The Duke of Riley meets the King of Petty’s Island

We wandered over to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania last week while Duke Riley was installing his show about Ralston Laird and Petty’s Island, his chosen subject for his Philagrafika project. The artist, 38, had the society’s large glass cases full of artifacts and photos from his excursions to Petty’s Island, and he’d made a large family history drawing based on research he did about the Laird clan. Over the mantle was a photo taken in a helicopter flyover of Riley’s piece de resistance for the project, a mural painted on top of a Citgo oil holding tank that sits on the island.  Petty’s Island is/was owned by Citgo which is owned by Venezuela, but that seems to be shifting as there’s talk of turning the island into a wildlife sanctuary. (See the wonderful cover story about Riley and this project by Holly Otterbein in last week’s City Paper — and here’s Riley’s open letter to Hugo Chavez about reclaiming Petty’s Island for the Laird Kingdom.)

Duke Riley, last week, installing his show at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Duke Riley, last week, installing his show at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

In the HSP installation on the mantle beneath the photo of the oil tank are commemorative plates featuring images of the Laird descendants, a motley looking crew if ever there was one.

Riley’s trips to the island happened in secret since the island is private property and visitors are not welcome. The artist sneaked out there to do his research and at times had a film crew with him (how they got out there we don’t know). But we do know from Caitlin Perkins of Philagrafika that the artist — who was commissioned by the international print fair to do this new work — turned in a bunch of seriously soggy receipts for his materials and expenses, a byproduct of his kayaking out to the island.

Duke Riley, Princess Jill commemorative plate
Duke Riley, Princess Jill commemorative plate
Duke Riley, Laird kingdom commemorative plates
Duke Riley, Laird kingdom commemorative plates

Upon arriving at the HSP and before talking with Duke, we met Lauri Cielo who tells us there are 21 million things in the HSP collection…graphics, newspapers, artifacts….and they have 34 Benjamin West drawings! But “This is the first time an artist is coming in to use our collection as a work of art,” she said.

Here’s our chat with Duke Riley:

Artblog: How did you choose Petty’s Island? Did you know about it? We know you like islands–some of your work involves islands in the East River.
Duke: I didn’t know about Petty’s Island before.  [Apparently there are many islands in the Delaware River and people kept asking him about the islands they knew about but none of them was Pettys or Petty Island.]


Artblog: How did you get to the island?
Duke: I kayaked out.

Artblog: How did you find where the Laird house had been? [As someone researching the lost kingdom of Ralston Laird Riley really wanted to find the house/castle of the king and any artifacts connected with him.]
Duke: I found I could estimate where the house was based on (old newspaper) articles and from the viewpoints on the mainland where people reported seeing the fire [The house burned down in 1964]. The articles mentioned how when the house caught on fire you could see it from the shipyard.  I could see the foundation and went out with metal detector to find things. I started digging.

Duke Riley, Laird family tree with photos and artifacts from Petty's Island
Duke Riley, Laird family tree with photos and artifacts from Petty’s Island

Artblog: What did you find?
Duke: (Points to a piece of rotting metal in glass case behind him.)  It’s not so old.  It looks old but it’s a piece of an overhead lamp from the 1930s.  We found serious digging (lots of big deep holes).  There were rumors of treasure on the island and it looks like people dug.


Artblog: The history of Laird’s attachment to the island and his being chased off etc. has as much legend as fact. So what’s the real story here–did you figure it out?
Duke: I interpret history the way it favors you best…  Laird had to leave the island-against his will..He was forced off the island. If he was a squatter he could claim it (because he had been there so long– 60 years; but it’s not known whether he was a squatter or whether he worked as a caretaker for the island’s owner).  But someone complained of pigs, And then it was 18 people down to one person.

Artblog: Where did the Lairds go?
Duke: I managed to track down some descendants…I hired a private investigator to look for some. I found some graves. Some of the descendants just disappered off the face of the earth. I couldn’t find them.

Artblog: Makes you feel how slippery putting together a history is.
Duke: One article said Laird had ten kids; another said 6 kids.  Sometimes there’s reference to Katie or Katherine or Catharine…Is it the same person?

Artblog: So how did you want to represent the Lairds in your exhibit?
Duke: At one point I was thinking about royal families and how to present that.  I was looking up heraldry.  I Googled up heraldry and came up with commemorative plates…like Princess Di plates, the kind the Franklin Mint makes.  That’s in Pennsylvania. I have some plates from my uncle — they’re labrador dog plates.

Duke Riley, detail, Laird family tree
Duke Riley, detail, Laird family tree

So Riley made commemorative plates of the Laird royals. And he made a family tree. He’s got the history of Venezuela drawn out too (since Citgo — owned by Venezuela — owns Petty’s Island). And he — or somebody —  did the big mural painting of Ralston Laird on the flat top of the Citgo tank on the island. The mural looks just like one of the Laird commemorative plates he made — only much bigger. For that big mural, he told us, somebody who looked just like him went out at night along with the Laird Liberation Army and painted in the dark. He hoped they got it right but he didn’t know for sure until he flew over the island in a helicopter and saw that it was good.

Duke Riley, Ralston Laird commemorative mural on Petty's Island
Duke Riley, Ralston Laird commemorative mural on Petty’s Island

Artblog: What’s next for you?
Duke: I’m going to the Caribbean to Bequia Island (pronounced Beckway) near St. Vincent.  Whaling is still legal there.  They do it the traditional way.  The island has Caribe indians, descendants of escaped slaves and Scottish whalers from Nantucket who came there long ago and decided to stay.  He’s going to make a whaling boat slightly different than what they use, which is a cross between whalers and a Caribe indian boat.

If Ralston Laird was a king, Riley is at least a Duke. And his duchy is whatever island he happens to be researching at the moment. Vive la Duke!

Every Man a King, by Huey Long and Castro Carrazo, 1935

Why weep or slumber America
Land of brave and true
With castles and clothing and food
for all
All belongs to you

Ev’ry man a King, ev’ry man a King
For you can be a millionaire
But there’s something belonging to others
There’s enough for all people to share
When it’s sunny June and December too
Or in the Winter time or Spring
There’ll be peace without end
Ev’ry neighbor a friend
With ev’ry man a King