Airport Whale Ship

New entry begun at San Francisco airport, August 30, 11:00 am

Whale ship mural seen from my working desk in Terminal 1 of San Francisco Airport

Whale ship mural seen from my working desk in Terminal 1 of San Francisco Airport

I was proofing Emily Hyberger’s Kedger Piece from my Fall 2003 Douglass and Melville class when I glanced across the corridor of Terminal 1 (I am writing on a table at Max’s Eatz and Fresh Bakery) and saw what looked like a whale ship in some kind of collaged mural directly across from my table.  The ship reminded me of some of the ones Tony de los Reyes had painted (and smeared over with red bister) in the Moby-Dick show I had seen in Santa Barbara a few years ago.  I took a photo of the ship before I went back to editing, taking care to show the edge of the table at which I am working in the foreground.  I also waited until some people were walking by to give a sense of scale.

Just now, after editing the two-page spread for Camilla Asplen’s Moby-Dick Cookbook from my Spring 2004 class in Moby-Dick & the Arts, I looked up and saw the White Whale, Moby Dick, in the lower left corner of that collage across from my table.  The whale was facing in the direction of the ship.  In his presence, the water now seemed to be filled with the wreckage of whaleboats, including harpoons pointing in the direction of the whale.  These reminded me of the corrosive harpoon embedded in the flesh of the old bull whale who is tortured, before being killed, in chapter 81 of Moby-Dick (“The Pequod meets the Virgin”).  The artist clearly knew Moby-Dick very well, something you can also see in the long horizontal extension of this collage to the immediate right of the whale ship, whose whale-like shapes are not only suggested in the water beneath the city of San Francisco and the tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, but in the huge, elongated blue whale shape anchoring the shoreline of the city itself (see photo at top of this entry).

White Whale in lower left corner of San Francisco Airport mural

White Whale in lower left corner of San Francisco Airport mural

I had first seen the white whale while a woman talking on her cell phone had her suitcase sitting in front of it.  I gestured, and she kindly moved it without any break in her phone call, glad to hear afterward the story of the mural next to her.  The label mounted near Gate 25 of Terminal 1 indicated that the artist was Tony Berlant and the title of the artwork was Dancing on the Brink of the World.  Berlant had created this work “with found metal on wood with brads.”  The work had been commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Airport Commission and completed in 1986-87 (the years in which Frank Stella was creating the first metallic reliefs in his Moby-Dick series).  Berlant was born in 1941, three years before I was, and I had never heard of him or his work during the two decades in which I have been pursuing Moby-Dick art.  How wonderful to see this work by accident, as I was waiting for my plane to Phoenix, while working on a catalog of Moby-Dick artwork by my students in Northern Kentucky.

You can see the edges of the found metal and the heads of the brads very clearly when you are up close to Berlant’s work.  Similarly, you can see the edges of the fragments of the broken plate from which Emily Hyberger had created her Kedger Piece for my class in Douglass and Melville in 2003.  From this broken plate she had assembled a seascape whose black whale ship is sailing through a dark sea whose choppy waves also suggest the shapes of whales.  The white edges of the whale-ship shape clearly show the dividing line between the pristine white of the original plate shape and the black that had been painted over its inner suface before Emily had broken it to make something of its found pieces.

Emily Hyberger presenting her Kedger Piece to the class in December 2003

Emily Hyberger presenting her Kedger Piece to the class in December 2003

Emily explained in her artist statement that “one of the pieces had some white showing that looked like a whale’s tail, and I went with it.  I made a white whale right behind the ship, like it was following it.  It wasn’t planned, but I really liked the finished product.  It made me think of the chapter in Moby-Dick . . . where Melville talks about the whale’s tail coming out of the water, pointing toward the heavens.”  The heavens in the night sky of Emily’s Kedger Piece, painted on wood, include “the consellation for Cetus, the whale.”


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