Entry begun at 7:30 pm on plane from Boston to Cincinnati, Sunday, January 8, 2017
This e-Voyage is ending where Herman Melville’s whaling voyage began. Melville sailed from New Bedford on the whaler Acushnet for the South Seas on January 3, 1841. The 21st Annual Moby-Dick Marathon ended in the Harbor View Gallery of the New Bedford Whaling Museum on Sunday, January 8, 2017. After Museum president James Russell ended the Marathon by reading the “Epilogue,” the Harbor View audience applauded not only the story but themselves, having endured a bitter blizzard that had dropped fifteen inches of snow and shut down the city’s streets as the Marathon began the day before.
I was looking out over the harbor from inside the Harbor View Gallery as the last words of the novel were spoken. Yesterday’s storm having passed, the deep blue of the river now reflecting the bright blue of the sky, the open sea was as inviting it had been on the day Melville had sailed.
This e-Voyage began in September 2015, when I was deep into planning for the two Moby-Dick exhibitions that would open in Cincinnati in April 2016—the 2-man show at the Contemporary Arts Center and the 9-woman show at the Marta Hewett Gallery. In September of that year, Matt Kish was well under way with a brand new series of eighty-one Extracts drawings for the CAC show for which Robert Del Tredici was himself creating dozens of new “metallic” prints beyond those we had already planned to have in the show. Of the nine women who were to open the Marta Hewett show in April, the six who were from the greater Cincinnati area had already met in July to begin sharing ideas. These local artists were to meet again in October and in December as their ideas for new works continued to develop. By the time of our December meeting we had acquired a third out-of-town artist. Aileen Callahan of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Claire Illouz of Chérence, France, had been part of the show from the beginning, but now Julia Oldham from Eugene, Oregon, had joined our group. When our local group met at the Marta Hewett Gallery in December, Kathleen Piercefield was just beginning to assemble the ingredients of the print she was to exhibit as Women of New Bedford—Captain’s Wives in April.
When Elizabeth Schultz came to give gallery talks at both the CAC and Marta Hewett shows in May, she decided to acquire this Women of New Bedford for the Schultz Collection of Moby-Dick art she had recently established at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. It was highly appropriate for this print to go there, since the women in the print were actual whaler’s wives from New Bedford in a photograph from the mid-nineteenth century. Piercefield had drawn on images of the city of New Bedford itself, and of its whale ships at sea, for the other components of this composite image, so it was highly appropriate to have this print on display as part of our Oceanic Harvest exhibition of newly acquired Moby-Dick artwork at the Moby-Dick Marathon in January 2017. At the conclusion of the 2016 Marathon in the Harbor View Gallery, I had been impressed by the panoramic vista of the city on the mural that provided a backdrop for the readers. Piercefield’s image of the city in the new Women of New Bedford print was quite similar, and the same mural was again used as a backdrop in 2107, so I was glad that we could install her print in a way that could show the similarity.
Installing this show was a great pleasure. During the month of December, Christina Connett, chief curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and I had finalized the works in the show. I had sent texts for the wall panels and labels in advance, but we did not begin the actual installation until I arrived at the museum on the afternoon of January5, the day before the official opening. I enjoyed making suggestions about where various works might go, but Christina and her installation guru Sarah Mitchell did the actual installation. We had eleven new artworks to hang. The seven new metallic prints by Robert Del Tredici were the 2016 acquisition for the Melville Society Archive. Three Kathleen Piercefield prints and one Monica Namyar sculpture were newly acquired for the Schultz Collection. Added to these were individual Piercefield prints previously acquired by the Archive and Schultz collections. It made sense to run the seven new Del Tredici prints in sequence along the longest wall of the exhibition space, so Sarah and Christina began to make their measurements. Because we had seven prints, Sarah decided to hang one in the middle and then space the others equally on either side.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted Ahab’s Torn Body and Gashed Soul as the one in the center. It is the one horizontal among six verticals and it depicts the moment in Ahab’s life from which all else follows. This is the moment when, dismembered on the voyage home after Moby Dick has taken his leg, “Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock.” In this moment, “his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another, and so interfusing, made him mad.” Del Tredici had avoided Ahab and his madness in most of his earlier art inspired by the novel, but here he goes to the core. The prints we mounted immediately on either side show that madness and anguish playing out in the action of the novel itself. In Coffin-Tap on the left, “every stroke of his dead limb sounded like coffin-tap” as “on life and death he walked.” In Strike the Sun on the right, we feel the full force of Ahab’s declaration that he would “strike the sun if it insulted me.” As we were hanging these prints, Sarah Mitchell was very happy to be able to use a new lazer beam installation tool which allowed her to draw a virtual horizon line directly across the gallery wall instead of having to measure physically from the floor to the bottom of each new print. For me, the crosshairs of its red laser beam only made Ahab’s plight more frightening.
As a prelude to the three central Ahabs, we mounted prints inspired by the early New Bedford chapters at the far left. Black Parliament depicts the moment in chapter two in which Ishmael, looking for an inn, accidentally enters a black church and sees “a hundred black faces” peering back at him. Bottom of the Sea depicts the passage in which Father Mapple, about to preach in the Seaman’s Bethel, “folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.” As always, the New Bedford Marathon enacted the “Chapel” chapters in the same Seaman’s Bethel in which Melville had set the. This year, Robert Del Tredici was on hand to photograph the reenactment the recreation of the scene that had inspired his print.
The most powerful antidote to Ahab’s mad anguish in the novel is the spiritual expansiveness with which Ishmael comes to embrace cosmic symbolism of the White Whale as a living creature and of Queequeg as a bosom friend. These qualities Del Tredici captures in the two prints at the far right of our central well, Ubiquitous and Rings of Eternity. Each of Del Tredici’s prints embeds the textual passage that has inspired it. The Ubiquitous text comes from the “Moby Dick” chapter, the same chapter that inspired Ahab’s Torn Body and Gashed Soul. This print is Del Tredici’s rendering of Ishmael’s “unearthly conceit that Moby Dick was ubiquitous, that he had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time.” We see and feel a different kind of cosmic interfusing in Rings of Eternity, Del Tredici’s visualization of the moment in “Queequeg in his Coffin” in which Ishmael sees the eyes of his dying friend “growing fuller and fuller” until, “like circles on the water,” they “seemed rounding and rounding, like the rings of Eternity.”
Once we had hung the seven Del Tredici prints in the sequence outlined above, it seemed natural to display the four Piercefield prints in a way that would match, and enhance, the narrative and spiritual rhythms we had established with his. Immediately inside the entrance, on either side of the open doors, we hung the two Women of New Bedford prints, the one from 2016 with the Captain’s Wives newly arrived in the Schultz Collection, and the one from 2004 with the female figurehead we had acquired for the Melville Society Archive in 2009. In these depictions of women of New Bedford, contemplating what their men were doing at sea in their multi-year voyages, we have perfect counterparts to the experience of Ishmael arriving in the same city in advance of his first whaling voyage. When we finally got each of these properly installed, we had a good view through the open doors of the panoramic mural of New Bedford that was to serve as the backdrop for the Marathon Reading the next day. Its final position not yet determined by the Museum staff, Jerry Beck’s sculpture entitled Queequeg’s Coffin, which had arrived as part of the Schultz Collection years earlier, was still what Ishmael would call a “loose fish,” rolling across the Harbor View Gallery on a dolly.
Both logistically and aesthetically, it made perfect sense to display our other two Piercefields at the other end of the gallery, near Del Tredici’s Ubiquity and Rings of Eternity. On the left side of the far wall we mounted The Affidavit, who five sporting whales, beautifully individualized, joyously moving in concert, complement and expand the spirit of Del Tredici’s Ubiquitous. To its right we mounted From the Headwaters of the Eternities, the Piercefield print from 2004 that came to the Whaling Museum as part of the original Schultz donation in 2012. I like to think of this print as cetacean equivalent of the Rings of Eternity as depicted by Del Tredici. Here in its unmolested harmony is cosmic energy of the natural world before the “all grasping western world” began to tear it apart for pleasure and profit.
Underneath the two Piercefields at the far end of the room we had a case displaying four original drawings by Matt Kish never seen in public. These are the drawings for pages 10, 334, 363, and 465 of Moby-Dick in Pictures that had entered the Schultz Collection at the Whaling Museum a few years after the original donation. Included in the case was a boxed hard-cover edition of the book for which they were made, open to page 465 so viewers could compare the original drawing with its reproduction. The facing page 464 features one of Kish’s many depictions of Queequeg.
The last work to be installed within the Oceanic Harvest exhibition was the sculptured bust of Queequeg that Monica Namyar had created in the summer of 2016 after the Marta Hewett exhibition had closed. Elizabeth Schultz had greatly admired the six ceramic works by Namyar she had seen in the Cincinnati show, and she decided to add Namyar’s three-dimensional depiction of Queequeg to the Schultz Collection at the Whaling Museum soon after seeing photographs of it. The Schultz collection is rich in paintings, prints, and artist books, but this is its first work in three-dimensions. The oceanic imagery from the Maori culture with which Namyar tattoos Queequeg’s shapely head (imagery she had come to love when studying ceramics in Australia) beautifully condenses the spirit of this Oceanic Harvest exhibition while communing with the Rings of Eternity and Headwaters of the Eternities in Del Tredici and Piercefield’s nearby prints.
The one new acquisition I have not yet shown is Kathleen Piercefield’s larger-than-life Queequeg in his own proper person, created in 2004 and donated by Elizabeth Schultz to the Whaling Museum in 2016. I had originally thought that this work would hang in the exhibition space with the other new acquisitions, but when I arrived at the Museum on the day before the opening I saw that it had been mounted outside of the exhibition entrance because it was too tall to fit inside (92 x 40 inches). This worked very well for the exhibition itself, as it would be hard to imagine a more evocative or commanding image to embody the theme of Oceanic Harvest. Not only did this multi-media print mounted on eight canvas panels introduce the Oceanic Harvest exhibition. It also served as the presiding spirit of the Marathon itself—which, after opening in the Lagoda Room and moving to the Seaman’s Bethel, occupied the the Harbor View Gallery on whose back wall Piercefield’s Queequeg was mounted throughout all the chapters at sea.
During the morning on Friday I was working out details of the exhibition while my Melville Society colleagues were bring everything up to date in our Archive. Sarah and I had all of the artworks mounted and labels in place by the time some students from the Rhode Island School of Design arrived for a preview of the exhibition at 2 in the afternoon. The official opening of the exhibition, followed by a catered dinner in the Harbor View Gallery, was scheduled for 5:30 in the evening. The tradition of a Friday-night pre-Marathon dinner followed by a lecture was started by James Russell soon after arriving at the Museum. It has been increasingly popular every year, and this year we had over ninety guests who purchased dinner in advance and stayed for a panel discussion on “Religion in Moby-Dick” after the dinner. I was delighted that Kathleen Piercefield, from Northern Kentucky, and Robert Del Tredici, from Montreal, both came to New Bedford for the entire Marathon weekend, beginning with the Friday night dinner. After Christina and I opened the exhibition with some curatorial remarks, Kathleen and Bob shared some thoughts with the audience before the dinner began.
Michael Dyer, Senior Marine Historian at the Whaling Museum, moderated the panel on “Melville and Religion” with his customary panache. Each member of our six-person Melville Society Cultural Project team, gave a six-to-eight minute presentation followed by a wide-ranging series of questions from the audience.
I am very fortunate in my five colleagues on the Melville Society Cultural Project team. We come to New Bedford twice a year to tend to our Archive and plan programming and exhibitions with the Whaling Museum staff. We have had a rotating group of six since our affiliation began in 2001, and our current group has been together throughout the current decade. Because we are always working together as a team, it is a special treat to hear each other make individual presentations, as we did on Friday night. We each addressed an entirely different element of the many religious concerns in the novel, which, along the compact nature of our opening statements, made for a very robust and stimulating question-and-answer session. The photo below shows the attentiveness of the audience as Philip Hoare, who writes about Melville from England, asks a question.
We never know who is going to show up at these Friday night dinners. Many of us had not seen Milton Reigelman, who teaches at Centre College in Kentucky, since the summer of 2009, when he was co-director of our International Conference on Melville and Joseph Conrad in Poland. A photo with him after the panel on religion was the perfect way to end the evening. At 10 am the next morning, the first day of the Marathon Reading, we would be back for another six-person event moderated by Michael Dyer. That event, followed by the Marathon itself, will be the subject of my next entry.