“I sold the Brooklyn Bridge to David McCullough,” jokes Jack Ryan. And just like the classic apocryphal con, Ryan has sold the bridge many times over. The well-known Oak Bluffs resident and Post Office employee is an extraordinarily talented artist who specializes in pen-and-ink drawings of New York City. During his last exhibit at the former ArtSpace, McCullough, the Pulitzer prizewinning historian and author who wrote a book about the Brooklyn Bridge, bought one of the artist’s prints.
“He and his wife lived in Brooklyn Heights for awhile,” says Ryan, who is from that area himself. “She and I used to talk about it all the time.” Ryan met Rosalee McCullough through his job at the West Tisbury Post Office. He previously worked at the Vineyard Haven Post Office, and has found the move to West Tisbury illuminating. “There are so many interesting people up there,” he says. “It’s a mixture of gazillionaires, authors, and farmers. The gazillionaires send people in to pick up their mail, and I know all those guys from my days painting houses.”
Last year, through one of his Post Office connections, Cynthia Bermudes, Ryan was introduced to MJ Bruder Munafo, artistic director of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, who invited him to show his work in the theater’s lobby art space.
“I really wanted to have a show there,’ Ryan says, “and I love the way they hung the stuff away from the wall, casting shadows.”
Throughout the month of May, around 40 of Ryan’s original drawings will be on display at the playhouse. Prints and cards of many of his New York scenes will be available for sale, as will a few original drawings. “Before this show I had never shown an original,” says Ryan. This time Ryan decided to offer a few of his drawings for sale. Three sold almost immediately.
It’s no wonder that the artist has been unwilling to part with his work. He uses a labor-intensive technique called stippling, in which the image is built up slowly through a series of thousands of dots. “Some of them must have a million dots,” says Ryan. “I’ve tried counting them, but that didn’t work.”
Stippling is not commonly used by artists, primarily because of the painstaking process it takes to create an image, but that doesn’t bother Ryan. He enjoys taking his time and getting the desired shading “It’s almost like working with oil paints,” he says. “Mostly it’s the building up that I like. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle. When I get to a certain point, I walk away and come back, look at it and do more.”
The pen-and-ink medium requires far less equipment than oil painting, yet the stippling process gives a similar depth to the image. Ryan uses nothing but a bottle of ink and a Rapidograph pen to create his complex drawings.
The Brooklyn-born artist studied art at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. One of his mentors was famed caricaturist David Levine, the father of a friend. “He encouraged me all the time,” says Ryan. “He did the most beautiful crosshatch work. I always wanted be able to draw like him.”
It’s obvious in looking at the artist’s work that he has a passion for architecture as well as a love of New York City. During his days as a bike messenger in Manhattan, Ryan had the opportunity to closely examine the city’s most interesting structures, often from unique perspectives. Among the many experiences of adventurous youth, Ryan climbed to the top of the Chrysler Building and hung off the side, scaled the Brooklyn Bridge, and broke into the World Trade Center construction site.
Today the artist is happy to explore the city in a more relaxed — less dangerous — manner. He studies photographs, and reads every book about New York that he can get hold of. He gathered as much secondhand knowledge as possible while living in the city. “When I was much younger and hanging out in saloons on Third Avenue, I would listen to the old guys,” he recalls. “I was interested in what they would have to say.”
In a recent conversation, the artist shared the story behind one of his latest drawings, a wonderful image of a tugboat steaming along the East River with the Manhattan skyline in the distance. In a couple of other recent images, Ryan displays his fascination with construction by meticulously recreating the vast system of cables and architectural details that defines the look of his favorite subject — the Brooklyn Bridge.
The artist has fond memories associated with that landmark. He recalls his weekly Sunday outings with his mother, crossing the bridge on foot and then riding the Staten Island ferry. His uncle, who was a ferry captain, often let his little nephew practice steering the ship.
Ryan is always happy to share his stories, especially with the many Post Office customers with a New York connection. He has a great sense of humor, many interesting stories to recount, and a wealth of information about the city.
Ryan moved to the Vineyard in the 1970s, following friends who had relocated here. Although he visits New York when he can, he clearly has made the Island his home.
“Over the winter, I donated a drawing to the hospital,” he says. “That hospital saved my life a few years ago when I needed to have emergency surgery.” Ryan was admitted at night and told that he would be operated on in the morning. “When I woke up, I was shocked. I just assumed that I was in Boston, that I’d been airlifted,” says Ryan. “Dr. Pil removed my gallbladder. He’s fantastic. When I worked in the Vineyard Haven Post Office, I saw him just about every day.”