Silver Space
A Collaborative Creative Network in St. Louis, MO

Jack Radley

“YouTube is a really weird place to learn how to quilt”

interview by Marina may


We caught up with Jack Radley, practicing artist, curator, and undergrad (for two more weeks) at Wash U, in advance of his 4/20 performance at Granite City Art and Design District.

 Keep reading to learn more about Jack, Shel Silverstein, erotica, poorly shot YouTube videos, and how a quilt challenges the vertical axis by which deeply ingrained concepts of masculinity are generationally transmitted.

Marina May: Okay, so, quilt?

Jack Radley: I was doing another project where I was looking into Playboy issued in Braille. So I found this issue – on Ebay – bought it – then I realized that I couldn’t figure out what it actually meant. I went to the library and I found every issue of Playboy on microfilm.

MM: Yesss…

JR: And looking at Playboy in the library is an interesting experience because you have it up on the screen, screen’s a little large, everyone is walking by.

MM: Which library?

JR: Olin – and I was scrolling through these Playboys and I found Ernest Hemingway and Shel Silverstien in the byline. And I was like “What is this???” I looked into it and Shel Silverstein had a whole career in the 50s where he actually lived in the Playboy mansion.

MM: Get out! He lived there?

JR: Yeah, he and Hugh Hefner were really good friends.

MM: Of course they were.

JR: Hugh Hefner actually wrote the intro to one of Silverstein’s books. So, yeah, I found this body of material that was quite unlike the children’s stories that I grew up with. But if you go back and you look at it, there are some eerily similar themes and also drawings. He reused this illustration of a bunch of people in a bathtub. 

[Points to two illustrations on the quilt, both with groups of people in bathtubs, arranged next to one another on the same register of the quilt]

In the children’s poem, it’s about:

There’s too many kids in the tub,

There’s too many elbows to scrub.

I just washed a behind

That I’m sure wasn’t mine.

There’s too many kids in the tub.

And then in Playboy, he’s using basically the same illustration. He’s just gendering to the characters and it’s about kind of a hippy orgy. So he says:

So I guess this destroys the myth about hippies never bathing.

Sometimes he’ll literally use – or reuse – the same illustrations. Other times there are themes. He has this long cartoon called “The Suicide Bullet,” and then if you read “Me-Stew” it’s about this cook jumping into this pot, saying goodbye forever. There are wars – Silverstein served in the military for a couple years, I think. There’s hunting. These two works look like they could be out of the same cartoon, but one of them is about hunting animals, and the other is about hunting women.

MM: W O W – Sorry, I’m just going to circumambulate here.

JR: Then there’s drinking. In Playboy, he publishes ABZs with Uncle Shelly. So it’s an ABC book meant for adults, but in this children’s style. There’s one where he says “D is for Drink, what rhymes with drink? Ink” --  then there’s an illustration of ink, and he says --  “Try drinking this.”

MM: [Laughs] So twisted.

JR: I basically complied all his works and re-arranged it by motif. On each horizontal band there’s an illustration from a children’s work then an illustration from an adult work and then this twall pattern motif from both. It’s all silkscreened by hand. Then on the border it’s silkscreened with this puff additive that approximates embroidery – and these are all the nude figures.

MM: Were those all culled from Playboy as well?

JR: Yeah, Playboy and his children’s works.

MM: It’s wild… We think of these authors in the context of these innocent, children’s book creators and then they are obviously fully-grown adults. You know what I mean? What drew you to this subject matter initially?

JR: I’m really interested in father figures. Actual father figures and the relationship to my own dad. What I’ve been thinking about is cultural father figures. These men that almost universally have some kind of role in childhood. There are countless children who were read Shel Silverstein poems and illustrations, and had the books by their bedside growing up, and then thinking of the subliminal messages that are ingrained in this. I’m interested in the axis of knowledge, that men pass down ideas of masculinity. I’m thinking of it as a vertical axis where the grandfather teaches the father, who teaches his son, who teaches his son – ad finitum. But because there’s a discrepancy in age, you never really challenge that. As a five year old, you’re never really going to challenge what your father’s teaching you – and thinking about how we can shift that axis, or queer that axis so it becomes horizontal. Peer-to-peer learning.

I think the only place where that exists right now, is the internet. There are all these chatroom pages, or Yahoo pages, or AskJeeves with men asking other men about issues. You never know who’s behind the computer. Age is eradicated due to anonymity. It’s more of a peer-to-peer learning in ways that I don’t think those kinds of conversations have happened before.

MM: On these message boards, what are the topics that they’re going through? What are the themes that you’re seeing being brought up over and over again?

JR: There are a lot of “How To’s” – how to fish, how to shoot a gun – and then if you know how to fish -- “What to do if the reel doesn’t work?” or “What’s the best kind of bait?”… and then there are the medical questions… I don’t know if you ever want to diagnose yourself from Yahoo Answers, but it’s interesting to see these kinds of conversations ratified online – you have this record.

MM: So your performance aspect with the piece – what is it you are going to be doing with the bed, and how does that relate to the quilt?

JR: I was thinking of the bed as this dialectical site, where we’re read stories to as children, but it’s also where you have sex. It embodies both facets of Silverstein’s work. Where it’s the adult side and the children’s side. And then thinking about quilts and thinking about passing down knowledge, most people learn to quilt from their family. I never did – my family is not particularly crafty –  I learned to quilt via the internet. YouTube is a weird place to learn how to quilt. The people with all this quilting knowledge aren’t necessarily the same people who know how to make a good YouTube tutorial. Betty will be explaining how to do all this stuff, but the camera is like nowhere near the machine and you can’t see anything she’s doing.

MM: Aww… Betty…

JR: I also worked with this woman in town named Casey York, who was super helpful and taught me basically everything I know about quilting. But I’m thinking about [the quilt] as a comfort object, but also an object that’s passed down familially.

For the performance, the quilt will be hanging from the ceiling. I’ll come in, I’ll strip down to my boxers, I’ll get in bed, and then this older man comes in, he takes down the quilt and he tucks me into bed. And the way that he tucks me into bed – it’s kind of ambiguous as to what the relationship is. And then leaves, and audio of my actual father reading “The Giving Tree” will play. When you hear that, it makes you rethink the whole Giving Tree narrative. Then the lights will go out and I’ll stay asleep for the rest of the night.

MM: Well alright. What initially attracted you to the idea of doing a quilt, and when did you start practicing?

JR: I had never quilted before. I usually start more conceptually then figure out the material along the way. In bringing these two bodies of work together, originally I was thinking of putting the children’s work on one side, and the adult work on the other, but I think it’s way more effective to see them juxtaposed next to one another. So I started the screenprinting, I would say maybe four months ago. The actual quilting – I would practice with small side projects – but really this was where it all came together. I think quilting is a lot like photoshop. You can watch all these tutorials and learn all these skills, but until you have a project, you’re not going to really learn how to use the software or use the techniques.

MM: What was the most difficult part for you?

JR: I think quilting is very anal. Everything has to be lined up – and I don’t necessarily operate that way. It’s being exact, measuring things three times, making sure everything lined up at the end. Keeping that all organized, and you’re working with hundreds of pieces of fabric.

MM: Did you poke yourself?

JR: Yeah, I definitely bled a little.

MM: All good art takes blood. Going back to subversion of meaning based on identity in The Giving Tree – can you speak a little bit more about that and what you noticed in reading the story after having the encounter with Shel Silverstein’s erotica?

JR: I went back and forth, thinking “Are all these stories weirdly sexual?” or am I just now trained to see them like that.

MM: It’s very Freudian.

JR: Yeah, but I think with The Giving Tree, it’s all about this one way relationship – this boy is learning to love this tree, but he’s just taking from it. Then he ultimately cuts it down. But the text says something like “and she loved the little boy.” The tree is kind of this maternal figure – but there are a lot of sexual innuendos about him climbing her trunk. I decided not to include anything from The Giving Tree on the quilt, and just save it for the audio of my father. He has a very thick Boston accent, and it’s quite animated. It’s funny to hear my dad read the text now, because his voice sounds so much older than what I remember as a kid. But his intonation, the way he phrases things or ends a sentence or hearing him turn the page – it really just takes me back.

MM: Yeah, adding a layer of nostalgia. Back tracking – what is your personal history? Are you from St. Louis? Where’d you go to school? All those things.

JR: I’m from Boston originally, but I moved to St. Louis to go to WashU.

MM: When did you graduate?

JR: I’m going to graduate in two weeks hopefully.

MM: Undergrad?

JR: Yeah, undergrad.

MM: You curated for the Arthur Greenberg Fellowship… Was that your initial foray into curatorial work?

JR: That was my first experience curating. It’s fun to start at the beginning and everything’s on the table. It’s a good mixture of paring things down realistically, doing your research, making all of these conceptual and material connections – then you get all the works in the space and it’s completely different. You find all these connections and end up rearranging things. You get the conceptual satisfaction of doing the research and the material satisfaction of making an exhibition – mounting it – and you still have an end product.

MM: Do you feel having curatorial experience influences your physical practice? As an artist? And if so, in what way?

JR: Whenever I’m thinking about making work, I’m thinking about where it’s gonna be. I looked at a lot of places around town, but super lucked out. You have this eerie oak wood, this peeling wallpaper – this used to actually be an apartment. For this performance, I didn’t want it to be in a white walled gallery space. I wanted it to have the intimacy of a bedroom. I wanted it to feel like you were kind of in someone’s personal space. Maybe you’re seeing something you wouldn’t necessarily see otherwise.

MM: It’s more intimate. More revealing. It makes the performance – I don’t want to say more awkward – but more awkward. You feel like you’re not supposed to be experiencing what you’re experiencing. Which is great.

JR: And then thinking about the scale of the illustrations and the text, I wanted to make it pretty small, so when I am in the bed or when it is hanging from the wall, you have to get close to it. It forces you to have this intimacy with me that is a little uncomfortable.

MM: So are you gonna play opossum while you’re here?

JR: I think so, I’m thinking about maybe taking five melatonin and waking up the next day.

MM: If five melatonin works for you – doesn’t work for me. How long is the duration of the performance?

JR: It starts at 8. Kind of thinking about a child’s bedtime – then I’ll stay asleep until everyone is gone. 

Jack Radley will perform Bedtime Stories, a one night only experience at DOMESTIC at G-CADD, 4/20/19 at 8:00 PM.

 The Granite City Art and Design District (G-CADD) is located on the 1800 block of State Street of downtown Granite City, IL. SEE YOU TH