Jack Ryan builds the Big Apple with rapidograph pens

—Art by Jack Ryan

Jack Ryan is not your typical Vineyard artist. Both his medium and his subject of choice are unique among his Island peers. Mr. Ryan works in pen and ink, a painstaking process which sets him apart from the majority of contemporary artists. Unlike many Island artists, Mr. Ryan eschews Vineyard scenes, focusing almost exclusively on New York City landmarks. A selection of his drawings will be on display this coming month at the West Tisbury Library.

Mr. Ryan has become very familiar with the New York cityscape throughout the years. Born in Brooklyn, he attended the High School of Art & Design in Manhattan and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. The artist worked for many years as a bike messenger in Manhattan. During his trips around the city, Mr. Ryan developed a love of architecture and an insatiable curiosity about many of the buildings he admired. He often satisfied his curiosity by exploring various structures from multiple perspectives, often from angles unavailable to the general public.

Among other adventures, Mr. 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. “Back then, in the 70s and 80s, it was easier to get access to places,” Mr. Ryan said. “I’ve  been in the spire of the Chrysler Building. All those old buildings you could go up to the top. You’d find the elevator that went the highest and just climb up. Sometimes the last climb would be a spiral staircase.”

This fascination with New York City architecture has informed the bulk of Mr. Ryan’s art. “There are buildings I just love in New York,” he said. “I grew up near the Brooklyn Bridge — that’s a favorite. I try really hard to get interesting, different views of it. I also love the older buildings down around Wall Street. I love the American Radiator building near Bryant Park.”

The collection on display at the West Tisbury library will include images of the Manhattan Bridge, the old Paramount Building in Times Square, Chatham Square, and the New York Public Library, among others. The drawings are remarkable for their detail and moody quality. The artist has been able to achieve both by employing a very time-consuming technique, called stippling, which involves building up an image using a series of thousands of dots.

This process is extremely painstaking, but the result is remarkable accuracy in shading and, in the case of many of Mr. Ryan’s drawings, a hazy quality that is perfectly suited to the artist’s evocative nighttime scenes.

The technique, of course, requires patience, but Mr. Ryan, who works seven days a week at the Vineyard Haven Post Office, truly enjoys the process. “I don’t watch TV,” he said. “I come home at night and work on drawings. Sometimes I’m up very late. They take time. It’s fun for me. It’s very time-consuming, but that’s okay. With those dots you couldn’t rush it if you wanted to. It took me a long time to learn from my mistakes. I fouled up enough drawings by rushing it.”

Mr. Ryan uses rapidograph pens, a brand of technical pens that were once the mainstay of the architect’s and illustrator’s craft before the development of computer graphics. The stippling process allows for a much more natural look than the perfect precision of a digitally rendered image would create.

The artist’s images also gain a realistic feel from his choice of unusual perspectives. Rather than the picture postcard view, Mr. Ryan prefers to present a different sort of viewpoint than one might expect. This gives the work more of an on-the-ground appeal, presenting the view one might encounter when turning a corner or being suddenly captivated by a certain angle of a building or a particular view of a bridge.

Ask Mr. Ryan about any of the landmarks that he has depicted and you’ll receive a wealth of information. Not only can he rattle off the name of the architect and the year of completion, the artist is full of other interesting facts. For example, he explains that the lions in front of the main branch of the New York Public Library have their mates around the corner at the entrance to the Morgan Library. The iconic four-sided clock in Grand Central has faces made of pure opal, making it worth more than $10 million.

Although Mr. Ryan’s prints have been shown in various New York City galleries, he has illustrated books, and his work has appeared in numerous publications worldwide, this is the first time that he has shown his originals. “All these drawings that I do, I put them in a pad and store them,” he said. “I’ve never seen any of them matted, never mind framed.”

The show will include a couple of seaside scenes, although these are limited to boats and lighthouses — structures that lend themselves to Mr. Ryan’s technical style.

However, despite encouragement from fans, including his wife, Lauren, Mr. Ryan has never been very interested in drawing his adopted home. “I remember she said to me, ‘You should draw some Island stuff.’ I just kind of shook my head and showed no real interest,” Mr. Ryan said. “Then she said, ‘You know, Jack, getting you to draw something other than New York is like trying to get Waylon Jennings to cover an ABBA tune.’”

Until the Vineyard can boast skyscrapers and other engineering feats, Mr. Ryan intends to keep on drawing (mostly from photographs) various scenes of New York. And it’s unlikely he’ll run out of inspiration.

Reception for Jack Ryan on Saturday, April 2, 4 to 5 pm, West Tisbury Library. Mr. Ryan’s work will be on display throughout April.