A Portrait Painter’s Ultimate Subject: The Subway

Who knew steel girders and chipping paint could be so soothing?

The New York Subway is not a pleasant place. Even if you’re willing to forgive the rats that scurry across the tracks, the combined smells of garbage, exhaust, and human sweat make commuting for millions of New Yorkers less than pleasurable.


Unless you’re Manu Saluja. The Brooklyn-born artist has been riding the rails for nearly 30 years, but over the last four she began to notice the strange beauty of mottled paint and the striking effect of light as it raked over the geometric tiles of stations’ walls. She recalls standing on the platform at 51st Street and Lexington and noticing the flecked paint on a red steel girder. “I saw this kaleidoscope of colors. It had a whole universe inside itself,” she says. “Once I started to see it that way, I couldn’t turn off.”

Green I, Manu Saluja.

That patch of paint would become the inspiration for Red #1, which is part of Saluja’s first solo show, Passage, at Hersh Fine Art on Long Island. But Saluja says she spent two years simply noticing the small beautiful places of her daily commute before committing them to paint. Initially, they acted as a talisman for her–soothing her every day as she shepherded her two daughters to school on the subway. Noticing these details helped her cope with the challenge of taking two young girls through New York’s underground. “It was almost like being greeted each day,” she says.

Saluja can tell you the exact location that inspired each painting. She lives in Queens, so many of them are in stations along the E line. Green #1 is at Union Square; TriBeca‘s abstract tile pattern is at the Canal street station; Blue #1, also at the 51st and Lexington station, has already been painted over–a fact that makes Saluja wistful.

Passage I.

Since Saluja trained as a portrait artist (she now teaches portrait painting at the Long Island Academy of Fine Art and the New York Academy of Art), the other paintings in the series are of herself and her daughters during their commute. She says she painted images of her daughters in order to capture her own vulnerability as a mother.

“You have these structures that are built to remain, but they have to withstand the weathering of time, much the way that we are. They almost become metaphors for strength amidst challenge,” she says. “It’s like we’re chipped away at a bit ourselves.”

[All Photos: Michael Korol, 2016]


About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at and sign up for her newsletter here: