The Subways Have Art For All
Ellen Levitt on finding encouragement in unexpected places.
The New York City subway system exhibits artwork for everyone, available for the cost of a subway ride. Usually riders rush about, paying scant attention to the many murals, mosaics, stained-glass pieces and other public artworks that dot the stations throughout the system. Or there are so many others commuters and tourists around that it’s hard to get up close to a particular piece and admire it fully.
The Covid-19 pandemic has diminished the number of riders, and a positive aspect of subway travel now is being able to get closer to the artwork. I’ve been a subway rider since I was very young, and have appreciated the artworks that I’ve seen in indoor and outdoor stations, along the connecting tunnels I traverse while transferring from one train to another, and I’ve photographed (and posted on social media) several artworks that I encountered and enjoyed.
Since the late 1980s I’ve been a huge fan of this, and I had the special thrill of once seeing the late Keith Haring chalk-sketching cartoons on a subway wall. While walking along stations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, I’ve admired beautiful and curious works of art that were related to specific stations (featuring renditions of touristy/landmark symbols and famous locales) as well as intriguing abstract pieces.
Perhaps my all-time favorite is the Avenue M station in Brooklyn, its walls decorated with rabbits and flowers made of tiles. Named Hare Apparent and designed by Rita MacDonald, it is whimsical, and is also a tribute to the legendary wild rabbits of Brooklyn, especially nearby Coney Island. This station serves my alma mater, Edward R. Murrow High School, and has a special nostalgic pull for me.
Ordinarily, the subway artworks make me smile, but now that our world is so bleak, it’s especially heartening to see the rabbit murals and these other artistic, creative morale boosters. They bring us light and hope.
Ellen Levitt is a lifelong Brooklyn resident, a veteran teacher, writer and photographer.
Designer Rita MacDonald uses everyday patterns and manipulates and enlarges shapes in order for her work to resemble architectural grids. She is best known for her glass mosaics.