Looking Ahead

Entry begun Saturday, March 21, 9:30 pm

Spring Break this semester ran from Monday, March 9, through Saturday, March 14, so I had scheduled my second cataract surgery, this one on my “good” left eye, for Wednesday, March 11.  The surgery on my right eye, on February 19, had gone well, so I was hoping this one would be the same.  I knew what to expect this time, and my surgeon, Jean Noll, again did an excellent job.  This time I was used to the sound that in February had reminded me of Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz when I died.”  I had learned that this buzzing sound is made by the sound waves that break up the cataract before the new lens is slipped in.  I had a patch over my left eye for a day after the surgery, but after that I could resume my normal pattern of reading and writing, as long as I rested some.

That cataract surgery is quite an out-of-body experience.  They give you something that leaves you awake enough to talk but relaxed enough to “feel no pain.”  The anesthesiologist said it was the drug they gave to Michael Jackson but at a much lower dose.  Once you are alert in the operating room you can see, but you don’t know what you are seeing.  I saw a bright white field with irregularly spaced abstract marks that seem to float like lines in an etching.  You are visually in this alternate reality at the same time that you hear with your ears and speak with your tongue just as you normally might.  This experience reminded me of the unforgettable phrase with which Dickinson ends the poem that begins with the sound of the buzzing fly: “I could not see to see—” (J 465).  Did she experience something like this when being treated for an eye condition in Boston during a long residence in 1864?

I was brought back into my own body during this most recent surgery when I saw a beautiful, transparent disc slide into the undifferentiated white field.  This was my new lens, indicating that the operation was nearly over.  It entered my vision as “Soundless as dots—on a Disc of Snow” (J 216).  But its unmistakable shape broke a surreal spell that puts me in mind, now, of another Dickinson poem,one of Lesley Dill’s favorites,  “Banish Air from Air—Divide Light if you Dare” (J. 854).

Emma Rose had flown to Italy for an art-historical tour of Rome and Florence during Spring Break.  We had inscribed a few of the catalogs before she left, but we needed to inscribe all the rest soon after she returned.  So I spent quite a bit of my break writing my inscriptions to each of the 53 student artists in the show.  It was a pleasure to reconnect with each student in this way—especially in a catalog that was so beautifully designed and produced.  Because the entire catalog was printed on black paper (Chris Casey had taught Emma Rose the ideal proportion of black to blue in the mix of the ink), we wrote our inscriptions with silver Sharpies, filling the top and bottom of the page whose only printed text was “Twenty Years of Moby-Dick Art by NKU Students.”

Sample inscriptions in Moby catalog

Sample inscriptions in Moby catalog

The sample page seen here is to Caitlin Sparks from the Spring 2011 class.  She has agreed to be one of the panelists for our session on “Creating Moby-Dick Art” in the April 27 Symposium.  I met Caitlin and walked through the exhibition space in the Covington library last week.  She haed some excellent ideas about how we might exhibit her three photo projects from the course—the four Ahab photos in recycled window frames, the three Whiteness photos in a window transom, and the three White Whale photos in ndividual frames.

Two Ahab photos by Caitlin Sparks in one recycled window frame

Two Ahab photos by Caitlin Sparks in one recycled window frame

Just before Emma Rose left for Italy, we had decided which student artists to invite to join our guest speakers as panelists in the artistic and pedagogical sessions on April 27.  It was great to get in touch with each of them—as well as with those students who live so far away I will have to send them a catalog rather than giving it to them in person.  When Emma Rose got back it town, she wrote her inscriptions, in stages, on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of this week.  Now we have the whole set ready to hand out or send out to each student artist.  With that done, I will now be able send a collective email to the whole group inviting them to the kick-off event at the Cincinnati Art Museum on April 24, the Marathon Reading in the exhibition space at the Covington Public Library on April 25 and 26, the Symposium at NKU on April 27, and the Reception that evening honoring the guest speakers and student artists, back in the exhibition space in Covington.

Doubly inscribed catalogs, ready to hand or to send to student artists

Doubly inscribed catalogs, ready to hand or to send to student artists

On Thursday of this week we scheduled the whole day at the Covington Public Library so we could begin to figure out how to actually install the exhibition.  We met with Gary Pilkington, who is coordinating the exhibition and the Marathon weekend for us, shortly after 9.  We confirmed with him that the exhibition will open on April 17 and close on May 15.  Emma Rose would like to begin the actual installation on Monday, March 30, which Gary said would be fine.  After discussing such issues as storage space, publicity, caterers, and logistics for the Marathon weekend, Gary took us to meet the supervisors on each of the three floors: local history on the third floor, the children’s space on the first floor, the main circulation area in between.  We will need the approval of each floor supervisor for our proposed installation in his or her area, with Gary overseeing our work in the three-story stairwell.

shadow on brick 3 9-20

This was exactly the meeting we needed at this point in our planning, and everyone we met was extremely accommodating.  We spent the rest of the day laying out our dream arrangement for where the hundred-plus artworks would ideally be placed.  I had typed out a six-page list of the entire range of works by relative size and media, and we had the exact dimensions of each work in the catalog, so we were now free to brainstorm,  After thinking through the ideal placements for the various 3-D and oversize works, we began to organize the medium-size 2-D works according to subject.  These grouped themselves into Ahab, the whale, Queequeg and other crew members, seascapes, and a very fluid category we called “personal responses” to the novel.

We were at a table in the Local History section on the third floor as we did this planning, and it was exciting to see how many works in varying sizes and media this room alone would be able to accommodate, beginning with all three of Caitlin’s photographic sequences.  One of Emma Rose’s first suggestions was to display Caitlin’s four-photo Ahab sequence on either side of the large window facing north at the far end of the room (where the recycled window frames holding her photos would play off against the window frames in this room as well as those in the buildings across the street—and where the soft pink of Caitlin’s figurative shapes would play against the brick façades of the same buildings).

north window across to brick wall

We could have spent the whole afternoon assigning as many works as we could to each of the floors, but we still had a lot of catalogs to inscribe, so after we gave some good thought to what might best go where in the three-story stairwell, we left the rest of our specific exhibition planning until we would return on Thursday of next week.

Thursday was a very intense but satisfying day, leaving us both with the feeling that this building will be able to accommodate most if not all of the hundred-plus objects in our show.  In fact, we were both feeling now that having the whole show here will be better than if we had been allowed to install some of it in the “gallery” of the nearby Gateway building.  This public library does not have any of the white-walled rectangular exhibition spaces you normally find in a museum or a gallery.  But it does have a great variety of stack fronts, slatted walls, pillar mounts, cabinet tops, and stairwells fixtures that we can bring into play with plastic mounts, portable easels, table-top supports, and suspended fishlines to create a joyous kind of cetacean Easter-egg hunt throughout the building, with gems appearing in places where you might not expect them.

Some potential display spaces in Local History room

Some potential display spaces in Local History room

I think Melville would love that we are mounting this show in a public library.  Early in 1850 he began writing Moby-Dick in the New York Society Library, a long walk down Broadway from the overcrowded household in which he, his wife, their baby, and other members of their very extended family were living.  This library in Covington has been very heavily used every time we have visited, and some of its users appear to be as down on their luck as Melville had been when had signed onto a whale ship in 1840.  Moby-Dick has been widely taught in colleges and universities since the mid-twentieth century, but its deepest ethos is expressed in Ishmael’s declaration that “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard” (chapter 24, “The Advocate”).   Two chapters later, Ishmael pledges himself to “that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself.”  For that reason Ishmael will “ascribe high qualities . . . to meanest mariners, and renegades, and castaways”‘ in the name of “thou just Spirit of Equality, which has spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind!”  (“Knights and Squires”).

Heavy usage on a sunny Sunday afternoon

Heavy usage on a sunny Sunday afternoon

It will be very interesting to see if Melville’s deepest layer of aspiration in writing Moby-Dick carries over in any significant way to the everyday patrons of the inner-city library that will be housing, for one month, art works by college kids who were inspired by the book to try to make it their—and our—own.


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