Moby-Dick in the 21st Century at the Cincinnati Art Museum

Entry begun at Logan Airport, Boston, Saturday, May 2, 2:05 pm

I’ve just completed the exhilarating three-day conference at MIT we called MEL Camp 5, the fifth NEH-sponsored gathering of scholars from across the country for the purpose of designing and implementing the Melville Electronic Library, a digital Humanities initiative that reached a turning point in operativity during these last three days.  I will return to this event after my account of the four-day Moby-Dick Arts Fest that ended on Monday night of this past week.  Exactly one week ago at this time on Saturday afternoon in the Covington Public Library we were beginning the fifth consecutive hour of our 24-hour Marathon Reading of the novel.

Cincinnati Art Museum ready for an evening event

Cincinnati Art Museum ready for an evening event

The night before the Marathon Reading began, Sam Otter and Beth Schultz and I arrived at the Cincinnati Art Museum at 6 pm to meet with other friends and associates who arrived early to make sure our evening event would go as planned.  Matt Kish and Emma Rose Thompson, our other speakers, were here with Matt’s wife Ione and Emma Rose’s boyfriend Andrew.  Shannon Karol was here from the Art Museum to make sure we know where to sit and to confirm that the microphone at the podium and those being attached to the speakers were working.  Brandon Wilton from the NKU bookstore was here with a beautiful display at which he was selling Moby-Dick books by all of the Symposium speakers along with other Melville titles.  David Shaerf and Adam Gould were here from Michigan, already positioning their video equipment to get the best possible footage for David’s documentary-in-progress on Moby-Dick in the 21st Century.  Caitlin Sparks and Jay Gray from Numediacy in Covington were similarly positioning themselves for filming whatever might be needed for the YouTube video they would making of the four-day Moby Fest.  In the process, they captured the video recordings of each successive speaker you can access at the end of this entry.

bookstore 4


Fath Auditorium was filling nicely as we were completing our preliminary arrangements.  It was good to see student artists, faculty, family, and friends from Northern Kentucky mingling with Cincinnatians affiliated with the Art Museum, the Mercantile Library, and possibly a few people who had heard Emma Rose, Caitlin, and myself on WVXU earlier that day.  Mark Neikurk, director of the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at NKU, who had initiated the idea of this Symposium, was very happy to see the seats filling up.  I enjoyed introducing my out-of-town guests to NKU Provost Sue Ott Rowlands, who would be welcoming the crowd on behalf of NKU.  And before we knew it, it was time for the program to begin.  I quickly scanned the crowd and was happy to see a large audience of more than a hundred.

Shannon welcomed the crowd on behalf of the Museum and introduced Sue, who greeted the audience and introduced me.  I was glad I had scanned the crowd earlier because I could not make out any individuals in the audience under the glare of the bright light flooding the podium.  After thanking our sponsors, our audience, and our speakers, and quickly outlining the upcoming events of our four-day Arts Fest, I said I could not imagine a better quartet than the four speakers we were about to hear for discussing the theme Mark Neikurk had posed for this evening’s Symposium: “How a 19th Century Novel Speaks to the 21st Century.”  I offered the phrase “Call me Ishmael” as my quick response to Mark’s topic, noting that the Ishmael of Melville’s famous opening sentence is an outcast in the Judeo-Christian religions tradition but a founder of the Islamic faith, a religion it has become increasingly important for Americans to understand ever since the terrorist act that shocked the nation on 9/11/2001.

The author introducing the April 24 Symposium, video still courtesy Jay Gray / Numediac

The author introducing the April 24 Symposium, video still courtesy Jay Gray / Numediac

In introducing our first speaker, I wanted our Art Museum audience to know, first, that Beth Schultz from the University of Kansas is the author of Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art.  Published in 1995, this book introduced readers to a century of artwork in response to Moby-Dick whose quantity and quality had been entirely unknown.  At first known as the “Bible” of Moby-Dick art, Unpainted to the Last has more recently become the Old Testament of its subject in view of the proliferation of Moby-Dick art around the world in the twenty years since it was published.  After mentioning that these two new decades of Moby-Dick art were to be the subject of Beth’s keynote lecture for our all-day Symposium at NKU on Monday, April 27, I mentioned that she is a poet and ecologist as well as a literary critic and art historian, having co-directed an ecological conference in Beijing, China, a few years ago.

Elizabeth Schultz at Cincinnati Art Museum, video still courtesy Jay Gray/Numediacy

Elizabeth Schultz at Cincinnati Art Museum, video still courtesy Jay Gray / Numediacy

Beth in her fifteen-minute opening statement at the Art Museum addressed a great variety of ways in which Melville’s 19th-century novel speaks to our 21st century lives.  Some of her points were familiar to the Melvillians in the audience, but most were new to those who had never read the novel, had read it a long time ago, or had been forced to read it with an unhappy result sometime in their schooling.  During her most recent reading of the novel, Beth was particularly struck by the degree to which Ishmael, Melville’s narrator, likens whaling to warfare, revealing the resultant psychological as well as physical violence to the human whalers as well as to the whales they attack.  Beth has recently been reading memoirs by U. S. soldiers who have returned from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Doing so has given her a strong sense of Melville’s Ishmael as a victim of post-traumatic shock disorder who is trying to ease the pain from a war against whales from which he will never fully recover, haunted not only by the memory of the comrades he lost on the Pequod but by the memory of the innocent whales he and his shipmates had brutally killed before the encounter with Moby Dick that ends the novel..

matt in action 2Matt Kish describes himself as a self-educated artist.  I wanted the Art Museum audience to know that this mild-mannered librarian, who lives and works only about 50 miles from Cincinnati, is among the greatest of those New Testament Moby-Dick artists who have emerged since Beth Schultz published Unpainted to the Last in 1995.  Matt’s book Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page has been extraordinarily successful since its publication in 2011.  Audiences are always impressed when I tell them, first, that Matt’s edition of the novel had 552 pages and, second, that Matt was creating one drawing for every page on 552 consecutive days while also working full-time as a librarian.  I still could not see the audience because of the blinding light, but I could hear a collective sigh of delight when I mentioned that new drawings Matt is beginning to make right now will be part of a two-man Moby-Dick show to be seen at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center from April to August of next year, as was soon to be announced in a major press release.

Matt Kish at the Cincinnati Art Museum, video still courtesy Jay Gray / Numediacy

Matt Kish at the Cincinnati Art Museum, video still courtesy Jay Gray / Numediacy

Matt began his contribution to this evening’s symposium with a flood of images illustrating a love for literature and fantasy reaching back to his earliest years as a child who loved to read books at home and to see movies such as Godzilla at the local theater.  His introduction to the story of Moby-Dick came when he saw the 1956 John Huston film with Gregory Peck as Ahab right after a Godzilla film and felt a seamless transition from one to the other.  Matt’s visual vocabulary derives mostly from comics, fantasy fiction, and film, giving his Moby-Dick art an entirely different feel from those Moby-Dick artists who came to the world of the novel through works by artists such as Rockwell Kent or Frank Stella.  Kish had instinctively quarantined himself from earlier Moby-Dick artists as a way to make sure he would continue to express what the novel meant to him in the process of creating his Moby-Dick in Pictures.  One of his favorite chapters in the novel had been “Cetology,” in which Ishmael classifies various kinds of whales.  Matt had been frustrated that his self-imposed format for the 2011 book had allowed only one drawing for every page, resulting in several whales he was unable to draw.  In Cincinnati in 2016 he will draw, and we will see, them all.

sam in actionSam Otter, our third speaker, showed no signs of having gotten up at 3:30 in the morning on a hillside near Berkeley, Califormia.  He began by saying that, as editor of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, he receives impassioned essays about Melville and Moby-Dick from around the world, including the work of an Iranian scholar who will be attending the International Melville Society Conference in Tokyo this June.  Sam provided a fascinating account of how Moby-Dick has appealed to readers and writers in strikingly personal as well as professional ways.  One example was C. L. R.James, a West Indian intellectual who in the 1950s wrote Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In while being interned on Ellis Island in New York in advance of being deported from the United States on account of his political beliefs.

Sam Otter at the Cincinnati Art Museum, video still courtesy Jay Gray / Numediacy

Sam Otter at the Cincinnati Art Museum, video still courtesy Jay Gray / Numediacy

For C. L. R. James Moby-Dick was not a book primarily about Ahab and the White Whale, but rather about the working men on the ship, the uneducated sailors who represented the workers of the world in being drafted from all the isles of the earth to serve on a ship designed to slaughter living creatures of the sea for the benefit of the commercial interests and investors of the United States.  James’s book is likely to have been unfamiliar to the non-academic portions of our Art Museum audience, but everyone in Fath Auditorium had clear associations with the event that framed the 21st century portion of Otter’s remarks—the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.   After noting that Melville’s Ishmael in 1851 had located his own “Whaling Voyage” in the contact of a “Bloody Battle in Affghanistan,” Sam had summarized the amazing number of commentators who had compared George Bush’s post-9/11 War on Terror in both Iraq and Afghanistan to Ahab’s pursuit of the White Whale.  He also noted, however, a curious reversal of roles.  Some commentators saw President Bush as the Ahab figure pursuing Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaida figures in Afghanistan and Iraq, whereas others saw Osama bin Laden as the Ahab figure obsessed with destroying the United States .

emma rose showing camilla 2I introduced our fourth speaker, Emma Rose Thompson, as the co-curator of the exhibition Moby Comes to Covington (where our Marathon Reading of the novel would be beginning the next morning) as well as the co-editor and designer of the catalog we had on sale with the other Moby-Dick books in the lobby outside the room in which we were speaking.   I had no qualms about asking this undergraduate Art History major to speak in the wake of such national authorities as Schultz, Kish, and Otter because from the beginning of our two-year project she had shown impressive knowledge of the novel itself, a deep appreciation the artworks students had created in response to the novel whether they were art majors or not, and an instinctive sensitivity to ways in which the novel and the artwork it inspires speak to our lives today.  I ended my introduction by suggesting that Emma Rose is eminently qualified to speak about Moby-Dick in the 21at century because she has lived most of her life in this century, having been born in 1993.

Emma Rose Thompson at the Cincinnati Art Museum, video still courtesy Jay Gray / Numediacy

Emma Rose Thompson at the Cincinnati Art Museum, video still courtesy Jay Gray / Numediacy

Emma Rose structured her presentation according to a series of themes explored by NKU students in Moby-Dick art they had created in the 21st century.  Beginning with visual explorations of “Prejudice” explored by History major Jessica Slone in 2009 and by English major Jordan D’Addario in 2012, she moved on to visual explorations of “The Female Perspective” by English major Camilla Asplen and by Art major Kathleen Piercefield in 2004.  Her next theme was “Compassion for the Whale” in artworks by Political Science major Thomas Foltz in 2010, by Art major Caitlin Sparks in 2011,  and by English majors Kayla Hardin, Ellen Hill, Amanda Monds, and Matt Ruiz in 2011 and 2013.   Emma Rose’s next theme was “Sexuality” in visual art by English majors Amanda Monds and Shawn Buckenmeyer in 2011 and 2013, by Art major Mary Belperio in 2013, and by Journalism major Kevin Schultz in 2013.  After illustrating “Freedom” with an artwork created by Art major Laura Bird in 2003, Emma Rose concluded with images of “Obsession” created by English major Jordan Small in 2010, Art major Caitlin Sparks in 2011, Engineering major Landon Jones in 2013, and Psychology major Lynsey Bates in 2013.  She did not plan it that way, but most of the works she had chosen were by English majors or Honors students who had not been trained as artists—and whose work had already been deemed as without value by certain Art department faculty.

Panel discussion after individual presentations, photo courtesy Kris Yohe

Panel discussion after individual presentations, photo courtesy Kris Yohe

After the individual presentations by Schultz, Kish, Otter, and Thompson, we shifted into the discussion mode whose choreography Shannon and Mark had jointly proposed.  I took the role of moderator at the podium while Beth, Matt, Sam, and Emma Rose moved into the comfortable on-stage chairs, each with an individual microphone as they expanded in a communal way on their opening statements and fielded a variety a variety of questions from the audience.  It was a high pleasure for me to lightly preside over this spontaneous exchange of opinion among this talented Melville quartet as they played off of each other’s thoughts and comments.  After hearing their four opening statements follow each other like the movements of a classical string quartet, structurally independent but spiritually united, their more informal discussion was like a series of improvised encores.  Shannon had set no end time for this evening symposium, so the back-and-forth among the presenters and with the audience extended considerably behind the 8 pm time at which I had expected the discussion part of the evening to end.

This event was everything I had hoped in would be.  It made me even more grateful than before to Sam and Beth for flying in on this day from California and Kansas; to Matt Kish and his wife Ione for driving down form Dayton, Ohio; and to Emma Rose for representing so well her generation of 21st century Americans and selected student artists who had responded to Moby-Dick in such meaningful ways.  We all lingered for some time after the end of the program, speaking with friends, signing books, and relaxing among ourselves—until reality set in and we reminded ourselves that our two-day Marathon Reading of Moby-Dick would begin at 9 am the next morning.

I knew for sure that this long, suspenseful, satisfying day had finally ended when I got home after driving Sam and Beth back to the hotel and saw the last of five photos Caverlee had taken from her river view at Comfort Suites.  Look closely and you will see that the arch of the Big Mac bridge is still in the same place as in the daylight photo from the same window, though no longer golden.

Night lights in riverview from Comfort Suites on April 24, photo courtesy Caverlee Cary

Night lights in river view from Comfort Suites on April 24, photo courtesy Caverlee Cary

The links below will take you to Numediacy’s live video recordings of the successive presentations at the Cincinnati Art Museum symposium:






Panel Discussion:



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