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A Tribute to Jason Polan, by Jen

Jason Polan (7.17.82 - 1.27.20)

Nearly six months out from Jason’s death from colon cancer (get screened, folks!) and less than a week away from what would have been his 38th birthday, it still hardly feels real that he is gone. It also feels urgently important to remember him, to learn from him, and to celebrate him. With that in mind, it’s going to be Everything Jason around here in the week ahead, with offerings from some of his collaborations, more words about his life and work and lots of tears behind the scenes. 

I have been trying to write about Jason since the moment he left us in late January. There have been snippets of thoughts and memories floating around constantly, relentlessly. These snippets have been occasionally committed to pixels as an Instagram caption or a tweet, and a few easier-to-articulate quotes about his work made their way into the obits that were published in the upsidedown days immediately after his death. But a eulogy or remembrance or anything that would involve speaking about Jason consistently in the past tense has been utterly impossible. As someone who holds words in the highest esteem, it’s been painful to feel like there are none that I can string together that will do justice to Jason, his work, our friendship and the unfairness of this loss. 

A remarkable number of people, myself among them, describe Jason as their best friend. This is a testament to the depth, generosity, ferocious loyalty and genuine niceness of Jason. That these best friends, many of whom I’m now close to, also had the opportunity to have the closeness that’s meant so much to me seems sort of miraculous. As big as his world was, he was never scattered or distracted or short on time when we hung out. Sure, we’d take breaks to check texts, emails and scroll through Instagram, but our time together (there was so much of it!) was easy and unrushed. I think about this a lot, and am still puzzled and amazed by how he managed to be deeply present and care for so many people. It was superhuman. 

Jason noticed. This was his thing. The effortlessness with which he could hone in on a person in the endless stream of the city, pick out just one or two details that made them unique and make art of them. People often asked me if I thought he had a photographic memory, and yea, maybe he did, but it wasn’t really the source of his genius. The source, I think, was his bottomless empathy and interest. 

We’ve been collaborators for many years, and the projects he did for 20x200 were always carefully considered and extensively (sometimes contentiously!) discussed. He liked the constraints of 20x200—not because he ever made anything within them (he never did a single edition exactly as we usually do)—but because those constraints gave him something to riff on. 

He wanted to make things that were simple, tactile and affordable. He liked making lots of things that lots of people could have, and liked it best when he could actually make the things himself. He was never super into digital prints as a medium, but truly relished signing the certs for his editions. Because of his disdain for digital, his later projects with us were these sort of heroic one-offs. Original giraffe drawings for just $10/ea. Circle drawings for $1. We literally sold thousands of them, and probably could’ve sold thousands more if my mama-bear instincts hadn’t made me insist on setting some limits. And he never groused much about making all the things… there was joy and intention in every single one he made. Ultimately he was just really freaking thrilled that that many people were interested in owning his art, and soon would be holding it in their hands. It was such a privilege to be a part of those projects, and to be able to share them with our collectors.

In the days and weeks after his death, I got notes from many of you. These notes usually started by talking about how the pieces you own from Jason’s various 20x200 editions have always been among your most prized possessions, and ended with puzzlement about how deeply shocked and saddened you’d been to hear the news of his passing.  A world without Jason was not something we ever imagined. His presence, persistence and optimism have been a balm as well as a prescription for how we can live and be better, especially amid the chaos of these very challenging times we’re in.

The outpouring of grief and appreciation in the days after his death was overwhelming. At one point I took a fact-checking call from a reporter at 1am. His NYT obituary was extensive, and he was even on the homepage of CNN. And in People magazine! It was wild. I’m still pissed that I can’t talk to him about how crazy it all was, and heartbroken that he wasn’t here to take it all in. (Although he mostly would’ve been awkward, nervous and kind of embarrassed about all of it.)

In a recent letter, Melanie Flood—a mutual and beloved friend of Jason’s and mine—wrote “I am focusing on what loss brought to my life.” It’s something I’ve been striving to do as well. I’d love to change the script as it’s been written, but alas. And it’s true that Jason’s death, the suffering that preceded it and the hard work being done to ensure his legacy since have deepened my love and admiration for him exponentially and brought the most remarkable people into my life. All those best friends of his, his incredible (incredible!) family, and myriad collaborators. They’ve given me strength and love and comfort, and made my own life so much bigger at the exact moment that the world itself was becoming separate and small. The thing we have in common is Jason, and we are all so very fortunate for that. As his mom has bravely said many times, “Don’t be sad for us that we have lost him; be happy for us that we were lucky enough to have him in our lives for as long as we did.”

—Jen Bekman