crumbs plastic bag on the seat next to him. It wasn’t easy trying to draw him. Sometimes when I glanced up, he’d awaken and shift slightly, or look towards me. Making eye contact with the people I am drawing is risky—sometimes, I feel like I learn more about them that way. But other times, they stiffen when they realize what I am doing.

Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) - Untitled. (2009), from Flickr user Bosc d'Anjou.
Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) – Untitled. (2009), from Flickr user Bosc d’Anjou.

Anyway, my drawing was in its early stages when a delicate looking elderly African lady looked at me and smiled slightly, nodding. I smiled back and moved closer. It seemed like she was saying something but no discernible sound came from her lips. She had the softest voice I’ve ever heard. I missed most of it under the interfering grating of the subway car against the rails. She asked, in a distinct French lilt, if I was an artist and whether she could see my sketchbook. When I handed it over, and she enjoyed looking through it. There was a somewhat distant look in her eyes, as if she knew something about me which I might not be aware of. We had a discussion about my aspirations. I told her I wasn’t intending to become an artist by profession, but I hoped to always keep creating work.

She told me that she herself had studied art when she was younger, but she hadn’t been able to create anything new lately because she had been very sick. It made sense. She was a tiny thing, wrapped up in a gauzy dull scarf and sunken into her shoulders a little bit. She said that she had always meant to create a website and wanted to exhibit her work soon. I wished her the best, and she looked at me and wished me a safe ride home several times. She pressed her hands into mine as I got off the train, to 34th and Herald Square and home.

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