Jack Ryan is a master artist when it comes to the pen-and-ink technique. Look closely to see how he constructs entire compositions with stippling of hundreds of minute dots to create intense images of New York City architectural splendor. The West Tisbury library is presenting approximately 40 of his intimate 8 by 10-inch or 8 by 14-inch drawings, opening up a world of wonders.
Using photographs that he’s taken or vintage options from books, old postcards, or more recently, the internet as inspiration, Ryan’s pieces have a nostalgic air. Each one tells the story of a place and time. Looking along South Street in the 1940s, we see a row of four- or five-story brick buildings with a handful of towering skyscrapers in the background — long before there were many others punctuating the downtown skyline. For added measure, the vehicles clearly tell us this isn’t the city of today.
Born in Brooklyn in 1957, Ryan went to the High School of Art & Design, later continuing his studies at Pratt Institute, where he took courses in architectural illustration. But Ryan was always a budding artist, and says, “As a kid I used to draw a lot. I would get in trouble at school. In fact, one time my mother got called in because I drew a beard on Joan of Arc in a history book.”
He started using the stippling technique during his junior year in high school. Ryan feels he’s still learning from all he studied in his school days. “But,” he says, “I also experiment with different things like drawing smoke, the glare of a streetlamp against a black sky, or headlights of a train. It’s tricky because it’s all dots.” Ryan believes he learns a little something with every drawing, adding, “It’s fun, but also nerve-wracking. If I’m deep into a drawing, I really don’t feel like experimenting. But sometimes I need to in order to make it right. Each time, I’ve been fortunate in that what I was hoping for in the final result did actually occur.”
While there is a small sprinkling of Martha’s Vineyard views, such as the Gay Head Lighthouse, New York City landmarks, bridges, buildings, and street scenes dominate the show. Each drawing can take 50 hours, and is sometimes stretched out over the course of months. He learned not to rush things from one of his teachers, who would admonish him for hurrying. Ryan says, “He would always say to me, It’s not a race; take your time. If you’re getting frustrated with it, don’t go faster, walk away and come back.” It took him a while, but Ryan realized his teacher was absolutely right. If Ryan isn’t getting the results he wants, he puts it down for a while and returns later.
“I discover a lot of things about these structures as I’m drawing them,” Ryan says, “things that I’ve probably looked at a million times.” About the famous four-sided clock in Grand Central Station he says, “I’d seen it a million times, but I never stopped to admire it. The faces of the clock are pure opal.”
Ryan begins by initially blocking everything out in pencil — the darks and lights, and the shapes. After stippling with millions of minute pen-and-ink dots, he erases the underlying pencil. Straight lines dominate his images, since it’s architectural subject matter. While realistic, his choice of composition simultaneously creates a sense of geometric design whether you’re looking across the top of the Manhattan Bridge with its cascading cables or the stacked rectangular bricks that soar skyward that create the pointed arches in the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.
Another precipitous perspective is from the Chrysler Building, seen from above with the street and the cars driving by far, far below. His love of daring angles seems inherent. While Ryan didn’t take the photograph that inspired the piece, he does have a photograph of himself on a rope hanging out of one of the 76-story triangular windows as a young man to take photographs of his own.
Ultimately, although Ryan has lived on the Vineyard since 1986, and works in the West Tisbury Post Office by day, his work pays tribute to how New York was and how it is now. But most important, his art, which has appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide, is about enjoying the artistry of his vistas.
Jack Ryan’s exhibition is open throughout March during regular library hours at the West Tisbury library.