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East Village Artist Captures the 'Solitude' of Subway Riders in Oil Series

By Allegra Hobbs | November 14, 2016 3:19pm
 Artist Victoria
Artist Victoria "VH" McKenzie works out of a studio in her East Village home.
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DNAinfo/Allegra Hobbs

EAST VILLAGE — An artist who years ago made a name for herself battling the MTA over selling painted MetroCards is now turning her attention to the agency's ridership, documenting the solitary commuters she sees on the subway in a series of oil paintings.

East Village artist Victoria "VH" McKenzie's ongoing passion project shows subway riders looking in their handheld mirrors, sleeping, staring into the dark windows — but mostly, she noted, staring at their phones.

The growing collection of colorful oils on wood, documenting the straphangers McKenzie sees during her daily commute, shows the ironically solitary nature of the subway and its riders, she said.

"People are so solitary on the train, and yet you're not solitary because you're usually in a car full of so many people," she said.

"You can really feel so solitary and you can capture somebody, I think, in such a solitary space, and yet there's 10, 20, 30, 40 people around. Yet you can feel very alone on the train."

The project began when McKenzie began secretly snapping photos of solitary commuters who caught her eye. She estimates that she photographs fellow straphangers two or three times per week.

"I like really capturing people lost in their solitude in a very public place," she said. "Because it's very rare that you capture people engaging with anybody else."

She started rendering the photos on small wooden blocks roughly a year ago, and has sold a few online, though she has since decided to save them up and eventually exhibit them collectively.

McKenzie's eventual goal is to accumulate a large collection of the small wooden pieces and display them altogether, she said.

"Part of me dreams of accumulating 100 of these and then exhibiting them all at once, which would be ideal for me," she said, noting she currently displays her work at Tompkins Square Bagels on Avenue A.

"I'd like to exhibit a wall full of them. I think they're more powerful as a group."

In the meantime, she is selling prints of the works on Etsy for $45 apiece. 

The works have become McKenzie's primary focus, she said, over her better-known New York-themed oil paintings on discarded MetroCards, which attracted media attention in 2011 when the MTA asked her to stop selling the works or share the profits as the cards were the agency's intellectual property.

Ultimately, the agency required only that she not show an image of an original, unpainted card and not use the term "MetroCard," and the dispute fizzled out, McKenzie stated in her blog.

But as a result of the very public ordeal, McKenzie has enjoyed a surge in popularity — her painted transit cards quickly sold out following the dispute in 2011, and she has continued to turn a profit hawking them at $125 apiece on Etsy. She noted that their popularity spiked again in 2013 when the New York Times revisited the ordeal.

McKenzie continues to create and sell the card art, but for the most part, her creative energies are now funneled into the images of the people on the subway rather than the New York City landmarks that adorn the card paintings.

"I’m really more attracted to painting the figure — the people," she said. 'And you see so many interesting things every day on the train."