PROVINCETOWN – “I call Jay ‘the trickster,’ ” said Jerry Beck of Jay Critchley, a multi-media artist/writer based out of Provincetown. “I consider him an important artist/activist, probably one of the best in the country.”
Beck, founding director of The Revolving Museum, a nomadic museum based out of Fitchburg, said of Critchley, “He’s a visionary thinker, a visionary artist. There’s not a lot of them.”
** This story was originally published March 1, 2019 **
Critchley, 72, first made his mark in public art in 1981 by parking a sand-encrusted car that, as he put it, “caused a sensation” for an entire summer in the MacMillan Wharf municipal parking lot in the center of Provincetown. It was his first project. “People said, ‘You are an artist.’ But it was just something I was compelled to do,” he said.
Beck said, “He is kind of enigmatic, almost mischievous… He’s fearless and he has a good sense of humor… When you get people to laugh, it’s easier to reach people instead of pounding it [the message] over your head.”
The Swim For Life fundraiser, which over the years has raised millions of dollars for various Provincetown community causes, ‘is his greatest piece of performance art,” said Berta Walker, who owns an art gallery in Provincetown.
“He’s not making art for art’s sake.He doesn’t want to be Picasso or Mattise or Rembrandt. He straddles that line between social justice and art.” Arts Writer Susan Rand Brown about Jay Critchley
“It’s such a participatory event, the result of which is hope,” said Walker of the Swim For Life. “I don’t know anything else like it.”
“He’s not making art for art’s sake,” said arts writer Susan Rand Brown, who splits time between Provincetown and Hartford, Connecticut. “He doesn’t want to be Picasso or Mattise or Rembrandt. He straddles that line between social justice and art.”
Critchley lives on that line, it seems. “My work comes out of a very political and cultural awareness and background,” said Critchley. “I want to make a connection with people, and I want to have a good time doing what I do.”
Walker, said, “He’s always commenting on what’s happening and putting that thread of hope and change within it.”
And Abe Rybeck, founding director or Theater Offensive of Boston, said of Critchley, “He’s interested less in objects, and more in the experience of art.”
Critchley wants to be noticed, and his message to be heard. “His PR genius is part of what he does,” said Walker.
Once, Critchley was barred from entering a hearing room at the Massachusetts Statehouse because he was wearing a Statue Of Liberty gown made out of 3,000 discarded plastic tampon applicators that he had found on Cape Cod beaches.
Critchley, who has literally made an art of forming corporations, had a three-year legal battle that he ultimately won to trademark Old Glory Condoms, which are condoms bearing a flag-inspired logo. According to Critchley’s webpage, then Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) condemned the logo on the floor of the United States Senate.
And one of Critchley’s recent projects is a small scale model of The White House that he tarred and feathered and called The Whiteness House as a statement on race and power.
“All art is a lark,” said Critchley, who later said, “Part of your job is to figure out what my message is.”
His work is certainly thought-provoking. Beck referred to Critchley with a series of superlatives such as “transformational thinker,” “visionary artist,” and “contemporary gay shaman.”
“He’s a guy very much like Andy Warhol,” said Beck.
Walker said, “I’ve always thought of him in parallel with Christo.” In fact, while Critchley does work “as big and broad and international” as Christo, Walker said, “With Christo, you are looking but you are not participating. Jay invites us to participate in this life, with its ups and down.”
Beck noted that when you start looking, there are many layers to what Crittchley is saying in his art.
As Brown said of Critchley’s projects, “They’re all in your face, but that’s good. He wants to get noticed and he wants people to know what the subtext is. The subtext is political.”
“I think Jay’s sensibility has been allied with that phrase, “speaking truth to power,” and of not being a yes-man – and that’s very Provincetown,” she said.
Critchley’s story starts in the the conservative white bread middle of last century as the fourth oldest of nine children in a Catholic family in Forestville, Connecticut, near Hartford. There was “never any discussion about choosing or not choosing, you just were,” he said.
In other words, it’s complicated, and that Catholic upbringing in a nine-child “perfect” family seems to have affected everything that he has done since.
And yet his story actually starts again in 1981 when he became what he calls a “born again artist” at the age of 33. After his very first art project, people were saying to him, You are an artist.
Critchley moved to Provincetown in February, 1975. At the time, he was married and his wife was pregnant. His son was born in October, 1975 in Provincetown.
The 1975 Provincetown “hardly compares” to the town in 2019, he said. “There was a full fishing fleet. There was a high school with a football team. There was a year-round community here. There were not as many second homes. No one came to visit here in the winter. It was just the people here. There was more socializing, more potlucks.”
His wife’s sister lived in Provincetown and her parents had a house in Truro, said Critchley. “We started coming here and visiting here, and like a lot of people, we were like, ‘We’ve got to move here.’”
He took a job at the Provincetown Drop-In Center, what he described as “a hippie free clinic.”
“It was kind of like a dream come true to move here.” Jay Critchley
“It was kind of like a dream come true to move here. We had to take a little bit of a risk but we were compelled to be here,” he said.
One of the few times Brown lived in Provincetown year round was 1975, which was also the year Critchley moved to town, she said. At the time, Brown had a 3-year-old daughter and she remembered seeing Critchley as a fellow parent, with he and his wife pushing a stroller through town.
“A year later, I separated from my wife and I came out,” said Critchley. “That was a long torturous process, confronting my very Catholic, rigid, sex-negative upbringing.”
“It was time,” he said. “Probably intuitively, maybe that’s one of the huge reasons I wanted to move here.” That and the natural beauty of Provincetown, which is what keeps him there, he said.
He described coming out as “high drama and high excitement.”
“When I moved to Provincetown, I didn’t know I was gay and I didn’t know I was an artist,” he said.
“He happened to land in an artist colony,” said Brown. An artist was “who he was anyway, and that’s how Provincetown drew him,” she theorized.
Provincetown, said Brown, is “a safe haven for people who are not necessarily corporate-minded in the conventional sense. It attracts people who are individuals and who value stepping out of line when needed and necessary.”
“I’d be helpless if I lived somewhere else,” said Critchley, pointing out he is not the only one. “There used to be a support group in San Francisco for ex-Provincetown people. [Being away from Provincetown] was kind of like PTSD,” he said.
Much of Critchley’s work, including many videos, are about Provincetown in some way or another.
And, of course, he runs the Provincetown Community Compact and the Annual Swim For Life, which has raised millions of dollars for AIDS, women’s health and the Provincetown community.
“Provincetown is really his vocabulary,” said Beck.
Rybeck said, “By Provincetown standards, Jay is genuinely an old timer. His grandparents weren’t whaling there in the 1800s, but barring that, he’s genuinely an old timer.”
But while Critchley has spent decades in Provincetown, he is originally from an entirely different time and place – the 1950s in Connecticut.
Forestville, Connecticut “was a General Motors town,” said Critchley.
There was a ball-bearing plant in town and Critchley’s father worked as a patent law secretary “with a giant typerwriter at the same desk for 42 years,” he said.
Critchley described his childhood as growing up in “the most non-dysfunctional family.”
“It was kind of a fairy tale growing up,” he said.
The family even “saw JFK [campaigning for President] at midnight in Waterbury, Connecticut,” he said. “It was magical.”
“If you were from a white, middle class family, there was a lot of hope in post World War II America. You felt like you could do anything with your life,” he said.
And while the American dream of achievement seemed to exist all around him, the attitude in his house growing up was, “We’re not going to talk about your career and what you’re going to do when you grow up. Just be happy and go to school.”
“The whole attitude about everything was just be happy and be who you are,” he said.
And there was never any doubt who they were.
“We prayed and we sang,” he said.
“I was very Irish Catholic,” he said. “I went to Catholic schools. I was an altar boy. We said the rosary every day. We went to church often, sometimes daily,” said Critchley.
But there were nine kids who needed, somehow, even more than religion, he said.
“You had to do something with us, right?”
“My father was in a barbershop quartet,” said Critchley. “He just rounded us up and we started singing.”
With matching outfits that he described as “like the Lennon sisters,” he and five of his sisters (the others were too young) once sang a cappella on the TV show, the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.
“It seemed like my whole childhood was on stage,” he said. “It was like a performance piece.”
And not just the three minutes on the TV show. His entire childhood.
“It’s not about theater or acting or anything like that. It was performance art,” he explained. “It was about you being who you are rather than acting something out.”
In other words, in the 1950s in the Forestdale, Connecticut of Eisenhower’s America, “everything is the way it is supposed to be,” he said. “Of course, sometimes things don’t turn out the way they are supposed to be.”
But sometimes, for a while anyway, they do. “We were all supposed to be perfect kids,” said Critchley, “and to a large extent we were.”
And it was all, somehow, a performance, like when they “went to church as an entire family, like the Von Trapp family.” They’d walk down the center aisle of the church to one of the front row pews, for all to see.
The main focus of his childhood, he said, was education. College was a foregone conclusion. “I wasn’t told to go to college,” he said. “The culture of my family was as long as you go to college, you’ll be fine. You don’t have to figure out why you go to college.”
And while there was a lot of praying and singing and studying in his childhood, Critchley said there was also a lot of outdoor activities – ice skating, skiing, and baseball. “There was a baseball field next to my house,” he said.
“We were always kicked out of the house,” he said. He recalled being told, “Get out and do something.”
Critchley played soccer in high school, and starred as Captain Von Trapp in the musical, “The Sound Of Music.” He also taught himself to play guitar, he said.
“We were lower middle class but we had a very privileged background,” said Critchley. Through a family relation, his family and some cousins spent summers in “a huge falling down house on Huntley Island near New London, Connecticut,” he said.
“There was no running water and no electricity,” he said. We had all nine kids plus two cousins and four adults sequestered on this island with no running water and no electricity for the entire summer,” he said.
“There wasn’t even a radio,” said Critchley. “You had to entertain yourself.” There was fishing and sea shells and water skiing and 11 kids. They figured it out.
He spent a lot of his time collecting popsicle sticks and sea shells and seeing what he could make out of them.
Plus, he learned how to work with his hands. “My uncle had to rebuild that house,” said Critchley. “It was all hand tools. There were no electric tools. I learned to appreciate working with my hands and finding ingenious ways of using what you have.”
“My family was all about being out in nature,” he said.
Critchley said his father was president of the Connecticut Mink Farmers Association. “He raised mink as a side job, and he was a trapper,” said Critchley.
“Yeah, I know how to set a trap,” said Critchley. As a child he trapped mink, muskrat and raccoons. “It’s not something I would do now,” he said.
“We’d go out in the swamp and drag his bag of traps and he’d show me where to put the traps. He’d point out footprints,” recalled Critchley.
“And then we’d bring the animals back to the basement,” he said. “You could smell the animals in the house. We had an unfinished basement, like a mancave,” he said. “He’d be skinning the animals and drying them out down there.”
But when his father’s hobby didn’t involve the skins of animals, it involved organizing. “I was involved with him in terms of organizing [the mink farmers],” said Critchley.
He went to Fairfield University. “I just picked out a Catholic college,” he said. It wasn’t really thought of as an option, he recalled. It just was.
When he finally decided what to major in, “the easiest thing I could think of was English literature,” said Critchley. His minor was theology and philosophy.
While this is exactly the kind of education that modern career-minded folks often scoff at, Critchley said, “I had an incredible education, a privileged education, a liberal arts education. I studied all the philosophers. I studied theology, politics, and writing. It was an incredible education. And there was no talk of, what are you going to do with it?” he recalled.
Along the way, he found himself caught up in the politics of his time. “In 1968, I went to the Democratic National Convention and got tear-gassed, he said. “I was there for [Eugene] McCarthy.”
That summer, one year after the Summer of Love, Critchley went to San Francisco. The city was still in the the hippie stage of its evolution. “It’s mythic,” he said. “I was fortunate.”
“I was with all these people who were looking kind of weird, that had been smoking pot… it was exuberant. I was tripping,” said Critchley. “It was a trip, whether I was stoned or not.”
Afterwards, he said, “I went back to my mundane little white college.” Although it wasn’t that mundane, as he lived in a off campus housing on a beach for his senior year, he said.
Critchley graduated from Fairfield University in 1969, with Richard Nixon freshly in office and the anti-war movement peaking – “right in the middle of all the chaos,” he said.
After graduation, Critchley moved to Cottage Grove, Oregon as a volunteer with VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America), which he described as “Peace Corps for the U.S.” Cottage Grove, he said, was a town of 7,000 people in logging country, about 30 miles south of Eugene.
He was the only person in the town from the East Coast, the only one with a college degree, and the only one with a telephone, he said. He had to learn a new way of communicating, he said. “The way you communicated with people was to go to their house,” said Critchley.
When in Cottage Grove, Critchley said he was helping build self-help houses but he “ended up helping create a youth center.”
“I organized it,” he said. “I started meeting a lot of people who said they really needed it. I was like, then let’s do something.” Instinctively leaning on what he learned about organizing by working with his father and the Connecticut Mink Farmer’s Association, Crithchley knew what he was doing.
“Within six months [the youth center] was built,” he said. After two and a half years in Oregon, Critchley said, “I felt like I wanted to go back home.”
Born-again is an interesting saying. “It’s a term used by evangelicals and other religious zionists. It’s a rebirth. A coming into your own voice, your own identity, your own liberation.” Jay Critchley, born-again artist
He returned to Connecticut in 1973 to run a youth program in Bristol, and later a similar program in Southington, Connecticut. He lived with his parents when he first moved back, but soon he moved in with his then-girlfriend, who he had met at a party in 1969 on Huntley Island, where he had vacationed since he was a child.
“The only pressure was that I was living with my future wife, and my parents weren’t happy about that,” recalled Critchley. They got married. Her parents had a place in Truro and her sister lived in Provincetown.
Critchley and his wife visited and ultimately moved to Provincetown in 1975.
Critchley recalled being about 25 years old and living in Connecticut when “I started to feel that there was something more that I wanted to do. It was ultimately what led me to coming out as a born-again artist.”
Born-again is an interesting saying.
“It’s a term used by evangelicals and other religious zionists. It’s a rebirth. A coming into your own voice, your own identity, your own liberation,” said Critchley.
And that, said Critchley, is exactly what happened to him when be became, discovered, or perhaps was simply told by others that he was an artist.
In the early 1980s, before Rybeck considered himself an artist, he used to visit a friend in Provincetown from his home in Boston and he remembered his friend telling him “about Jay and his amazing work.”
Rybeck’s friend told him that he had to see a car encrusted in sand in the parking lot of MacMillan Wharf.
“I completely fell in love with his artistry,” said Rybeck. “It integrated the natural world with an aesthetic that was really profound, but it definitely also integrated kitsch into the aesthetic,” he recalled. “The sense of humor was really accessible without being stupid.”
Walker also recalls being told by a friend, “You’ve got to meet this guy” before being shown what came to be known as the sand car. “I loved the idea that here was this car in the middle of a parking lot that was already pulling in all these tourists,” she said.
“Everyone participated,” said Walker. “Strangers off the boat were part of it.”
What exactly is a sand car?
First back up almost a decade to understand how Critchley, crossing the continent, came to have a collection of sand.
On Critchley’s drive back from Oregon to Connecticut after two years in VISTA, he stopped at the Painted Desert of Arizona and New Mexico. “I was curious. I had heard about the Painted Desert and I was driving back from Oregon to the East Coast,” he said.
But Critchley did not just stop to look at the Painted Desert. He brought some of it home. “I can’t answer why I started collecting,” he said. “I don’t know why, other than I was curious about it,” he said. Plus, he later surmised as a reason, he had seen some sand dioramas that had intrigued him.
For that reason or because he was compelled, he collected sand in several jars and brought it home to Connecticut.
“I dragged it to Provincetown when I moved to Provincetown,” he said. He began working as a volunteer with the Center For Coastal Studies, he said he “started collecting sand around Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet.”
With that as a background, Critchley said that “It was January 1980, in the middle of winter and there I was with no job and I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I was bored, so I started to make things,” he recalled.
“What really got me going,” he said, “was the Chamber of Commerce had a contest to create a sign on Route 6,” he said. The idea was a welcome to Provincetown sort of thing, he said.
Critchley’s sister had left a 1968 Dodge in his yard, and he suggested to the Chamber that he cover the car with sand and put it on Route 6, said Critchley. “They kind of laughed at it and said no,” he said.
Undeterred, Critchley said, “I just started experimenting.”
Once the car, which was registered and had a legal parking sticker, was encrusted with several layers of sand, he drove it to the parking lot, where he had already set his own car in place in the first parking spot. He then switched cars and left the sand encrusted car in the most visible spot in the lot for the summer.
It was called, “Just Visiting For The Weekend.”
He said, “It was the story that people would tell me. They came for the weekend but couldn’t leave.”
And so the question of What is a sand car? became a different question for those seeing this creation. “It left you asking what is a car anyway?” said Brown. It was speaking to environmental pollution, fossil fuel, tourism and more, she said.
“I parked it there and it created this sensation,” said Critchley. His name was not on it, but people found out soon enough who was responsible.
It was meant to be a real car, he said, but it never moved and because so many people gathered around it, Critchley said the chief of police “demanded the car be moved because it ‘caused a threat to life and limb.’ It was creating a traffic jam in the parking lot,” he said.
It came down to the question, said Critchley, “Was it a car, or was it an art piece?”
“He had a little kerfuffle with the town,” said Brown.
“I had to hire a lawyer,” said Critchley.
Critchley’s sand car was allowed to stay. He did three more sand cars, for a total of four cars over four summers.
With all the attention, controversy and media coverage, Critchley recalled, “Everyone was saying, ‘You’re an artist.’”
While he had taken a job waiting tables at The Moors Restaurant, he said his reaction to being called an artist was, “I don’t know, maybe I am.”
He came around to the idea. “I was the last one to know. It was like coming out as a gay man. You think you’re coming out, and everyone already knows.”
Once it happened and Critchley accepted it, he came to the realization that “There is no separation of your life from your art,” he said.
“One of the things about being in Provincetown is if you tell someone you are an artist, people believe you. It doesn’t matter if you are selling work or even if you are working on anything. Part of being an artist is the way you approach the world, the way you engage with the world,” he said.
Asked if “artist” is the right label, Critchley said he had never used that term until others started using it.
For a shorthand description, he offered, “I’m a multi-media artist, writer and activist. I’m a playwright, a performance artist, producer, and I run the Provincetown Community Compact, which I consider part of my work.”
“He’s a self-taught artist,” said Beck. “He didn’t go to school for it. I’ve studied folk artists. He’s a folk artist. He’s got amazing ideas.”
“It’s been a journey,” said Critchley. “Some projects have been more appreciated than others.”
Critchley is so prolific that it is impossible for this magazine article to mention more than a tiny fraction of that artistic journey.
Within each of Critchley’s projects, it seems, there are tangents – videos, performances, collaborations, as well as an actual physical creation – an object of art, if you will.
“He writes plays, music, he does sculpture, he draws, he does videos, he paints. And much of his work, like the sand cars, is temporary,” said Brown. “He doesn’t come out of the art school tradition… He has a much more holistic way of thinking about creativity.”
“It’s hard to capture the expansion of his vision,” said Beck. “He is worldly, and goes in so many different directions.”
Brown said, “He mixes humor and delight with serious political concerns and statements.”
He takes on many subjects. He once submitted a proposal to the Pennsylvania Historic Commission to repurpose the the top of the nuclear cooling tower at Three Mile Island as “Radiation Restaurant” with “the Meltdown Mall at the bottom.” The proposal was not accepted.
Rybeck said of Critchley, “He loves to work within systems… to break rules from within.”
“People always say they are challenging the system from within, but nine times out of ten, that’s bullshit,” said Rybeck. “But he is genuinely subverting the system from within.”
Rybeck explained: “Jay is not scared of power. He confronts it. He’s an outsider who is not scared to go inside.”
“Initially, I found these objects on the beach,” said Critchley. “It was the most numerous thing I found on the beach in the 70s and 80s and 90s.”
“I didn’t know they were plastic tampon applicators,” he said.
“I was very curious,” said Critchley. “I grew up in a house with six sisters but I never saw a tampon. So I began to explore the subject.”
Critchley discovered the issue of toxic shock syndrome caused by certain types of tampons. It got him thinking about marine debris. And as the plastic is manufactured from oil, Critchley said, “all these issues about petroleum run through a lot of my work.”
For instance, he said, “The sand car was about the environment as much as it was about tourism, and our identification with automobiles and energy and oil and all that implies.”
Critchley said, as a citizen, he sponsored legislation for the state of Massachusetts to ban non-biodegradable feminine hygiene products. He appeared in front of a committee dressed as Captain Tacki, in a military uniform with a hat that had tampon applicators attached to it.
The bill went nowhere, so he tried again the next year in a different costume – a Statue Of Liberty-style gown out of 3,000 found applicators.
“I appeared up at the Statehouse wearing the Miss Tampon Liberty gown,” he recalled. “The police went nuts. They were chasing me around the Statehouse. It was a gorgeous sound that the tampon applicators made as I was walking around the marble halls. It was a musical sound.”
“The police came up to me and said I was causing a nuisance. Then they saw what I was wearing and they were speechless,” said Critchley. When they recovered speech, he said, “They wouldn’t allow me in the hearing room. They told me, ‘This is not a circus.’”
“I said I’m communicating a message here.”
“I became CEO of a number of corporations,” he said. “It provides me with another vehicle to reach people.”
“A corporation gives me a platform,” said Critchley. He said that when he speaks to someone as CEO of a corporation instead of as an individual, “I receive a lot more respect.”
He has even given a TEDx talk in Provincetown entitled, “Portrait Of An Artist As A Corporation.”
And so in 1989 when George H.W. Bush was President and AIDS was destroying lives in the gay community, Critchley created the Old Glory Condom Corporation, which marketed condoms with the logo of a flag.
But the US. Trademark office refused to grant a trademark, and Critchley engaged in a three-year legal and PR battle.
At one point, according to Critchley’s website, “Senator Jessie Helms, an architect of the culture wars, inadvertently created the first global safer sex commercial by holding up the logo and denouncing its trademark in the US Senate, which was broadcast on CNN.”
Critchley’s trademark was eventually approved.
“He is so out front in dealing with poignant subject matter,” said Beck.
And Critchley mixed his art with his corporation with his activism, said Walker, who hosted an installation of his that featured condom art.
“When you walked into my gallery, all this furniture was covered with condoms,” said Walker. “There were all kinds of colors of condoms on couches, on chairs, on lamps… It was funny. It was unbelievable. It was consciousness-stretching.”
“Jay connects to all of us and his way of doing it is by challenging you,” said Walker. “Challenging you to pay attention, but with humor and flair.”
Brown said, “He takes his politically-infused artwork very seriously, but perhaps himself less so. It’s not all about him. He laughs a lot, and there’s always a twinkle in his eye.”
Rybeck called Critchley, “a weirdo. I don’t think he’d mind me saying that. I’m a weirdo. But the thing about Jay is, he is so warm.”
“For a lot of people who are weirdos,” said Rybeck, “there’s a certain distance that comes along with that. There’s a certain chill that comes along with that. Jay is not like that at all. He’s so engaging.”
“Our very first conversation was about collaboration,” said Rybeck. “What are you up to, here’s what I’m up to, how can we work together?”
“He is constantly in search of goodness of fit,” said Ryeck.
Brown recalled a project Critchley did that he called, “Ten Days That Shook The World,” in which Critchley got permission for himself and a bunch of artists to take over the old Herring Cove Beach bathhouse, just before it was torn down and replaced.
The artists took over the building for 10 days.
“He gave many of them a room and said, ‘This is your room. Make an artistic creation in there,’” recalled Brown.
Critchley asked Brown how she wanted to participate. Brown, who wrote her PhD dissertation on Eugene O’Neill, said there was a short play, “Fog,” by O’Neill that she had never seen before.
“It wasn’t written in Provincetown, but it fits right into the Provincetown aesthetic,” she said.
“Jay got people to actually perform the play and he got me to do a brief talk at Herring Cove Beach, not far from where O’Neill lived for a decade in a refurbished Coast Guard station. This is where Jay got me involved in working collaboratively on this project. It caused a slight resurgence for me.”
According to Critchley, Brown even performed in the play.
Rybeck said that Critchley’s encouragement “pretty much changed my career… Jay is a courageous soul and a courageous artist who brings that out in the people he encounters.”
Rybeck recounted a story in which he, with Critchley’s encouragement, had an on-TV encounter with right wing protesters at a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit.
Critchley “inspires people to take risks,” said Rybeck.
At that event, Rybeck was on TV “in drag, playing a newscaster with a microphone that was made out of aluminum foil.” As Rybeck’s character was asking the right wing demonstrators pointed questions, a Boston station filming the whole thing aired the encounter, he said.
“Jay was there to support the boldest, bravest part of me, and I will be forever grateful to him for that.”
There is a lot about Critchley’s work that seems to somehow relate back to his childhood.
He says that some of his performance pieces are rooted in how he was raised, “involved with the rituals of the Catholic Church. It had a lot of influence on me.”
“His Catholic background very much underlies much of his artistic work,” said Brown.
And then there is his background as the son of a fur trapper who used to skin the animals in the basement.
Critchley, “did an absolutely stunning body of work with fish skins,” said Beck.
Rybeck, who lives in Boston, recalled staying with Critchley when he visited Provincetown during the time that he was working with fish skins.
Critchley, said Rybeck, had been collecting bags of fish skins from fish markets and then creating art. “Boy did that place smell like fish skins,” recalled Rybeck.
Critchley created “gorgeous pieces” with the fish skins, he said.
In recent projects, said Critchley, “I have been studying my whiteness as a white person looking at race.”
“When we talk about race, we tend to think about other people,” he said. “The race problem is always about brown people and red people. It’s always about someone other than who we are,” he said.
“We don’t tend to think of ourselves as a race. We’re almost invisible when we think about issues of race. I am exploring exactly what it means to be a white man at this time in history. I’ve been doing a lot of research,” said Critchley.
One project he created was called, “The Whiteness House” – a walk-in scaled down model of the White House that he tarred and feathered. It had a residency in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“The whole thing about tarring and feathering,” said Critchley, “is it is about humiliating people. And so I am exploring who is being tarred and who is being feathered and what is the dynamic here. What does the White House symbolize and represent, and, of course, it was built by slaves.”
“I have to explore who I am and what race I belong to and how that’s impacted the world in order to deal with the whole issue of race,” he said.
The issue became more important to him, he said, after the 2016 election of Donald Trump as President. “It became obvious to me that race was really at the apex of what was going on,” he said.
“The president is just a mouthpiece of a long tradition of racism, inequality and manipulation that’s been going on,” said Critchley. “His election was just the culmination of that. My response has been to focus on issues of race.”
And while Critchley’s work is often a reaction to broad national and international issues, he also works on his individual art as well as creating community events.
“He’s a guy that can really expand and contract,” said Beck. “He can contract and do beautiful, heartfelt, almost shamanistic individual art works, and then he can expand and do these companies and these participatory events.”
In 1988, Critchley was swimming with a friend in Provincetown Harbor when he had an idea. “The harbor was the inspiration,” said Critchley of the Swim For Life.
“A lot of beaches were being closed. People were finding syringes,” he said.
The idea was to swim across the harbor as a way to celebrate the harbor, he said. “It’s the heart of Provincetown,” he said. “It’s our identity and subsistence.”
The swim of two friends morphed into an actual event, which became a fundraiser. A lot of people in the community were dying of AIDS at the time, he said. Thus, it is a Swim For Life.
“People come from all over the world to swim in it,” said Walker. “And it is a community project. It gets all sorts of people together that don’t necessarily mingle to be cheerleading, swimming, supporting it, doing their part.”
Critchley, said Walker, is “motivated to create a positive result out of a lot of negativity.” said Walker.
The event has evolved, said Walker, and includes a Celebration of Life concert on the evening before the swim.
One of the main features of the concert is a ceremony in which prayer ribbons, colorful ribbons with personal inscriptions written to memorialize those who have died from AIDS and other causes, are displayed as a visual statement “to help the community deal with loss and pain,” said Walker.
“We’re all participating,” she said. “He is inviting us all to be conscious and creative and aware and confused.”
“It is akin to lighting candles in a church,” Walker said of the memorial ribbon ceremony, “but it is much more participatory and hopeful.”
The fundraiser needed an organization to run it, so Critchley created the Provincetown Community Compact, which now is now a “resource for the community,” that has helped almost 50 projects, he said. He is the executive director.
“Why does anyone do what they do?” said Critchley. “This is who I am, I guess. I am part of the community.”
“Thinking about Jay,” said Walker, “sends you into thinking about possibilities, and hope.”
Again, as his work seems to do so often, there is a thread of where and how he was raised in the spirit of the event.
“I was raised in a large family,” said Critchley. “It was always about sharing and saying grace at meals. “My father always ended grace with the phrase, ‘May the Lord provide for the needs of others.’”
Despite Critchley’s brilliant public relations for his work, Beck said, “We’re not talking about an egocentric artist.” Instead, Beck described Critchley’s approach as “humble exuberance.”
“He’s a humanist in the best sense, and someone who really cares about the world,” said Beck.
Asked for a final thought, Beck said, “Jay for president of the world. I’m serious. If Jay were president of the world, he’d be one of the greatest leaders ever.”
“When you talk about visionary leaders, Jay is one of them,” said Beck.
“Jay cares about the world. He’s not limited to Provincetown,” said Beck. “He would change the world, absolutely. Jay would be able to lead as an artist. Creativity is the backbone of evolution.”
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