Fall Back, Spring Forward

Entry begun on Wednesday, October 29, 2014, 7:30 am

We switch our clocks back from Daylight Savings Time this Sunday, and the shorthand phrase, “Fall Back / Spring Forward,” fits what’s happening with my projects this week  Again I’ve got back in touch with some great Moby alums.  I had not seen Thomas Foltz, a Political Science major, since my Spring 2010 class in Douglass and Melville, when he had drawn a powerful bull-eye view of the Pequod as it was about to be stove in by Moby Dick.  Thomas was a new job selling cars for a local Buick dealer after having worked for a time as a gravedigger.  Nancy Vagedes was the Studio Arts major in my American Short Story class in 1997 who had mesmerized her classmates at the end of the semester by unveiling the ceramic sculpture she called Captain Ahab’s Worst Nightmare, the glorious White Whale looming high above the small captain in his whaleboat.  Some time after taking the class, Nancy had been partially paralyzed from cracking her neck when diving into a swimming pool.  I had worried about her ever since, and was delighted to hear that the metal plates have helped her to heal fully and that she is teaching ceramics courses at Cincinnati State.

Nancy Vagedes presenting her final project in the American Short Story course in 1997

Nancy Vagedes presenting her final project in the American Short Story course in 1997

Storing all the works that I have borrowed or purchased from my former students has been a real challenge in advance of our Moby show in Covington in April.  Last week I was very happy to get back from the framer the most recently created work in our forthcoming exhibition, the charcoal drawing that Stephen Wheeler did as a freshman in my Honors Composition class during the 2013 Fall Semester.  Stephen was inspired by the same scene in the novel that had inspired Nancy sixteen years earlier, but he created his response in charcoal on paper.  He called this drawing The Worsting of Captain Ahab, and it looks great in its new frame.  I have found a good place for it next to our entry hall at home, displacing my poster of J. M. W. Turner’s The Whale Ship from the New York Metropolitan Museum, now behind a living room couch.

Stephen Wheeler’s The Worsting of Captain Ahab, newly framed, across from the stairs in my hallway

Stephen Wheeler’s The Worsting of Captain Ahab, newly framed, across from the stairs in my hallway

Thomas, Nancy, and Stephen were all happy with Emma Rose’s catalog layout for their work.  Now that that catalog is being finalized, we are working hard on the Dickinson catalog for February.  I had already sent Emma Rose the ingredients for about two-thirds of the catalog, with images and text for those students who had created works in these categories:  Quilts and Fabric Art (4) , Portraits and the Human Figure (12), and Landscape and Nature Scenes (9). The ingredients I have begun assembling this week fall into these categories: Vintage Assemblages (3), Artist  Books (6), Film and Video (3), Public Art and Individual Blog (2), and Inclusive Websites (2).  Revisiting all of these classroom creations, organizing the catalog in which to present them, and writing a short bio of each student is a very enjoyable “Fall Back” to the past as we “Spring Forward” toward the Spring Semester exhibition.

Yesterday was quite a day.  Just after assembling all of the ingredients for the mural Sarah Kellam had painted on a floodwall in Covington as her final project in Dickinson and the Arts last Spring, I checked the website for NKU Athletics and found that Sarah had won the Charles Braun Jr. Intercollegiate Golf Tournament in Evanston, Indiana.  Her round of 73 had beat more 90 individual competitors, and led our team to second place out of fifteen teams in only our third year as a D-I program.  It is such a pleasure to have true student athletes in our classes.  Two athletes from my recent classes in Freshman Honors Composition, Taylor Snyder and Sami Rutowski, have been helped our current volleyball and soccer teams qualify for the A-Sun Conference tournament during the first year in which we are eligible.

Sarah Kellam painting part of her floodwall mural in late April, 2014

Sarah Kellam painting part of her floodwall mural in early May, 2014

My most sustained engagement with student athletes came when I wrote a book, Thirteen Women Strong, about the 2006-07 season of our women’s basketball team.  That team lost in the firt round of the Great Lakes Regional Tournament, leaving to the next year’s team to win the Division II National Championship in Kearney, Nebraska (which made a wonderful Epilogue for my book).  I had not planned to, but I ended up using a poetic phrase from Emily Dickinson as the epigraph for almost every chapter, including “I took my Power in my Hand,” the title poem for Sarah Kellam’s 2014 floodwall mural and our 2015 Dickinson exhibition.

Cover of womens basketball book, with chapter epigraphs from Emily Dickinson poems

Cover of womens basketball book, with chapter epigraphs from Emily Dickinson poems

Just after seeing that Sarah had won the golf tournament in Indiana, I got an email notifying me that Emma Rose has won a Zalla Award from the Honors Program for $1,329 to help us produce enough copies of the Dickinson catalog to be able to give one to each student artist.  This an especially timely boost as we are now getting deeply into the layout and fine tuning of that catalog.  Early this week I wrote the first draft of my catalog essay, whose working title combines three of Dickinson’s images for the creative process:  “Cocoons Tighten and Fingers Stir as Brains Blossom.”

One other fine thing happened yesterday for our Dickinson Valentine’s festivities.  I have been searching for funds by which our library might acquire a copy of Claire Illouz’s forthcoming artist book, Summer boughs, inspired by Dickinson’s poetry.  I have found some funds, but when Illouz came in 2011 to lecture about her book The Whiteness inspired by Moby-Dick, we had considerable difficulty paying her as a citizen of France.  I wanted to be sure that this would not happen again when she comes to lecture on Summer boughs on February 12.  After consulting with our purchasing office, I emailed her to see if our current methods of payment will work this time, and she assured me that they will.  She also had this to say about the status of her forthcoming book:  “Summer boughs is not born yet. . . . For the time being, it makes me feel like having a difficult pregnancy – but the huge mess now in the studio can testify that I  keep doing all I can for the baby to come out strong and healthy.”

I asked in response if she could send me a photo of that “mess” in her studio, since I can’t walk across the lane to her house in Chérence to take a look.  She sent me instead an image of “the studio this summer.”  It’s very exciting to get even a quick glimpse of the ingredients by which Claire is creating an artist book to be “born” just in time for the Valentine’s weekend at which we will present each of our student artists with one copy of our catalog I took my Power in my Hand.

Ingredients for Claire Illouz’s Summer boughs in her studio in the summer of 2014

Ingredients for Claire Illouz’s Summer boughs in her studio in the summer of 2014


Autumn Harvest

Entry begun Saturday, October 18, 8:55 am

In addition to the Moby artists we saw at the KNOW Theatre last week, Emma Rose and I have been getting emails from others with comments and corrections on their catalog entries.  Many of the responses have included good news, some of which I’ll sample here.  I had lost track of Michelle Cruey (now Cravens), but I got back in touch with her through her classmate Elizabeth Menning from my Fall 2006 Douglass and Melville class.  Michelle in turn put me back in touch with her older brother Brian, the member of my 1996 class on Melville and the Arts who had transferred to NYU the next year.  I had last seen Brian at a Frank Stella Moby-Dick show in New York more than a decade ago.  I was delighted to learn from him, after Michelle got us reconnected, that he is now living on a farm in Berkshire County, Massachusetts—as was Melville when writing Moby-Dick in 1850-51.  Michelle lives on a farm south of NKU in Grant County, Kentucky, and has taught Language Arts for seven years in adjacent Gallatin County.

Elizabeth Menning (now Vande Water) is in her seventh year of teaching Literature and choreographing musical theater productions at Campbell County High School to the south of our campus.  Her first child Sam was a newborn when she brought him to our Moby-Dick Marathon at Gallerie Zaum in 2009.  Now Sam is five years old and has a three-year old brother Joey; their two-month-old sister Clare was born in August.  Elizabeth (Liz) sent a seasonal family photo along with her editorial suggestions.

Liz and Chris Vande Water with daughter Clare and sons Joey and Sam

Liz and Chris Vande Water with daughter Clare and sons Joey and Sam

Jessica Slone from my Fall 2009 Douglass and Melville class accompanied her editorial comments with a photo of her seven-month-old “pumpkin” Gavin.

Gavin Slone preparing for his first Halloween

Gavin Slone preparing for his first Halloween

Our student artists and alums have had high praise for Emma Rose’s catalog design, terms such as “fabulous,” “awesome,” and “fantastic” being typical.  Their responses have voiced considerable nostalgia for their classmates, and appreciation for the class itself (“came at just the right time in my life,” “helped me decide to be a teacher”).  Some were delighted to see that their artist statements still held up very well; others were keenly aware of how much their writing has improved since their early college years.  When Emma Rose and I were beginning to design the catalog, I had expected that we would have to shorten most of the artist statements to conserve space.  But her design skill, and our 8 x 10 landscape format, have enabled us to reprint the complete statement from almost every student artist.  Our presentation of the statement that the late Fred North had written in 1994 evoked a long email from his daughter Tara Wright North that has touched me deeply and brought Fred alive for me in a new way.


As I have mentioned elsewhere, Fred was the art major in my 1994 class in Melville and the Arts who asked if he could do a painting rather than a research paper as his final project.  The two paintings he created in response to the “Lee-Shore” chapter in Moby-Dick were so impressive that I have given the creative option to all subsequent students, whether they were art majors or not.  I had last seen Tara and her mother Helen at our exhibition at Gallerie Zaum in Newport in November 2009, several years after Fred had died.  I had first met Tara as a little girl in February 1996, when she and Fred had accompanied that year’s Moby class on the excursion to see the exhibition Unpainted to the Last at Northwestern University (see the photo at the upper right of Emma Rose’s two-page spread for Fred).

When it was time to send proofs to the Moby artists in the catalog, I was delighted to see that the phone number I had for Tara from 2009 was still a good one.  When she answered, she said she was still working as an art therapist in Louisville, and she gave me an email address to which I could send our current catalog entry for her father.  In the email she sent in response to that entry, she thought Emma Rose’s layout for the catalog was “absolutely awesome.”  She had “no corrections” for the text and “those pictures are great.” After indicating that “it was really nice to read my dad’s artist statement for the piece,” Tara responded to that statement with a meditation about her relationship with her father, the career she has chosen, and how deeply these dynamics are interrelated.  She had been a sophomore art major in 2005, struggling with what her vocation would be.

“It tickled me to remember back when I was an undergrad, and he and I would debate about the age-old question: ‘what is good art?’  We had such different views.  His was more focused on fine art with training and blah blah blah.  Mine was more along the lines that art is in everything and blah blah blah.  His was more on the product, and mine more on the process.  [But] in his statement about this artwork you are showing in April, [he wrote about] ‘unexpected serendipity,’ letting go and ‘letting god.’  Those were some of our last conversations and loving debates.  Maybe just perhaps I won that particular debate, judging by your last exhibition of your students’ work including papa’s [at Gallery Zaum in 2009].

“I just want to say that giving the choice to your students to finish their final in art of any form, and in whatever media, I think is ground breaking.  We all have different ways of communicating or expressing just how we have been moved by what has been taught, learned, or experienced.  This freedom makes their Moby-Dick experience more personal and better comprehended by viewers.  As you stated on the phone, not all of your students are art majors or visual artists, but each of their works—be it research paper, poetry, pottery, painting, drawing, or interpretive dance (not sure if you have gotten that one yet)—all express the emotion they experienced while reading the book.  As you have given them the gift to do so, it is wonderful to see you celebrate my dad’s memory in sparking this project.

“Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to look at the catalog and to see his artist statement.  It went in hand with you saying papa would be proud of my work as an art therapist.  Reading that he let go of his preconceived ideas to make a piece of ‘fine art’ makes me so happy.  Because that is what I strive for each day at work, to teach people to let go of their idea of ‘good art’ and let the process take over, let the feeling be expressed without judgment.  It is nice to know that papa was able to feel free and just express himself, and you gave him that.  Hearing from you and reading what he wrote reassures me that he is and would be proud of me, and you have given me that. Thank you.  I can’t wait to see you in April, and let me know if you need any help.”

I am grateful that Tara has allowed me to include her email in this blog entry, and I do have some plans for her in Apirl.  Since she did not know if anyone had as yet done an interpretive dance as a final project in response to Moby-Dick, I was happy to be able to send her Emma Rose’s current two-page spread for the dance Elizabeth Menning had choreographed and performed as an exploration of Ahab during the Fall 2006 semester.


Moby O. T. R.

Entry begun at home, Monday, October 13, 7:25 am

Last week was an exciting week for Moby-Dick as well as for Douglass.  Getting our sample copies of the Moby catalog, Fast Fish & Loose Fish, was a real treat.  Emma Rose and I have not had a chance to examine it closely together yet, but during the fifteen minutes on my front porch when she brought my copy to me on Wednesday night, we knew this publication was going to turn out very well.  Blurb bound it beautifully, the colors are vivid and true, and Emma Rose’s layout looks just right on the actual printed page.  By the time I left for the Conference last Thursday, I had emailed each student artist an electronic copy of the pages devoted to his or her work so that we can have their input or corrections by the time we make our final edits and place the bulk order for 101 copies we will need to keep the price per copy a little lower.  Today we are having a lunch to celebrate this major step in the project, after which we will meet with an administrator who may have some ideas as to where we can apply for help with publication costs.

Cover of the sample copy of the Moby-Dick catalog

Cover of the sample copy of the Moby-Dick catalog

At lunch we will also celebrate Emma Rose’s first publication, the “Afterword” she wrote to my essay in the collection Moby-Dick: Critical Insights, edited by Robert C. Evans and published by the Salem Press division of Grey House Publishing.   This was a very efficient publication by academic standards; we had written our essay and afterword in the spring and already we each received our copy of the published book last week.  It will be a perfect complement to our Moby-Dick exhibition and catalog because my essay and her afterword both address what the title of my essay describes as “Teaching Melville and the Arts to Creative Students in a New Century.” I am delighted that our joint essay concludes the volume, so that Emma Rose, a college undergraduate in our new century, has the last word.  As Bob Evans writes in the introduction to the volume, this collection “ends, appropriately, with a focus on the future of Moby-Dick studies and on future students of Moby-Dick.”  I had chosen our local Bob Evans restaurant as the site for our celebratory lunch today without realizing, until Emma Rose pointed it out, that it shares the name of our editor.

New collection of essays published by Salem Press of Grey House Publishing, 2014

New collection of essays published by Salem Press of Grey House Publishing, 2014

Last week also featured two major developments involving the Moby-Dick exhibition and related events in April.  One came in a phone conversation with Gary Pilkington confirming that the Kenton County Public Library will be able to host our exhibition Moby Comes to Covington in April and May–as well as the Moby-Dick Marathon on April 25 and 26 and the reception the following day.  Their exhibition space, spread over three floors, will be the perfect venue for the variety and volume of Moby art we plan to show.  The large meeting room will be perfect for the Marathon Reading of the novel.  Emma Rose and I will be meeting with Gary toward the end of the month to start working out the logistics.  Because they have up-to-date video monitors, we will definitely be able to show the video art as well as the 2D and 3D works our students have created.  These include Ellen Hill’s thirteen-minute stop-frame animation film Moby Dick Untold, imagining the life of the white whale before, as well as after, he was attacked by Ahab.  Her work will be very popular with children in the library as well as adults who attend our events.

Two screen shots from Ellen Hill’s Moby Dick: Untold

Two screen shots from Ellen Hill’s Moby Dick: Untold

Our other good news on the program front came from Mark Niekurk, director of the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at NKU.  He confirmed that the Cincinnati Art Museum has agreed to host the kick-off event for our Moby weekend in April.  Our panel discussion on Moby-Dick in the Twenty-First Century will be held in the Museum’s auditorium on the evening of Friday, April 24.  The museum will remain open that night so that our guests can visit its galleries too.  The plan right now is for a 90-minute session featuring four panelists: Elizabeth Schultz, author of Unpaitned to the Last; Samuel Otter, editor of Leviathan; Matt Kish, artist and author of Moby-Dick in Pictures; and Emma Rose Thompson, co-curator and co-editor of our Moby exhibition and catalog.  I will moderate the panel and the questions that will come from the audience.  I can’t imagine a better way to start off the whole weekend, and I am greateful to Mark Niekurk and to Shannon Karol, Assistant Director of Interpretive Programming at the museum, for scheduling and confirming this event.

These exciting Moby-Dick developments last week were only the prelude to the grand finale, a production of Julian Rad’s theatrical adaptation of Melville’s novel by the KNOW Theatre of Cincinnati.  I had never seen Rad’s adaptation. All I knew in advance was that sea shanties were to be a big part of the KNOW Theatre production.  Because Emma Rose and I were getting in touch with a number of my Moby-Dick artist alums in connection with the exhibition and the catalog, I thought it might be fun to organize a group to see the show on its opening weekend.  We needed fifteen people for a group rate and we got twenty.

Fourteen of us arranged to have dinner before the performance at Zula, a restaurant across Washington Park from Music Hall in the newly gentrified Over-the-Rhine district of Cincinnati, which the theater had recommended.  Over-the-Rhine (O.T.R.) between Main and Elm Streets is now booming with new restaurants, renovated apartments, and rejuventated arts organizations, and the city is now building a new streetcar project that will connect Over-the-Rhine with comparable developments in the area called The Banks next to the Ohio River.  All of this progress, of course, has caused dramatic dislocations, along with some new opportunities, for the low-income minority and Appalachian residents of Over-the-Rhine through whose neighborhood my wife and I walked on our way from the parking garage on Twelfth and Vine to the restaurant on Fourteenth and Race.

Moby crew at "chef's table" at Zula on the evening of October 11

Moby crew at “chef’s table” at Zula on the evening of October 11

Our group of fourteen was just the right size for what they call the “chef’s table” at Zula.  My Moby students and alums at this dinner began, chronologically, with Steve McCafferty and his wife Renee, he being one my very first students when I began teaching at NKU in the early 1970s.  Abby Schlachter, a student in the now legendary “class that never ends” in 1996 and 1997, was here with her husband Jason Langdon.  Next to Abby was Carola Bell, a printmaker from my class during the Spring 2000 semester who now works as an assistant registrar at the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Anchoring the other side of the table was Camilla Asplen from my 2004 class, here with her husband Dan Mecher and Jude, their forthcoming son, expected in about three and a half weeks.  Emma Rose, her boyfriend Andrew, and her parents Diane and Tom completed our group.  The food and service were wonderful.  Zula specializes in mussels, so I ordered them as a main dish for the first time in my life.  (When I grew up north of Seattle on Puget Sound in the 1950s, mussels were black things growing on pilings that we never thought about eating.)  I ordered the Thai variety and Camilla made sure that I ordered bread to soak in the broth.  She recommended the roasted beet salad to go with it, which made for an entirely satisfying, and filling, meal.

KNOW Theatre, Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati

KNOW Theatre, Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati

We ate at 5:30 so we could get to the theater soon after seven to meet up with the rest of our party before the play began at 8.  Aaron Zlatkin from the 96-97 “class that never ends” was here with his wife Rachel.  Kathleen Piercefield from the 2004 Moby class was here with her husband John.  John Braden, a fiction writer from my 2004 class in Douglass and Melville was here with his friend Gina.  Rounding out oiur party was our South Seas expert on the faculty, Sharyn Jones, chair of Anthropology, who takes students to Fiji every summer.  This relaxed time in the lobby provided a good opportunity for various Moby artists to reunite with each other or meet for the first time—as well as to meet Emma Rose and see our sample copy of the catalog.  Shortly before the scheduled performance time, the usher opened the door and we walked up the metallic stairway (this is a repurposed brickwalled former industrial building) to the theatrical space seating around 100 persons.

Emma Rose Thompson and Kathleen Piercefield in the lobby of the Know Theatre

Emma Rose Thompson and Kathleen Piercefield in the lobby of the KNOW Theatre

You never know what you will get with a new adaptation of Moby-Dick.  Sometimes you are absolutely blown away, as I was by Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales in New York in 2001, and by Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera in Dallas in 2010.  Sometimes you are impressed mainly by the resourcefulness, as I was by Ellen Discoll’s Ahab’s Wife at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island in 1998 and an early version of Carl Adinolifi’s One-Man Moby-Dick a year later.  Sometimes a work that is underwhelming in one production (such as Orson Welles’ Moby Dick—Rehearsed at Hofstra University in 2001) makes a much stronger impression when produced in a different time and place (performances I saw by professionals at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati several years ago and by undergraduate Theater majors at NKU last fall). Julian Rad’s adaptation of Moby-Dick dates from the period of Rinde Eckert’s Great Whales in New York, as it was first workshopped as part of the Ice Factory Theater Festival there in 2002.  The KNOW production was the first time I had heard of this work or seen it performed.

Kayla Hardin’s newspaper collage from my Spring 2011 class exhibited in lobby of NKU’s Rose Stauss Theater

Kayla Hardin’s newspaper collage from my Spring 2011 class exhibited in lobby of NKU’s Rose Stauss Theater during the Fall 2012 production of Orson Welles’ Moby Dick–Rehearsed

Rad’s adaptation follows the trajectory of the novel from “Call me Ishmael” at the beginning to Ishmael’s survival after the loss of his shipmates at the end.  Its 13 roles are performed by 8 actors, all male.  This is a full-scale adaptation of the novel, lasting two hours plus intermission.  What makes it truly distinctive, for me, is the singing.  Rad had originally conceived of it as a “play with music,” and so it is.  The cast must have sung about a dozen sea shanties in the course of the performance, and they were all beautifully sung, often led by the voice of Jon Kovach, who played Peleg / Carpenter / Gardiner.  All the voices were clear and strong, and the harmonization by James Allen, an undergraduate student at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, was superb.  The songs were much more than a welcome break from the dramatic tension and complex language.  They buoyed and expressed the humanity of the crew in various moods, from the rollicking, beer-guzzling scene of Ishmael’s initiation into the Spouter-Inn to the shanty that literally stops the show as Ahab has raised his arm one last time to strike Moby Dick.

Drinking, singing sailors giving Ishmael a rough initiation at the Spouter-Inn

Drinking, singing sailors giving Ishmael a rough initiation at the Spouter-Inn

All physical action mementarily suspended as Ahab is about to strike, the united voices of the harmonized crew sound the end of their hearty lives now being lost to their captain’s obsession.  This poignant song, in the moment and in retrospect, made me think of the painting Chuck Rust presented as his final project in my Spring 2013 class.  Chuck was a History and Journalism major and he had never made a painting of any kind.  But he had always loved the Moby-Dick album Leviathan by his favorite band Mastadon..  His favorite song within that album is the 13-minute “Hearts Alive,” imagining the fate of the crew of the Pequod as they are sinking into oblivion, their beating hearts still alive as their drowning bodies “Descend to the bottom / Swim below eternally / Into the deep blue sea.”  Chuck made these sailors’ Hearts Alive the literal and symbolic subject of his painting in acrylic on canvas, the white whale’s tail gliding off to the right as the whale ship Rachel approaches the broken fragments of the Pequod to search for any survivors.


Chuck Rust, Hearts Alive, Moby-Dick and the Arts, Spring Semester 2013. Photo Emily Wiethorn.

I thought all of the characters in this production performed their roles well.  The directors and the entire cast did a splendid job, with a minimalist set, of taking us through the entire voyage with them.  This is not the place for commentary on the entire production, but one of its signature gestures was the casting of Rico Reid, a black actor and a “self-proclaimed late bloomer” who had served in the U. S. Army, as Captain Ahab.  Reid’s portrayal of Ahab was itself late-blooming, not the mesmerizing, oratorical, over-the-top Ahab some actors play from the getgo, but one plagued by the “subterranean miner” that Melville’s novel sees as operating potentially in us all, working away quietly and out of sight until it eats into us with a strength capable of destroying us—and those around us.

Reid’s performance was riveting in the end.  In combination with Montez Jenkins’ smooth, limber Queequeg, it also gave the production a connection with the African American life just outside the door through which my wife and I, dressed for a night on the town, had walked on our way from the parking garage to the restaurant.  In the play, when Queequeg enters his room in the Spouter-Inn and sees a white stranger in his bed, a frightened Ishmael rises and cries for help just from the sight of him.  When Queequeq quickly grabs him from behind around the neck to restrain him, Ishmael feels a fear such as may have been felt by some of the white patrons who had walked along certain streets of the gentrifying Over-the-Rhine on the way to the theater.  Melville’s works are all about cross-racial understanding, in this case soon to be embodied by a quickening friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg.  But Melville is always honest, too, about the obstacles to be overcome, often in the hearts and minds of a white protagonist.  I admired that Andrewe Hungerford and Michael Burnham, co-directors of the production, seemed well attuned to such issues in both our own century and that of the show.

I knew I would want some photos of my Moby reunion crew, but I also knew that the lobby of theater is not brightly lighted, so the theater staff had kindly agreed to keep the stage lights on long enough after the performances for us to take a group photograph.

moby know group 9

NKU Moby-Dick student artists and alums on the KNOW Theatre stage. Photo by Sharyn Jones.

The whole evening turned out well, and was indeed a fitting climax to a very exciting week.

Frederick Douglass and the “Warm Facts” of History

Entry begun at Hampton Inn, near the Indianapolis airport, Friday, October 10, 8:15 am

Just last week I learned about a conference on Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis).  This urban campus is the editorial home of the Frederick Douglass Papers and it is a two-hour drive from my home in northern Kentucky.  I had spent much of last week revising the 1852 chapter of the book I am writing on Frederick Douglass in Cincinnati in the 1850s, and had been thinking hard about how The Heroic Slave, which Douglass wrote toward the end of 1852, related to events earlier in that year.  The two keynoters at the conference, Bob Levine of the University of Maryland and John Stauffer of Harvard University, were colleagues I had worked with in planning the international conference on Douglass and Melville we held in New Bedford in 2005, and I greatly admire the work each has done since, which has richly informed the book I am writing now.

Douglass’s signature at the end of The Heroic Slave in Autographs for Freedom, 1853

Douglass’s signature at the end of The Heroic Slave in Autographs for Freedom, 1853

The occasion of this conference is a scholarly edition of The Heroic Slave that Levine and Stauffer are co-editing with John McKivigan, editor-in-chief of the Frederick Douglass Papers.  All of the speakers at this two-day conference are addressing The Heroic Slave, Douglass’s only work of fiction, which until recent decades had been completely ignored.  Yesterday was a very stimulating day, and I would like to write about it now, but I have just eaten breakfast and I have to find a gas station before driving to the site of the conference today, which is not on the downtown campus.  I hope my driving is better than in was in the pitch dark last night, when I made several wrong turns onto the wrong forks of quickly merging interstates in search of my hotel and was only able to find it with the help of three different strangers at least seven miles apart from each other.

Entry continued at Bob Evans restaurant off I-74, Harrison, Ohio, October 10, 4:30 pm

Today the travel went better.  I filled the gas tank and took a network of roads across northern Indianapolis to 3333 N. Illinois Street—which, however, did not look like the site of an academic conference.  The entrance I was looking for was in fact not the one numbered 3333 but farther back in an adjacent industrial-looking lot to the north.  The Jewel Center is a small, intimate event center run by Cynthia Bates, who beautifully hosted the head table of scholars and a room of more than a hundred high school students, among whom I sat, most of them from Cathedral High School.  How appropriate that the second day of the conference on The Heroic Slave was out in the community rather than in an academic setting.   Douglass would I am sure have appreciated the location, the audience, and the purpose of this meeting hosted by a black female entrepreneur.  And could he have imagined, when he died in 1895, one hundred and twenty one years ago, that his complete written works would be in the process of being published by Yale University Press through the editorial work of IUPUI in Indianapolis, about twenty miles from the town of Pendleton, Indiana, where had had been attacked on the lecture podium in 1843, so viciously that bones in one hand remained fractured for the rest of his life?

When I arrived around 9:30 this morning “Jack” McKivigan was in the process of giving this room full of high school students an overview of Douglass’s life followed by an account of the process by which the documents within the Frederick Douglass Papers project were being discovered, selected, transcribed, edited, and published.  These students, equally split in gender and notably diverse in race, were impressively attentive.  Jack’s opening presentation was followed by two hour-long panels.  One featured three historians we had heard the day before, this time discussing the subject of slave revolts.  The other featured three literary scholars we had heard the day before, this time discussing the place of The Heroic Slave in the context of pre-Civil War American literature.

John McKivigan addressing high school students at The Jewel Center, October 10, 2014

Jack McKivigan addressing high school students at The Jewel Center, October 10, 2014

After each group of speakers, there was plenty of time for questions from the audience, and several of these were most challenging–especially as they addressed the question of how the subject of slave revolts, for so long suppressed in the study and teaching of American history, related to the issue of violence within the black community today.  These questions from students and from black community members who were present were different in kind and spirit from those that academics usually receive, and McKivingan and the panelists responded to them for the most part extremely well.

The keynote address by V. P. Franklin followed a stirring invocation to social action by Apostle David A. Scott, Sr., Visionary Founder of the African American Restoration Movement in Indianapolis.  Franklin, currently at the University of California—Riverside, is editor of the Journal of African American History.  His address, like many by Douglass himself, was both autobiographical and community-oriented.  Franklin presented an overview of his own life as a black academic, beginning with his having led student protests over the lack of racial diversity in the student body at Pennsylvania State University in the 1960s.  Both within academia and in encounters with the outside world (including one with the Governor of the state of Arizona), Franklin showed how many of the issues that Douglass battled in the era of slavery are still with us today in ways students can still devote themselves to fighting in their own lives.  It was a deeply engaging speech, not only for the students in the audience, but for the academics as well as community members who were present.

I am so glad I came to this conference.  In addition to Bob Levine, John Stauffer, and Jack McKivigan, I met many others I had known before or am happy to know now.  Another of yesterday’s speakers was Ivy Wilson, with whom I had co-edited the June 2008 special issue of the journal Leviathan devoted to Douglass and Melville .  As soon as I arrived at the conference, Bob Levine had introduced me to Celeste-Marie Bernier, a scholar from England currently in Memphis who has written about Douglass’s life and legacy in ways deeply compatible with my own research.  The first speaker yesterday was historian Stanley Harrold, whose biography of Gemaliel Bailey I had been studying this week.  I was also happy to meet Jane Schultz, a nineteenth-century literature scholar at IUPUI who was very impressed with the catalog of Moby-Dick art that Emma Rose and I are putting together for our exhibition in Covington in April.  Emma Rose had gotten our two proofs in the mail after our meeting on Wednesday afternoon, and she had brought one over to my home that evening so I could bring it with me Indianapolis yesterday morning.  A number of people were impressed with the Moby catalog, and Jane is hoping to come with one of her colleagues to the Emily Dickinson exhibition and Marathon Reading in February.

During a break in the Saturday morning session (from left): historian Diane Barnes; literary scholars  Celeste-Marie Bernier, Jane Schultz, and Bob Levine; and Apostle David A. Scott, Sr.

During a break on Saturday morning (from left): historian Diane Barnes; literary scholars Celeste-Marie Bernier, Jane Schultz, and Bob Levine; and Apostle David A. Scott, Sr.

To have all this sustained talk about The Heroic Slave, either in academia or out in the community, would have been unheard of thirty years ago.  I have long been grateful to the Frederick Douglass Papers project for their editorial work; I am now equally grateful for the opportunity to be with historians and literary scholars who have been investigating Douglass and his work at the same time that I am so deeply involved in my own Douglass project.  I love this project, but life at the writing desk does get lonely at times.  I have many thoughts and feelings from these two days that will stay with me for some time to come.

One of my favorite moments involving Douglass himself in 1852 came soon after the Anti-Slavery Conference in Cincinnati in late April in which he had addressed the audience five times in three days and written most of the resolutions that were discussed and passed.  In the “Jaunt to Cincinnati” he published two weeks later in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, he apologized to his readers for not having been able to “provide letters fresh from the stirring scene” as it was actually happening.  Douglass explains that “I make myself entirely too much of the proceedings of an anti-slavery meeting, and have feelings too deeply excited, to attend to the cold drudgery of penmanship.  He who can coolly sit down in such meetings, sharpen his quill, unscrew his ink, and unfold his paper-case, to write out the proceedings of such an occasion, has a power of refrigeration which I do not possess.  I can write resolutions, addresses, or what not, for the use of a Convention; but to write down the warm facts of its history, when they come glowing from brave hearts all around me, I can’t do it.”

In spite of this disclaimer, Frederick Douglass did give us the “warm facts” of history with perhaps more immediacy than any other public figure of his age.  He did this in speeches day after day, in his newspaper week after week, and in the letters, essays, autobiographies, and fiction that the Frederick Douglass Papers in Indianapolis continue to bring out in volume after volume.  The life of Frederick Douglass in the 1850s was the closest thing we had, then, to a living blog.

Songs and more Songs

Entry begun in my NKU office, Friday, October 3, 3 pm

Last night I got a glimpse of what awaits us in February.  I heard the voice we will hear in the song recital that will anchor our Emily Dickinson Valentine’s Festival.  I heard Kimberly Gelbwasser sing four songs that Andre Previn set to poems by Toni Morrison and scored for soprano, cello, and piano.  The four songs concluded a concert in which the Corbett Trio, artists in residence at NKU, made music with selected guest artists   Cellist Amy Gillingham recruited KimberlyGelbwasser and Elena Kholodova to join her in the Previn set of Morrison songs, and the emotion they created was felt throughout our Greaves Concert Hall.

kimberly coming onstage oct 2 no 2

Kimberly Gelbwasser, Amy Gillingham, and Elena Kholodova on stage to perform Andre Previn’s four Toni Morrison Songs

Kimberly, dressed in black, conveyed the consciousness of the poems before she sang a note.  Her focus was inward, not on the audience, though she later told me she was aware of who was there.  The four Morrison poems—“Mercy,” “Stones,” “Shelter,” and “The Lacemaker”—were written specifically for the project with Previn.  They are lacking in narrative line, overloaded with floating, probing emotion.  Kimberly sang each from the inside out, creating strength and beauty from a crucible of pain, deeply enhanced by the vigorous, expressive playing of Amy and Elena.  The voice has much to do in all four of these songs, but the cello and piano add to the musical narrative in episodes between the vocal moments.  Kimberly’s voice is emotive in a soulful, unshowy way.  She brought the most out of each of the four songs, and I can’t wait to hear her sing the Dickinson songs by Heggie and Copland in February.

A highly energized audience stayed to great the artists in the lobby after the performance.  These included a lot of young school kids who are part of the Corbett Trio’s outreach initiative.  (Amy’s colleagues in the Corbett Trio are Frank Retesan, violin, and Holly Attar, viola.)  For several decades we had no true concert hall on this campus—and very few programs for training young musicians in the schools.  This year, with the three members of the Corbett Trio joined by soprano Kimberly Gelbwasser and tenor Jason Vest on our music faculty, the future of the department, and of music throughout northern Kentucky, looks stronger than ever.  One of the excited people waiting to greet Kimberly in the lobby was Kris Yohe, a Toni Morrison scholar in our English department.  I was sitting between her and Jason Vest as Kimberly sang and it was a beautiful thing to feel how deeply all three of us were responding to each of the four songs.

Kimberly Gelbwasser and Kris Yohe in the lobby after the concert

Kimberly Gelbwasser and Kris Yohe in the lobby after the concert

One delightful surprise last night was seeing my literature student Matt Ruiz in line right behind me was I as buying my ticket.  When I asked why he came, he introduced me to his girlfriend Taylor, whom I had not met before.  She is a soprano and a student with Jason Vest.  She is a senior and will be singing a recital here in Greaves Hall on Monday, November 3.  It just so happens that two of the songs she will sing are from Aaron Copland’s Dickinson cycle.  This will be a fine prelude to Kimberly singing the entire Copland set in the same hall in February.  Matt will himself be in the spotlight in February, as he is one of my Emily Dickinson students whose art will be on display in the exhibition that is the occasion for the February concert.  He is one of the few literature students who will also have a work in the Moby-Dick exhibition in Covington in April.  As we awaited last night’s concert, Matt and Taylor let me take a photo of them in their seats, which in itself is a fine anticipation of  Valentine’s.

Taylor and Matt and the Corbett Trio concerto on October 2, 2014

Taylor Ross and Matt Ruiz at the Corbett Trio concerto on October 2, 2014

It’s hard to top last night for one great moment after another, but we had some good ones at lunch today too.  Doug Pew is a composer at NKU who got wind of the Dickinson concert planned for February.  He asked if there would be room in the program for him to compose some new Dickinson songs, and Kimberly and Ingrid loved the idea, so today Doug and Kimberly and I had lunch to discuss this, joined by tenor Jason Vest.

I love talking with musicians—especially when all three are as personable and capable as these.  Doug had been doing his homework for a few days since the idea had been approved, consulting with his librettist in Poland as well as exploring things locally and online.  He had found Johnson’s edition of Dickinson’s Complete Poems for a ridiculously cheap price on Kindle, and had already cruised through the 1775 poems to see which appealed the most.  He came to our lunch with an “A” list, a “B” list, and a “C” list, all of which sounded good to me.  He seemed equally drawn to the erotic, the landscape, and the religious poems.  If he has time, he would like to write a song cycle to balance out those by Heggie and Copland on the program.

No more than one hour after our lunch, Doug sent Kimberly and me a list of six poems he would like to try to set, beginning with “My River runs to thee” (J 162) and “The Mountain sat upon the Plain” (J 975).  How wonderful to think of another musician giving voice and accompaniment to these and other Dickinson poems, premiered by Kimberly and Ingrid, two musicians I have met for the first time this year!  Who says that life can’t start at 70!  I guess that goes back to the Dickinson quote in which Heggie found the title for the Dickinson cycle Kimberly will be singing in February, “We turn not older with the years, but newer every day.”  This quote is from a letter Dickinson wrote to Louisa Norcross in 1872, and it is preceded by this statement: “Affection is like bread, unnoticed till we starve, and then we dream of it, and sing of it, and paint it” (Johnson, Letter 379).

Yesterday as I was getting ready to upload this entry into the blog, I got another fine Dickinson surprise.  Brian Morris was a student in my Dickinson and James class in 2005.  I had lost touch with him but I was trying to find him to tell him about the upcoming exhibition and related activities in February.  It turns out he was right here on campus, finishing his last year of law school as editor-in-chief of the Chase Law Review.  We met in my office yesterday and he was reunited with his wonderful artwork from the classroom nine years ago.  Brian’s I cannot see my soul but know ’tis there represents the famous daguerreotype of Dickinson in the white space he left untouched on the sheet of paper on which he had copied out, in a tiny hand in colored pencil, his favorite Dickinson poems.

Brian Morris with his tribute to Dickinson, I cannot see my soul but know tis there,

Brian Morris with his tribute to Dickinson, I cannot see my soul but know ’tis there,