“It’s like, anyone can figure out how to draw something. But it’s hard to tell people how to see something.”
Of all places, I was in a hotel room in Crystal City, Virginia when I heard Jason died. I was trying to decide what to eat for lunch. I started crying. I typed “Taco Bell” into Google Maps. I stuffed a handkerchief in my back pocket and put on my sunglasses so I could keep crying. Then I walked to a mall in Pentagon City.
They say life is stranger than fiction, but life often feels like bad fiction. Stupid, over-the-top, a-little-too-on-the-nose fiction. I hadn’t walked a block when I passed a demolition site. Workers were spraying the building with a big jet of water to keep the dust down while a bulldozer tore it to pieces. The fencing around the site had been covered with multi-colored bicycles and inspirational phrases: “WHY NOT? BREATHE. EXPLORE.” I passed a glorious patch of pansies. (Oh, for crying out loud!)
When I got to the mall, I ordered a Crave Box with a Dr. Pepper and sat down in the food court to eat. It tasted really good. Then I made a drawing.
“If you draw at a Taco Bell, you’re a member,” Jason said, of Taco Bell Drawing Club. “There are no rules. I often draw people, but you can draw whatever you want.”
When I got back to the hotel I was scheduled to do a Q&A in a room full of a hundred people. I told them a short version of what I’m about to tell you:
Jason was one of my favorite artists. He was, more importantly, a total mensch. A sweet, soft-spoken guy. I really liked his work and I really liked him.
His art was the embodiment of so many of the things that I love. He believed in walking around and looking at everything and drawing what you saw. He paid attention. He did that thing that all my favorite artists do: He found magic in the mundane.
He was born a year before I was and grew up one state to the northwest, in Michigan. You could tell he got a little thrill when he drew a celebrity on the street and he wasn’t at all ashamed about it. He seemed absolutely sincere and, well, American to me in his love for things like cheeseburgers and Taco Bell. He wasn’t jaded or ironic. He was enthusiastic. (Attention = love.)
I think of him as a drawer, but he was a writer, too. He knew the power of words next to an image — if you look at his drawings, the captions are really what provide so much of the drawings with meaning. (I loved his long, rambling Instagram captions.)
He’s one of the few artists whose work I happily hang in my office and also in my kids’ room. He seemed to have that kind of child-like spirit that really gifted drawers are able to hold onto. I once complimented him on his drawing, and he tweeted back, “I feel my drawings have gone downhill since I was about five.”
The last time I saw Jason was in the summer of 2018. I was in New York for no more than 24 hours, and I randomly bumped into him while browsing the gift shop at the Whitney. I remember he apologized about how sweaty he was from walking around. “Otherwise, I’d give you a hug!”
We only got to visit for a few minutes and then I had to hop a cab over to Brooklyn to get my picture taken. (I don’t remember this part, but my diary from that day says: “I told him I loved seeing the world through his eyes — he seemed touched that I said that.”) I had no idea until a few days later that he’d drawn this picture of me:
It made me so happy to think of him out in the world with his Strathmore pad and a Uniball, scratching away, maybe stopping for a slice of pizza. I can’t believe he’s gone. My heart goes out to his family and friends. I’m so grateful for his work and I’m glad to have known him.