Time spent riding BART or Muni can be one of the least inspiring parts of a parson's day. It’s a time spent mostly waiting to be somewhere else. Commuters with headphones snaked from ear to ear, eyes focused on smartphones and iPads, or on the pages of books and newspapers. On the train, it’s sometimes too loud to talk to anyone, even when you want to.
Local painter Brett Amory sees that experience differently. For him, public transportation is a gathering place – kind of like a town square on wheels. And it’s given him the perfect venue to find the subjects of his paintings.
Amory has been getting lots of attention in gallery shows in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, New York, and London. KALW’s Julie Caine sat down to talk to him about the inspiration behind his work. He says it all started back in 2000 on his daily commute on BART.
“I was living in San Francisco and I was working in Emeryville. I was taking BART every day to work, and I noticed how BART would be packed with people and there'd be this disconnect," says Amory. "People rarely look at each other, you know, let alone speak to each other. And everyone seemed to be in their own little worlds.”
Riding the train everyday, Amory was intrigued by the anonymity of the people all around him. He wanted to know what they were thinking about. He wanted to imagine their lives. So he started painting them. He called the series “Waiting.”
Amory explains, “It's essentially about waiting to be somewhere else – in transit – and how there's this disconnect. While we're waiting for something, we're off in our own thought. You know, we're thinking about our past, we're thinking about our future, but most of us aren't in the present moment. And we're not really paying any attention to our surroundings or who's around us.”
Amory’s paintings feature isolated figures in washed out, featureless urban landscapes: bus stops, crosswalks, BART platforms, the airport.
“Usually the people in my paintings don't really fit, and they seem awkward,” says Amory. “They're the people that are overlooked. You know, you see them on the sidewalk, or you see them walking down the street and you might think, “I wonder what they do when they go home?” But then you forget about them.”
Amory describes one person that sticks out in his memory who he would see often. “There was this girl, I never put her in a painting, but I would see her on the bus every day. We'd cross paths, at the same time, every single day. It was like clockwork. She'd be crossing Post and Leavenworth. And I had just gotten on the bus at that point. Everyday, like clockwork, we'd cross paths…I was on the bus, and she was always walking, so yeah – I’d just keep going and she would keep going her way.”
Amory’s paintings are emblematic of the solitude of urban life. A man sits slumped by himself, lit by the glow of a bus stop on a darkened street. A middle-aged woman waits on a BART platform, face blurred, purse clutched to her side.
“There’s a lot of isolation. I try to think about the aesthetic, and I try to evolve the idea in some shape, way or form,” says Amory.
More recently, that has meant moving his subjects out of isolation. “This last batch of paintings was called, “White Light.” The paintings were more hopeful. People in the paintings were in the now, they have crossed through, or went through a passage, and they’re in this enlightenment.”
The paintings aren’t easily forgettable. In fact, some of them are larger than life, as big as 10 by 7 feet. For Amory, that’s the point. “I like to bring attention to these people. And doing them on a large scale, you’re forced to pay attention to them. When I show them at a gallery, or sometimes I put them up on the street, you're forced to look at them, ‘cause the scale is so monumental.”
To preserve his own impressions, Amory makes sketches and takes snapshots of people he wants to paint, careful to catch them in candid moments, when they’re unaware of him. For him, the nameless and faceless become as familiar to him as his own reflection. “I remember one person I spent probably 40 hours looking at, doing a painting of. And then one day I was on the Muni and I saw them on Market Street waiting for the bus. And I thought I knew him. I mean I almost got off the bus to go talk to him, and then it dawned on me: Oh, no that's the person I put in the painting. And I spent hours looking at their picture. It's like, I don't really know them at all.”
We’ve all had that experience in the city – recognizing the face of someone we’ve never actually met. There can be a certain sadness in that. But for Amory, there’s also intimacy, and possibility if you pick your head up for a moment to look around.