That Time Jay-Z Ran Into an Artist on the Subway

In a viral clip from 8 years ago, Jay Z chops it up on the train with a lowkey fine artist.

A couple of days ago, a post from Jay-Z’s defunct Life+Times publication started making the rounds again. In it, Jay-Z takes the subway on his way to the final show in a series of eight back-to-back concerts he put on to commemorate the opening of Barclays Center in Brooklyn, of which he was a part-owner until he sold his stake in the arena (and the Brooklyn Nets basketball team) almost a year later.

As seen in the short Where I’m From documentary, which gives an intimate look at the work that went into Jay-Z’s homecoming concerts, there’s a pivotal scene where Jay-Z surreptitiously takes a seat next to an older woman.

They have a brief conversation in which the global superstar demonstrates an incredible amount of humility. Noticing the security surrounding them, and the other straphangers trying to get a sight of the two of them, the woman asks: “Are you famous?” To which Jay-Z sheepishly replies: “Not very famous — you don’t know me.”

Of course, this being New York, the streets and subways aren’t teeming with your run-of-the-mill pedestrians. Turns out the then-67-year-old-woman who captured the hearts and minds of people around the globe for being a “sweet old lady” is actually visual artist Ellen Grossman.

A longtime East Village resident, Grossman maintains a studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is presumably where she was headed when she ran into a certain hip-hop artist on the train. In high school her parents thought she might be a mathematician because of her propensity for science and data, except she ended up going to art school at the Cooper Union, joining the ranks of other famed alumni like Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Shigeru Ban, and Daniel Arsham.

Her passion for science still informs her art practice, which often plays with light deflection and intricate linework, giving some of her canon a “slightly askew Agnes Martin” appeal. Her attraction to moiré patterns created by the shadows of chainlink fences is something that she discovered while walking her dog near Tompkins Square Park.

“My attention to peripheral vision was heightened by awareness of possible danger lurking in the darkness. Frequently I would perceive motion out of the corner of my eye, but when I stopped to look directly, nothing would be there, as if someone had disappeared into the shadows,” says says on her website. “My reaction to this phenomenon grew from fear to relief and then from understanding to fascination.”

In a short documentary focusing on her practice and how that chance meeting with Jay-Z affected her, there’s a bit of history about her previous exhibitions (like one in which all her works were priced at $337 out of a love of prime numbers) and the hardships that inspired her art. Far from being a full-time artist, she had to work several different jobs to support her kids and maintain her studio, which often served as a form of therapy for her.

"A lot of this work came from my musing on the fact that my life had a lot of circumstantial difficulties: very little money, two kids, single mom...” she laments. But her art has also helped Grossman realize that she wouldn’t trade it all, discovering the ways in which she was already rich in the process. She describes her practice as “where you touch the world and where you experience who you are, what you are, and what you're capable of.”

One of Grossman’s recurring motifs are intricate topographical drawings with a seemingly more complicated creation process. On the bottom of each drawing, she would record all the dates it was worked on along the bottom edge.

This evolved into recording the date and time at the start and end of each line. Mixing the minutiae-obsessed practice of scientific observation with a modern reliance on data narratives casts these simple drawings in a new light.

For a more in-depth look at the technique behind the work, just peep Grossman’s expert series on GeoBeats, where she outlines how she began the piece on June 27th, 2010 at 8:38 PM and finished it on July 4th, 2011 at 3:17 PM — taking a little over a year to compete.

“I became very interested in the absurdity of what I was doing, and how it was like science, where if a scientist observed something and particularly making notation of those observations, it can change whatever is happening profoundly,” she says.

In 2014, Grossman had an installation at Brooklyn’s Art 101 Gallery titled Surface Complex. It was even covered on Life+Times, because surely meeting Jay-Z has its perks. One of the more notable works is a verdant sculpture made of screens titled “Vert/Vurt.”

Grossman estimates the piece required sewing together around a football field’s length of stitching to make the work, which was then spray painted in various greens to achieve the desired gradient effect. It’s one of her sculptures that draw from traditional Japanese screens where animals or water seem to animate an otherwise still canvas.

“My response was to build a cross between folding screens and pop-up books, playing on permeability, embeddedness and context,” Grossman says on her site. “They are full of net structures that hold everything together. Whether you see it as ensnarement or support, is a matter of how you look at it.”

For a further fun read, check out the time MTV got Ellen Grossman to review Magna Carta, Holy Grail.