Massachusetts

Jay Critchley, a ‘born again artist’

Jay Critchley (above) doesn’t have a studio. “When I work on specific projects, I make the space to do it,” he says.
Kathy Chapman
Jay Critchley (above) doesn’t have a studio. “When I work on specific projects, I make the space to do it,” he says.

Jay Critchley has been a multimedia and performance artist for over 30 years, renowned for his politically charged works of art. A self-described “born-again artist,” his pieces include “Miss Tampon Liberty,” the “Big Twig Tunnel Tapes,” and the “Martucket Eyeland Resort & Theme Park.” He is the founder of the Provincetown Swim for Life and Paddler Flotilla, an annual swim across the Provincetown Harbor that has raised nearly $3 million for AIDS and women’s health care. He resides in Provincetown.

What are your points of inspiration?

I was very involved with political issues — the anti-Vietnam-War peace demonstrations, anti-nuclear issues. I set up an organization called the NRC, which people know [as] the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but I changed it to the Nuclear Recycling Consultants. I like to set up corporate identities and logos. It’s a commentary on [their] role in society. With the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that corporations are individuals, it’s even more relevant — this idea of the corporate persona. In the ’80s, I set up a corporation called TACKI, which stands for the Tampon Applicator Creative Klubs International. The purpose of TACKI was to recycle plastic tampon applicators to create art, but also to ban the manufacture and sale of non-biodegradable feminine hygiene products that were littering the ocean. For the centennial [of the] Statue of Liberty, which was in 1986 in New York, I appeared in a gown of 3,000 applicators. It makes this fabulous rustling sound.

What other kinds of materials do you like

to collect?

I walk the beaches a lot. I like working with materials that are right in my locale. It connects me to the place. I’ve used fish skins, sand, Christmas trees, fishing gear — things from the beach that pile up.

Do you have a favorite installation or project?

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One project that I think had some real life impact was Old Glory Condoms. [In] 1989, there had been a case, Texas v. Johnson, in which the Supreme Court said it is legal to burn the flag, it’s free speech. It was around the same time as the AIDS pandemic, so I thought, “Let’s redefine what it means to be patriotic.” I created this image of the American flag on a condom. I knew I was onto a hot idea. I knew it would have an impact.

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Part of the strategy was to challenge the government to deal with the reality of HIV. When I applied for a trademark and the trademark office denied my application, I was surprised that the government’s response was so arcane; they said it was immoral and scandalous to associate the flag with sex. But that’s exactly what I had hoped for, in a way; it showed the absurdity of the government’s position, not only about sexuality, but about patriotism. After three years of battling, they did grant me the trademark, for the name and the image. It became a legal corporation. Condoms were distributed around the world.

What has the response been like from the Cape Cod community?

I think people are bemused by my work. Sometimes I make things that I really can’t believe I made. Like, I made a tampon pie. It’s in a pie pan, made from plastic tampon applicators with a fish skin crust. I made this piece and cut a slice and I was horrified at first — where did that come from?! So I put it aside [and] didn’t show it for a long time until I was ready to figure out how I could relate to it.

How often are you working on art?

I don’t think I ever stop working. It’s part of my DNA. My life is really what my art is about, and the world around me is the canvas. Doing other things is part of experiencing the world and then that becomes fodder for creative ideas. I don’t just go into a studio and work for a few hours. In fact, I don’t even have a studio. When I work on specific projects, I make the space to do it.

For many summers, I had a series of programs called “septic opera.” I have this abandoned septic tank in my backyard that I rediscovered [to] create a theater in the ground. I made a number of short videos. One is called “Toilet Treatments” and one of the characters lives inside the septic tank. It won an HBO Audience Award in the Provincetown Film Festival when it came out

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It’s a small space, in a beehive shape, about six-and-a-half feet in diameter, five feet deep, and circular. Performers would use above ground and belowground as a stage. I had opera, drag, poetry, music, performance art. There were big flags hanging behind the space with lighting and there were seats out on the ground. It was magical.

Emeralde Jensen-Roberts is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @emeraldejr.