Atlantic Cities

Illustrating a Commute, One Rider at a Time

Illustrating a Commute, One Rider at a Time
Courtesy of Steve Wilkin

It's a perfectly natural feeling, now and again, to wish the other people crowding into one's morning commuter train would just disappear. Not so for British illustrator Steve Wilkin. For the past decade or so, Wilkin has used his hour-long commute on the 7:38 a.m. train from the town of Hebden Bridge toward the city of Preston to sketch his fellow passengers in all their commuting glory.

Last month, with the help of a service called the Newspaper Club, Wilkin published some of the drawings in a free newspaper called, of course, "738." (He also started a blog about the project.) He distributed the publication at the Hebden Bridge station; exhibited the drawings at the University of Central Lancashire, where he lectures in illustration; and even threw a modest "opening" on the train.

"Well, we opened a bottle of fizzy wine and a packet of tortilla chips with some colleagues on the return trip," he says. Atlantic Cities caught up with Wilkin for some tips on how to divine artistic inspiration from the daily morning haul.

What made you decide to memorialize your co-riders in an illustrated newspaper?

I had always drawn fellow passengers in my sketchbook when trying to come up with ideas for projects, book ideas, etc., but never considered these observational studies to be that important. My "finished" commercial illustration work was very different from my observational drawing style, so it seemed. However, as my commercial work dried up I concentrated on keeping my observational work going. I decided to finally publish these unseen drawings last year, whilst at a conference chatting to some fellow illustrators and swapping sketchbooks, when I got a lot of positive feedback. I thought the best thing to do was to give the drawings away, as they had given their time as models away for free.

How do you decide which passengers to draw?

I draw whoever I can see, whoever sits by me, whoever I can see through gaps between the seats. It's really great when someone falls asleep, so I can get them to stay still. As it is, I draw twitchy commuters: texting on their mobiles, typing on laptops, reading the newspaper, books, chatting to each other. I would say I spend anything between 5 minutes and 20 minutes, on average, as I work purely from observation on the spot, and I don't rework them or add anything.

What's the personality of the 7:38 train? Do the people who ride it know each other and socialize?

Hebden Bridge is a small market town in Northern England that has a reputation for being quite quirky. It has a large creative community, so the 7:38 passengers from Hebden tend to be very sociable, and we have the odd party on there at Christmas. There are a number of fellow lecturers, some of whom work in my School of Art Design and Performance. Otherwise it is a real mix of office workers and students and holiday makers on their way to Blackpool, where the train terminates.

The train goes from being quite quiet and sleepy to being full of students as it nears Preston.

Were your fellow riders aware they were being drawn? Did any oppose?

In ten years of drawing only two people have asked what I was doing, and they were quite supportive, even if they didn't think I was being particularly flattering. Nobody has actually opposed me doing it — they can always get up and move their seat, I suppose. A few have turned away; perhaps they just thought I was staring at them for slightly too long. I try not to be too intrusive and I do stop if I feel on occasion that they are uncomfortable. I think I would have quite a different response if I put a camera in front of them.

How did they respond to the publication?

It was quite nerve-wracking, as I had no idea what the response would be. On the whole the response has been really favorable — actually quite moving in some cases. One person told me they were going to change their lifestyle and move overseas because they were recharged by the idea of doing something more creative than their office job. Another stopped me and told me about how they had started training in a creative path and then left to get an ordinary job and had since regretted it.

Now that you're done with the project, how do you pass the time on the 7:38 train?

I still draw people, and I am in the process of finding funds to print a new paper. This time it will consist of a selection of drawings from this year only, rather than the past ten years. And I hope to find time to compare my experience of traveling to work with people in other cities, and possibly other countries.

All images courtesy of Steve Wilkin.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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