Say this for psychic turmoil: it stirs the creative soul. From Hemingway to Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf to Frida Kahlo, the most powerful artistic expression rarely emanates from a place of equilibrium and serenity. For many Americans—New Yorkers, in particular—neither equilibrium nor serenity comes easily, and, in the days and weeks following the Presidential election, emotional dissonance reached an apex not seen since 9/11. And so, Subway Therapy provided a highly original, if ultimately feeble, salve. Matthew ‘Levee’ Chavez, a New York-based artist, is the founder of the Subway Therapy project, a collaborative endeavor which requires the participation of passing strangers, and which predates the election—but sticks to its original premise: give frustrated and perpetually vexed subway riders Post-It notes and a pen, and they will write.
“When people are overflowing with emotion, help channel their energy into something good,” explains Chavez. “Subway Therapy is about making people smile, laugh, and feel less stress. I believe people grow and learn through dynamic conversation.” With stress at its zenith on November 9th, Levee parked himself in the tunnel of the 14th Street subway stop in Manhattan, and encouraged New Yorkers of disparate origins—but an overwhelmingly single worldview—to record their outrage and sorrow, dissension and shock on tiny colored paper squares; and then, one by one, adhere them to an endless expanse of tiled subway wall.
Part art piece, part theatre, part protest movement, the post-Election Subway Therapy project remained, ultimately a classic New York City enterprise: a spontaneous collective experience, a portrait in resourcefulness, an imaginative stab at quelling the chaos of an unthinkable moment. It was also, surprisingly enough, quite pretty, presenting a vivid mosaic of color that, for a few dreary weeks, enlivened the grey and harsh florescence of subterranean city life, while beckoning even the most harried subway traveler to stop and read, if not write.
Sticky notes spread to other subway stops, most notably the Union Square station, one of downtown’s major hubs, which played canvas to an ever-thickening paper display of aphorisms and affirmations, exhortations and exclamations, each hastily scribbled in marker or pen or pencil. Governor Andrew Cuomo made a visit (and a written contribution), and scores of tourists took it all in, jaws dropped, reading, filming, saturating their Instagram feeds. Like many a New York City experience, Subway Therapy proved ephemeral, the notes methodically taken down in mid-December, their impact duly noted and recorded for posterity. The New-York Historical Society stepped in to preserve a portion of the Union Square display, and then offered up its own entrance wall to keep the project alive through Inauguration Day. Only in New York.
Images: Promila Shastri