Philadelphia artist Bill McRight grew up in the south, the son of two ministers. He’s trained as a printmaker and has a studio at Space 1026, the DIY creative hub in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Most of Bill’s work has been in linoleum-cut prints, and he teaches printmaking, but he’s had a little side project that has crept into his art practice. Bill makes shanks—that is, improvised knives. Eventually, these became part of his artwork, and he’s shown them recently at Guerrero Gallery in San Francisco and David B. Smith in Denver. I asked Bill about how this combination of design and stabbing became a part of his artwork. He’s never done time, by the way.
How’d you get interested in shanks?
I have a hard time pinpointing when I really started making weapons. As a kid, I remember trying to make bows and arrows, slingshots, being so excited when I got my first pocket knife and immediately cutting my fingers trying to sharpen sticks. Later, I got super psyched reading about soccer hooligans making weapons to sneak into matches. I think the thing that got me really thinking about shanks really seriously was teaching an art camp for inner city kids and having a kid ask me for duct tape so “I can fix my shank.”
What makes a good shank?
I haven’t been properly taught about making blades. I cheat a little and use an angle grinder; I started with files but that takes forever. I’ve gotten some good advice from guys at flea markets, one guy told me how good files were for holding an edge while he was selling me these handmade fishing knives.
A lot of making weapons—and especially shanks—is improvisation. I’ve probably gotten more selective about what I’m using materials-wise. The stuff I’m the most stoked on lately is old tools, screwdrivers, files, that kind of stuff. A friend of mine just gave me a bunch of steel rulers. The idea of taking something designed to function in a constructive way and repurposing it to kill makes me giggle.
But you also take your shanks, frame ’em, and put ’em in galleries … how’d you decide “This is my art”?
Well, I also make prints and draw and stuff. For a long time I was just making shanks as a hobby I guess. You know, the little distraction eventually becomes an obsession and then you have all these things sitting around that you made. I guess, I had been making prints and drawings for so long but I got more excited with making objects and figuring out how to present them. The frames are a funny touch to me, it works for well for presentation but I think these frames were meant for butterflies and keepsakes.
I’m guessing that means their functional nature is out the window at the point they get framed. Do you, like a potter or some other craft-turned-art, discard functionality at some point in the name of art? Or do they all still need to be stabbing good even if framed?
I really try to make sure that they all “work.” I want them to be functional—where’s the sense in making a knife that doesn’t cut or a club that doesn’t bludgeon? Yeah, these are made with the intention of being art objects, but they are weapons: The pointy things have all stuck into hard wood floors and the blunt ones have hit stuff. I like craft and durability, and knowing that they would work if used as a weapon gives me something I can stand behind.
I hemmed and hawed over how I would present these things in galleries. Framing makes for a good presentation and is easy to display, but it also makes them less accessible. Every time anyone has seen a shank in my studio the first thing they do is pick it up and pretend to stab something. The frames I’ve been using are actually hinged on the front so they can be opened really easily. Knowing that a frame could be opened and the shank could realize its full potential as a weapon is thrilling at shows … it at least keeps things interesting.