Showcasing Subway Sketches

After a failed internship, a string of dead-end jobs and a struggle with depression in his 20s, Brian Russo found his way back to art through an unconventional window — nude modeling.

Russo, a New York City-based artist whose work is currently on display at Cafeteria, started drawing when he was a kid by copying the pictures from his collection of Marvel Superhero baseball cards.

Despite his setbacks, Russo eventually found a job he enjoyed — working as an art model for the School of Visual Arts and Parsons.

“It was the first time in my life having a job where people would tell me I was good at it and I was getting paid to do it,” Russo said. “I got to be a fly, well, a naked fly, on the wall listening in on all these great lectures about drawing and being an artist.”

For years, Russo said he listened to the professors tell their students to keep drawing no matter what — regardless if it was good or bad — and the message really stuck. He said he started bringing a sketchbook with him on the subway and drawing the people around him.

“Sometimes people would notice and ask to see, but a lot of times they wouldn’t,” Russo said. “There was only one time when someone saw that I was drawing him and got mad. He said ‘What’s wrong with you? Is there something messed up in your head?’ and he got off the train.”

The six paintings adorning the walls of Cafeteria — “tiger,” “family,” “hoodie,” “subway,” “yellow” and “roommates” — can be viewed as a collection, because they were all either born out of Russo’s experiences on the subway or influenced by the style he developed while drawing on the train.

“It’s all about drawing people, not from the imagination, [but] when they’re directly in front of me,” he said.

Serendipity is the best way to describe how Russo’s work ended up in the New Paltz coffee shop. Pete Crotty, Cafeteria’s art curator, said he saw Russo carrying his artwork on the subway and approached him.

“I’m always looking for good — but large — art, because Cafeteria definitely needs art that’s big,” Crotty said. “I asked [Russo] if he had other pieces this size and I liked the rest of his work, so we made a show.”

Crotty said he sometimes stops by Cafeteria to ask people what they think about the artwork and that he’s heard nothing but great things about Russo’s paintings.

“They like that kind of Pokémon-esque quality to it,” he said.

Russo said he also did art-centered “street performing,” as if it were a full-time job, and would go into subway stations with pens, a stack of printer paper and a sign reading, “Fairly Hungry Artist Will Draw You!”

“When I first told some friends and family about this, I think the way they saw it was that I was going out and begging, like a homeless person…but doing this really felt like the right thing because it was me, seriously saying, ‘Okay, I’m an artist and I’m going to go to work every day as an artist,’” he said. “Every day I was leaving the house, making art and getting paid, and that felt pretty incredible.”

As for the message he’s trying to convey, Russo said he’s still “desperately” trying to figure that out, but it probably has to do with staving off his loneliness.

“Maybe I’m trying to combat that by drawing as many people as I can,” he said. “We hear all the time how everyone is special, but sometimes that seems impossible when you think about how many people there are in the world, so I guess I’m trying to explore that idea.”

Currently working as a babysitter for two children, Russo said he’s found inspiration for the children’s book he’s working on.

“I realize more than anything else this is what I want to leave behind — cool stories for kids,” he said. “I think that’s something that can really change the world.  It sounds corny, but think of your favorite story as [a] kid — think how much you loved that story, how much that story became integrated into the way you see the world.”