Berklee Teacher Uses Time on the MBTA to Create iPad Art

Jan Donley used to draw on paper quite a bit, but when she got her hands on a special iPad program, it ignited a passion for creating "paintings" based on fellow passengers.
Image via Jan Donley

Image via Jan Donley

There are a lot of different ways to spend one’s time while taking the MBTA, but Jan Donley prefers to use it to inspire her digital art.

The Berklee College of Music associate professor recently started a blog featuring a series of portraits based on her observations of commuters she comes into contact with each morning. The project was the result of Donley utilizing an iPad Air equipped with a drawing and painting program called “Paper53.” That, matched with a new Tumblr account, led to Donley posting her portrayals of complete strangers online, joining a growing community of artists who have dropped the pencils and turned to a finger-painting-like method of creating images and sketches.

It took Donley by surprise when she realized how seamless and easy it was to use computerized forms of artistic expression—not to mention how robust and welcoming the clique of web-based artists sharing their secrets and tips behind such programs like Paper53 has become.

We reached out to Donley to get a sense of what it is that drives her to watch the people shuffling on and off of the T everyday so she can continue to feed her newfound passion, and what the trick is to stay discreet when studying her subject matter:

When did you start drawing people on the MBTA? What was the motivation behind that?

My motivation is one of observation. I’ve always been someone who watches and wonders about people. I see every person as a character in a story. Every person—every stranger—has a story, and it’s usually deeply interesting and mundane at the same time. It’s usually a story I’ll never truly know, so the best I can do is get an impression and try to hold onto it. I have been teaching writing and literature at colleges for many years. I teach at Berklee now. I say to my students, “story is everything.”

What do you think it is that’s so interesting about the T as a place to observe people and create art?

As a visual artist, I used to draw on paper, but my drawings were always tight and constrained. I discovered that I could draw and paint on the screen using an amazing iPad App called “Paper53.” That changed everything. My whole drawing style came alive. I use mostly my finger with an occasional use of a stylus. It’s sort of like I’m a kid again, finger-painting.

Is it difficult to draw on a moving train, or have you mastered it?

I don’t draw on the train. I just observe. As a writer and a visual artist, I am most interested in how people sit and stand and take up space. For instance, I have two pieces with guys who take up two seats with their postures and their bags. I have another of two women deep in conversation, leaning into each other. My favorite piece, of two women who are dressed up and sitting in similar positions—was fun for me to draw. They reminded me of my two cats, the way they mimic each other, sitting exactly the same way at the window, looking out. I did a sketch first and then later added colors—the colors the women were originally wearing were muted. But I brightened them. I think of this drawing [and] painting project as one of deep love for people and their place in the world. We spend so much time sitting, waiting, and moving from one destination to the next. It’s very intimate yet very distant at the same time. We don’t look at each other. We don’t speak. But we are all together, a community of sorts.

Do people ever give you weird looks when they see you glancing up at them as art subjects?

I get quick impressions on the train—shapes and postures. I do the drawings [and] paintings later—the faces are never the same faces, the clothes are always different colors, but the postures are the same or similar.

Anyone ever ask you to stop staring?

No. That’s not an issue.

train drawing 2

Train Drawing