Entry begun Saturday, April 18, 9:55 am
During the week of Monday, April 6, we had two major areas of the exhibition to attend to, plus a number of “loose fish” to bring into play. One of the latter was Kevin Schultz’s Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, a photo collage he had assembled around the “negative space” of a white whale. I had been storing it for him in advance of the exhibition and when I brought it out of the storage space I saw that a few of the photos had curled and two had fallen off. Kevin is a double major in English and Journalism who is now completing his senior year, so he was able to retrieve it from my office at the school and make the necessary repairs. Kevin’s combination of image and text makes the perfect introduction to the works we are showing in the Local History room on the third floor of the library. The quote he embeds in the body of the absent whale ends with Ishmael’s question, “And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and Fast-Fish, too?”
Deeper in the Local History room we had been reserving a place for Jordan Small’s charcoal drawing entitled Ahab. This work has been on extended loan to the office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences for two years. When the current dean agreed to loan it to our exhibition, I brought it to the library and placed it on a tripod near the Captain Ahab photos by Caitlin Sparks in front of the north window. Two views of Ahab—Jordan’s intense, in-your-face portrait of the kind of man he knows all too well versus Caitlin’s more evocative and elusive vision.
As Emma Rose and I were installing our sequence of works along the cabinet tops in the local history room, we realized that we would have room in the rest of the building for two more works by one of the artists, Amanda Monds, that were still in her possession. Amanda’s charcoal drawing, in which Queequeg is staring down death, is the fourth work on the row of cabinets just beyond Kevin’s photo collage. The two other works we were hoping to add were Unsolved to the Last, her painting of a tattooed sperm whale, and Ahab, an abstract portrait of the captain in three colors.
Amanda is a recent graduate of the English department who is now teaching first-grade in Indpendence, Kentucky. She has also married and has given birth to a beautiful girl. Amanda was happy to loan her two additional works to the show, and she brought them to the library with daughter Hadley and her mother-in-law Jona.
Another “loose fish” was Your eyes are my eyes, Matt Ruiz’s acrylic painting inspired by the communion between man and whale in “Grand Armada” chapter. I had been storing it for him in advance of the exhibition, but during the Emily Dickinson Exhibition in February he had decided that he would like to make a few revisions on the canvas he had painted two years ago. He had taken it home after the Dickinson event and now he was bringing it back with it looking just as he wanted. I had been hoping he could serve as trouble-shooter-in-chief during the Moby Marathon, as he had during the Dickinson one, but he had since gotten the job he was hoping for at the Cincinnati Zoo and will be working all day on both the Saturday and the Sunday. He will be able to work the last Marathon shift on Sunday night, and will be taking his turn at reading as we near the end of the book.
Now that we had most of our artworks in place on the top two floors, it was time to make our final decisions about the main display case. We knew we wanted the two posters of digital art by Ben De Angelis on one side of the case and the linoleum cut of the Whale Dinner by Ronnie Sickinger on the other. Displaying Ben’s works was a challenge because they had no backing and could not be shown on a tripod. Gary Pilkington solved that problem by offering a vertical metallic display stand to which the could attach the posters with magnets. The first magnets we tried did not hold, so at this juncture we learned about “super magnets” and got some.
Ronnie Sickinger’s linoleum print on the other side rested nicely on a tripod, but it needed some support, so I got some foam board from Michael’s cut to size. We knew we wanted this on the right side of the case because his image of some whales sitting down to feast on whalers contrasts so nicely with Camilla Asplen’s artist cookbook The Whale as a Dish (Ronnie’s image is a riff on Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving Dinner). It is fun to watch people come up to this work and take a double take. At first we had thought this was the only work by Ronnie we would have room for in the show, but when some new space opened up for us on the Children’s floor we realized we might be able to use his other two linoleum cuts as well. Ronnie is a high-school English teacher in Indiana and I hope I can get hold of him by the time of the Marathon Reading.
Within the body of the display case, there would be many ways to deploy the variety of work we had been storing there since the beginning of the installation. Some of our choices were ruled by necessity. Gary said that Nancy Vagedes’ ceramic white white whale looming over Ahab in his whale boat was too heavy for a glass shelf and would have so sit on the bottom of the case. We did take advantage of the fact that the shelves themselves were adjustable. But the most telling decision was made by Emma Rose independent of any external factors. She realized that Danielle Wallace’s Moby-Dick tea set could still be read as a tea set even if its cups were deployed throughout the case. This allowed up to put Ahab’s cracked tea cup, for example, near Ahab’s Iron Crown and the Ahab Family Portrait on the top left shelf. We placed the cups depicting the last days of he chase on a lower shelf, so you can see those members of Ahab’s crew where are dying inside the Chase cup as well as Fedallah lashed to the side of the white cup named for him.
Originally we had wanted Nancy Vagedes’ ceramic white whale in front of Rob Detmering’s thee Pasteboard Mask paintings up on the top left shelf, but we found that the juxtaposition worked just as well at the bottom of the case on the left. Even though the tapering body of Moby Dick himself slants through one side of the Rob’s Polka Dick painting, the transition from Peppermint Ahab on the left through Polka Dick in the middle to Cobweb Ishmael on the right is still strongly felt. Rob had mentioned in his artist statement that the white bars in the rigid Peppermint Ahab painting, and the large white dot in the spacious Polka Moby painting, and the white hexagon at the heart of the Cobweb Ishmael had all symbolized, for him, presence and allure of the white whale. Here Nancy’s white ceramic shape activates Rob’s symbolic intention. Rob is now a literature reference librarian at the University of Louisville, and he is hoping to come up for the Marathon.
As soon as we had arranged the display case pretty much as we wanted it, I took a photo of Emma Rose standing next to the case and we moved on to the last major area in the library, the Children’s section of the building at the foot of the stairwell.
Once we found out we could borrow those two other pieces from Amanda, and also a second large work that Katie Davidson offered for the show when I picked up the one she had already agreed to loan, we realized that we could fill two walls on this lowest level of the building—the long wall to the left as you enter from the stairwell and the shorter wall that runs at right angles to it. One advantage of this space over other parts of the library is that there is a wire and tracking system by which we could hang works that have wires or other hardware on the back. Unfortunately, only one of the eight works we had now chosen for this level were so fitted. We became expert in the use of Velcro command strips which can hold the back of an artwork securely to the wall without leaving any mark on the wall when removed.
The long wall was just the right length for seven of the eight works we had chosen for this level of the library. We knew we wanted to put a linoleum cut by Ronnie Sickinger at either end of the seven. At the far left we put his Birth of Ishmael, a variation on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. At the far right we put his Gothic Whales, a variation on Grant Wood’s American Gothic. In the center we decided to put the one work that hung from a wire, the photo collage I had made of my Spring 1996 class on the day we visited the Block Museum at Northwestern University in late February to see Beth Schultz’s Moby-Dick exhibition Unpainted to the Last.
In January 1996 we had studied Moby-Dick itself. We had spent most of February studying Schultz’s companion book to the exhibition, also entitled Unpainted to the Last. Upon arriving at the museum, I had asked each student to take half an hour to wander through the exhibition to find the single work that most strongly impressed them in person. When we gathered together to hear why each student had chosen the work he or she did, I took the photographs that are currently on the lower floor of the library in Covington. It was after that trip to Evanston that members of this class asked if I would be willing to “toss” my syllabus for the rest of the semester “overboard” so they could create an art exhibition of their own to which each class member would contribute. Fred North’s two Lee Shore paintings in 1994 and the group exhibition mounted by this class in 1996 were the combined inspiration for the exhibition that is now materializing twenty years later in Covington.
The photo immediately above of the artwork exhibited by the entire class in April 1996 includes quite a few of the works we have recently installed in the Covington exhibition. At the far left of the 1996 installation was Abby Schlachter’s Queequeg in her Coffin I, now in the alcove of the stairwell. To the right of Abby’s first body cast was Brian Cruey’s suite of four photographs, now on the stack fronts in the Local History room. On the first pedestal to the right of Brian’s photographs was Bill Fletcher’s first Ahab artist book, now directly below Ahab’s Iron Crown on the upper left of the display case; To the right of the second pedestal was Aaron Zlatkin’s Spouter-Inn Painting: Revealed, now in the rock garden. And to the right of Aaron’s painting was the collage of the photos I had taken two months earlier at the Evanston exhibition, not yet framed.
On the left side of the long wall on the lower level of the of the Covington library, we mounted Ellen Bayer’s My Symphony from 1998 and Katie Davidson’s Moby-Dick—The Story from 2003 to the right of Ronnie Sickinger’s Birth of Ishmael. In Ellen’s painting the unpainted shape of the white whale frames the one tear that Ahab drops into the sea. Katie gives us the whole story of the novel in a seamless trajectory of abstract color and shape. Ronnie’s Ishmael, stranded on Queequeg’s coffin, covers his private parts the way Venus does in Botticelli’s seashell.
On the right side of the same wall we mounted Emily Grant’s I Spy Melville from 2010 and Amanda Monds’ Ahab from 2011 to the left of Ronnie’s Gothic Whales. Emily in her I Spy collage incorporates images from popular culture the way a student writing a research paper incorporates footnoted sources. The bright center of Amanda’s Ahab is being swallowed and compressed by Ahab’s inner demons. In Ronnie’s riff on American Gothic, the whales are holding harpoons rather than pitchforks, and their faces are flattened from the volume they have at sea.
The installation on the lower floor of the building was completed a few days later when we mounted Katie Davidson’s Obsession at a right angle to the long row of seven. The obsession is Ahab’s, his demented gestural energy disfiguring the blood-red sea and obliterating the melange of words jammed together in the shape of a maimed whale.
The installation process always brings unexpected challenges and pleasures. One of the pleasures while working on the children’s floor came when a very small girl, maybe six years old, came down the staircase and saw Carola Bell’s monotype Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton on the tripod to the right. “That looks like Picasso,” she said decisively. Kids of all ages seem immediately intrigued by Abby Schlachter’s inscribed body casts and the pregnant shape of her Life Buoy belly. Each successive week we have come to feel more and more that this public library is the best possible place for our show.
One of the last “loose fish” that remained was Janet Cheek’s diorama of Melville’s Piazza from my American Short Story class in 1999. Janet had been intrigued by Melville’s 1856 short story “The Piazza,” inspired by Arrowhead, the home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in which Melville had finished Moby-Dick in 1851. Janet’s sweet construction of cardboard, wood, and stone would sit flat anywhere. We found the perfect place for it in the middle of the Local History room on the third floor. Not long after placing it there, I learned from Claire Illouz, our featured guest at the Dickinson Fest in February, that she has been invited to make a presentation about The Whiteness, her artist book about Moby-Dick, at Arrowhead in August.
Claire’s August 3 presentation at Arrowhead will follow by one day the premiere of a new musical work commissioned from Claire’s mother Betsey Jolas by the Tanglewood Music Festival. The Tanglewood Festival occupies the plot of land on which Nathaniel Hawthorne had lived iin Lenox in 1850 and 1851, when Melville had ridden over on his horse from Pittsfield for artistic inspiration.