With an 8-by-8-inch sketchbook and some Crayola crayons, he makes colorful sketches of his fellow passengers. He posts some of the images on Instagram. And back in his studio, some of the sketches reappear as figures in collages showing scenes of rural life in his home town.
“They were basically doodles,” Nesbitt said. “They were warm-up exercises for me on the way to the studio, but people seem to really like them.”
Nesbitt works as discreetly as he can. But in the intimate confines of a Metro car, people sometimes notice what he’s doing and engage with him, especially fellow artists. Most of the time people don’t react, at least obviously, and other times they do.
“I’ve had people notice I’m drawing them and they get up and move,” Nesbitt said.
Sometimes, Nesbitt said, he gets the feeling that people enjoy being the subject of his work, the way they smile or hold themselves: “I kind of feel like they’re posing, too. I think you can sometimes you can tell from the drawings.”
The sketches, built up from thick, quickly executed lines, capture people on their way to somewhere else: a man in a hat holding a newspaper; a woman with an earring who appears to be clutching a purse; a man leaning on his wheeled suitcase; and, of course, several people with their eyes glued to their mobile phones. What he’s mostly interested in is not bodies or faces or gestures, but clothing — the way our garments create the sense of form with unexpected shapes.
His admiration for Romare Bearden shows in the work hanging in Nesbitt’s Silver Spring studio. Bearden, a native of North Carolina, was an African American artist known especially for collages that captured the world he grew up in. Nesbitt is also a fan of Kurt Schwitters, another artist known for collage.
Nesbitt sometimes boards Metro just to ride for no other reason but to sketch people, but usually he draws while traveling between Shaw and Silver Spring. Other times he sketches at the Pentagon City mall or the park or local bars during happy hour. He started the habit of carrying a sketchbook around after taking classes at the Washington Studio School and the University of the District of Columbia. An instructor told his class that every artist should be carrying a sketchbook around.
Posting to Instagram — under the account @melvinnesbittjr — has not only caught some people’s attention, it’s also been liberating for him, he said.
“I didn’t want to be afraid to show my mistakes,” Nesbitt said. He’s since built a following of about 1,500, including people who follow Metro-related hashtags such as #wmata.
“Honestly, I’m not a big fan of social media,” Nesbitt said. “But it’s very difficult to get attention as an artist, especially if you’re self-taught.”
Nesbitt grew up in Spartanburg, S.C., one of three children surrounded by a large, tightly knit, extended family, and later attended the College of Charleston. His mother made a living as a florist and went back to school to be a print maker; his father is a retired elementary school janitor who liked to play drums.
Nesbitt said he was shy as a kid, or at least felt as if it were easier to communicate with people through his drawings than through words, and he started filling sketchbooks in the third grade. His collages depict the world he left behind in the South: his mother’s kitchen, tar-paper shacks, and the church where his great-grandfather, who served as a deacon, hired Nesbitt and other children to cut the grass.
“I feel like the stories I want to tell — and that’s what I really want to do, I want to be a storyteller — require a multitude of elements to honestly portray them,” he said.
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