Sculptor George Segal's Model Commuters Are a Study in Terminal Patience

Not long after sculptor George Segal’s triptych of bus commuters was placed in New York City’s Port Authority terminal this spring, one weary traveler remarked, “I think the artist is mocking us, but maybe that’s because I think we’re idiots for commuting two hours a day.”

On the contrary. Segal, 57, who lives and works 45 minutes away from Manhattan on a 12-acre farm in South Brunswick, N.J., is himself a hardened 30-year veteran of suburban bus lines. To him, commuters are heroes. “These are long-suffering people,” he asserts. “I have a high regard for them.”

Renowned for his ghostlike “plaster people,” Segal won the $100,000 commission in an invitational competition to provide “one more attraction” for the facility’s $236 million expansion. The figures in The Commuters are cast in bronze and covered with graffiti-proof paint. A door and clock salvaged from the bus terminal during its recent renovation serve as background. The only change Segal made to the setting was to remove the clock’s hour hand. As to the time of the next departure, his travelers are left in perpetual limbo, which most commuters complain is true to life anyway.

In all his work, Segal uses actual models, and those in Commuters are no strangers. First in line is his wife, Helen; the other two are George Kuehn, a former student, and Kuehn’s wife, Carol. Posing for Segal’s plaster casts is something of an ordeal. The sculptor applies plaster bandages, much like those doctors use to set broken limbs, to make impressions of each part of the body, section by section, while the subject remains impassive for up to three hours. After the casts dried, explains Segal, “it took me two and a half months to put them together. The foundry work was another four or five months.”

The reaction to The Commuters since its unveiling (to which Segal drove by auto) has been quiet. Some befogged travelers have unwittingly fallen in line behind the sculpture. Others are amused. “I’ve sat in the terminal and watched people,” says Segal. “They circle it and look very carefully and then leave smiling.” But not much time is spent in admiration, he notes. After all, they all have a bus to catch.