Jack Ryan at the Post Office

Jack Ryan at work, photo by Michael Cummo.

Much more than meets the eye.

Square Rig Schooner, pen and ink

Square Rig Schooner, pen and ink

Buy a sheet of stamps at the West Tisbury Post Office and you’re apt to meet Jack Ryan. Don’t let his unassuming manner fool you. This friendly postal clerk has scaled the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge to their summit and dangled just beneath the vertex of the Chrysler Building with an old rope through his belt.

Your next question might be “Why?”

In the less terror-wary ’70s, long before “place hacking” was popular, or Tom Clancy’s CIA hero had emerged on the page, Brooklyn’s Jack Ryan — the real Jack Ryan, our Jack Ryan — explored his city’s heights and depths with no less bravado than his literary counterpart might have. As a teen, his adventures were more about seeking thrills than anything else. But as he matured, these adventures evolved into deliberate expeditions, practically pilgrimages, to hidden vantage points — fresh, often grand perspectives of iconic architecture that he could mentally photograph and later transfer from his mind’s eye onto paper with pen and ink.

Jack began exploring New York’s buildings at an early age. As a 14-year-old in 1970, he and some other friends from Brooklyn crossed over to the World Trade Center construction site on a Sunday, walked right in and began climbing one of the towers. Every so many floors they’d peek out of the stairwell, eventually coming to levels without windows, where the wind roared across the open concrete decks. Undaunted, they ascended to the 102nd floor before construction workers spotted them. The workers didn’t really come down on them: Impressed with the kids’ gumption, they gave them a breathtaking ride down in the construction elevator that hugged the outside of the tower. One of Jack’s friends on the adventure, cinematographer John Inwood, was given a white hardhat with the towers’ emblem on it as a memento.

Climbing to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge at night was practically a rite of passage for Jack and the kids from his neighborhood. In a city that he remembers as being every bit as chaotic and unhinged as it was in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, cops had better things to do than look for kids on a bridge. Nor did they have time to look beneath it, where Jack would slip inside the anchorage housing on the Brooklyn side, crunching over broken champagne bottles left over from the space’s wine cellar days, to marvel at the vaulted stonework and the mountains of civil defense helmets stacked against it.

East Tower, Brooklyn Bridge, pen and ink

East Tower, Brooklyn Bridge, pen and ink

Later, during his days as a bike messenger, Jack explored nearly every architecturally significant building in Manhattan, from the Pan Am Building to the Municipal Building. In between deliveries, he would sketch in the often-vacant upper reaches of these buildings, savoring the quiet and solitude. Other times he would make dedicated research trips, as he did many times to the Chrysler Building. It was there that he once slung a rope around his waist and hung off the peak in order to drink in a view unattainable anywhere else.

These days, ensconced in a small, cluttered room in the cellar of his Oak Bluffs home, using Rapidograph technical pens with nibs as tiny as the tips of syringes, Jack summons the New York he examined in his youth, one dot and stroke at a time. Under the floating arm of a single drafting lamp, his painstaking work eventually accretes into the Empire State Building, the Cities Service Building, or any number of the masterworks of Art Deco or Beaux Arts architecture he’d walked through or crawled over years ago.

The 19th century may have been the heyday for pen and ink drawing, but the sum of Jack’s crosshatches and stipples is as vital and intriguing as work in any medium used today to capture Amrica’s greatest city. Soft enough to be mistaken for engraved aluminum or pencil work, his cityscapes can initially trick the eye with the illusion of simplicity. The subtle genius of such muted tones is that they repay the most cursory glance with an invitation to look deeper. Mood is palpable in his drawings. The mix of loneliness and serenity permeating Jack’s nocturnes, particularly the Manhattan Bridge as seen from Brooklyn, is arresting and evokes the urban lithography of Stow Wengenroth.

Elevated Railway, pen and ink

Elevated Railway, pen and ink

Jack tends to deflect praise for his ability to capture the noirish qualities of that bridge and other city structures by describing his reconnoitering escapades with self-deprecating wit. He said that once, as a kid, after clambering up the ladders and stairs in one of the Manhattan Bridge’s steel towers all the way to the top, he and a friend actually dozed off between the giant finials. They each received the sunburn of their lives, albeit on only half their faces. They walked back home looking like black-and-white cookies.

Given the intricacy of Jack Ryan’s pen and ink work, the application of Hemingway’s iceberg theory to his drawings may seem ill-suited, but it is not. As Hemingway did in his medium, Jack exercises the power of omission. As an iceberg does, his drawings reveal only a only portion of their whole. We don’t have to run a hand over the rough-hewn back of the Coutan clock sculpture on Grand Central Station to feel its presence in Jack’s depiction of it, nor must we clamber up the station’s patinaed roof to feel the immensity of the towers surrounding it. Jack’s bones-to-ornaments mastery of New York architecture implies the depth of his hard-earned knowledge — learned over years with his hands, and eyes and legs — that remains undrawn.

What we are left with is as much a sum of what he’s omitted as what he has included.

At their borders, his drawings exert subtle gravity on the viewer’s imagination, pulling it toward the vastness of a New York that lies just beyond the edge of the paper.

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