Many people in New York look up as they walk around; skyscrapers are, after all, a signature of the city. But Thomas McKean looks down—not only at sidewalks, but at the treads of subway stairs, the cracks beneath apartment doors, the dirt around trees. These are where he finds the “free everyday things” that most of us would overlook or discard, but that he transforms into art.
Thomas is best known for his mosaics and three-dimensional “constructions” made with repurposed MetroCards, though has also created collages and drawings using takeout menus, lost mittens, business cards tucked into windshield wipers and fences, and litter. He notes that before the MTA started charging a dollar for a new MetroCard, there were more discards for the taking. Over the past few decades, Thomas has reworked his vast collection into more than a thousand pieces of art. Some are currently on sale at the Manhattan dishware emporium Fish’s Eddy, which featured an exhibit of his work last year. Thomas’s subjects subjects range from the Empire State Building to the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary; from brownstone row houses to taxicabs; from portraits and city maps to birds’ nests and bridges. He has a particular affection for the letter X, which he incorporates into many of his abstract compositions: “I like its mysterious nature, and how it fits on a page.”
When he finds a card, Thomas brings it home and washes it in soap and water. Then he files it in a family-heirloom art-supply box.
Later, he cuts and sorts the cards into their basic components—logo, arrows, lettering, magnetic strip—and snips them into tiles, then glues them to watercolor paper, often in strips of a single color, using Dahle scissors and Scotch Tacky Glue. The German scissors are the perfect size for snipping the plastic, and have an adjustable fulcrum; unfortunately, this tool has been discontinued, much as his medium soon will be.
The palette of the average MetroCard is limited, but Thomas makes the most of it: black from the magnetic strip; blue from the words MetroCard; yellow from the backgound; brown from the MTA logo; arrows and letters from Insert this way / This side facing you; and black and white from the backside. Special-edition cards (Biggie Smalls, the Subway Series) offer pops of color; Student MetroCards provide neon green or orange; TransitChek cards are dark green; and Reduced Fare MetroCards have burgundy letters. Because people tend to hang on to them, or resell them on eBay, these cards must be rationed. Though he appreciates their pliability and shiny surface, “MetroCards are not really a freewheeling medium,” he admits, and each piece takes hours of intricate cutting, gluing, and arranging.
Thomas was born in New York City and grew up in Westchester. Both his parents were artists, and their work hangs alongside his own in his diminutive East Village apartment, where he’s lived and worked for the past thirty years; he has also written several middle-grade and YA novels here. He creates his art on an equally diminutive side table, slotted into a corner like a tile in a mosaic. He’s never had another job, apart from a brief stint as an early childhood educator.
“I was one of those kids who starts drawing as soon as he can pick up a crayon,” he says. Thomas remembers the first collage he made, in nursery school. The teachers cut out images from ads and laid them on a table, and the children were told to select one at a time. From his place in line, three-year-old Thomas spotted a crown. “We only used butter at home, so I didn’t realize that the crown was from Golden Crown–brand margarine,” he recalls. “I thought it was a treasure. I was hoping it would still be there when I got to the front of the line.”
Many decades later, Thomas had a similar experience. In Grand Central Terminal, he spotted a “mother lode” of MetroCards—golden crowns in their own right—stashed behind a vending machine. He came back the next day with a long umbrella and tote bag, hoping they would still be there. They were, and using the umbrella, he swept out as many as he could. He returned the next day with an even longer umbrella, and was lying on the station floor, poking around behind the machine, when a woman approached. “You look like you could use some help,” she said, with a whiff of disapproval. He realized he might appear to be homeless or mentally ill; really, he was just a lucky artist.
His inspiration to create art from MetroCards began back in 1993, when the MTA first hung posters in subways introducing the MetroCard as a fare system to supplant the token. Bored one day during a ride, Thomas began mentally rearranging the letters of this new word, MetroCard. He’s since used the cards’ rearranged letters in his art, such as on this do-re-mi BuskerCard, a tribute to subway musicians.
Despite their apparent uniformity, the cards’ three basic colors vary; as soon as Thomas spots one on the sidewalk, he categorizes it: “Oh, that’s one of the dark yellow ones,” or “Aha! That one has the periwinkle letters.” The brown circle around the MTA logo is perfect for brownstones, but it’s so tiny that each card yields only 2 “bricks.” The arrows, when placed next to one another, can simulate wood grain or patterns on a shirt. The “reflection” of the words MetroCard creates “swirly depth.”
The New York City sidewalks provide a wealth of other free colors and patterns, and Thomas has made quilt-style collages out of laminated business cards—mostly from movers, gyms, locksmiths, and cannabis dealers—and from takeout menus.
He used found text to memorialize the prewar floor tiles in his apartment building.
His collections are also seasonal. One year, Thomas collected every lost glove and mitten he found on the sidewalks and drew them in pen and ink, with decorative backgrounds.
And one spring, after planting a garden in the tree bed outside his apartment, he became annoyed by all the litter it accumulated. He decided to document the trash—teabags, ATM receipts, sausage wrappers, pharmaceuticals, lottery tickets—and discovered he was now annoyed when he came home and found nothing new to collect. He realized this catalog was effectively “a history of twenty square feet of New York City.”
Thomas grudgingly accepts the phasing out of the MetroCard. “I’ve had a great twenty-something years of it,” he says; “I hope they run out before I do.” He still uses a Nokia filp phone and had thought he’d have to succumb to a smartphone to continue riding the subway. I had the honor of being the first person to show Thomas an OMNY card, a compromise for riders like him. He frowned at the colorless design and thick plastic, and cringed at the five-dollar price point. These cards were obviously not going to cut it as a new medium.
Thomas says he’s not yet rationing the yellow cards. “What am I waiting for?” he asks. “I’m always thinking there’s something more to make or do. There’s no end to my exploration.”