Entry begun Monday, March 30, at 5:00 am
Emma Rose and I are planning to begin our installation of the Moby show in Covington at 12:30 today. So this is a good chance to revisit some of last week’s work before this week begins. When I woke up with thoughts in my head just now, I thought my watch said 6:00, so I decided to get this entry started before the alarm rang at 6:15. Now that I am online, I see that it is 5, not 6 am, so I will keep this beginning short and sleep a little more.
In chapter 47, “The Mat-Maker,” Ishmael is helping to weave a “sword mat,” a “lashing” that will help cushion the Pequod against blows from foreign objects. As he handles his part of the job, he feels “as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration . . . . This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; . . . . this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof ; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance—aye, chance, free will, and necessity—no wise incompatible—all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from in its ultimate course . . . ; free will still free to ply her shuttle between the given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sidewise in its motions directed by free will, though thus proscribed by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.”
So it is with Emma Rose and me weaving this show. Our 105 artworks by 53 students are our “fixed threads.” Last Thursday, as we finished our first projections for laying out the entire show within the three floors of this library and its stairwell, I was plying my shuttle though our fixed threads as she continued to shape the weave with her own sword, the “final fabric” as we projected it last week now subject this week to the interweaving motions of chance and free will as we begin today to actually install the show.
Last Monday afternoon, I met Abby Schlachter Langdon at the Honors House at 12:30 so she could repair Queequeg in her Coffin II, the inscribed body cast she had created in 1997 for our joint exhibition with students of Robert McCauley in Rockford, Illinois. Moby artist Robert Del Tredici had become owner of the work, and last year, contemplating a move from his home in Montreal, donated it to our Honors House for the benefit of future students. We had originally installed it high over the stairway to the basement near the entrance of the house. A few weeks ago we moved it down closer to the stairs in anticipation of its going to Covington for the exhibition, and at this point it became evident that its left foot would require some surgery to repair the gash that had been made in its ankle so in could fit into the box in which it flew from Canada. I was grateful that Abby could come out, tools in hand, to fix the foot before this plaster shell from her younger body is taken down the hill and across the river to Covington for the show.
After looking at the cut, Abby took her cast off the wall and carried it to room 111, which we had reserved for the early afternoon. She laid the cast on a piece of plastic and unpacked the repair kit she had brought with her. To fix the foot, she turned the body face down on the plastic, revealing a much stronger superstructure than she had remembered giving to it. She filled a bucket with water and dipped plaster patches into it before gently layering them over the area of the wound. Left to dry overnight, the cast would be ready to hang again the next morning.
After Abby had finished the repairs, we both spent some time reading the inscriptions with which she had covered the entire cast eighteen years ago. They remain completely legible. She had forgotten much of what she had written then. She said, “I really had some strong opinions, then. And I still do!” As we walked over to the café in Steely library, she brought me up to date with the lives of her son Brody and her daughter Kalli. And she discussed two new Moby-Dick works she would like to create for a show I am hoping to mount in Cincinnati in 2016. One is a floating White Whale about five feet in length. Another is a white sheet onto which she would transfer a likeness of her current form, collaged over with warrior tattoos from Polynesian cultures. She is right now participating in a project sponsored by Art Works in Cincinnati which she will be one of dozens of individuals tattooed with related texts, so that they will communally become one “living parchment.”
After chatting with Abby at the cafe, I walked down one floor in the library for a 3 pm meeting with the students who had helped run the Dickinson Marathon in February. We were meeting now in the Dickinson exhibition space to plan how we would organize the Moby Marathon in April. This Marathon will take 24 rather than 15 hours, so we will require the equivalent of six four-hour shifts of two people each. I was grateful that three of my Dickinson stalwarts—Matt Ruiz, Rebecca Hudgins, and Megan Beckerich—could make this meeting. Matt has recently gotten a job at the Cincinnati Zoo at which he will be working on Saturday and Sunday, April 25 and 26, but he volunteered to work an evening shift from 5:30 to 9 each day. Rebecca and Megan volunteered for their shifts and expect to find friends to help them. Kaitlin Mills from Loch Norse and Minadora Macheret from the Associated Graduate Students of English had not been able to make the meeting, but they will be helping out, as will Bob Durborow from Sigma Tau Delta. We will have one more meeting of this student planning group, that one in the exhibition space in Covington after the show is mostly installed.
Right after the meeting with the students in the library I had an appointment in my office with students from The Northerner, our campus newspaper. They are holding a contest this semester in which readers will choose the most unusual office on campus, and they have chosen mine as one of the candidates. Managing editor Carrie Crozier had come by a week before to ask my permission, and today she came with videographer Lindsay Rudd and web editor Kody Kahle to interview me and take some photographs and video. I was surprised that they ran the story, with photographs, only two days later. I was even more surprised, when the online version was posted at the end of the week, to see a 360-degree panorama of the books and artworks in my office. You can see them here: http://thenortherner.com/multimedia/top-offices/week7/index.html
One of the still photos in the online version shows a wide-angle view of the office that I am unable to get with my I-phone camera. It shows Emily Hyberger’s Kedger Piece on a bookshelf and works by Kathleen Piercefield, Jessica Wimsatt, Abby Schlachter, Amanda Monds, Laura Bird, Aaron Zlatkin, Kayla Hardin, and Nancy Vagedes at the far end of the room.
Last Tuesday afternoon I met with Emma Rose as usual from 2 to 3. I then took the copy of Kathleen Piercefield’s map of the Voyage of the Pequod from the Dean’s office over to the Fine Arts Gallery, where gallery director David Knight has volunteered to re-secure it to the backing from which the print has slipped a bit. Paintings, prints, and sculptures can be timeless in their spiritual aspiration, but their physical bodies, like our own, need treatment and care.
On Wednesday I met with John Carmen, a young assistant professor in the Biology department who has invited me to discuss last summer’s whale ship voyage as part of a lecture on Melville and Science in April 7. It was great to meet with him, to learn about the students most likely to attend this monthly seminar series, and to ask him about which elements of Melville’s interest in science are likely to interest my audience. John did not think that any of the students are likely to have read Moby-Dick—nor are they likely to know that today the book is highly appreciated for its ecological vision. It was great to be able to discuss with John some of the differences between “natural science” and “cetology,” as Melville understood these terms, and to indicate some of the ways in which our Moby-Dick art exhibition, Marathon Reading, and Symposium will be addressing contemporary ecological issues.
Last Thursday was the day Emma Rose and I met in Covington to plot out the rest of the exhibition. We had solidified our ideas for the third floor and the stairwell the previous week; on this day we focused on the main floor, beginning with the display case just beyond the reception desk. It was obvious that in this case we would want the ceramic works by Danielle Wallace and Nancy Vagedes, the sculpted head of Ahab by Landon Jones, and the finger puppets by Sarah Eichelberger. We also selected a variety of small 2-D works that would fit nicely in this case and interact well with the 3-D pieces.
Our next area to discuss was the long horizontal space above the bookcases to the right of the display case. We very quickly came up with our wish list for this prominent space, one of the few in the library that lends itself so naturally to an art exhibition. We agreed right away to devote this space to large, striking images of the whale. After measuring the space, we decided to begin with Kathleen Piercefield’s Moby Dick at the far left and follow with Steven Wheeler’s The Worsting of Ahab, Piercefield’s From the Headwaters of the Eternities, Veronica Mitchell’s The Third Day # 2, and Cara Dyne’s Three Perspectives on the White Whale. After we had projected this sequence, Emma Rose noted that Piercefield’s and Dyne’s white whales would be swimming off the wall at either end in opposite directions, with Piercefield’s sperm-whale eye in the center anchoring the whole. It was as if the works themselves had decided where to go.
We turned next to perhaps the most inviting wall space in the entire building, just outside the door into the back of the meeting room in which we will be holding the Marathon. This space measures 82 x 152 inches, so we estimated we could probably fit four medium-size pieces in two horizontal rows for a total of eight. We determined together which of the eight remaining pieces would be strongest for this particular space We then worked out our separate ideas for how to mount those eight in this space. Our ideas are often very compatible, but in this case they differed entirely. I projected the eight in two sequences of four, trying also to get some interplay between the upper and lower levels. Emma Rose projected hers as a counterclockwise whole, with room for a ninth piece, Piercefield’s Pip: Surrender, linking the top and bottom at the far right. As soon as she proposed this holistic design, I adopted it.
Our last major display area on the main floor would be the stack fronts at the far end of the room. Eleven stacks march across the room from left to right in groups of four, four, two, and one. The upper sections of each would lend themselves nicely to sequencing of relatively light, medium-sized work. Emma Rose proposed a thematic sequence running from Aaron Zlatkin’s Spouter-Inn Painting at the far left to Robert Raper’s Court of Inquiry . . . into the Wreck of the Pequod at the far right—with depictions of various characters and scenes in between. All of these projected plans will be fun to test out once we start the actual installation this afternoon.
I have not yet mentioned the first space visitors will see on the main floor. Right inside the entrance we will be able to suspend quilts from the balcony overhead. The only quilts for this particular show are by Laura Beth Thrasher, but there are plenty to choose from. Her magnificent Moby-Dick quilt, 54 x 62 inches, will be a major part of this hang. So will the Call Me Ishmael I currently have on loan from my former student Ellen Bayer. Laura Beth is willing to loan three others she made at the time of my course (Ahab, Epilogue, and The Whiteness of the Whale) as well as two others she has made since (Ahab 2 and Roots). I met her this weekend at a local bookstore, after which I was able to spread out the five quilts she had brought me on my living room floor. Behind them I placed the painting I harvested on the way home from the bookstore, Shawn Buckenmeyer’s I & Q, depicting Ishmael and Queequeg as female. Shawn’s painting was generously loaned by her friend Chuck Heffner, who would now be her husband were it not for her sudden, inexplicable death one year ago (see my tribute to Shawn in the blog inspired by my voyage on the Charles W. Morgan).
Other significant Moby-related activities were going on during this week of preparation for the Covington installation. Steven Matijcio was gathering information and images from Matt Kish and Robert Del Tredici for the announcement he would soon be making about their joint Moby show at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center from April to August 2016. Matt sent Steven several recent drawings of whales I had not previously seen as a foretaste of the drawings of whales in Melville’s “Cetology” chapter he plans to create for CAC in 2016. Bob sent images of two of his most recent “metallic” prints. What a wonderful contrast it will be to see these two artists’ most recent works in the context of each one’s earliest obsessive immersion in the world of Melville.
During this same week I heard from two Moby-Dick artists who had received our Moby catalog. Robert McCauley in Mount Vernon, Washington, was moved by all the work that had been created since the joint student exhibition we had called the Landlocked Gam in 1997. “Beautiful,” he wrote of the catalog. Then he became metaphorical. “It’s the straw inside the scarecrow, the worms that fill the bait box, the gray matter between the ear buds. In short, it’s the most relevant example of true Liberal Arts.” In a follow-up email, Robert said he is about ready to start a new painting that I am very eager to see: “a sperm whale (white) fighting one of our giant Pacific octopus (red).”
Robert Del Tredici began his message from Montreal by saying “I have received with great joy yours and Emma’s quirky transcendent Book of Whales, a tremendous opus. . . . The book has been laid out beautifully. The method is perfect: portrait, quotes, artwork. Congratulations to Emma for finding exactly the right approach. . . . Under your tutelage, those wobbly kids jumped right into the spirit of the endeavor the same way I did! What the hell is it about this book that ignites the interlinked passions and visualizations of its readers? There is a cosmic principle at work in this. Whatever it is, it fuelled Melville mightily and buzz-saws its way right through readers too . . . it affects everyone.”
Bob followed these general comments with these quick, probing responses to “works from the book that right off caught my eye. Rob Detmering’s 3 great abstractions, so genuine: these and 49 more, including the Joker, should be an entire deck of cards! Amanda Monds’ Queegqueg Suddenly Rallied: truly a leap outside the text and into reality, this eyeball-to-socket encounter with Big Mister D makes the viewer rally too. Clara Dyne’s 3 perspectives on the whale — such a Great visual idea, and that perfect expression on the whale’s face; this is rare. Ben de Angelis’ computer imagery: bold as a Pepsi Cola ad, it cuts right into the commercial visualization realm, with soul. Chuck Rust’s Heart-Throb in the Deep: what an image–crudely done, but no matter: it is a true addition to the iconography of Moby Dick. A stunning conception. Landon Jones’ Iron Crown: the Face of Ahab in this sculpture is worthy of Rodin. Uplifting, hopeless, all-pervasive. There are many more good ones besides these; these are just the ones that grabbed me by the lapels and shook me by my collar-bones.”
For a teacher, it is wonderful, and rare, to receive such appreciation for what students have done. Many of the works Bob mentions have already appeared in this blog. All of them will soon be on display in Covington. I have just now got back from our first installation day. Rob Detmering’s “great abstractions,” his sequence of pasteboard masks entitled Peppermint Ahab, Polka Dick, and Cobweb Ishmael, are currently sitting on the top shelf of the main display case with Danielle Wallace’s Moby-Dick Tea Set II.
I saw two more of my local Moby artists here in Greater Cincinnati this weekend. On Friday night, Caitlin Sparks, with her artist partner Jay Gray, opened their first major Cincinnati show in the Weston Art Gallery at the Aronoff Center. As part of a group exhibition entitled Too Shallow for Diving: The Weight of Water, Caitlin and Jay created a multichannel video and audio installation exploring the effects of the multimillion-dollar Lick Run Watershed project along the Queen City Avenue corridor upon the residents of the Fairmont neightborhood of Cincinnati. Having known Jay since he was a student in my English 291 course in writing about the arts, and Caitlin since she was a student in my Honors course in Moby and the Arts, it is wonderful to see what they are achieving together in the artist collaborative they are calling Numediacy. The opening night of their show was mesmerizing in both image and sound, catching the look, the heart, and the soul of a neighborhood many Cincinnatians drive through without a thought, documenting a community in a way that can never be recreated once everything is, soon, irremediably changed.
The final artwork I harvested this weekend for the Covington show was Abby Schlachter Langdon’s Life Buoy. This was her third Moby-Dick body cast, the one she cast from her own belly when pregnant with her daughter Kalli, who is now nine years old. On Sunday evening she brought it to my house in a purplish container. When I lifted the lid, the concave shape was wrapped like a babe in swaddling clothes. I will have to wait until the installation this week to see the artwork itself, inside and out.