Stella Moby-Dicks at the Fort Worth Modern

Entry begun Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Sperm Whale’s Head at the Meredith Long Gallery, Houston, 1993

The Sperm Whale’s Head at the Meredith Long Gallery, Houston, 1993

Readers who read my two entries about the Frank Stella Retrospective that opened at the Whitney Museum in October can imagine how happy I was when the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth invited me to give a talk on the Moby-Dick works in the Retrospective during its visit to that museum.  It seems every time I go to Texas it’s for something related to Herman Melville.   In the late 1980s, when I was studying Melville’s print collection in relation to the book I was writing on Melville and Turner, I flew to Austin and drove to Georgetown to see the Turner prints from Melville’s collection now preserved as part of the Osborne Collection at Southwestern University.  In the early 1990s, when I was beginning to write a book on Stella’s Moby-Dick series, I flew to Houston to see The Sperm Whale’s Head at the Meredith Long Gallery and The Decanter at Houston Museum of Fine Arts.  In 2010 I flew to Dallas to see the world premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera.  I liked that work so much that I flew to San Francisco to interview Heggie and begin the research that led to the book I published with the University of North Texas Press in 2013.  When I flew to Dallas and drove to Denton for the book release party in April of that year, I was delighted to hear the world premiere of Heggie’s Ahab Symphony performed by the orchestra and chorus of the exceptional music school at the University of North Texas.

With Jake Heggie (left), Gene Scheer (right) and photographer Karen Almond in Denton, April 2013

With Jake Heggie (left), Gene Scheer (right) and photographer Karen Almond in Denton, April 2013

cover-of-whitney-catalogThe Stella Retrospective had come directly from the Whitney to Fort Worth, where it opened on April 18.  It has been very well received throughout the spring and summer and into the fall, closing today, September 18, before moving on to San Francisco (where it will open at the De Young Museum in November).  Over the summer in Forth Worth, the museum hosted a group that read and discussed Moby-Dick once a month in relation to the Retrospective, and this weekend the Museum is closing the exhibition with its first-ever Marathon Reading of Melville’s novel.  My talk was on Tuesday of this week and I wish I could have stayed for the Marathon Reading, which is always very stimulating to hear and to see in a room filled with art works inspired by the novel itself.  I am hoping that Terri Thornton, the Curator of Education who invited me to give my talk, will be able to send me some photos of the Marathon so I can insert at least one into this blog entry.  I would have loved to see part of the Marathon from the overlook on the second floor.

Partial view of Moby-Dick installation seen from above

Partial view of Moby-Dick installation seen from above

img_6416The talk I gave was the first event in this year’s Tuesday Evenings at the Modern, a series of lectures and presentations by artists, architects, historians, and critics that is free and open to the public.  I was happy to see my Stella book on sale in the bookstore and to hear that quite a few members of the discussion group had been reading it over the summer.

Portions of the four Eccentric Polygons on display in one room of the Fort Worth Modern

Portions of the four Eccentric Polygons on display in one room of the Fort Worth Modern

The Stella show at the Whitney deployed more than one hundred works dating from the late 1950s to the mid-2010s throughout the entire Fifth Floor of its new building designed by Renzo Piano.  The Fort Worth Modern had a slightly smaller selection of works spread throughout a number of self-contained rooms.  It was fascinating to see, and to feel, the differences between these two configurations of what was, by and large, the same body of work.  A defining feature of the Whitney show is that works from widely disparate periods in Stella’s career were often directly juxtaposed with each other.  I loved this element of that show, but I also loved the way in which the Fort Worth installation allowed for several unified, self-contained ensembles.  One my favorite rooms, from this point of view, was the one exclusively devoted to Eccentric Polygons from the 1960s.  Equally satisfying, for me, of course, was the one room that held five Moby-Dick reliefs from the 1980s.  I was unable to capture all five of them in one photo with my iPhone, but fortunately a photographer for the Museum had been able to do exactly that.

Five Stella Moby-Dicks in the Forth Worth installation

Five Stella Moby-Dicks in the Fort Worth installation

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The Whiteness of the Whale at the far left of the Fort Worth installation

Stella’s Moby-Dick reliefs are so large in scale, and so rich in their painted and etched surfaces and in the irregular shapes that protrude from the wall, that I always see and feel new elements in each design even if I had seen it once or more before.  Each of the five in Fort Worth I had already seen at the Whitney Museum in New York.  But some of them had by now become old, old friends.  This is especially true of The Whiteness of the Whale relief I reproduced on the cover of my book.  I had first seen it when it was on loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art in the early 1990s.  Then, after I met Frank Stella when researching his series in Japan, I saw this same Whiteness relief in his studio in New York, from which he had loaned it to Baltimore.  It remained there as a guiding spirit during all of my interviews with him as I writing my book and watching him complete the rest of the series during the rest of the decade.

Frank and I both went on to other things after my book came out in 2001, so the next time I saw the Moby-Dick relief was last October when I attended the opening of the Retrospective at the Whitney.  There it was  mounted between Fedallah, next to which I had seen in it Baltimore two decades earlier, and Loomings, which I had first seen at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in the early 1990s.  My favorite photo of these three works at the Whitney is the one in which they provide the perfect backdrop for a Marathon Reading of Melville’s novel.

Marathon Reading of Moby-Dick at the Whitney Museum in New York

Marathon Reading of Moby-Dick at the Whitney Museum in New York

“Three-way wave” on the right side of The Blanket

“Three-way wave” on the right side of The Blanket

At the exhibition in Fort Worth it was wonderful to see the horizontal expanse of The Blanket with a wall to itself in the center of the room.  I had loved this work when I first saw it in a Dean Witter office building in New York City in the 1990s.  But it had looked cramped and uncomfortable on a wall in a room with a low ceiling, and a baby grand piano sitting next to it, high in a skyscraper.  I immediately loved the buoyant wave shape on the right side of this painted metallic relief.  At first I loved its coloring, which reminded me to the orca whales I had seen when growing up on Puget Sound.  And then I saw its human head and arms, painted in white and lined in pink, riding the crest of the wave.  I had not been expecting to see such a shape in a work by Stella (who had previously used preexisting geometric shapes such as stripes, polygons, protractors, and cones as the primary ingredients in his formally abstract art).  That beautifully balanced human abstraction riding the crest of the wave at first made me think of a surfer.  But as a student of Moby-Dick I was soon thinking of Ishmael and his fellow whalers in pursuit of a whale.  At some point I learned enough about the skeletal structure of the head of the whale to see its distinctive shape in the plunging head of the wave shape the human shape is riding.  So there, seamlessly integrated into one buoyant wave shape, were the three essential ingredients of a whaling story: the human, the whale, and the sea.

The Blanket in the center of the Moby-Dick installation in Fort Worth

The Blanket in the center of the Moby-Dick installation in Fort Worth

Up in the Dean Witter tower, I barely had room to get photo of the “three-way wave” itself, with no chance to chapter the 19-foot width of The Blanket as a whole.  Even in the installation on the Fifth Floor of the Whitney, it was impossible for me to get a photograph of The Blanket with a full frontal view without backing up right into the dangerous metallic involutions of Fedallah, which was directly facing it in that section of the installation.  When I got a few minutes with Stella at the artist’s opening of the Whitney show, I was happy that I was able to get a photo of him with my favorite wave shape.

Stella with The Blanket at the Artists Opening at the Whitney in October 2015

Stella with The Blanket at the Artist’s Opening at the Whitney in October 2015

It was hard to know where to start in my Fort Worth lecture, there could have been so much to say, but the recent Olympics in Rio helped me with that.  At the opening of the Whitney show, I had been struck over and over by the spatial relation of Stella’s reliefs to the human body.  This had been brought home again by the photograph in the New York Times of a Rwandan marathoner running past Stella’s Puffed Star II, a recent sculpture that a Rio de Janiero museum had acquired just in time for the Olympics.  That photo made me think of a statement Melville had made in The Confidence Man, several years after writing Moby-Dick: “Fiction, like religion, should create another world, and yet one to which the feel the tie.”  This I feel is a perfect motto for Stella’s largely abstract art, whether it be the Moby-Dick reliefs of the 1980s and 1990s, the Eccentric Polygons of the 1960s, or the Puffed Stars of the 2010s.

Claudette Mukasakindi running past Stella’s Puffed Star II, New York Times, August 16, 2016.  Photo: Matthian Hangst, Getty Images

Claudette Mukasakindi running past Stella’s Puffed Star II, New York Times, August 16, 2016.  Photo: Matthias Hangst, Getty Images

The five Moby-Dick reliefs in the Fort Worth Retrospective (the same five that were at the Whitney) were completed between 1986 and 1989.  They represent a small, early sample of the 266 unique artworks Stella had named for Melville’s 138 chapter headings by the time he completed the series in 1997.  I therefore tried to give my audience of some sense of Stella’s project as a whole, with an emphasis on process by which I had come to know the series from the first Wave prints I had seen to in Cincinnati in 1989 though to the book I finally published in 2001.  I called the talk “Pursuing Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick in Body, Mind, and Words,” and enjoyed giving it to a very alert audience that had excellent questions afterwards.

The Monkey-Rope, from the Moby-Dick Deckle Edges, 1993.

The Monkey-Rope, from the Moby-Dick Deckle Edges, 1993.

One my biggest surprises in visiting Stella in his New York studio came on the day he asked if I wanted to see the movie he had made of smoke rings he had blown from his beloved cigar into a black box equipped with cameras on all sides.  At the time I had no idea what this might have to do with the Moby-Dick series.  One year later, at Tyler Graphics in Mount Kisco, New York, he completed the nine editioned prints he called the Moby-Dick Deckle Edges, all of which included abstractions of those smoke rings he had blown with his own cigar.  One of the clearest of those rings is the one on the right side of The Monkey-Rope, named for the chapter in Moby-Dick whose “monkey-rope” is the nautical line connecting Ishmael on the deck of the ship with Queequeg on the body of the whale as Queequeg is trying to cut into the blanket of the skin of the whale so the whalers can hoist it up into the ship to be cut into strips that can be boiled in the fire of the try-works to make the oil that is poured into the casks that are then stored in the hull so they can be sold back a home.  In Melville’s chapter, Ishmael’s perilous monkey-rope becomes a metaphor for the “the Siamese ligatures” that tie us to other creatures in life and in death.

beluga-ring

Coney Island beluga blowing water ring

Soon after the visit to Stella’s studio in which I saw the movie of him blowing smoke rings, I decided to make a trip out to the Coney Island aquarium where he had got his original inspiration for the Moby-Dick Series.  In the early 1980s he had visited the aquarium with his young sons, one of them riding on his shoulders.  As soon as they entered, he was struck by the Beluga whales, “looming there,” as he liked to say.  He loved their abstract shape as they hovered above and beyond him through the glass, and he suddenly had the inspiration for the first of many whale and wave shapes that were to float through the prints, metallic reliefs, and sculptures he was to name for all o fMelville’s chapter headings over the next twelve years.  In my talk I gave special attention to uppermost white wave shape The Whiteness of the Whale, to the three-way wave shape in The Blanket, and to whale-and-wave shape I first saw in the Moby-Dick print, immediately followed by its absence at the heart of Ahab’s Leg.

 Whale-and-wave shape present in Moby-Dick

Whale-and-wave shape present in Moby Dick

And absent in Ahabs Leg

And absent in Ahab’s Leg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

cover-of-new-york-met-bulletin-spring-2016You might think that an overnight visit to Fort Worth to see an art exhibition, give a lecture, and enjoy a sociable meal might not have much to do with my current life as a professor in northern Kentucky, a curator in Cincinnati, or with my boyhood in Puget Sound, but this one evening was full of the kind of monkey-rope connections that Moby-Dick always somehow inspires.  One of them I could anticipate in advance, because Barbara (McCroskey) Flanagan, who now lives in Fort Worth, was the student in early in my teaching career at Northern Kentucky University who asked the question that has resulted in the career I have since enjoyed as a specialist in Moby-Dick and the visual arts.  Barbara had taken an experimental course I then taught in Music in Literature, so she asked if I could offer one in Painting and Literature.  I had never thought about doing that, but I said I would give it a shot if she would enroll for the course and help me research some of the possible topics, which she did.  This course gave me the opportunity to follow some hunches I already had about J. M. W. Turner as a possible inspiration for Moby-Dick.  The experience of teaching it, with Barbara’s help, led eventually to my book on Melville and Turner, which in turn led to the one on Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick.  Barbara came to the lecture in Fort Worth with her husband Milton, and Terri Thornton, the education director at the museum, invited them to join us for dinner after the lecture.  Our dinner conversation was so animated, I don’t think we got a chance to talk about the way Melville and Moby-Dick were incorporated into the exhibition of Turner’s Whaling Pictures at the New York Met this summer (the subject of an earlier entry in this blog).

Matt Kish with some of his 81 new Moby-Dick Extracts at the opening of the Cincinnati show in April 2016

Matt Kish with some of his 81 new Moby-Dick Extracts at the opening of the Cincinnati show in April 2016

A more surprising connection with my current work in the Northern Kentucky / Greater Cincinnati area came when several people came up to ask questions after my talk.  Two of them asked if I knew about the Moby-Dick art by Matt Kish.  What a wonderful confirmation of the national influence of the work of this mild-mannered librarian in Dayton, Ohio, who had been entirely unknown before he published Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page in 2011.  These two Kish fans in Fort Worth were delighted to hear the latest news about our recent exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati for which Kish had done more than a hundred new Moby-Dick works they had never seen, most of which have already been purchased by the Newberry Library in Chicago, where they will presumably a central part of the library’s celebration of the 200th Anniversary of Melville’s birth in 2019.

Ellen Bauer with Mount Rainier

Ellen Bauer with Mount Rainier

After we left the lecture hall in Fort Worth, Terri took us to dinner at a restaurant Barbara recommended.  I would have never expected the conversation to center on Tacoma, Washington, the city in which my father was born.  But Milton, Barbara’s husband, had lived in Tacoma during his formative years, and so had Cam, Terri’s husband.  The reason I had to fly back to the Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky airport early the next morning was that Ellen Bayer, one of my favorite Moby-Dick students while I was finishing the Stella book, was flying in on the same day from the Seattle / Tacoma airport so she could give an Alumni Lecture to our students and faculty at NKU.  Ellen is currently an Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of Washington Tacoma.  One of her specialties is environmental studies, and she gave a brilliant Alumni Lecture at NKU on Poe, Ecology, and Landscape Aesthetics.  Ellen loves Puget Sound as a young faculty member as much as I had as a high school student and tugboat deckhand, and the photo she sent for our flyer shows her running a marathon in the Cascade Mountains near Mount Rainier.

Ellen Bayer with painting by Danielle Wallace in Steely Library

Ellen Bayer with painting by Danielle Wallace in Steely Library

After Ellen gave her talk to our students and faculty, I made sure we got over to Steely Library to see one of the paintings Danielle Wallace had done as part of her Honors Capstone project at NKU.  Danielle, like Ellen, had been a student in one of my classes in Moby-Dick and the arts.  Each had created an artwork as her final project that was included in the exhibition Moby Comes to Covington at the Kenton County Public Library in 2015.  But what they most have in common is their fascination, and life experience, with horses.  Ellen had grown up and come of age with her horse named Whisper, so her Honors Capstone project had been to examine the horse whispering phenomenon in an experiential project combining research, memoir, journaling, and building a pen in which she and Whisper could interact in a video that was part of the final project.  Danielle combined her life and her research in a similar way, painting several life-size paintings of her own horses to supplement the journal she was keeping of their daily interactions and the reading she was doing on the moral lives of animals.

Danielle Wallace with Ungraspable Phantom at Marta Hewett opening in April 2016

Danielle Wallace with Ungraspable Phantom at Marta Hewett opening in April 2016

The day after Ellen gave her talk at NKU, she drove to Tennessee to run a 50K Marathon through the Smokey Mountains.  Tennessee is now the home of Danielle’s Ungraspable Phantom, which Dawn Coleman had bought after seeing it in the nine-woman exhibition of Moby-Dick art at the Marta Hewett Gallery in April (see previous blog entry).  Danielle had painted that work while interning on a horse farm in Alabama and delivered it to Cincinnati just in time for the show, where Marta and I installed on a wall between Monica Namyar’s ceramic relief Queequeg and Ishmael and Kathleen Piercefields’s mixed-media print The Women of New Bedford.

With Kathleen Piercefield at her BFA Senior Show, December 2004

With Kathleen Piercefield at her BFA Senior Show, December 2004

On the day Ellen was running her mountain Marathon in the Smokies, I received my last monkey-rope surprise of the week of during which I had given my talk in Fort Worth.   On the Thursday before my visit to Texas, Kathleen Piercefield had come to NKU for the opening of a print exhibition which included two of her newest works.  I had not seen her since I received word that her larger-than-life print of Queequeg in his own proper person had safely arrived at the New Bedford Whaling Museum to join two of her prints from the Marta Hewett show as the most recent acquisitions in the Elizabeth Schultz Collection.  This was the perfect opportunity for me to present Kathleen with a little gift for all she had done for me since she had created her first Moby-Dick artworks in my class in 2004.  Since she loves moths and butterflies, I gave her a beautiful ceramic pot by Monica Namyar whose gliding butterflies are floating over a deep black ground.

Now, just one week later, a little box arrived on my porch at home, enclosing a new print as a gift from Kathleen.  I can’t get a formal photo of it yet because it is still “bent” like the body of the baby whale recently released from the “maternal reticule” in the “Grand Armada” chapter of Moby-Dick.  The whale shape in this print is one of my favorites from Kathleen’s Affidavit in the Marta Hewett show, now in New Bedford.  Its inscribed title is Adrift in the Wonder World, our name for the Marta Hewett show—and the perfect capstone phrase for this extremely satisfying week.

Adrift in the Wonder World, 2016

Adrift in the Wonder World, 2016

 

2-Man Moby-Dick Show ends run at CAC

Entry begun August 15, 2016, 9:25 am

Yesterday at 4 pm was the close of the two-man show at the Contemporary Arts Center that opened on April 22.  It’s been a wonderful run.  The Live Drawing on the opening night in which Matt Kish and Robert Del Tredici made joint Moby-Dick drawings together, the gallery talks by the two artists the next day, and the gallery talk by Beth Schultz on May 7 got the show off to a wonderful start in ways I have tried to share in this blog.  Much of the excitement of those opening days and weeks is preserved in the two Numediacy videos that are part of my previous post.  These videos also preserve much of the immediacy of the 9-woman Moby show that opened at the Marta Hewett Gallery on April 23 and closed on June 11.

Viewers in the CAC gallery on the last day

Viewers in the CAC gallery on the last day

I did not know what to expect at the CAC over the rest of the summer.  We did not have any specific programming scheduled.  I was busy getting back to other research projects that had languished while we had been assembling this show and getting it up and running.  But of course I did drop in now and then, and I always learned something new—from the works themselves, from friends I met there, and from the staff at the reception desk and the guards in the gallery.  I had heard from quite a few people that they had been back to the exhibition several times because there was so much to see, and the guards had seen a lot of repeat visitors too.  Every security person I met talked about the artwork itself as well as the number and diversity of visitors.

Aileen Callahan with Kish Extracts

Aileen Callahan with Kish Extracts

Aileen Callahan, who had two wonderful Moby-Dick charcoal drawings in the Marta Hewett show, had not been able to visit that exhibition because of her teaching obligations in Boston.  But she did make it to Cincinnati in the summer and we had a wonderful afternoon at the CAC.  Like most visitors, she was equally drawn to the work of Kish and Del Tredici.  The photo here shows her with some of her favorite Kish Extracts, but we spent an equal amount of time with the Del Tredicis, and I learned so much from her artist’s eye.  As someone who herself has been creating artwork in response to Moby-Dick for nearly two decades, she had an immediate perception of what each artist was conveying in both words and image.   And she was able to explain to me how their choices of this spatial placement, or that intensity of shade or hue, made a certain print or drawing more successful that it would otherwise have been.  I wish Caitlin and Jay could have been here with to record this impromptu Mobyart seminar for Numediacy.

Caitlin Sparks with the original for her poster

Caitlin Sparks near the original for her poster

Caitlin herself came later in the summer.  She stood near where Aileen had along the Extracts wall because she had chosen the poster of one of the works here as my gift to her for her new job.  Caitlin was recently hired as communications director for Kentuckians for the Commonweath, a statewide advocacy group for the environment, social justice, and cultural development.  I had loved the White Whale that she had crocheted from our society’s plastic waste for the Marta Hewett show—as well as the technical and imaginative work she had done with Jay Gray in making the Numediacy films—so it was wonderful to see her bringing her ecological imagination, artistic gifts, and media savvy to this new position.  Her office is on the second floor of the Roebling Bookstore and Coffee Shop in Covington, with a view toward the river, so I thought one of the Kish posters at the CAC would add some welcome color and shape to its open wall spaces.  She chose the orange ecological poster whose drawing is above her head to the left, in which Kish hangs a whale from an oil derrick in illustrating a quote about harvesting oil from whales.

John Braden with Matt Kish

John Braden with Matt Kish

A week earlier I had visited the show with John Braden, another former student who had just gotten an excellent new job in Covington.  John is a brilliant writer who had come to NKU when he got tired of sorting packages for UPS or FedX.  Before graduating as an English major he had written a short story about Melville and Frederick Douglass that he read at an international conference in New Bedford in 2005 (and which he has more recently read at Melville’s Arrowhead home in Pittsfield).  John had become interested in teaching at-risk students while completing an M. A. at NKU.  He has just been hired at a full-time job in Covington doing exactly that.  I learned a lot from John about the art in the CAC show because he is very familiar—I am not—with a number of the popular culture and comic artists who had inspired Kish.  Soon after John had floated his theory about one particular artist, Matt himself happened to arrive.  He confirmed that the artist John had in mind had influenced not only the Moby-Dick series but his entire career.

Carola Bell with Del Tredici metallics

Carola Bell with Del Tredici metallics

Carola Bell is another former student with whom I spent an afternoon at the show.  She is now an assistant registrar at the Cincinnati Art Museum and spends quite a bit of time as a courier accompanying valuable artworks to museums around the world.  She is an artist herself who made excellent Moby-Dick prints as an art major in my undergraduate class—before making exquisite Emily Dickinson art as an English major in our M. A. program.  Carola had been an undergraduate when Del Tredici was in residence here at the turn of the century and was fascinated with the forty-five “metallic” prints he has made in the last few years.  Like Aileen, she was able to deepen my appreciation of the techniques he had used and the decisions had had made through her own experience as a deeply expressive artist.  She also has a fine sense of Del Tredici’s full range from the comic to the cosmic.

New Orleans make-up artist trying to choose between Del Tredici prints

New Orleans make-up artist trying to choose between Del Tredici prints

Equally satisfying, because entirely random and unplanned, were my encounters with strangers in the gallery.  On my first summer visit a tall young woman with her parents and a younger brother turned out to be an art teacher who would have loved to bring her students to this show.  On my next visit, after seeing a mother and daughter walk all the way around the room, studying everything very carefully, I asked them what they liked about the show.  At first they were tongue-tied, but then the mother said her daughter had just said, “I want to read Moby-Dick now.”  One of the security guards had new things to say about the art every time I saw him on duty in that room.  Yesterday he told me which Kish would make the best T-shirt (the last of the Broadsides).  In the gift shop at the close of the show yesterday, I saw a woman trying to choose between two of the Del Tredici prints on sale there.  She turned out to be a make-up artist from New Orleans here in Cincinnati as part of a film crew.  She liked them both so much she thought she would probably get them both, and she was happy to pose for the photo I post here.

Del Tredici’s 45 metallic prints at the CAC

Del Tredici’s 45 metallic prints at the CAC

Although it has been great to have all these works on display since April, it is nice to think of the new homes some them will be moving on to.  Twenty of the 45 Del Tredici “metallics” will be returning the Special Collections at NKU from which they were borrowed.  The other 25 will now accompany them to that same destination as new acquisitions.  In addition, the Melville Society Cultural Project has chosen seven of these metallic prints as the 2016 acquisition for its Archive at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  The artist has already sent new copies of those prints to New Bedford from his home in Montreal.

Beth Schultz with Kish Extracts on May 7

Beth Schultz with Kish Extracts on May 7

We knew when the show opened that the 25 original drawings for Kish’s 2011 book Moby-Dick in Pictures would be returning to the NKU and New Bedford archives from which they had been borrowed.  We knew, too, that Kish’s 12 drawings of The Crew of the Pequod would be returning to the Melville Society Archive in New Bedford.  But it was not after until the show was up that we learned that the 81 Extracts that Kish had created specifically for this show were being purchased by the Newberry Library in Chicago, co-publisher of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of the Writings of Herman Melville.  On one of my Sunday visits the guard told me Kish had paid a visit with the director of that library that very morning.  On the day that John Braden and I just happened to meet Matt in the gallery, he had just heard from the Newberry that they want to acquire the 10 Broadsides too.  I am guessing that most, if not all 91 of these Kishes, will be on display when the Newberry celebrates the 200th Anniversary of Melville’s birth in 2019.

Dawn Coleman with Danielle Wallace’s Ungraspable Phantom in Tennessee

Dawn Coleman with Danielle Wallace’s Ungraspable Phantom in Tennessee

Many of the works from the Marta Hewett Gallery show have already gone to new homes.  Danielle Wallace’s Ungraspable Phantom is now part of Melville scholar Dawn Coleman’s personal art collection in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Monica Namyar’s ceramic White Whale is now with Herman Melville’s direct descendent Cathe Chapin Kobacker in Gahanna, Ohio.  Monica’s Eye of the Whale is now in the collection of Emma Rose Thompson in Anderson Township, Ohio, and her Queequeg & Ishamel diptych is now part of my personal collection in Bellevue, Kentucky.

Women of New Bedford now at home in New Bedford

Women of New Bedford now at home in New Bedford

Two of Kathleen Piercefield’s prints from the Marta Hewett show have recently arrived at the New Bedford Whaling Museum as part of its Elizabeth Schultz collection of Moby-Dick art.  Chief curator Christina Connett is already making plans to exhibit Piercefield’s mixed-media print Women of New Bedford—Captain’s Wives.  Piercefield’s Affidavit whales from the Hewett show are certain to have a happy home there as well.  In addition, Piercefield is currently preparing a third new New Bedford acquisition from her home in Dry Ridge, Kentucky.  Shultz has acquired for her collection at the Whaling Museum Piercefield’s Queequeg in his own proper person, the larger-than-life, multi-panel, multi-media print that Piercefield created part of her senior show at NKU in 2004 and has since been exhibited in Pawtucket, Rhode Island; in Rockford, Illinois, and in Covington, Kentucky.  If things work out, the Whaling Museum may be able to display the 3 new Piercefields and the 7 new Del Tredicis during its Marathon Reading of Moby-Dick in January 2017.

Monica Namyar with her new Queequeg in Park Hills, Kentucky

Monica Namyar with her new Queequeg in Park Hills, Kentucky

Of course the end of the two exhibitions and the return or dispersal of all of their artworks is not the end of the story.  Kish and Del Tredici had created most of the artworks in the CAC show after the show had been scheduled, and each has plans for new work now that the show is over.  Nearly all of the Marta Hewett artists had created brand-new work for that show, and some are already underway with new projects.  I was delighted one week ago to hear from Monica Namyar that she has aleady made a three-dimensional head of Queequeg inspired by the design of his face in Queequeg & Ishmael ceramic relief.  She is very happy that his head came out unscathed from the kiln.  The photos she sent from multiple angles were entirely inspiring and satisfying, and I got to see her, and her new work, in her Park Hills home yesterday.  What a great pleasure it is to keep learning from Moby-Dick and artists the book inspires.

Queequeg on Monica’s dining room table

Queequeg on Monica’s dining room table

Numediacy posts 2 Videos of the 2 Cincinnati Moby-Dick Shows

Entry begun Sunday, June 26, 5:45 am

Jay Gray at Marta Hewett show (photo Robert Del Tredici)

Jay Gray at Marta Hewett show (photo Robert Del Tredici)

Numediacy is the artistic partnership between two of my former students at NKU. Caitlin Sparks was a student in my Spring Semester 2011 class in Moby-Dick in the Arts.  A few semesters before that Jay Gray had taken my sophomore-level writing class in Exploring the Arts.  In April 2015, I commissioned Numediacy to make a video of the four-day Moby-Dick Arts Fest in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky inspired by the exhibition Moby Comes to Covington at the Kenton Couunty Public Library.  Jay and Caitlin did an excellent job documenting both the Arts Fest and an exhibition of 105 art works in the 22-minute video they called Moby Exploration.   I was delighted to post that video as part of my blog Dickinson and Moby-Dick in 2015: https://dickinsonandmobydick.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/22-minute-video-of-4-day-moby-arts-fest/

JayGray  filming Julia Oldham’s talk at “soft” opening

Jay Gray  filming Julia Oldham’s talk at “soft” opening

In April of this year Marta Hewett and I commissioned Numediacy to document the opening of the two Moby-Dick art exhibitions in Cincinnati.  Originally, we had in mind a single video that would cover the back-to-back openings of the 2-man exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center and the 9-woman exhibtion at the Marta Hewett Gallery on the weekend of April 22-23.  After arrangements were made for Beth Schultz to give back-to-back gallery talks in the two exhibitions on May 7, Numediacy decided two make two videos, each about 11 minutes long.  The first, entitled Engendered: Mayhem and Wonder, documents the opening events at the two galleries with an emphasis on the presentations by the artists themselves.  The second, entitled Engendered: Elizabeth A. Schultz Gallery Talks, takes us through these two exhibitions through the eyes and words of Schultz herself.   As they had done in Moby Exploration last year, Jay and Caitlin do an excellent job of combining images of artwork with live interviews in a fluid, informative cinematic style.

Caitlin Sparks (near pillar) recording Del Tredici audio

Caitlin Sparks (near pillar) recording Del Tredici audio

I am grateful for the time, as well as skill, that Numediacy invested in this project.  Jay and Caitlin brought their carmeras to the installation day at the Marta Hewett Gallery on April 16 so they could get some B-roll footage for possible use in the film.  They brought their visual and audio equipment to the “soft” opening of of the show on Monday, April 18, so they could record Julia Oldham talking about her Moby-Dick video while she was here from Eugene, Oregon.  And of course they were at the Contemporary Arts Center on the evening of Friday, April 19, to film the Live Drawing by Matt Kish and Robert Del Tredici which opened that show, followed by the gallery talks by the two artists the next afternoon.  As soon as that event ended, they moved over to the Marta Hewett Gallery to record that opening and the talks by the six local artists in that show.  After that frenzied week, the challenge would be in the editing.  Here is the result in the feature they call Engendered: Mayhem & Wonder  –

 

Engendered: Mayhem & Wonder from Numediacy on Vimeo.

Caitlin Sparks leaning forward to record Schultz audio

Caitlin Sparks leaning forward to record Schultz audio

When Beth Schultz arrived for her back-to-back gallery talks on Saturday, May 7, Jay and Caitlin were again on hand with camera and microphone to try to catch everything Beth said from a few feet away as she walked through the successive sections of each show. Inspired directly by the images as she saw them, Schultz offered improvised commentary for more than an hour as she moved through the two-man show at the Contemporary Arts Center.  After a short break, she did the same for more than an hour in the more intimate space of the 9-woman show at the Marta Hewett Gallery.  Schultz was a moving target articulating one brilliant insight after another in a movable feast that Numediacy captured on the run, as it were, throughout one highly stimulating afternoon.  Aferward, again, they had the challenge of editing.  Here is the result in the feature they call Engendered: Elizabeth A. Schultz Gallery Talks:

 

Engendered: Elizabeth A. Schultz Gallery Talks from Numediacy on Vimeo.

Kish and Del Tredici with the 2 curators

Kish and Del Tredici with the 2 curators

From the moment Marta had agreed to mount a 9-woman Moby-Dick show to open concurrently with the 2-man Moby show that Steven Matijcio had scheduled for the Contemporary Arts Center, I had been very interested in seeing how the two shows would relate to each other in terms of gendered expression.  From the opening weekend until Saturday, June 11, the closing date for the Hewett show, viewers could make their own comparisons by walking through the galleries themselves.  Now, viewers can make comparisons of their own while watching the Numediacy videos.  Jay and Caitlin take no explicit position in relation to gender in either film; they let the artworks, the artists, and Beth Schultz speak for themselves,.  But they do use the word Engendered in each title.  And their subtitle for the first film, Mayhem & Wonder, perhaps suggests some interesting differences.   Basically, however, Jay and Caitlin do what Ishmael does with the head of the sperm whale: “I but put that brow before you.  I read it if you can.”  They rely on us to do with their films what Schultz sees Melville asking the reader to do with Moby-Dick: “integrate the way we see with our eyes and the way we see with our minds.”

The six local Moby-Dick artists at the Marta Hewett opening (photo Robert Del Tredici)

The six local Moby-Dick artists at the Marta Hewett opening (photo Robert Del Tredici)

End of the Marta Hewett exhibition

End of the Marta Hewett exhibition

The Marta Hewett show was very successful.  Works in the show have been sold to private collectors in Tennessee, Ohio, and northern Kentucky, and others will become part of the Elizabeth Schultz Collection at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  It was sad to see the show come down, but I am grateful that elements of it will live on in these two Numediacy videos.  One work currently remains Marta’s gallery.  Marta is retaining Claire Illouz’s Dear Leviathan to serve as the anchor for her summer show.  One of Marta’s clients had very much wished to buy it, but she has cats with claws and was certain that they would shred this beautiful art work.  When I relayed this news to Claire in France, she immediately responded with an email declaring that “These cats, we love them, but they will never understand art.”

The Kish and Del Tredici show at the Contemporary Arts Center will be up until August 14.  It is a great pleasure to be able to visit multiple it times, with different people, and continue to see the work of these two artists in a new way.  Each has continued to create new Moby-Dick artworks since the show went up in April.  Kish has recently been posting new Moby-Dick images on Facebook.  Del Tredici has just now sent me a three new metallic prints.  I will close this entry  with the one whose text is from the passage near the end of “The Chart” in which Captain Ahab “sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.”

Robert Del Tredici, Bloody Nails, June 2016

Robert Del Tredici, Bloody Nails, June 2016

 

Melville and Turner in New York

Entry begun at LaGuardia Airport on Thursday, June 9, at 3 pm

Mary K Bercaw Edwards and I had a nice drive from New Bedford to Mystic yesterday afternoon, followed by a wonderful dinner prepared by her husband Craig.  After dinner we enjoyed a delightful jam session as Craig and his young friend Ben, a new member of the summer staff and Mystic Seaport, improvised in different combinations of guitar, banjo, harmonica, violin, and voice. Mary K and I would have loved to hear more of the jamming than we did, but we each had to get up at 5:30 next morning if we were going to get to the Metropolitan Museum in New York by the time it opened at 10.  The early morning went according to plan.  We left Mary K’s house at 6 so she could drive us to the New Haven Train Station by 7.  We parked the car, bought our tickets, and took the 7:26 express to Grand Central Station.

New Haven Railway Station

New Haven Railway Station

The train from New Haven got us to Grand Central by 9:20.  This gave us plenty of time to sit down for a coffee and pastry before catching a cab uptown.  I knew we were in trouble when the cabbie passed up the right-hand turn up Madison that would have taken us directly to the Met.  Instead we had to creep along 42nd Street from Madison to Fifth Avenue and then from Fifth to Sixth before we could turn uptown, now having to crawl slowly up Sixth all the way to 57th before turning back toward Madison, now creeping east from Sixth to Fifth to Madison before finally taking a left turn in the direction of the Met.  We had planned to meet Tom Zaniello and Jennifer Baker at the Museum when it opened at 10, so we called and texted them to let them know we would be at least 15 minutes late.

Metropoliltan Museum of Art

Metropoliltan Museum of Art

Seeing Tom’s friendly face in the Museum lobby beyond the security check was very reassuring.  But I had not realized that 15 years after 9/11 visitors were still not allowed to check a suitcase when visiting the Museum.  Since my suitcase and I had to leave the Museum in the early afternoon to catch my plane from LaGuardia back to Cincinnati, this did not leave much time for finding a solution.  Fortunately, the curator Alison Hokanson who had organized the Turner exhibition had given me the name of someone in the European Painting department to contact if we had any difficulty when coming to see the show.  That someone was Rebecca Ben-Atar, who as soon as she heard from security came down meet us and take us to her office so I could leave my suitcase there while seeing the show.  From that moment on, we had two solid hours of transport and delight.  I had read Alison’s 48-page essay on Turner’s Whaling Pictures in the Museum’s Spring 2016 Bulletin, but that did not prepare me for the experience of being in one room with all four of the whaling oils Turner had painted in 1845 and 1846, never before exhibited as a complete group.  In this compact, powerful exhibition there several other objects to see and to savor, but only after experiencing the four whaling oils face to face and in sequence.

Pictorial entrance to Turner’s Whaling Pictures

Pictorial entrance to Turner’s Whaling Pictures

Part 1.  Front and center when entering the exhibition was the 1845 Whalers that the Met had acquired in 1896 (and that I had first seen as a graduate student at Columbia University in the mid-1960s).  To celebrate the 120th anniversary of that acquisition, the Metropolitan has borrowed the three other whaling paintings from the Tate Gallery in London (where I had seen them in storage when doing research on Turner in the mid-1980s).  The three paintings from the Tate Gallery are Whalers from 1845 and “Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish!” and Whalers (Boiling Blubber) from 1846.  The 1845 Whalers at the Met is often called The Whale Ship to distinguish it from the 1845 Whalers at the Tate, and I will adopt that usage here.

Whalers (left) and The Whale Ship (right) from 1845

Whalers (left) and The Whale Ship (right) from 1845

Because Turner’s late style is so radically indistinct, a first-time viewer of the two whaling paintings he exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1845 might have difficulty discerning whether there is a sequential relation between them.  That is one reason Turner accompanied those paintings in the Royal Academy catalog with specific citations from The Natural History of the Sperm Whale that Thomas Beale had published in 1839.  Beale had been a surgeon on a British whaler on its voyage into the South Seas in the 1830s and his book delineates the procedures of the sperm whaling industry as well as the natural history of the living creature that was the object of the chase.  On the title page of his book, Beale introduces the sequence Turner was to follow in creating his four whaling paintings by pairing the “Chase and Capture” of the sperm whale with the “Cutting In and Trying Out.”  In 1845 Turner addressed the “Chase and Capture” in Whalers and The Whale Ship.  In 1846 he depicted the “Cutting In and Trying Out” in “Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish!” and Whalers (Boiling Blubber).

Left to right: The Whale Ship, “Hurrah! for the Erebus! another Fish!” and Whalers (Boiling Blubber)

Left to right: The Whale Ship, “Hurrah! for the Erebus! another Fish!” and Whalers (Boiling Blubber)

Understanding this basic sequence borrowed from Beale helps one to appreciate the imaginative strength and prismatic brilliance with which Turner is able to visualize the kind of mortal combat between man and whale he had never seen with his own eyes.  One distinct feature of all four whaling oils is the manner in which Turner’s indistinct aesthetic manages to convey specific information and sometimes unbearable emotion even though these are perceived through an atmospheric haze which seemingly obscures either the subject or meaning of the painting.  One way to explore this phenomenon is to examine at least one small detail within each full canvas as Turner moves from the chase and capture of the sperm whale to the cutting in and trying out.  The Met installation allows the viewer to savor each painting up close as well as far away because the spatial placement of each work is greatly enhanced by lighting that shows the shapes on the canvas as if glowing from within.  Let’s begin with the chase of the whale in the 1845 Whalers.

J. M. W. Turner, Whalers, oil on canvas, 1845. Tate Gallery, London

J. M. W. Turner, Whalers, oil on canvas, 1845. Tate Gallery, London

Detail, Whalers, 1845

Detail, Whalers, 1845

Seen from afar, one discerns a blur of oceanic action on a stormy day.   Coming closer you can make out several boats in the foreground whose foremost sailors about ready to dart the harpoon into the massive whale whose gray form rises like a hill side to the right.  Getting even closer to the canvas on the right, you might notice a reddish tinge in the whale’s spout showing it has previously been struck.  Directly behind the boats in the middle ground are what appear to be a second set of whale boats ready to dart their irons after the incipient action breaks forth in the foreground under the watchful eye of the distant ship whose white sails shine bright against the grayish white of the sky.  In the small detail I have extracted from the larger canvas, Turner gives us the essence of the sperm whale chase: men in whale boats ready to strike the body of the whale as the whale ship awaits the results of the action.  The stormy sky whose own incipient violence threatens to complicate the violence of the chase scene about to unfold will remind some readers of Moby-Dick of the first chase scene in the novel.  In chapter 47, “The First Lowering,” Starbuck, the first mate, who in all other ways is a most prudent man, orders his harpooneer to strike the whale in the midst of a storm whose growing fury overwhelms his boat and nearly costs his crew their lives as the whale, only grazed, escapes.  Readers of Moby-Dick may also notice that in this chase scene by Turner, as in comparable scenes by Melville, the human whalers who are about to strike are able to see only a small part of the living creature whose massive body is mostly below the surface.

J. M. W. Turner, The Whale Ship, oil on canvas, 1845. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

J. M. W. Turner, The Whale Ship, oil on canvas, 1845. Metropolitan Museum, New York

Detail, The Whale Ship, 1845.

Detail, The Whale Ship, 1845

Turner’s The Whale Ship moves from the chase to the capture as the bleeding black head of the mortally wounded sperm whale in the foreground, its open jaw agape in agony, fights its attackers to the last, upending three whaleboats and dumping its sailors into the sea churned up by its thrashing tail.  On the plot level, this painting anticipates chapter 61 of Moby-Dick, “Stubb Kills a Whale,” the first chapter in which a sperm whale is both chased and killed.  Thick clots of blood from the blow hole of Stubb’s whale confirm that “His heart had burst!”  Emotionally, this painting most closely resembles chapter 81 of Moby-Dick, “The Pequod Meets the Virgin.”  This is the chapter in which an old bull whale with a broken fin and blinded eyes is chased, harpooned, and lanced until “his life may be said to pour from him in incessant streams.”  The death throes of this whale  were “horribly pitiably to see.  But pity there was none.  For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men.”  Adding to the pitiable horror of this whale’s death is the irony that his body sinks out of sight before his oil can be harvested.  The same fate awaited the whale whose mortal agony Turner conveys in the canvas of The Whale Ship.  He exhibited this painting at the Royal Academy with a reference to the page of Beale’s Natural History in which “an immense sperm whale,” after being chased and harpooned near Japan in 1832, “dived, but re-emerged, bleeding from its blow-hole, and struck one of its boats, overturning it,” after which he was “attacked again . . . and died, but sank, never to be seen again.”

J. M. W. Turner, “Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish!,” oil on canvas, 1846. Tate Gallery, London.

J. M. W. Turner, “Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish!,” oil on canvas, 1846. Tate Gallery, London

Erebus head and whalers

Detail, “Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish!,” 1846

In the third painting of Turner’s whaling quartet, “Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish!,” the soft, bright radiance of a suffusing sun subordinates the human actions to the rhythms and gestures of nature itself.  Even though this canvas is bathed in a solar glow, with the activity of the ship deep in the background as it processes the body of a captured whale, we clearly see the result of the “cutting in” in the severed head of the sperm suspended above the hull of the ship as if in worship of the sun (see detail).  Turner very carefully took the shape of the head of this sperm whale from an engraving in Beale.  On the one hand, the title “Hurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! another Fish!” relates to the whalers on the left side of the painting who are celebrating their catch.  It relates more ironically to the severed head of the sperm whale hanging aside the ship like trophy.  On the plot level, the severing of the head from its body in this painting relates most closely to chapter 67 of Moby-Dick, “Cutting In.”  Pictorially, it relates most closely to chapter 70, “The Sphynx.”  In this chapter, the “black and hooded head” of the whale, after being separated from its body, is seen “hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the Sphynx’s in the desert.”  In exactly such a manner do we see the decapitated head of Turner’s whale in the intense calm of “Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish.” So potent is the image of the “black and hooded head” against the “intense copper calm” in the “Sphynx” chapter that Captain Ahab ends the chapter with these words: “O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.”

 

J. M. W. Turner, Whalers (boiling Blubber) entangled in Flaw Ice, endeavoring to extricate themselves, oil on canvas, 1846. Tate Gallery, London.

J. M. W. Turner, Whalers (boiling Blubber) entangled in Flaw Ice, endeavoring to extricate themselves, oil on canvas, 1846. Tate Gallery, London

Detail, Whalers (boiling Blubber), 1846.

Detail, left side of Whalers (boiling Blubber), 1846

I have so far used a short title for the fourth of the whaling paintings.  Its full title is Whalers (boiling Blubber) entangled in Flaw Ice, endeavoring to extricate themselves.  The phrase “boiling Blubber” refers directly to the “trying out” that follows the “cutting in” process as the pieces of the whale that have been cut from its body are boiled by fire into the oil that will be sold on shore to light the lamps and lubricate the machinery of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century.  The blaze of the fire of the try-works on the ship on the left side of this painting is as bright as you could possibly want it.  Equally conspicuous in a more understated way is the smoke from the try-works fire that floats out through the denuded masts of the ship into the intense calm of another sky suffused by bright white light.  This smoke is he last we see of the whale who was chased and captured in Whalers and The Whale Ship and decapitated in the Whaler Erebus oil.

Boiling phantom ship and ice saw

Detail, right side of Whalers (Boiling Blubber), 1846

The view of man’s dominion on the left side of Whalers (boiling Blubber) is shockingly undercut on the right by the sister ship so deeply trapped in “Flaw Ice” that one doubts it will ever be “extricated” from the barrier their shipmates are “endeavoring” to cut through with a saw.  The icebound setting of this fourth whaling painting was probably influenced by the voyage of H. M. S. Erebus and Terror during the early 1840s in which the two ships not only discovered Antarctica but also brought back specimens of whales they had harvested from its waters.  Melville has not included the equivalent of this Antarctic whaling scene in Moby-Dick, but the burning of the oil in chapter 96, “The Try-Works,” completes his fictional variation on Beale’s sequence of the chase, the capture, the cutting in, and the trying out in the same way that Whalers (boiling Blubber) completes Turner’s pictorial variation on that same sequence.

       Part 2.  One special feature of the installation of Turner’s Whaling Pictures at the Met is that it has two entrances.  So far I have emphasized the “pictorial” entrance that leads you directly into The Whale Ship and its companion whaling oils.  The other entrance, through the wall at the opposite end of the gallery, leads you to one quotation and three books.  This is the “literary” entrance.  Its main purpose is to invite viewers to think about Turner’s whaling paintings in relation to Melville’s Moby-Dick, a relation that is explored at considerable length and with exemplary finesse in the essay by Alison Hokanson in the printed Bulletin that accompanies the exhibition.

Literary entrance to Turner’s Whaling Pictures

Literary entrance to Turner’s Whaling Pictures

The quotation from Moby-Dick printed conspicuously above the three books in the case is from chapter 55, “The Monstrous Pictures of Whales.”  Ishmael, Melville’s narrator, declares that “The great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.”  One reason for this is that most painters, engravers, or scientists who have attempted to delineate or describe the whale had never seen the living creature, hence the “monstrous pictures” of chapter 55.  Of the “Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales” Ishmael praises in chapter 56, the best “published outlines of the great Sperm Whale” are by Beale.  With one exception, all of “Beale’s drawings of this whale are good.”  Ishmael also calls attention to the engraved frontispiece of Beale’s book.  Its depiction of “boats attacking Sperm Whales . . . is admirably correct and life-like in its general effect.”  Melville had encountered Beale’s book during the visit to London in November and December 1849 in which saw paintings by Turner in the Vernon Gallery as well as in the private collection of the poet Samuel Rogers, among whose treasures he breakfasted twice.  Unable to find a copy of Beale’s book after returning to New York, Melville ordered a copy from London that arrived in July 1850.  That is the copy currently on the left side of the glass case in the Turner exhibition at the Met, open to the title page and its facing frontispiece.

Melville’s copy of Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, with an engraved frontispiece that Melville admired.  Houghton Library, Harvard  University

Melville’s copy of Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, with an engraved frontispiece that Melville admired.  Houghton Reading Room,  Harvard University.

Samuel Rogers had commissioned engravings from Turner as well as purchased his paintings, and he would have been intimately familiar with the four whaling oils that Turner had exhibited in 1845 and 1846 but were now in the painter’s private gallery.  Rogers’ own private gallery was one of the finest in London and his breakfast soirees were legendary for the quality of his guests and the range of conversation.  Two of the fellow guests with whom Melville breakfasted were intimately familiar with Turner and his work.  John Murray had published a variety of literary works with engravings after Turner in the 1830s before publishing Melville’s first two novels in 1846 and 1847.  C. R. Leslie, Turner’s colleague at the Royal Academy, possessed a key to the private gallery in which Turner’s whaling paintings were currently stored.  Melville recorded in his London diary that Leslie had invited him to spend the Christmas holidays with him and his family, an invitation Herman reluctantly had to decline because his wife Elizabeth and their infant son needed him back home in New York.  By July 1850, when Beale’s book arrived in New York, Melville was deep into the writing of Moby-Dick, and he wrote an annotation on its title page that is as central to the Melville element of the Turner exhibition at the Met as it was to the book I published on Melville and Turner in 1992.  Melville wrote that “Turner’s pictures of Whalers were suggested by this book.”  One year later, in 1851, he published the New York edition of Moby-Dick that is next to Beale’s Natural History in the glass case at the Met.

 Melville’s annotation in Beale: “Turner’s pictures of Whalers were suggested by this book.”         


Melville’s annotation in Beale: “Turner’s pictures of Whalers were suggested by this book.”

 

Melville’s copy of Beale is annotated throughout.  But the one annotation on the title page opens up a variety of ways in which Moby-Dick itself might have been influenced by Turner’s paintings, Beale’s book, or both together.  Whether Melville actually saw Turner’s whaling oils or only heard and read about them, the fact that he knew of their existence while wrtiing Moby-Dick is highly significant and suggestive.  So is the fact that he knew that Turner’s whaling oils were “suggested” by Beale’s book.  These two facts together may well have contributed to the way in which he was able to create a literary variation on Beale’s sequence of the “Chase and Capture” and the “Cutting In and Trying Out” comparable to the pictorial variation Turner had made.  Beyond such structural comparsons there are many emotional, aesthetic, philosophical, and prismatic similarities between Melville’s whaling novel and Turner’s whaling paintings (only a few of which were touched on in my in my above discussion of the paintings themselves).  In Ken Johnson’s review of the exhibition in the New York Times on June 3, he articulated very effectively the affinities between each artist’s approach to the sublime, finding their works to be speaking to each other at the deepest imaginative level.

Double interpretive panel on “Melville and Turner” to the right of Whalers (boiling Blubber)

Double interpretive panel on “Melville and Turner” to the right of Whalers (boiling Blubber)

After introducing the question of Turner’s possible influence on Moby-Dick by displaying Melville’s annotation in Beale, the exhibtion explores that question much more fully in a double panel on “Melville and Turner” in the corner of the gallery next to Whalers (boiling Blubber),. The double panel is mounted directly above two copies of the Museum Bulletin that discusses the relation between Melville and Turner in detail.  After summarizing what we know and do not know about the exact scope or sources of Melville’s knowledge of “Turner’s pictures of Whalers” when acquiring Beale and writing the novel, the first of the two text panels suggests that the novel’s “most compelling affinity with Turner’s pictures” is Ishmael’s description of the painting he “stumbles across” in the entrance to the Spouter-Inn in chapter 3.  The second text panel encourages viewers to make comparisons of their own by quoting generously from Ishmael’s description of the painting as he sees it.

Text of second “Melville and Turner” panel

Text of second “Melville and Turner” panel

Ishmael’s evocation of “a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant” could apply to any of the four whaling oils.  So could Ishmael’s prior evocation of an artist who “endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched.”  But that latter phrase is especially applicable to The Whale Ship owned by the Met.  So is Ishmael’s description the whale as “a long, limber, portentous black mass of something . . . in the picture’s midst.”  And his description of the sea itself as “a nameless yeast.”  Ken Johnson ends his review in the New York Times by suggesting that “it would be wonderful to think of Turner reading Moby-Dick and recognizing his own work in Ishmael’s heated description.  But Turner died in December 1851, just after the publication of Melville’s epic tragedy.”  Johnson illustrates his review with a large reproduction of The Whale Ship. As a teaser for his reader on the front page of the Arts section, he reproduces a narrow slice of the wounded head of the whale and upended boats next to these words “Turner did not read Moby-Dick, but late in life he painted him.”

Johnson teaser on front pageTom and Jennifer and Mary K and I saw a lot of people standing in reverie during the two hours we spent in the exihibtion.  We had many other items to enjoy besides the ones I have empaahsized here: a harpoon and whale oil lamps from the mid-19th century, watercolor sketches in which Turner addressed the “Fallacies of Hope” while preparing himself for the whaling oils, a portrait sketch of Turner in the year he died, and an 1856 engraving of “Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish!” in which Robert Brandard entirely butchered the head of the whale that Turner had so carefully borrowed from Beale.  Since all four of us are readers of Moby-Dick, it was fascinating to test our imperssions of the paintings against our knowledge of the novel, but the most compelling part of the experience was to have such intimate, sustained exposure to each of the whaling oils individually and in relation to each other. This was the closest I have ever been in a gallery to the opening pages of Moby-Dick in which, “posted like silent sentinels all around town, stand thousands upon thousands of moral men fixed in ocean reveries.”  The thousand upon thousands of mortal men (and women) might well be an accurate count by the time Turner’s Whaling Pictures closes on August 7.  Rebecca Ben-Atar told us that museum officials had been concerned about the way the temperature rose every day in the Turner Gallery after the exhibition opened—until they realized this was because of the constant influx of people into the room.

“Silent sentinels” left and right

“Silent sentinels” left and right

It was hard to leave this exhibitipon.  I would have stayed much longer if I did not have to take an early afternoon cab to LaGuardia Airport for my flight home to Cincinnati.  Jennifer had to leave to return to her familiy.  Tom and Mary and I had a sandwich in the Museum café befroe retrieving my suitcase from the European Painting office.  On our last pass through the Turner Gallery, I took a photo of Mary K, summer supervisor of the whale squad at Mystic Seaport, under the harpoon high up on the wall.

mary k with harpoon

And she took a photo of me next to The Whale Ship.

bob with whale ship

And I took a photo of a small watercolor that at the end of the summer will be following me back to Cincinnati.

J. M. W. Turner, The Whale on Shore, watercolor on paper, c. 1837. Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati.

J. M. W. Turner, The Whale on Shore, watercolor on paper, c. 1837. Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati.

The Metropolitan Museum has borrowed The Whale on Shore from the Taft Museum of Art.  Turner had created this exquisite watercolor in the 1830s to be engraved for a volume of writings by Sir Walter Scott in which it never appeared.  The whale in this picture has been trapped in shallow water by a receding tide and is fighting valiantly against the men attempting to subdue it.  Turner’s intricate drawing matches precisely Scott’s verbal description of this scene in The Pirate, published in 1822.  The right whale in this watercolor is the first whale that Turner is known to have painted.  It is the last one whose head and tail are both distinctly seen.

Turner’s Whaling Pictures is beautifully curated interdisciplinary achievement.  It is compact in space and expansive in imagination.  In the words of Ken Johnson, it is “exceptionally thought-provoking.”  One reason for this is that Turner, Beale, and Melville are all so freely brought into play.  The Athenaeum, a London weekly that consistently reviewed Turner’s paintings and Melville’s novels, called itself a Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine ArtsThe Literary World, its New York counterpart with which Melville was closely associated, called itself a Journal of Science, Literature, and Arts.  In 1850 these three areas of the humanities had not yet broken apart as they had by the time I began studying American Literature at Columbia University in the mid-1960s.  Now, a century and a half after Turner, Beale, and Melville were all doing their most powerful work, it quite thrilling to see the Metropolitan Museum bring them together as a perfect trifecta of holistic thought and feeling.

Melville Immersion in New Bedford

Entry begun Wednesday, June 8, 7:20 am

Our Melville Society Cultural Project had our summer meetings in June this year.  On Sunday night our crew of six arrived from M. I. T., Mystic Seaport, New York University, Georgetown University, Chapel Hill, and Northern Kentucky for two full days of work at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  We spent most of Monday working in our Melville Society Archive.  Most of Tuesday was devoted to what the museum billed as “Melville Immersion with Melville Scholars.”  It is now Wednesday morning and I am beginning this entry on the deck of an airbnb in Fairhaven that Tim Marr reserved for us from Chapel Hill.  The house is on Bayview Avenue and here is the view of the bay from the house.

Chris Sten on the Bayview porch on the evening we arrived

Chris Sten on the Bayview deck on the evening we arrived

It was cloudy, damp, and gusty when we all arrived on Sunday night and had dinner at Elisabeth’s, the Fairhaven restaurant in which we often have our first meeting.  Elisabeth’s is near the shore of the Acushnet River directly across from the harbor of New Bedford.  On January 3, 1841, Herman Melville sailed for the South Seas from a Fairhaven pier after having signed on to the whaler Acushnet across the river in New Bedford.  The bridge over the river connecting the two cities on Highway 6 still swings out at a right angle to the road to let ships go through–which happened one morning as we were driving across to the Whaling Museum.  Our airbnb is out on the eastern extension of Fairhaven beyond the hurricane wall that protects the inner harbor.   From the porch we have a sweeping view from the hurricane wall across the whole expanse of Buzzard’s Bay out toward the Atlantic Ocean..  After the slate grey evening on Sunday we have been blessed with beautiful sunny, breezy weather.

Our view of Fairhaven, New Bedford, and slice of Buzzard’s Bay

Our view of Fairhaven, New Bedford, and slice of Buzzard’s Bay

We spent all of Monday morning in the Melville Society Archive in the newly renovated wing of the New Bedford Whaling Museum on Johnny Cake Hill.  On our visit in January we had moved the last of our books and papers from their previous home several blocks away on Purchase Street.  Then we had gotten everything into the new building and most of our holdings unpacked and up on the shelves.  Now our main job was to complete that task.  Mark Procknik, the Whaling Museum librarian who oversees our Archive, had some new shelving for us to install, and we had quite a bit of material still to unpack, sort out, and shelve.  One leftover task was to unpack and sort all of the boxes containing extra copies Leviathan, our Melville Society journal, dating back to the first issue in 1999.  After sorting them into separate piles for every issue, we found that we had more than 50 copies of most issues between 1999 and 2007, with many fewer for most issues since then.  It was very satisfying to see our whole run of extras running in sequence across our top rows of shelving.  In the photo below you can see the earliest issues above and beyond the row of shelving that is filled primarily with books from the three Melville scholars whose donations formed the foundation of our collection: Harrison Hayford, Merton M. Sealts, and Tom Wendel.  Harry Hayford had written a famous essay on the “Unnecessary Duplicates” in Moby-Dick and we had to decide on Monday how many duplicate copies each issue of Leviathan we needed to keep here in the Archive.

Duplicate copies of Leviathans above and beyond books from the Hayford Collection

Duplicate copies of Leviathans above and beyond books from the Hayford Collection

The largest batch of new material we had received since January came in a series of boxes from the late Kate Kier, who had been a dearly loved and highly respected teacher at Queens College for many decades.  In addition to a wonderful variety of books by and about Melville, her collection included a full run of Melville Society Extracts, our newsletter that began in the 1970s and continued into the late 1990s, when it was absorbed into our new journal Leviathan.  After sorting and shelving the Leviathans, the Extracts, and other materials we had received from Kay, we had one nice surprise waiting for us in a large box of miscellaneous materials that had previously been donated from the collection of Walter Bezanson, another legendary scholar of the Hayford and Sealts generation.  Under what had seemed quite a random sequence of items inside the box, we found a real treasure: a full run of The Turner Gallery, a set of 120 engravings after paintings by J. M. W. Turner that Appleton and Sons had published in New York in 1879.  Each of the softbound parts of this extraordinary collection appears to be complete and in excellent condition, although we will have to examine them more closely on a future visit.   Melville himself was collecting engravings after Turner during the 1880s, some of them from this same publication.  We are so grateful to Gail Coffler, who has sent us so many priceless items from the collection of her late husband Walter, and also all who made Kay Kier’s donation possible.

One part of The Turner Gallery, now in the Melville Society Archive

One part of The Turner Gallery, now in the Melville Society Archive

Our long day working in the Archive was expertly organized by Mary K Bercaw Edwards, one of whose current jobs at Mystic Seaport is to organize the squad of forty-plus persons who give whale boat and whale ship demonstrations throughout the summer.  Mary K gave us all tasks to fill the entire day, and by the end of the day we had accomplished much more than had seemed possible at the beginning.  For dinner we decided to return to our airbnb and order a variety of take-out items we could enjoy on our deck overlooking the bay.  Tim Marr from Chapel Hill has the gift for coordinating this kind of enterprise, and before long he, Chris Sten, and I were in Tim’s van on the way to Pasta House to pick up the pasta and salads he had ordered, after which we stopped at Gene’s Seafood for the fried shrimp, scallops, and clam bellies.  Such food was a real treat to me as a transplanted Mid-Westerner, and I am sure my East Coast companions enjoyed it as much as I did as we ate and savored the view from the deck until the sun was setting over Fairhaven to the west.

Sunset over Fairhaven from the porch

Sunset over Fairhaven from the deck

After sundown, we selected the works we will be acquiring as our 2016 art acquisition for the Archive.  We had decided in January to acquire 3 new “metallic” prints by Robert Del Tredici.  Then he was still in the process of creating some new prints for the exhibition that was to open at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in April.  Out of 45 metallic prints that actually went on display in April, I brought images of 30 from which we could choose our 3.  This was a fascinating process because all six of us had our personal favorites, some from the earliest metallics Del Tredici had made late in 2013, some from the large body of work he had created during the next two years, some from the very latest works he had made within a month of the exhibition itself.  We finally decided on 3 strong pieces that are sure to find places in future Whaling Museum exhibitions: Ubiquitous from 2014, Strike the Sun from 2015, and Bottom of the Sea from 2016.  The latter print is inspired by the sermon on Jonah that Father Mapple delivers in the Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford in chapter 9 of Moby-Dick.  The Seaman’s Bethel still stands directly across from the Whaling Museum on Johnny Cake Hill, but it is currently under structural renovation, so we are all looking forward to hearing Father Mapple’s sermon again in its hallowed space during the Moby-Dick Marathon next January.  In Del Tredici’s Bottom of the Sea, Father Mapple’s identification with the depths of his subject shows on the surface of his face.

Robert Del Tredici, Bottom of the Sea, 2016

Robert Del Tredici, Bottom of the Sea, 2016

On Tuesday morning we left our Bayview house at 9:15 and were away until 10:30 that night.  The first part of our “Melville Immersion” marathon did not start until the Workshop scheduled for 1 pm, but we all needed time in the museum that morning to prepare for the Walking Tours we would each be leading at 2:15 and again at 3:15 later that day—as well as for the more formal presentations we would each be giving at either 1 pm or 7 pm.  The events of this day had been planning by Wyn Kelley of our Cultural Project and Sarah Rose of the Whaling Museum.  This day-long “Immersion with the Melville Scholars” is the first time such an event had been planned for the docents and interns who are largely responsible to interpreting the Museum collection to members of the public.  In publicizing the event, Sarah had also invited fans of the Moby-Dick Marathon or anyone else who is “curious about why Melville remains relevant today,” and we had a good representation from the general public as well as the museum staff throughout the day.

“Immersion” Day as announced in the Museum’s Summer 2016 Bulletin

“Immersion” Day as announced in the Museum’s Summer 2016 Bulletin

For us as scholars, this day of “Melville Immersion” was a wonderful way to share with, and learn from, museum docents and interns.  We need time in the morning to plan our afternoon walking tours because most of has had not had a chance to visit the newly renovated museum, and its expanded galleries, since our last visit in January.  After researching our walking tours in the morning, we had our business meeting (and lunch) with CEO James Russell and his senior staff from 11:30 until our presentations began at 1.  It was quite a pleasure to go over details for the day at hand and to do some long-range planning for collaborative projects in 2017 and 2018.  The only disappointment was that Wyn Kelley, who had done so much to plan this day, had not been able to shake off a virus she had been fighting for some time, so she had drive back to her home near Boston after we left our Bayview house earlier that morning and was not able to enjoy the fruit of her labors.  Before leaving for home, she took a photo of four of us on the deck on another beautiful blue morning. (Jennifer Baker from NYU is not in the picture because she was staying at a hotel near the Whaling Museum in New Bedford.)

Wyn Kelley’s Tuesday morning photo of Bob, Mary K, Chris, and Tim

Wyn Kelley’s Tuesday morning photo of Bob, Mary K, Chris, and Tim

For us in the Melville Society Cultural Project a day like this is a wonderful opportunity to hear each other speak as well as to work together.  The 1 pm Workshop on “Who is Melville” was actually a series of three 15-minute presentations, with Powerpoint illustrations, in the Whaling Museum Theater.  Jennifer Baker of NYU began with a talk on “Melville in the 21st Century,” charting development of the author’s reputation from the years in which he wrote his novels, through the neglect throughout the rest of his life, to the revival, consolidation, and expansion of his reputation throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.  Mary K Bercaw Edwards from Mystic Seaport and the University of Connecticut followed with a talk on “Melville and the Sea” in which she summarized, as no one else would be able to do, the dimensions and vicissitudes of of Melville’s life as a sailor.  My presentation on “Melville and the Arts” began by discussing the importance of the visual arts in his writing and his art collecting, but was primarily concerned with the visual art his writings have inspired, with a special emphasis on the 2-man and 9-woman shows currently on display in Cincinnati.  We had an excellent audience of more than sixty for these opening presentations, of whom more than forty stayed on for the walking tours that followed 2:15 and again at 3:15.

Skeleton of a right whale and its infant in the Jacobs Family Gallery

Skeleton of right whale and its infant in Jacobs Family Gallery in 2014

Jennifer Baker, our expert in science, explored the subject of “Cetology” in the Sperm Whale Gallery, whose cetacean skeleton dwarfs the whale boat next to it.  Mary K Edwards explored “Life Aboard a New Bedford Whaling Vessel” in the Lagoda Room housing the Museum’s half-size whale ship.  Tim Marr explored Melville’s understanding of “Religion and Culture around the World” among the riches of the International Gallery.  Chris Sten explored the subject of “Whales Today” under the looming skeletons of whales in the incomparable Jacobs Family Gallery.   I began my talk on “Melville and Art in the Museum” in our recently christened Melville Gallery and then took my groups down to the Melville Society Archive to sample a selection of prints from Melville’s own collection of art as well of contemporary artworks inspired by Moby-Dick that we have acquired since 2008.  We had no idea when Sarah and Wyn planned these events how many would attend, but attendance was good and the interest was high.  The afternoon “immersion” concluded with a very useful wrap-up session in which we asked those who were present—most of whom were docents or local teachers—which elements of our presentations might be most useful for their their own work.  It is no exaggeration to say that we learned as much from them as they did from us.

One 2-page spread of Claire Illouz’s The Whiteness in the Melville Society Archive

One 2-page spread of Claire Illouz’s The Whiteness in the Melville Society Archive

After a one-hour break we reconvened for a highly enjoyable and stimulating series of evening events.  A 6 pm reception for presenters and audience members in the Jacobs Family Gallery gave us a chance to share individual impressions with a variety of people who had attended in the afternoon or arrived for the evening.  At 7 pm we all adjourned to the Melville Gallery for what for us Melville scholars was the highlight of the day: Mike Dyer’s gallery talk about his exhibition Mapping Ahab’s Storied Waves.  Mike explained how this entire exhibition had been inspired by the one sentence from chapter 44 of Moby-Dick that he used as the epigraph for the show: “Ahab thus pondered over his charts.” He told us how easy it had been to put the exhibition together because of the precision and suggestiveness of Melville’s language combined with the extent to which the collection of the New Bedford Whaling Museum offers unique artifacts relating to almost any element of the enterprise of whaling.

Mike Dyer discussing his exhibition in the Melville Gallery

Mike Dyer discussing his exhibition in the Melville Gallery

Mike began by quoting Ishmael’s declaration at the beginning of the chapter that “to any one not fully acquainted with the ways of the leviathans, it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet.”  He then showed us all of the implements—logbooks, sextants, maps of hunting grounds, even charts of migratory patterns—by which whaling captains were able to chase their prey.  By the end of his talk we had a much deeper understanding of how the historical captains whose portraits graced the gallery—no less that the obsessed captain in Melville’s book—were often able to trace the habits and paths of whales with uncanny precision.  For us as Moby-Dick teachers and scholars, it is an extraordinary gift to be able to associated continuously with a maritime historian who knows not only whales but Melville as well as Mike Dyer does.  We are eagerly looking forward to the forthcoming publication of his book The Art of the Yankee Whale Hunt, which was the subject of a fascinating preview in a recent issue of The New York Times.

One display case showing log books and implements of the chart

One display case showing log books and implements of the chart

 After Mike’s gallery talk amidst the nautical maps in the Melville Gallery, we returned to the Whaling Museum Theater for presentations on “Mapping Melville” by Tim Marr and Chris Sten.  We were all sorry that Wyn’s illness had prevented her from leading the final presentations in this day’s “immersion” (she is an expert on electronic “mapping”), but the talks that Tim Marr gave on “Mapping the World” and that Chris Sten gave on “Mapping the Self” rounded out the day in a very spirited and satisflying way.  Tim emphasized way in which Western nations had imposed their rigid concepts of space and time over the cultures and spaces of the 19th-century globe, whereas Chris charted out the process by which Ishmael over the course of Melville’s novel has evolved organically from a prisoner of those rigid concepts as a greenhorn sailor to a citizen of the world and an inhabitant of the globe in a much freer and more flexible sense.  Jennifer Baker then moderated an excellent discussion period in which Mike, Tim, and Chris fielded questions from the audience. Sarah Rose was delighted to hear from one of her docents the next day that the day “with the Melville Scholars was absolutely one of the best educational opportunities for me in the past 6+ years.”  We scholars ourselves had certainly learned a lot by our immersion with the audience, so perhaps an event of this kind will become a regular feature of our annual summer visit.

Tim Marr beginning his presentation on “Mapping the World”

Tim Marr beginning his presentation on “Mapping the World”

We were all pretty tired by the time this marathon day ended sometime after 9 pm, but that made it all the more enjoyable to end the evening with James Russell at the Whaler’s Tavern nearby, where he treated us to dinner and many a wild story as we discussed the events of the day and projected in more detail some of the collaborative projects we had discussed at lunch.  In the fifteenth year of our affiliation, it seems as if the condition of the Museum has never been stronger.  For us as a scholarly organization, it is a rare opportunity to be collaborating on this level with such a welcoming institutional partner.

Mark Procknik with Melville first editions in his Rare Book case

Mark Procknik with Melville first editions in his Rare Book case

As we left our Bayview home on Wednesday morning we were grateful to Tim for having found us such a fine place to stay—as well as to Wyn for having shaped the substance and rhythm of our visit in such a satisfying way.  We made one final visit to the Archive soon after the Museum opened.  While Mary K and I were reshelving the various books and artworks I had pulled out for my walking tour the day before, Tim, Chris, and Jennifer were selecting the Melville first editions from the Wendel collection for which Mark Procknik had reserved a special place among the Rare Books up in the Reading Room.  Mark was very happy when that one remaining space in the case was filled.  He was also happy that he had finally been able to open his new Reading Room to the public the day before.  It was amazing to see the room so beautifully laid out and so fully in only a few months after the January visit in which we had all worked so hard just to get everything under one room from the Purchase Street building in advance of the Moby-Dick Marathon.  Our Wednesday morning visit to the Reading Room gave us another chance to say good-bye to Martha Cattell, a graduate student from York University in England who is spending several weeks as a Research Scholar at the Whaling Museum.  She is a devoted reader of Melville who had already been to see the exhibition of Turner’s Whaling Pictures at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, so we are all hoping that we might see her again at the International Melville Society Conference that will be held in June of next year.

Newly opened Reading Room with Martha Cattell at the near table, Mary K  and Chris beyond

Newly opened Reading Room with Martha Cattell at the near table, Mary K  and Chris beyond

Chris had to leave for the Providence Airport at about 10:30 in the morning, but Mary K, Jennifer, Tim and I had time to see an excellent Albert Bierstadt exhibition at the New Bedford Art Museum before having lunch together at No Problemo and hitting the road.  Tim was driving northeast for a family gathering on Cape Cod, whereas Jennifer was driving south to her family in New York City.  Mary K and I had a shorter southerly ride, our destination being the home of her family in Mystic which we would be leaving early the next morning for New York, where we would the Turner show with Jennifer at the Met before Mary K returned to Mystic and I flew home to Cincinnati.

Moby-Dick and the Arts on the Banks of the Ohio

Entry begun Monday, May 16, 5:50 pm

My introduction to the field of Moby-Dick and the Arts came not in graduate school at Columbia University in the late 1960s but instead in the early 1970s atNorthern Kentucky University, a new, public university across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.  NKU was the only university to offer me a job upon completion of my Ph. D., but my placement advisor in the English department had tried to dissuade me from accepting it because it wasn’t “good enough” for someone from Columbia.  I had been interested in Moby-Dick as a graduate student specializing in 19th-century American Literature, but I was not allowed to choose it for a dissertation topic “because there was nothing new to be said about that book” in 1968.  The first “new” thing I learned about Melville’s novel came during my first semester at NKU when I realized that two weeks was not enough time for teaching that book to a class full of commuter students working 30 hours a week outside class.  The next thing I learned is that my students did not like Ishmael’s description of the painting in the Spouter-Inn in chapter 3 as much as I did.  I will never forget the truly exasperated student who asked, “Why does that narrator spend three paragraphs describing that painting when he still doesn’t know what it means when he’s done.”  The best answer I could give him came in the next class session, when I brought in a slide of J. M. W. Turner’s The Whale Ship, which I had seen at the Metropolitan Museum during my graduate years in New York.

Turner’s The Whale Ship, 1845, which I saw at the New York Metropolitan Museum in 1967

Turner’s The Whale Ship, 1845, which I saw at the New York Metropolitan Museum in 1967

That student’s question had driven me into the field of Moby-Dick in the Arts more or less in desperation.  But as I taught the book more and more, and learned more and more about Turner, I began to suspect that the four whaling oils that Turner had exhibited in 1845 and 1846, only a few years before Melville’s 1849 visit to London, immediately before he began to write Moby-Dick, might have actually influenced Ishmael’s description of the painting in the Spouter-Inn.  I could not find any evidence in the journal that Melville kept during that visit that he either met Turner or saw any of the whaling oils (then back in the painter’s private gallery).  But Melville did meet several of Turner’s closest friends and associates during that visit, and he would have seen several paintings in Turner’s late “indistinct” style when visiting a number of London’s picture galleries.  When I went to Harvard’s Houghton Library to study several of the books preserved there from Melville’s personal library, I was delighted to see that Melville had written these words on the title page of Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale that he acquired in 1850: “Turner’s pictures of whalers were suggested by this book.”  These words show that he not only knew about Turner’s four whaling paintings but knew they had been influenced by Beale’s book—in much the same way that Beale’s book was now to influence the structure of Melville’s own Moby-Dick.  The first essay in which I shared some of these findings was published as the cover essay in the Winter 1985 issue of the London journal Turner Studies.  I was now active in the field of Moby-Dick and the Arts, although I am not sure we had as yet christened that field with a name.

Cover of the Winter 1985 issue of Turner Studies

Cover of the Winter 1985 issue of Turner Studies

By the time the Turner Studies essay came out, I had discovered nearly 300 prints and engravings from Melville’s personal collection of art in storage at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the town in which Melville had completed Moby-Dick in 1850 and 1851.  When it turned out that 19 of these engravings were after paintings by Turner, I realized that Melville’s attraction to this painter had been even deeper that I had imagined.  I began writing a book whose primary purpose was to explore various relationships between Turner’s paintings and Moby-Dick, but as I got further into the subject I realized that Melville’s previous five novels had themselves been influenced by the keen attention young Melville had given to English art critics such as Sir Joshua Reynolds,  William Hazlitt, John Ruskin, and Charles Locke Eastlake.  By the time I published my book entitled Melville and Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright in 1992, I had come to know several other scholars interested in Melville’s relation to the visual arts, and I had begun the research that would lead to the book I was to publish on Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick: Words and Shapes in 2000.

Cover and spine of Melville & Turner, University of Georgia Press, 1992

Cover and spine of Melville & Turner, University of Georgia Press, 1992

I was delighted to hear last fall that on May 10th of this year the Metropolitan Museum in New York was planning to open the first-ever exhibition of Turner’s four whaling oils anywhere.  In addition, they were going to explore, for the first time by a major international art museum, the extent to which Turner’s whaling oils may have influenced Moby-Dick.  I plan to visit the show with some Melville colleagues in early June.  Those who have already seen the show indicate that one wall panel quotes extensively from Ishmael’s description of the painting in the Spouter-Inn and that the books on display include Melville’s copy of Beale’s Natural History, open to the annotation about “Turner’s pictures of whalers.”   Alison Hokanson, who has curated the show for the Met, has written a very comprehensive account of Turner’s Whaling Pictures which comprises the entire Spring 2016 issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin.  In addition to exploring the art historical context of the four whaling oils, and reproducing a rich array of the watercolors Turner created as studies for those paintings, Hokanson very thoroughly summarizes my findings on the Melville connection, including a reproduction of Melville’s annotation on the title page of Beale.  On the cover of the Bulletin she uses the same detail from The Whale Ship in the Met’s own collection that Turner Studies had used on its cover 31 years earlier.  I am very eager to see the show itself in a few weeks.  And I am very grateful to that exasperated commuter student at Northern Kentucky University for asking that question in 1972.

Cover of the Spring 2016 issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin

Cover of the Spring 2016 issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin

The one forty-four year arc outlined above is one example of how my teaching and research in the field of Moby-Dick and the Arts have been deeply intertwined.  The most recent example of the relation between my teaching and curatorial activities came on the weekend of April 22 and 23 when the 2-man and the 9-woman Moby-Dick exhibitions opened in Cincinnati as my current students in Moby-Dick and the Arts were making their final presentations at the end of the course.  My life as a curator of artwork relating to Moby-Dick began soon after Beth Schultz published Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art in 1995.  I had attended her exhibition of the same name in Lawrence, Kansas, and I assigned her book to my class in Melville and the Arts during 1996 Spring Semester.  We studied her book immediately before visiting the exhibition itself at Northwestern University in Evanston in late February, an experience that inspired the twelve undergraduate students in the course to ask if they could create an exhibition of their own as a group project at the end of the semester.  One result of the impromptu exhibition they installed on the catwalk over a theater lobby in the Fine Arts Bulding was an invitation to participate in a joint exhibition with students at Rockford College in Illinios in April 1997.  Twenty years ago, that Spring 1996 class initiated the rhythm I have followed in teaching Moby-Dick and the Arts ever since:  study Moby-Dick itself January, study Unpainted to the Last in February, study Moby-Dick art created after the Schultz book after Spring Break, and complete the course with student projects during the last two weeks.

Impromptu art exhibition by Spring 1996 class in Melville and the Arts

Impromptu art exhibition by Spring 1996 class in Melville and the Arts

During the current 2016 Spring Semester class, students took an essay exam on the subject of Moby-Dick and the Arts at the end of our 5-week exploration of “Artists after Schultz.”  This was the week in which the 2-man Moby show at the Contemporary Arts Center and the 9-woman Moby show at the Marta Hewett Gallery were being installed in Cincinnati.  In addition to discussing the “Artists after Schultz” we had studied since Spring Break, students were invited to comment on the field of Moby-Dick and the Arts as a whole, specifically addressing the question of what the artworks we had studied did, or did not, add to their understanding of Moby-Dick itself.  Here are some excerpts from their answers:

kimberly with her shadowboxKimberly Kromer:  “What really captured my attention was the artwork created because of this book.  It no longer was just a book about a crazy man challenging a large whale to his own death, but instead became about our own pursuit in this crazy life.  When I got to see what this work meant to many other people, I realized it made me think about my own life as well.  I put so much emphasis on being what society tells me to be that it became my White Whale.  Before this class I wasn’t able to explain that [dynamic].  Now, I’m entered into a discourse community that understands what I say.”

kirstin with her playscript Kirsten Hurst: “Studying these artistic responses to the novel has been an enriching experience because it has given me validation as a reader and writer.  What I once considered a pretentious work of American fiction is now a playground for my creativity.  I never would have considered something as outlandish as a play about a woman getting a hysterectomy without seeing these equally weird and thought-provoking pieces done by men, women, and others alike.”

kylie with bowlKylie Stigar-Burke:  “Overall, I think this novel and art really go well together.  They balance each other out.  The art enhances the novel and the novel creates a grounding for the art.  It really makes me want to explore art based on other novels I have read.  It broadened my view so much and so deeply aided my understanding.  I think novels and other artworks should always go together.”

rachel prsenting whalesRachel Prokopius: “Finally, through this amazing journey I have comprehended and appreciated the wonderful thing that comes from amateurs. We all start as amateurs, but some graduate and become professionals.  Personally, I think this is quite limiting.  Professionals worry so much about reception that they often don’t allow great ideas to come into fruition.  In this way they missing out.”

hayley with her drawingHayley Kirley: “This musical interpretation [the Heggie and Scheer opera] was vital in my personal understanding of Starbuck as a character.  It was even more so to me because it was simultaneously true to what I had already interpreted the scene as.  The aria did not change the scene but it made me realize, and care for, Starbuck as a human rather than as a concept of leadership.  . . . I think it was only through the separate mediums of the visual and the auditory that I was able to fully see and feel the novel.”

shelby holding ahab with deckShelby Cundiff: “I think everyone went away with a new-found knowledge of themselves and the world after being exposed to the different artworks and artists. . . . The Jake Heggie opera was enriching because it told the actual story and the audience was able to see the sorrow and feel the madness.’

marla presents work 2Marla Marley: “Moby-Dick is about life, and all of this art that has been produced in response to Melville’s work shows how desperately we all long to have enough strength to expose ourselves and understand ourselves through stories and art . . . . This art, and I think this class, has been all about uncovering our White Whales, expressing ourselves, learning risk and vulnerability through others.  It is about connecting.”

 

sarah and he essex

Sarah Kellam:  “The chowder that Melville created literally had something in it that appealed to Rockwell Kent, to Julia Oldham, and even to me.  It appeals to the intellectual side of people, the creative side of people, and the emotional side of people.  It makes individuals feel something, a task that not a lot of literature has accomplished, and it continues to incite emotion in readers in spite of being close to 200 years old.  Thus, the artistic approaches to the book enriched my understanding of the novel through showing me how powerfully and far-reaching Moby-Dick is—and the sheer influence a book can have on a single individual.”

lauren with faux stained glassLauren Hensley:  “This book is, in its way, timeless.  As shown by the variety of responses, this book will continue to attract audiences for years to come.  At first, it would seem that such a ‘masculine’ adventure novel would die out with the rise of feminism.  However, as seen in Vali Myers’s artwork and Rinde Eckert’s play, this novel has a role for women and the movement of feminism.  This novel is very much a living, breathing tale, but what else would we expect. It is named after a living, breathing creature.”

liz with her poems

Liz Loch:  “I can get to know characters well through just words, but there is something to be said about seeing and hearing them outside of my head. . . . The art told me stories I had not seen in the actual book. . . . Art expands the meaning of anything and everything; it opens the door to the rest of the world that is hidden by a larger story. The paintings and operas and other works we analyzed were like the bottom of an iceberg beneath the sea; the book is just the top you see, while the art relating to it is all of the ice beneath the water.”

alex with constellationsAlex Salyers:  “I don’t think that the artistic responses to this work have necessarily improved my understanding of the text, but they have helped me understand the value of the book to people.  So many people have been inspired by this book. . . . It has also served as a reminder that not everyone interprets the world the same way.  Some people need to express themselves through painting, others through pottery, and even some through an opera.  The variety of responses make it easier for those who have had trouble relating to Moby-Dick before to be able to find a connection to some form or part of it.”

rachel from the rightJay Jung:  “The art examined in this class enriched my experience because it made me react.  And if I am reacting to reaction art, I think it is clear that I feel connected to the novel.  Whether it be Abby’s amazing coffin that made me feel closer to Queequeg, or Kathleen’s map that brought an authentic image of the journey.  Or even Heggie’s beautiful opera that made me feel I was one with the ship.  All of the art we have studied seems to prove that this novel is worth the read and it is worth the reactions.”

Because there were two brand-new contemporary exhibitions of Moby-Dick art opening while the students were presenting their own projects at the end of the course, I strongly urged each student to make a visit to each show before May 5 so they could write a short comment about each show during the ‘lite’ final exam.  In each case, I asked students to write the single word that best summarized their impression of that show, explaining the choice with a short paragraph.  Here are some of their responses to the 2-man exhibition by Kish and Del Tredici at the Contemporary Arts Center:

For Liz, the Live Drawing on Friday night was “enlightening.”  She found it “incredible to watch the two artists create their own works and the spot, and then complement each other.”  For Jay the experience in the gallery itself was “impressive.”  He “found it amazing that I could take 3 people who had never read Moby-Dick to a show about that subject and they could each take something different from it.”  Sarah used her favorite word “chowder” because “the works represented such different ideas for the artists, making the emotional value of each piece matchless.”

Kish and Del Tredici collaborating in their Live Drawing, April 22

Kish and Del Tredici collaborating in their Live Drawing, April 22

Marla found the exhibition “mesmerizing” as soon as she saw “the rope along the wall” at the beginning of the gallery.”  She was “pulled into the gallery just as they would hope.”  Once there, she was “struck by all of the pieces that looked familiar to me among new pieces that begged for my eyes.  The room felt like an ocean filled with whales.”  For Rachel the experience was “other-worldly. . . . Walking through the masses of contemporary artwork Kish and Del Tredici created took me into another universe entirely.”

angle at wall panel

The “rope on the wall” that pulled Marla and others into the gallery

Given the scope of the show, it is not surprising that Alex found it “large.”  She felt right away that “I could return to this exhibit a few more times and probably take something new from each time.”  Lauren found the exhibition to be “vast” in more ways than one.  Beyond the “sheer multitude of artworks,” she had the sensation that “the artwork seemed to even extend beyond the novel, into reality—Melville’s favorite subject.”  For Shelby, “the sheer amount of artwork in such a confined space” was “amazing . . . there was so much to see everywhere you looked.”

Audience looking every which way at the opening

Audience looking every which way at the opening

Hayley found the exhibition “bright” because “the words glowed with the brightness of inspiration.”  The exhibition struck Madison as “whimsical” because “Kish and Del Tredici paint in such a unique way that no one piece of art is even comparable to another.”  Kimberly was struck by the “dedication” of the two artists in creating “all of the artwork” that she saw, “spending so much time and effort to show people how much the book means to them.”  Kylie was struck by the “colorful” nature of the show.  After “seeing some of the art in a book, seeing it in person was all too exciting.  The art seemed to bounce off the page.”

Kish discussing his Extracts RDT)

Kish discussing his Extracts (RDT)

For Sabrina the entire show was simply “phenomenal.”  She “found it amazing that they have so much insight into the work of Melville and were able to see his work from so many different angles. . . . These works of art show that there are absolutely no limits to how art can be processed or where it can come from.”

Viewer pondering the Del Tredici metallics RDT)

Viewer pondering the Del Tredici metallics (RDT)

Students in my class were equally impressed with the 9-woman Moby-Dick show at the Marta Hewett Gallery, but the words they chose and the explanations they differed decidedly from their responses to the 2-man show.  For Shelby, this exhibition felt “serene.” It was “calm, with less artworks than at the CAC but with a warm feeling to the place.” Kylie emphasized the way the way this exhibition was “organized.”  “Walking through the gallery was fantastic.  Each piece flowed into the next.  Each piece built on top of each in a way that I could find the intention behind the placement.”

“Serene” and “organized”

“Serene” and “organized”

For other students it was the diversity and passion of the works that made the strongest impression.  For Alex the beauty of the show was in its “diversity.”  She found “all of this work to be beautiful because it was all so different it allowed a wide audience to be able to appreciate it.”  For Hayley the “array of different mediums” highlighted the “passionate” nature of the whole.  “What I felt brought the pieces together was the depth of the passion in each of them.”  Madison had a similar reason for finding the exhibition “awe-inspiring.”  The works of “all the women in this exhibition were truly beautiful and stunning.  It was clear that all of them put so much time and effort into their work.”

“Beauty” in the “diversity” and “passion”

“Beauty” in the “diversity” and “passion”

Kimberly spoke for several of her classmates in finding this show “empowering” for women.  She was impressed that “these women produced amazing pieces of art through a book that is solely about men.”  For Sarah it was “exhilarating” to “see young women breathing new life into a work that for so long has been considered a male book.”  Liz found it “beautiful” that “after centuries of being oppressed, women can finally express themselves.”  For Laura it was “unexpected” that “these women would do such a splendid job of envisioning unique perspectives.”  For Rachel, the whole show created “another perspective.”  It “shows that there is a whole other set of things to consider in Moby-Dick because women have such different mindsets from men.”

“Empowering,” “splendid,” “another perspective”

“Empowering,” “splendid,” “another perspective”

For Marla, the controlling word was “magical.”  The “nautical artwork” that fills the gallery “makes it feel like another world. The Warrior hanging next to The Whiteness brings me inspiration and a childlike giddiness to explore.  The ocean itself is an unknown mass filled with so many creatures to analyze and explore, and this gallery feels that way.  I could swim in this ocean for hours.”  Marla also appreciated “the eco-feminism that is brimming around many of the pieces,” her favorites in this sense being The Affidavit and Transparent Skin Knitted Together.

Swimming with The Affidavit

Swimming with The Affidavit

After I posted my blog entry about the gallery talk that Beth Schultz gave about the 9-woman show, and the discussion that followed later around the dining room table in Bellevue, the three artists who were not able to join us for the opening reception or for Beth’s talk responded with email comments from afar.

Julia Oldham was “very sorry to miss Beth’s visit,” but “it was wonderful to experience it through your detailed blog entry.  It sounds like it was a really interesting day. I’m just endlessly thrilled with this show and all of the different ways we can approach the works in it. Fabulous.  Big hugs to all!”

Claire Illouz wrote next from France that “I have been reading Bob’s account of the day of Beth’s talk. Of course it made me feel sorry not to attend, but the account gives many important points in the specificity of the show. . . . As far as I’m concerned, I don’t specifically remember being a woman when I work. . .  . And I am not used to claiming it.  But the fact is that I am. It would be inauthentic to fight against the fact that viewers inevitably feel it. That is probably the case for all of us. . . . . Thank you for organizing all this adventure. I hope Herman M. is proud of us!”

Robert Del Tredici’s photo of the local artists in front of Claire’s Dear Leviathan

Robert Del Tredici’s photo of the local artists in front of Claire’s Dear Leviathan

And then Claire Callahan wrote from Boston.  “After reading Bob’s blog about both exhibitions and both talks by Beth, I began to ‘see’ the two exhibitions as each, truly unique expressions of Moby-Dick. . . . It was fascinating to have the women’s approach focused on in your ‘gam’  at Bob’s after the show.  So interesting, and it urges one to see the two shows in this context.   Beth’s remarks from the question period following her talk were so very valuable (as always!).  These, and her talk, and the show itself certainly open a rich discussion.

“I just read Claire’s fine response on her own work, which I appreciate very much.   This has prompted me to give my own.  When I work on drawings, paintings etc., I feel that I draw on everything that I have been and ‘seen’ and known. This is constantly expanding with new contexts and relationships. Since I am a woman, those sensitivities are a part of everything. However, when creating, I do not have this consciously before me.  I am focused on making the visible ‘alive.’  

“Again, this is rich material for all  of us. The Moby-Dick exhibitions in Cincinnati bring forth so much! This is exactly the desired result—-a discussion of ideas!!!!!  With you all in this celebration of Moby-Dick!”

Julia reading from Moby-Dick near her video, Aileen’s drawings, and Claire’s hanging scroll

Julia reading from Moby-Dick near her video, Aileen’s drawings, and Claire’s hanging scroll

eight american authorsWhen I began my graduate studies at Columbia University in 1966, our guide to the study of American Literature was a book called Eight American Authors.  All of these authors were men.  Moby-Dick had begun to be widely taught in the 1950s, and in 1967 Melville’s status as a major author was canonized with the publication of the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick edited by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker.  In addition to a scrupulously edited and annotated text, this edition included information on “Whaling and Whalecraft,” “Reviews and Letters by Melville,” various “Analogues and Sources” for the novel, and 32 samples of criticism from the publication of Moby-Dick in 1851 up through 1962.  The cover of this first Norton Critical Edition featured a whaling scene in which sailors were being swept into the sea by the tail of a whale.

 First Norton Critical Edition, 1967

First Norton Critical Edition, 1967

The most dramatic change in the second edition of the Norton Critical Edition, in 2002, was its cover.  Instead of a 19th-century whaling scene, this edition reproduced a Maori mask whose indigenous tattooing foregrounded Queequeg as a major character in the story and implied a global framework for interpreting the novel.  The body of the volume remained quite the same, the authorized text of the novel being followed by an expanded account of the contemporary response to Melville and the novel, this followed by modestly updated sections of “Analogues and Sources” and “Criticism.”  These modest changes reflected the editors’ declaration that “the paramount goal” of this edition was to “help readers grasp the genuine . . . vastness of Melville’s personal experiences and reading that went into the words of Moby-Dick.”

Second Norton Critical Edition, 2002

Second Norton Critical Edition, 2002

Earlier this year, I was delighted to learn that the Third Edition of the Norton Critical Edition is now being edited by Hershel Parker for publication in 2017.  With a goal of broadening the appeal of this volume for students who will be studying the novel for the rest of this decade and throughout the 2020s, several new features have been added, including, for the first time, an essay on Moby-Dick and the Arts.  I learned about this when Hershel invited me to write such an essay.  My working title, “Moby-Dick and the Arts in the Early 21st Century,” reflects my sense that this protean field will continue to experience dramatic changes during the decades in which successive generations of students will be using this edition.  Other new features, such as an essay on the Marathon Readings of Moby-Dick that have become popular in a variety of public settings, as well as an essay on Moby-Dick and Popular Culture, will help take this Third Edition beyond the more traditional scholarly audience for such works into a more diverse readership, not only in the United States but around the world.  The new essay I am writing for the Third Edition is yet another way in which my research, teaching, and curatorial activity blend together.  The essay will include reproductions of new artworks that Matt Kish and Aileen Callahan created for the current exhibitions in Cincinnati in 2016, plus the paper-cut entitled The Story of Moby-Dick that Qiao Xiaoguang created in China I 2010 and Beth Schultz donated to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2012.

Qiao Xiaoguang, The Story of Moby-Dick, paper cut, black over white, 2010

Qiao Xiaoguang, The Story of Moby-Dick, paper cut, black over white, 2010

Last night, Sunday, May 22, I returned home from my 50th college reunion at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.  In yesterday’s morning paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer published a story about the current Moby-Dick exhibitions in Cincinnati that Carol Motsinger had written after interviewing me at Marta Hewett’s gallery about a week before my trip to the West Coast.  Carol smoothly wove a great deal of information into one continuous story about Melville and the Arts, this being her generous account of how my research, teaching, and curatorial activity have related to each other over the years.  I was happy that she traced my current activities in northern Kentucky and across the river back to the American literature course I took from Thomas Howells during my junior year at Whitman, followed by a summer as a sailor on the tugboats of Puget Sound.  So much to be grateful for.  Here is a link to Carol’s story:  http://www.cincinnati.com/story/entertainment/arts/2016/05/20/how-man-found-white-whale/84542886/.

Because I arrived in northern Kentucky more by the whims of the job market than by deliberate choice in 1972, I will close this essay with a declaration Melville made about “the banks of the Ohio” in his essay “Hawthorne and his Mosses” in 1850.  Melville was trying to create some working space for American writers who were oppressed by a literary culture overly subservient to British writers, so he brashly suggested that new Shakespeares “are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.”  When in graduate school I had considered this claim to be a bit excessive even for young Melville at the height of his powers, but I came to see it quite differently when doing research for my Melville and Turner book in the 1980s.  Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the British writers Melville depended upon for his self-education in visual art, had famously declared in one of his Discourses that no one enjoying the “refined, civilized culture” of the British Isles need concern themselves with the “opinions of people taken from the banks of the Ohio” who live in a comparatively “gross state of nature.”  It was because that young, exasperated student in northern Kentucky in 1972 had not been immersed in the equivalent of Sir Joshua’s “refined, civilized culture” that he was able to ask the question that forced me to see the painting in the Spouter-Inn in a new way.

Melville’s riff on “the banks of the Ohio” in the Hawthorne essay is a beautiful example of the “vast reading” that “went into the words” he wrote.  But he had “swam through libraries” after he had “sailed through oceans.”  He was serious when he declared in Moby-Dick that “the whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”  All of us who had the privilege of sailing on the whale ship Charles W. Morgan in the summer of 2014 immediately understood that famous declaration by Melville in an entirely new way.

The whale ship Charles W. Morgan under full sail in June 2014

The whale ship Charles W. Morgan under full sail in June 2014

NKU Moby Students Rise and Shine

Entry begun on Friday, May 13, 2:40 am

During the three weeks in which Julia Oldham, Matt Kish, Robert Del Tredici, Dawn Coleman, and Beth Schultz came to Cincinnati to help Steven Matijcio, Marta Hewett, and myself install, open, and interpret the 2-man Moby show at the Contemporary Arts Center and the 9-woman Moby show at the Marta Hewett Galley, students in my class in Moby-Dick and the Arts at NKU were completing their semester by presenting their final projects and taking their final exam.  On the first day of any class in Moby-Dick and the Arts I always tell students that the best part of the course will be the last two weeks in which they will be presenting their final projects to their classmates, and that has again turned out to be the case during the 2016 Spring Semester.  This group has come a long way since our first class meeting on January 12 when I asked each student to write on a sheet of paper the first word that came to mind when they thought of Melville’s Moby-Dick.  The words from the English majors in the course were: tragedy, conquering, tedious, classic, epic, timeless, whale, daunting, and story.  The words from the Honors students in the course were: revenge, vengeance, illusive, Hamlet, Ishmaelian, vast, whale, and struggle.  A few would perhaps choose the same word for the novel at the end of the semester, but most would probably choose something quite different.  Here are some of the artworks that students presented as their final projects and displayed temporarily near the fireplace in the kitchen of the Honors House.

Part of impromptu art exhibition

Part of impromptu art exhibition

Students in my classes in Moby-Dick and the Arts have the option of presenting a research paper or creative artwork as their final project in the course.  In this class, preliminary proposals were due on Thursday, March 24.   On Tuesday, April 12, each student signed up for a fifteen-minute period during the last two weeks of class in which to present her or his project.  We had fifteen active members in the class, so three were scheduled for Tuesday, April 19 (the day Julie Oldham visited our class), with four more scheduled for Thursday, April 21 (the day before the Kish and Del Tredici show opened at the Contemporary Arts Center).  We also had four students scheduled for Tuesday, April 26, and for Thursday, April 28.

Julia Oldham with class on first presentation day, April 19

Julia Oldham with class on first presentation day, April 19

Of the fifteen students in this class, eleven presented works of visual art, one wrote a one-act play, one wrote a sequence of poems, and two wrote research papers.  Works of visual art had to be accompanied by an artist statement, but the written component of each presentation was not until the last presentation day.  The ‘lite’ final exam, in which students commented on each other’s projects, as well as what they learned from doing their own, was on Thursday, May 5 (the day before Beth Schultz came to town for her gallery talks at the two Moby-Dick shows in Cincinnati).   Here I will briefly summarize each presentation in the order in which it was given, drawing upon the written submissions and final exams as well as the presentations themselves.

Kimberly Kromer with her Corpses and Ghosts shadowbox

Kimberly Kromer with her Corpses and Ghosts shadowbox

Kimberly Kromer was our first presenter on April 19.  She is a senior English major and The Corpses and Ghosts is the first artwork she has made to show to others.  She decided to “go with a scene that made me feel emotional.”  When reading the “Shark Massacre” chapter, “it dawned on me how much sadness I felt for the beasts of the sea.  These animals may be dangerous (or look dangerous) but they still feel pain as real as we do. They are living creatures that die at our expense.”  She chose to set her scene in a shadow box “because it is much more in your face and forces you to look at it.”  For the whale,  she “chose to make it white even through it wasn’t Moby Dick in the chapter. I still feel like it should represent Moby Dick because every whale did for the crew, especially Ahab.  The quote I chose for the chapter is, ‘it is unsafe to meddle with the corpses and ghosts of these creatures.’  Animals, especially ‘vicious’ ones, aren’t seen as having feelings or souls.  When in fact, these animals feel every bit of pain that we can feel.  If they lose a child, they grieve; if a harpoon hits them, they will bleed in misery. The crew members did not respect the corpses of the whales or the sharks they killed.  I found myself more appalled by the way they were treated after death than by the death itself.”  In the end, Kimberly was “very happy” at the way the project turned out.  She learned that “my work did not need to be perfect or the best [in the class] in order for it to be wonderful.”

Detail of The Corpses and Ghosts by Kimberly Kromer

Detail of The Corpses and Ghosts by Kimberly Kromer

Kirstin Hurst after presenting excerpts from True Places

Kirsten Hurst after presenting excerpts from True Places

Kirsten Hurst presented after Kimberly on Day 1.  She is a senior English major and Honors minor.  I was impressed when she summarized her one-act play True Places in class, and even more so when I read the script the submitted.  Her title comes from Ishmael’s statement that Kokovoko, Queequeg’s island home, “is not down on any map; true places never are.”  Her subject comes from Ahab’s obsessive, self-destructive, response to the loss of his leg that has impaired his manhood—which is matched in Kirsten’s play by the way Maya Volpe responds to the hysterectomy she feels has robbed her of her femininity.  Kirsten’s gift for scene setting is seen in the first two sentences of her stage directions:  “The cluttered, eccentric home of Maya Volpe looks like it belongs in a flower-themed museum.  Tulips, roses, and daisies wilt in ornate vases around the room, illuminated only by the ghost of sunlight that streams through heavy sunflower-printed curtains on the left side of the stage.”  Her gift for dialogue flashes throughout the six compact scenes of this 23-page script, Maya deploying a quick wit and vulgar tongue in a masterly, impulsive way that, unfortunately, ultimately, only serves to hurt herself and others.  Kirsten learned from this project that “I could write a play about someone chasing a metaphorical white whale and have it hold as much connection to Melville’s novel as a direct adaptation.”

                 Opening dialogue of True Places by Kirsten Hurst

Opening dialogue of True Places by Kirsten Hurst

Our third presenter on April 19, David Fritz, a senior English major, was unable to present because of an automobile accident; he was to return the following week.

MarllaMackey presenting "I see you, Ahab"

Marla Mackey presenting “I see you, Ahab”

Marla Mackey, a junior English major, was our first presenter on Day 2, Thursday, April 21.  “I see you, Ahab,” her photographic project, is a striking example of making the novel your own.  Like Kirsten, she was struck by “Ahab’s struggle with his madness, with his obsession.”  Marla “latched onto the theme of mental illness and applied it to my own life.  I really didn’t know where I was going with this piece when I first began.  I had so many ideas, but did not consider photographing myself until I saw a roll of red duct tape sitting among my partner’s belongings.  The idea just hit me, that I wanted that duct tape on my face and I needed to capture images of my silence, images of my struggle.” As Marla tried to work “with the white space and the theme of obsession within the white space, I fell into thoughts about race and how I do not feel empowered in white space. . . . I remember thinking how appropriate the color red was. . . . It makes me think of our most vulnerable parts, the blood and organs inside our bodies.  I am exposing myself and I think exposure is a large portion of what this class is about, beyond being a literature and art class.  I think Moby-Dick inspires us to expose ourselves because we join in this chase and somehow begin our own chase outside of Melville’s story, seeing our white whale alongside Ahab.  I think I have many white whales.  Learning how to manage my mental health is one.”  Marla learned from this project “that creating artwork is a great outlet for me.  In facing myself, I only uncovered more aspects of my life that I need to explore.”

Detail of “I see you, Ahab” by Marla Marley.

Detail of “I see you, Ahab” by Marla Marley.

Liz Loch presenting her sequence of poems

Liz Loch presenting her sequence of poems

Liz Loch, a senior English major, was our next presenter on Day 2.  She began her presentation by saying “I’m not a poet.”  She began her artist statement by writing, “To be honest, I was a little shocked a how much everyone liked my poems.” Liz hopes “to write as my job some day, both business and creative, but I still feel like an amateur most of the time—especially where poetry is concerned.  Poetry is not like prose writing.  Both require a bold, determined, and curious mind, but poetry requires you to pour out your soul with every word.  It’s a little terrifying.  If I want to write decent poetry about Moby-Dick, I have to be willing to let myself be vulnerable, much in the same way Ahab is with Starbuck when they reconcile and Ahab with Pip after the boy is rescued.” Liz found herself “relating to Ahab more than the other characters as I wrote my poetry, even though only two poems are about him.  This is because I felt a little insane doing this project.  Not because I was diving into a creative outlet I had only once dipped my toes into, but because I wrote my poems late at night.  I literally felt I could not type a word down until it was nine o’clock or later.  I tried to go to bed early, but something stopped me every time.  It was infuriating, just as I imagined the sane side of Ahab was angry with himself at his succumbing to his obsession.”  What Liz learned from this project was “to be vulnerable writing poetry.”

One of 12 poems by Liz Loch

One of 12 poems by Liz Loch

Hayley Kirley with Map of her Moby-Dick

Hayley Kirley with map of her Moby-Dick

Hayley Kirley, a senior English major and Honors minor, was our third presenter on Day 2.  Her unique project was entitled “The Association Spiral: a Map of My Moby-Dick.”  Her goal was “to fully illustrate how I manipulate the novel, Moby-Dick, in my mind.  I wanted to show how the novel lives in my brain and yet fully make the words and concepts my own.  I created this piece in much the same method that I would write a paper on the subject.  I gathered quotes that particularly responded to the themes I wanted to explore.  A lot of these quotes had to do with the visible and invisible worlds that Melville describes.”  Hayley compares this to “the  relationship between blank canvases and what is written or drawn onto them.  How and what we put onto these invisible worlds is very important but the blankness is important as well. This is why I wanted to include the blank spaces in my Melville Spiral in the center of the piece.  This conflict is central to what I was thinking about when I made my piece.”  The central spiral includes a continuous line of text running into the end of the curve and back out again.  The names in black at the upper left correspond, in their size and lettering, to the power dynamics on the ship.  The name “Rachel” in white at the lower right, imposed over obsessively inscribed “Ahab” in black, embodies the contrast between male and female values. The handwriting in red beyond the outer edge of the spiral includes passages from Freud, Faulkner, and Langston Hughes that speak to central issues of the novel.  Although “the words and passages are not mine,” Hayley notes, “I have cut and manipulated them to fully address how I think and respond to texts.”  In all of these ways, this project allowed Hayley to “delve deeper into my interpretation of the novel.”

Word spiral over coffin shape in Hayley Kirley’s My Map of Moby-Dick

Word spiral over coffin shape in Hayley Kirley’s My Map of Moby-Dick

Kylie Stigar-Burke presenting her Chowder soup bowl

Kylie Stigar-Burke presenting her Chowder soup bowl

Kylie Stigar-Burke, a senior English major, was our fourth presenter on Day 2.  She made a soup bowl inspired by “Chowder,” her “favorite chapter in the entire novel.”  I loved her reason for preferring this chapter to all others.  “Chowder” was “one of the last chapters that the audience saw Ishmael and Queequeg for who they really are.  It was one of the last times these two men were the truest versions of themselves before they took part I a journey that would change them forever.  There is something about the finality of the chapter that still moves me to think about even now.  The last time these men would really have fun and relax, the last time the two would really enjoy their friendship without the pressure of whaling.” She decided to make a soup bowl because Mrs. Hussey’s “chowder” was “the last thing the two could really share together.”  Her next big question was what color to make it, and I love the way she approached this issue too.  “When I close my eyes and envision Ishmael and Queequeg, I envision a swirling green and brown, so I decided to chase after that in my soup bowl.”  She associated green with Ishmael “because the color itself is very natural, like Ishmael is.  Nothing about him is forced or flamboyant.”  Queequeg “had to be the brown” because of his “warm and generous soul.  This brown can fit into anyone’s heart or home.”  She had originally thought of painting Queequeg’s tattoo on top of the colors, but then she came up with a better idea  She “painted a white whale right where the two colors meet in the middle because without this whale, Ishmael and Queequeg would never have met or become friends.”  When she first saw the “completed bowl” she was “unhappy with the flaws I saw.”  But then she saw that to obsess like that would be “to fall victim into Ahab’s madness.”  When she looked at her creation “through Ishmael’s eyes,” she realized that “this odd little bowl is something that you could stare at forever, something that everyone can enjoy.”

Chowder soup bowl by Kylie Stigar-Burke

Chowder soup bowl by Kylie Stigar-Burke

By the end of Day 2, we suddenly had enough art work on hand to begin an impromptu exhibition in the kitchen of the Honors House.   Perhaps the location was influenced by the soup-bowl shape of Kylie’s Chowder or the bread-pan shape of Kimberly’s The Corpses and Ghosts, but it seemed natural to begin displaying what we had on the kitchen table.   As we left for the weekend, anyone visiting the House before next Tuesday would be able to see a nice ensemble in which Hayley’s spiral “map” and Marla’s photographic self-interrogation shared the space with Kimberly’s sharkish shadow box and Kylie’s companionable Chowder.

First stage of impromptu exhibition in Honors House

First stage of impromptu exhibition in Honors House

The weekend between our two presentation weeks was the one which both Moby-Dick exhibitions opened in Cincinnati, with at least five students from the class visiting the CAC for the live drawing by Kish and Del Tredici or the gallery talks by the two artists the next afternoon.  I love seeing my students out in those exhibitions, and even being interviewed by Caitlin Sparks for the film she and Jay Gray are making of the two shows.

Kimberly, Lauren, Rachel, and Liz at the CAC for Kish and Del Tredici live drawing

Kimberly, Lauren, Rachel, and Liz at the CAC for Kish and Del Tredici live drawing

Rachel Prokopius presenting her Cetology whales

Rachel Prokopius presenting her Cetology whales

Our third day of classroom presentations, Tuesday, April 26, began with Rachel Prokopius, a sophomore Biology major and Honors minor.  She needed a whole table to present the fourteen Cetology whales she had made of clay, paint, paint brush bristles, Gorilla glue, honey, and maple syrup.  She had begun this project “long before Spring Break because I knew how long it was going to take me to get everything done.  I mean, I had fourteen whales to build!  That’s a lot of clayworking.”  Rachel was “really proud” of her process in this project because it required so much patience, not usually her strong suit.  She was also proud of overcoming her previously uncontrollable drive for “perfection.”  In this she was helped by “our discussion of art in class.”  Rachel was angry when she heard that last year some art professors had “looked down” on work in a student exhibition because those students had not been trained as artists.  She wondered how someone could “look down on another person for producing something that stems from the heart.”  But then she realized that this is she does to herself “almost every day.  I don’t need any critics in life because I do such a good job of it on my own.”  This realization helped her, with this project, to “just let it and my mind flow together to create, and create it did.”  This project did become her White Whale for much of the semester just for all the attention it required, but “it isn’t the biggest one I have had in my life, and it is miniscule next to other people.” So she has called it her My White Grampus Whale, because “the Grampus whale has been described as a miniature version of the Sperm Whale by Melville in his Cetology chapter.”

Three of Rachel’s Folio whales on display

Three of Rachel’s Folio whales on display

Lauren Hensley with The Vortex

Lauren Hensley with The Vortex

Our second presenter on Day 3 was Lauren Hensley, a senior Mathematics major and Honors minor.  Laura had been “perplexed by the religious undertones” when reading Moby-Dick.  Intellectually, she understood Melville’s depiction of “the apparent indifference of God.”  But as a religious person she “found myself upset with his depiction of a solely vengeful God.”  She addressed this tension by creating The Vortex, a “faux stained glass artwork” which served as an “outlet” to help her “process the book.”  After sketching many subjects, she settled on a “symmetrical” design in which “man and whale” are “suspended” in tension, with “neither side overcoming.”  Her intent is to ask whether “man and creature coexist, or will this cycle result in the defeat of one or both?”  She does this by “creating equal weight on each side of the artwork, which is present any way that you turn the frame.  The ship is meant to mirror the whale.  The art work is meant to mirror this ever-continuous battle of man and creatures.  The spiral signifies that continuity.”  The medium for “for this spiraling battle” in faux stained glass was “acrylic paint, glue, and the glass canvas.”  The stained glass is “smooth and continuous” when “placed on a table or some other solid, opaque object,” but the artwork appears “more gritty and grim when held to the light.” At first this bothered her, but then she realized that “Melville’s eye keenly sought out those tumultuous inner workings of life—those grim realities which blindside most of humanity in its blissful ignorance.”  In the end, Lauren learned that “it is possible for me to create something which I can appreciate.”  She also learned “about my perception of reality.”

Lauren’s The Vortex finding is place in the impromptu exhibition

Lauren’s The Vortex finding its place in the impromptu exhibition

Sabrina Clayton presenting The White Sea

Sabrina Clayton presenting The White Sea

Our next presenter was Sabrina Clayton, a sophomore English major.  Like Lauren, she was transfixed by the religious dimension of Moby-Dick, in her case taking her back to the early verses of Genesis, which she threads throughout her art work.  In the two large poster boards she calls The White Sea, Sabrina starts with the idea that Ishmael’s “whiteness of the whale can be read as a metaphorical representation symbolizing humankind’s inability to understand the world, of an incomprehensible God.”  In her project, she presents her own “slightly different conclusion.”  For her, “Moby Dick, the whale, is the pinnacle of many symbolic meanings in men’s identity.  In my art piece I have made the sea white and all the whales blue.”  For Ishmael, the white whale “seemed to represent an unnatural and threatening creature,” but “this creature lived in an even more threatening, unexplored, and inhospitable environment, the sea.”  With the ocean, as with the whale, “only the surface is available for human observation and interpretation, while its depths conceal the unknown and unknowable truths.  This led me to think that, if the whale is mirroring its environment, then it would be safe to say that it is the sea that is threatening and incomprehensible to men and not necessarily the whale itself.” Sabrina goes on to apply this framework to “the maddening of Ahab” (who is burdened with questions that are probably “unanswerable”) and to the fears of the crew (who “displace their anxieties about their dangerous and at times terrifying jobs at sea”).  After wrestling to express questions such as these, Sabrina concluded that “it takes a lot to get your point across, clear as it is in your mind.”

Fold-out questions in orange on Sabrina’s poster board: “Can we all be happy?  Will we ever wake up?”

Fold-out questions in orange on Sabrina’s poster board: “Can we all be happy?  Will we ever wake up?”

Shelby Cundiff holding her King of Hearts

Shelby Cundiff holding her King of Hearts

Our fourth presenter on Day 3 was Shelby Cundiff, a sophomore Psychology major and Honors minor.  As a reader, she had felt that “fate playes a role in every part of Moby-Dick.  It affected everyone and led to the death of many and the survival of two.  Fate brought Ishmael and Queequeg together, it brough Ishmael and Queequeg on the Pequod, and it was fate that Ishmael and Moby Dick survived.”  Shelby chose to explore this dynamic by creating enlarged playing cards depicting four of the characters in Moby-Dick as kings in different suits.  In doing so, she was aware that “cards have different meanings in different cultures and key words that go with that card.”  Shelby “used an exacto knife to cut out the basic shapes and then I used acrylic paint.”  For Ahab she decided that “the King of Hearts would have been the best match.  King of Hearts is also known as the suicide king—because in the original French pattern the kind was driving a sword into his head.  Though Ahab is not suicidal, he drove himself to his death.”  She made Moby Dick the King of Diamonds because “the words associated with diamonds are judgment, responsibility, entertainment, and Artha, the meaning of life.”  Starbuck is Shelby’s King of Spades because “the words associated with the spades are acceptance, scripture, and Moksha.”  Ishmael is her King of Clubs, as “the words assoicated with this suit are mind, musings, and dharma.”  Shelby was surprised at how much her classmates enjoyed her art project, deciding that “I am better at it than I thought—and art is in the eyes of the beholder.”

Shelby Cundiff, Ahab as King of Hearts

Shelby Cundiff, Ahab as King of Hearts

David Fritz with Ahabs madness

David Fritz with Ahab’s madness

David Fritz was our fifth presenter on Day 3.  His car had been totaled in the accident a week before, and he had suffered a mild concussion and some facial contusions, but his doctor had cleared him to return to school this week.  David is not experienced as an artist but he decided to draw a picture of Ahab when “his obsessions are eating him alive” near the end of the novel.  His goal “is a simple one: to communicate the detrimental outcome allowing oneself to be fueled by one’s own vices.”  The colors surrounding Ahab’s face are red and gray, colors “connected to the sensations of madness and decay.”  Inside Ahab’s’ mouth is a monster, as his emotions “speak from within.”  The “red lines on his face” show “what is inside him taking over.”  This Ahab is “a shell of his former self who has lost all control, with his body cracking and no longer holding the ability to prevent him from inflicting harm upon himself or others,” a victim of “his own design.”  In this attempt to make Ahab’s madness visible, David “gained a better understanding of the ‘layered’ aspect of the novel, the meaning underling the meaning.”

After class on Day 3 we added Lauren’s faux stained glass and Sabrina’s double poster set to the growing ensemble on the kitchen table of the Honors House, while also discovering that Rachel’s Cetology whales and Shelby’s enlarged playing cards were a perfect fit in front of the fireplace.

Impromptu art exhibit after Day 3

Impromptu art exhibit after Day 3

Sarah Kellam with The Heart of the Sea

Sarah Kellam with The Heart of the Sea

Our first presenter on Day 4 was Sarah Kellam, a senior Electronic Media and Broadcasting major and Honors minor.  A longtime admirer of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, she was thrilled when the film by Ron Howard was finally released just before our course began.  Our study of Moby-Dick took her deeper into her fascination with the Chases and Coffins of Nantucket, so it is natural that she devoted her research paper to comparing the ill-fated voyage of the whale ship Essex in 1819-20 with that of the Pequod as written by Melville in 1850-51.   The title of Sarah’s research paper gives some sense of its scope and ambition: “The Coffin Connection: How Queequeg’s Coffin, the Coffin Family, and Melville’s Allusion and Imagery Point to the Essex Inspiring Moby-Dick.”  After presenting a cogent summary of the history of Nantucket and the voyage of Essex, Sarah launched into a striking series “character and crew connections” between the Essex voyage and Melville’s book.  This was followed by a fascinating section on “The Epilogue, the Coffin, and the Fortunate Rescue” in which Sarah suggests a connection I have yet to see made by any Melville scholar, relating the fictional fact that Ishmael is saved by Queequeg’s coffin in Melville’s with the real-life fact that Owen Coffin, one of the sailors in Captain Pollard’s whaleboat when they had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive, sacrificed himself for the sake of his boatmates.  Sarah does not know whether she will go on to graduate school or become a golf pro.  If she does pursue graduate studies, she has a fine topic for further study here.  One thing she learned in working on this project is that “there is still quite a bit about the novel and its creation that we will never know.”

Madison Cyrus presenting Moby Dick "after"

Madison Cyrus presenting Moby Dick “after”

Our second presenter on Day 4 was Madison Cyrus, a sophomore English major.  She chose in her final project to do “an extension of my midterm paper, which focused on the similarities and differences between how Moby-Dick and Ahab were viewed when the book was first published and how they are viewed in today’s society.”  She did this by creating “two wood carvings each of Moby Dick and Ahab, one before and one after.” As she began her carvings, she “realized that what I really wanted to focus on was the innocence of Moby Dick and Ahab before the journey vs. the madness that they both developed as the journey went on.  I attempted to show this in the carvings themselves as well as the colors that I used to paint the carvings.  I chose to paint Moby Dick white in both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ carvings, because though he caused great harm to many people, he was acting on his instinct and cannot be blamed for his retaliation to being attacked.  However, in the ‘after’ I chose orange for the color of the waves because I wished to give them a fire-like quality to represent the turmoil that was surrounding the chase, and the destruction it caused.”  In the Ahab paintings, Madison “chose to make his eyes completely black in the ‘before,’ and attempted to give him a more haunted look, painting the orange to represent the madness that surrounded him and threatened to overcome him.  In the ‘after’ carving it is inverted; his eyes are now orange, and the background black, to represent the fact that he has allowed the madness to overcome him, and it is all he sees, the sole purpose of his life, causing everything around him to be blacked out.”  Madison learned from this project that “you can be an artist even if you don’t see yourself as one, and that the line between madness and sanity is very thin. . . . Madness is something that is often hidden very well even from ourselves.”

Madison Cyrus, wood carvings, Moby Dick and Ahab, each before and after

Madison Cyrus, wood carvings, Moby Dick and Ahab, each before and after

Jay Jung, in his corner perch

Jay Jung, in his corner perch

Our third presenter on Day 4 was Jay Jung, a senior English major. He got away before I could get a photo of him, so I show him here, in his customary corner seat, on the day Rachel presented her Cetology whales.  Jay presented our second research paper and it, too, was a tour de force.  He is a student of film and he used four films to explore the title of his paper, “Moby-Dick in Film: Can a True Adaptation be Done?”  Before sampling individual films, he established his own criteria for a successful adaptation.  Certain “central characters” must be included.  Major “themes or ideas” of the novel need to be addressed.  And the film “needs to stay authentic to the action of the book.”  Jay applied these criteria to four films that differed greatly in genre and time period, making for a very informative as well as entertaining presentation.  He began with a “truly terrible” full-length modern adaptation, 2010: Moby Dick, made by “the production company responsible for cult-worshipped Sharknado.”  Jay’s second offering was entirely new for me: a 2006 film edition of a one-man Moby-Dick performance piece created by Jack Aranson in 1978.  This film scored well in the character and story criteria, but it “completely lacks any action.”  Jay then turned to “the most famous adaptation of the novel,” the 1956 film directed by John Huston.  This film did quite well in character and action but it suffered greatly from “the poor performance of the most important character in the film,” Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab.  Jay concluded by arguing that the “most authentic adaptation of a whaling story” is not a Moby-Dick film, but Ron Howard’s 2015 In the Heart of the Sea.  Jay’s conclusion at the end of this study: “it would be almost impossible to make a great film adaptation” of Moby-Dick.

Alex Salyers presenting As Above, So Below

Alex Salyers presenting As Above, So Below

Our final presenter on Day 4 was Alex Salyers, a senior Finance major and Honors minor.  She had originally planned to make a pop-up book, “so Moby-Dick could be shared with a new generation.”  When she realized that this way beyond her “skill level and time restraints,” she wanted to “embroider a whale,” but she could not come up with a satisfactory design.  So she decided to do a “galaxy painting” in acrylic on canvas. That painting would have two “galaxies” or “constellations,” one representing Moby Dick, the other the Pequod.  Alex “enjoys galaxies” because “I consider them beautiful and mysterious but also because they put life into perspective, which I find soothing.”  She also enjoys mythology and “the stories that relate to constellations.”  Moby-Dick fits into this context because it represents “an eternal struggle, the wish for revenge, and the consequences of trying to attain revenge.”  As such, it “can serve as a warning to readers that it is often better to move on with your life and be happier with what you have, than to remain bitter over the things you have lost.”  Alex entitled the piece As Above, So Below because “the painting is set in the stars but it displays something below, on the sea.”  The mysteriousness of the sea answers the vastness of the sky.  After painting the shapes of the ship and the whale, she drew the outlines of each “with larger stars and connected them to give the appearance of a constellation.”  She is “very pleased with how the piece turned out because I feel it does a good job of both looking like the actual images and looking like constallations.”

Alex Salyers, detail, As Above, So Below, “galaxy painting” with Moby Dick and the Pequod

Alex Salyers, detail, As Above, So Below, “galaxy painting” with Moby Dick and the Pequod

Our fourth and last presentation day had brought us two more artworks for the ensemble on the kitchen table.  In our final arrangement on the left side of the table, we juxtaposed Alex’s galaxy painting of Moby Dick and the Pequod with Lauren’s faux stained glass of Moby Dick and the Pequod.  We placed Madison’s wood carvings of Moby Dick and Ahab Before and After between Hayley’s spiral Map of My Moby-Dick on the one side and Kylie’s chowder bowl and Kimberly’s shadow box on the other.  I love how the white whale head on Kylie’s chowder bowl completes the white whale body on Kimberly’s shadow box.  And how the primary questions about human existence on the orange flap of Sabrina’s poster board resonate against the fiery orange that Ahab’s madness brings to Madison’s wood carvings.  And how the white word Rachel over the black name Ahab crowded into the lower right hand corner of Hayley’s spiral “map” does give hope of deliverance in the darkness.

Left side of the kitchen-table exhibition in the Honors House after the last presentation day

Left side of the kitchen-table exhibition in the Honors House after the last presentation day

It just turned out that the kitchen table and the fireplace to its immediate right were the perfect size for the artworks presented in our class during the last two weeks of the course.  We left the exhibition in place until we returned for the ‘lite’ final exam one week later.

Final exhibition of class in Moby-Dick and the Arts, April 28 – May 5, 2016

Final exhibition of class in Moby-Dick and the Arts, April 28 – May 5, 2016

My ‘lite’ final exam usually consists of six questions to answer with a brief paragraph each.  The first four questions usually ask students to comment on the final projects of their classmates.  (This year: Which final project impressed you the most?  Which most surprised you?  Which did you most enjoy?  Which gave you the most insight into the subject of Moby-Dick and the Arts.)  Question 5 asks students what they each learned in the process of creating their own final projects.  Questions 6 asks each student to select the one word that best characterizes the final presentations made by the class as a whole.

In some years there is quite a separation between the most successful and the least successful projects in the class, so the answers to questions 1 – 4 might cluster around the five or six top projects, with some of the others getting no mention at all from their classmates.  This year the praise was spread widely among all fifteen presentations, and each of the fifteen was praised by one or more classmates.

In some years the answers to question 5 are quite variable, with quite a few students being either very articulate or deeply satisfied with what she or he created, but quite a few of the others being either less satisfied with the project or less engaged with the question.  This year I think it is fair to say that all students were quite articulate about what they did or did not learn from creating their projects.

I am always interested to see what students will think of the work of their classmates as a whole.  Here I will briefly summarize the responses of this year’s class.

One student chose “bravery” to summarize the work of her classmates.  “I think it took bravery for each of us to produce a piece of work to share with the class.”

Another chose the word “unique.”  “Everyone put a bit of themselves into their projects.”

Another chose the word “personal.”  “Each of these presentations showed each of our personalities through the different mediums or angles we used to interpret Moby-Dick.”

Another made a similar point with the word “telling.”  “Each project represented the person so well.  Each had bits of pieces of each of us inside of it, and our final project are really ours and no one else’s.  I learned a lot about each person just by seeing their final projects.”

The student who chose “beautiful” had a similar thought in mind.  “Everyone had a different idea / thought process for their piece and really put forth the effort, and that’s what makes them beautiful.”

The student who chose the word “dedication” was similarly impressed with the effort.  “This devotion was shown by the array of talented and idealist people in this class.”

The depth of the projects impressed the person chose “insightful.”  “The words [of the book] really allowed us to go deeper into the art and create something substantial.”

A similar point was made by the person one who chose “impressive.”  “Everyone is able to bring a unique part of themselves and give everyone else something new to think about.”

Similarly impressed was the one who chose “analytic.”  “There were some great character analyses, book-history explorations, and real-world connections that blew me away.”

Three students used the same single word—“diverse”—to characterize the presentations as a whole.  One noted that “everyone’s focused on something different that drew them to the course material.”  Another “would never have imagined all the different art works and research that my classmates were inspired to create.”  A third emphasized that “No one did the same thing, really.  Everyone connected with a different element of art, and a different part of the book.”

Another student who appreciated the diversity of the final projects chose the word “various” to characterize the “different forms of expression.”  Another chose the word “chowder.”  “We had pottery, drama, research, wood-carving, painting, and photography in this collection of final projects, and the hodge podge of projects definitely is a chowder much like the novel is.”

The one remaining word that was chosen is “valuable.”  The explanation of this choice is simple but it is profound, because one would not always be able to say this about all of the presentations at the end of a course.  “Each final presentation added value to this class.”  Nothing can make a teacher—or students—happier than when this happens.

Several students had to leave as soon as the “lite” exam was over, so we gathered for a photograph just before the exam began.  We had taken down our impromptu exhibition before the exam period started, too, so students had one last, intimate look at what their  classmates had produced.

Students in Moby-Dick and the Arts with final projects, Spring Semester 2016

Students in Moby-Dick and the Arts with final projects, Spring Semester 2016