SVA Subway Series: Illustration Faculty Chris Buzelli Explains His Process [Video]

Buzelli’s riff on the iconic subway series is surreal and employs his trademark love of animals.

April 16, 2018 by Emma Drew
An illustration of a cat licking liquid around a city
The cat is curious and observes. The squirel eats from the earth and unearths stuff. And the bird is eating a popcicle.
Subway series posters. By Chris Buzelli.

As the weather finally begins to warm and minds begin to wander towards after-school plans, BFA Illustration faculty member Chris Buzelli invites viewers to envision and explore the city anew with his recently released subway posters for SVA. In the latest installment of the College’s iconic Subway Series currently on view in over 200 MTA subway stations in New York City, Buzelli’s pieces herald the spring/summer season in his trademark style: larger-than-life creatures, finely painted and just slightly surreal.

Since the mid-1950s, SVA has featured the work of practicing faculty members as part of a promotional initiative staged on NYC’s subway platforms. The Subway Series posters promote the College and showcase the individual artist’s vision, offering a thought-provoking and visually exciting appeal to potential students and fellow New Yorkers as part of their everyday lives. Featured artists have included Louise Fili, Steven Heller, Stefan Sagmeister and Paula Scher, among many others. SVA Executive Vice President Anthony P. Rhodes has served as creative director for the posters since 2007. In 2016, the Visual Arts Press began producing short video profiles of each artist to accompany their posters’ launch and give a behind-the-scenes look at their making.

In his video, Buzelli recounts how a basketball accident waylaid his work with overly corporate clients, ultimately for the best. While cooped-up in his apartment for months, “this incident gave me the time that I really needed to reflect on my work and my career,” he said. “I decided to stop doing work that didn’t feel authentic and go back to just drawing and oil painting. I decided to use a visual vocabulary that I enjoyed to convey my concepts. I ended up losing most of my corporate clients at the time as well as my artist rep. However, I immediately saw an upswing in the amount and type of [new] clients. This one decision has become the foundation of my current work and I’ve been working full time as an illustrator ever since.”

Read on to learn more about the new posters and Buzelli’s approach to the commission.

SVA Features: Chris Buzelli
SVA Features asset

You mention in the video that you’re drawn to animals in your work often for their more symbolic resonances. What about these three animals—the pigeon, the cat, and the squirrel— spoke to you in regards to New York and SVA? What do they say about the city and the College?
Those animals were chosen because for me they are these incredible urban creatures that coexist with us in NYC. Although they may seem common, they have figured out a way to adapt and survive in this harsh urban environment. However, it wasn’t always that way. I discovered, through a bit of research, that squirrels along with most nature were once wiped out in NYC and most cities around the world due to rapid deforestation and urbanization in the early 1800s. Then during the Victorian period it was thought to be beneficial both mentally and physically to live in harmony with a bit of nature. So a small number of squirrels were introduced to the city in the mid-1800s. Cities started planting a few more trees, squirrel populations started to thrive and Central Park was developed around the same time. I do really love the thought that the common squirrel might be one of the reasons that we now have Central Park and many more trees in NYC.

The posters have a fantastical, otherworldly feel—what appeals to you about these surreal situations in your work?
I wanted to use these animals, not as symbols, but to create a new intriguing narrative for the viewer. I wanted the animals to become a larger-than-life metaphor for the students at SVA. As a young student, I felt very similarly to the cat character in my painting when I first came to NYC and wandered around the city while quenching my curiosities.

How was the process of making these pieces different than your other work or your approach in other situations?
Most of my work is commercial illustration for publishing, online and ad clients. But I also show my work in galleries. This project was a bit of a hybrid project. I was given the theme of "SVA Summer,” like in my commercial projects, but was also given the freedom to express like in my gallery work. I painted these much larger than usual and to tried to match the final print size of the posters. I also painted these on wood panels to give them a bit of a woodgrain-like texture to fit in with the nature theme.

What does it mean for you to contribute to this very particular SVA, New York City tradition?
I remember when I began living in NYC and first seeing the SVA posters all over the subways by some of the greats like Paul Davis and Marshall Arisman. They had a big impression on me as a young illustrator especially Thomas Woodruff’s fairy tale and dreamlike series. Since then, I've always wanted to work on this series and I’m so happy to have been given the opportunity. And it’s humbling to be following up some of the recent SVA poster artists that I admire so much, such as Yuko Shimizu, Edel Rodriguez, Milton Glaser and Louise Fili.

WATCH MORE: SVA Subway Series Video Features