In the city that never sleeps, the ultimate act of vulnerability is slumbering on the subway.
Artist Linda Kessler spent five years taking photographs of nappers riding the rails on Brooklyn-bound trains heading in the opposite direction from upscale office workers on their way to jobs in Manhattan skyscrapers.
She turned the photos into works of art by layering them on top of each other and processing them in a special way.
“I wanted the photos to look like I had painted over them,” Kessler, a Brooklyn Heights resident since the 1980s, said in a recent interview.
They will be displayed in an exhibition called “Subway Sleepers” at the Downstairs Gallery at La MaMa, a famous experimental theater at 66 E. 4th St. in the East Village.
The opening reception is scheduled for June 22.
The exhibition will run from June 23 through June 26. See lindajkessler.com for additional info.
Kessler, who was born in Flatbush, knows a thing or two about snoozing in the subway. After she moved with her family to Belle Harbor on Queens’ Rockaway Peninsula at age 12, two-hour train rides to Manhattan became a routine thing for her.
“I did everything on the train,” she recalled. “I ate, I slept, I did my artwork on the train. It was like a second home.
“It was a different time — children did things they can’t do now.”
The one thing she didn’t like about riding the train in the 1970s was that the windows were often so graffiti-covered that she couldn’t see what the station stops were.
To sleep, perchance to dream
Fast-forward to 2010, the year that Kessler started work on her “Subway Sleepers” photos. She was inspired to embark on the project by the slumbering train riders she often saw during morning commute time.
“That’s what fascinated me,” she said. “They were sleeping in the morning while everyone else was wide awake and ready for work.
“I wanted to honor them, and celebrate their humanity, by taking their photos.”
Most of the photos are 24 by 30 inches in size. The images are poignant and peaceful, with beautifully captured faces — which makes perfect sense because Kessler is a portrait photographer as well as a fine-art photographer and painter.
The show is sponsored by the Josephine Herrick Project, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Kessler has been volunteer-teaching photography through the Josephine Herrick Project at the Rusk Institute in Manhattan. Her students are brain-injury survivors. A small selection of their photos will be included in the “Subway Sleepers” show.
She earned a bachelors degree from Brooklyn College and a master of fine arts degree from Pratt Institute and attended the Art Students League of New York. A graduate degree in mental health counseling from Northeastern University enabled her to supervise an art therapy program at a hospital in New York City.
She also taught fine art and photography in a city high school.
In the course of her career, she has lived in far-flung places including Boston and São Paulo.
Kessler’s paintings and photos have appeared regularly in shows since the 1980s. But the very first time a work of hers was included in an exhibition was 1964, at Lever House in Manhattan, when she was 11. The piece was an abstract painting of the World’s Fair.