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Rywelski interview, part 2–the SEPTA Letters


(Part 2 of Jennifer Zarro’s interview with artist Liz Rywelski. Here is part 1).


JZ: I am completely fascinated by your SEPTA Letters that were originally published in the Philadelphia Independent and in which you gave notes to fellow SEPTA riders and asked them to email you [sample letter at bottom of post].

They are moving in that they offer the possibility of the connection between two strangers. In our current climate of terrorism and disasters this kind of art making seems hopeful in a way. (All the images are not from the SEPTA project but from her K-Mart photos series, in which Rywelski takes on other identities. The top image is an installation of the work at Moore College of Art, and see the post footnote here for an explanation).


LR: I was giving my personal information to strangers and attached was a kind gesture and an adrenaline rush. This project is not about politics or terrorism. However, this reality, that there is an anxiety public transit riders now live with, does set the tone for the piece. It’s about being really needy and sort of promiscuous and reaching out to strangers for direction. It also ends up giving us a peek into how we use email and how we write letters. How Google and the smallest bit of information, like an email address or name, can serve as an x-ray into someone’s life.

In certain situations, this can be dangerous.

Luckily, the project ended itself just before it got out of hand.

I wasn’t trying to play on people’s emotions when I gave out the letters. I feel that where the story ends, when I decided not to give out the letters anymore, it had written itself. I was happy to stop there, and it was almost exactly a year to the date from when I started. The SEPTA Letters is about seeing beauty in strangers and telling it without speaking it, and collecting those experiences. The train was the best medium for this for obvious aesthetic and time based reasons.

Recently I tried to replicate the process behind this project on The New York Water Taxi as part of a performance with the DUMBO Arts Festival 2005. It was terrible, contrived, and I felt wrong each time I passed a letter. Most passengers knew it was part of a “performance” because it was listed in the paper, so I did not get any response

JZ: So is this project over or not necessarily?


LR: I don’t know. Maybe if I move to another city it might start again. But the project started as a desperate attempt to connect with people. I was feeling really lonely and enclosed by darkness and I thought I want to find faith in something again and that was a small way of trying to find it, to jerk it out of people. So I am not there anymore, I don’t feel that way in life and hopefully I never do again, but I might be feeling a different way and the letters will make sense again.

JZ: Were the responses that you received from the letters helpful to you personally or did you think of them strictly as an art project?

LR: I didn’t see it as a project until I got into it. I was just doing my thing and the computers I used were in a shared space with the Philadelphia Independent, and the editor was there when I received a response and he thought it was brilliant and wanted to put it in the paper. So I just went with it, and that’s when I first started seeing it a project.


[Here’s an example of one of Liz’s SEPTA Letters:]

Market-Frankford line
40th street to Berks,
11:45 P.M.

Whatever, I just wanted to G.T.F out of West Philadelphia. I sat in the first open seat to meet me, and met with the darkest eyes I have ever seen. Immediately, his look told me I had chosen the wrong seat. This is when I realized I could have sat anywhere else in the empty car. But I stayed there and just sort of glanced off into the windows darkness, only to meet his eyes again in reflection. I felt trapped but continued to contest his eyes. He wore flat navy blue Dickies gear, a lanyard around his neck that read State Penn State Penn State Penn over and over again, the deepest, darkest, most hollow eyes I have ever seen, and a jail-house style tattoo on his right forearm that read, “MAN.” He fixed a death stare on me for the entire ride to the Spring Garden stop. It was around Fifth Street that I didn’t feel threatened by him anymore. I contemplated giving him a letter, but thought he might follow me off the train. I stood up at the Girard Ave stop and waited behind him near the doors. I could see him watching me in another window reflection as I wrote. We were at Berks. The doors on a subway cars stay open for about eight seconds. I counted to four, slipped my letter over his shoulder and stepped off the train just as they shut. As the train pulled away, I stood on the platform to watch him read the letter:

Man, you are beautiful.

Please write to me
Or read more at:

(click here for the link)