Quiet Carnes Lane is home to the indomitable, inimitable, irrepressible Jay Critchley (b 1947), an artist, political activist, civic advocate and all-around sui generic figure; one of those people whom you almost cannot imagine thriving anywhere else. His works have included imaginatively stinging rebukes to the gentrification and commodification of the town; and his anger is evident that A-list arrivistes seem so eager to turn their backs on any references to the town’s transgressive past. But Critchley is no cynical bomb-tosser. His devotion to Provincetown is especially evident in the event with which he’s now most closely associated: the annual Provincetown Harbor Swim for Life & Paddler Flotilla, which has raised over two million dollars for local AIDS services, women’s health providers and youth organizations.
Critchley bought 7 Carnes Lane in 1978 with his partner at the time, Dr. Doug Kibler, a physician at the Drop-In Center on 6 Gosnold Street. An old cesspool came with the Carnes Lane property, which Critchley described as an “elegant, circular, beehive-shaped structure,” five feet deep and six feet in diameter. In 1997, he turned it into the Septic Summer Rental, complete with a bed, nightstand and TV, as a commentary on the living conditions facing artists and old-time residents as real estate values escalated. He next transformed it into the Septic Opera and Theater in the Ground.
The work that put Critchley on the map, at the beginning of the 1980s, was Just Visiting for the Weekend. He encrusted a 1968 Dodge Coronet station wagon in sand and placed it at the foot of MacMillan Wharf. “Almost at once crowds began to form,” Peter Manso recalled in Ptown. “Big crowds. People went out of their way to scratch the sand off the car’s windows to see what was inside. Others took Polaroids. Articles appeared in The Advocate and The Cape Cod Times, speculating on what the sand-covered vehicle might mean.” When Town Hall moved to tow it away, the lawyer Roslyn Garfield swung into action. “She reminded the town fathers that no laws had been broken, that the car was properly registered, and that this lone unshaven man was only standing up for what he believed in, and doing so in a way that was typically ‘Ptown.’ The argument was successful. The car was a symbol of the small guy. In its humor and camp, it was the work of a populist hero.”
Other Critchley projects that will be found elsewhere in Building Provincetown are the Meadows Motel and Cottages project (122 Bradford Street Extension), Beige (53 Bradford Street) the Outermost Alms Museum (143 Commercial Street) and the Tiresome Tabernacle (Cape Cod National Seashore). Another annual event under his aegis is the Jan. 7 Re-Rooters Society ceremony, featuring singing, chanting and the burning of a Christmas tree afloat in Provincetown Harbor.
Critchley’s home is a museum in its own right, as true to the artistic spirit of Provincetown as anything now standing. The interiors are adorned — would “cluttered” be too strong a word? — with many of his smaller artworks and models for larger projects. They make use of many unusual media. A Pietà is shrouded in fish skin. A large scale model of the Pilgrim Monument is made of plastic tampon applicators washed up on the beaches. Critchley’s home and yard are, of course, private. But you can get a glimpse from the road of a sand-covered station wagon.