NKU Symposium on Moby-Dick and the Arts, Part 1

Entry begun on Thursday, May 14, 1:25 pm

Title slide for video recording by Media Center

Title slide for video recording by Media Center

Our all-day Symposium at NKU was scheduled to begin at 9 am on Monday, April 27.  I wanted to arrive by 8:30 to make sure the hall, the projection equipment, and the recording equipment were ready in plenty of time for our opening event: Beth Schultz’s keynote address on the proliferation of new Moby-Dick art since the publication of Unpainted to the Last in 1995.  Beth’s talk was to be heavily dependent on images projected through Powerpoint, as were those of several other presenters.  In addition to providing technical support for our speakers, we had to be attentive to the needs of three groups that would be recording all or part of today’s Sumposium.  David Shaerf and Adam Gould from Michigan and Jay Gray and Caitlin Sparks from Numediacy were to be recording selected parts of the proceedings.  A rotating crew from NKU’s Media Services would be making a complete recording of each of the sessions from a fixed camera at the back of the Otto M. Budig Theater.  I am grateful to Media Services for permission to post stills from their videos as part of this blog–and for providing the live videos I have been able to post at the end of this and subsequent Symposium entries..

Catalogs back in the trunk where I had intended to put them

Catalogs back in the trunk where I had intended to put them

Beth Schultz and Sam Otter were both ready when I picked them up at Comfort Suites at 8:15 am.  We would easily have made it to NKU on time had I not lost track of the box of Moby-Dick catalogs I thought I had brought home from the library the night before.   These were the catalogs Emma Rose and I inscribed to each of our student artists and had planned to present to any who attended the Symposium today.  I thought for sure I had loaded them onto the cart we had rolled out to my car the night before, so I must have either left the box on the cart in the dark or set it down in the parking lot while I was opening the trunk and left it there overnight.  We therefore took a quick detour to the Covington library on the way to the campus.  There, mysteriously, was the box of catalogs sitting on yesterday’s registration table, where I must have left it.


Author introducing Beth Schultz

Everything was fine at the lecture hall.  All of the equipment was working and we were ready to go at 9.  Katherine Frank, Dean of Arts and Sciences, gave a warm welcome to scholars and artists who had traveled from six different states to be with us, as well as to our own student artists and artist alums.  I quickly outlined our schedule for the day and introduced Beth Schultz, who by now was well known personally, as well as by reputation, to most in the room.  Beth entitled her talk “The New Art of Moby-Dick.”

In part because of the widespread influence of Beth’s own work, most Melville scholars are generally aware that there has been a significant amount of new Moby-Dick art created in the 21st century.  But I doubt if anyone in the room was prepared for the breadth and depth of the visual wonder world that Beth floated before us, with cogent commentary, for one rhapsodic hour.  I work pretty hard myself at keeping up with contemporary developments in Moby-Dick art, but Beth has discovered a plenitude of new artists absolutely unknown to me.  Beginning with illustrated editions of the novel, she moved on to artist books and then to freestanding works untethered to the novel, moving from sculpture and installations to 2-D cut-outs, paintings, prints, and drawings of various kinds.  Beth spoke continuously for one hour, but she could easily have gone two. She said her first version of this talk was twice as long before she pared it down.  We were very fortunate to be witnessing the first version of the keynote address she will be giving to the International Melville Society Conference in Tokyo in the early afternoon on Friday, June 26.

This and subsequent full-size video stills courtesy NKU Media Services

This and subsequent full-size video stills courtesy NKU Media Services

Visually, this was a “glancing bird’s eye view” of the art that has been “promiscuously” created around the world in the last twenty years (to borrow Ishmael’s phrasing from the “Extracts” section of the novel).  But Beth never just samples and classifies.  She goes to the heart of each artwork and its relation to the novel or to the wider culture.  If the artist’s engagement with the novel has evolved, she shows that evolution.  And if any artist has excelled  in tenacious engagement as well as imaginative grasp, she wants to contextualize and celebrate that achievement.  This she did, today, particularly, for the work that Matt Kish, Robert Del Tredici, Mark Milloff, and Aileen Callahan have been creating in the 21st century.  For Schultz, Matt’s Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures is “the most exuberant and comprehensive of all artists’ recreations of the book Moby-Dick.”  Robert Del Tredici’s lifelong engagement with Moby-Dick, beginning pen-and-ink drawings in the mid-1960s, is bursting forth in a striking new series of prints on metallic paper fifty years later.  Mark Milloff’s cetacean battle scenes from the 1980s, revisited with even more intensity at the turn of the century, have led to a new series of Moby-Dick paintings in which women are the whalers.  And Aileen Callahan, making large-scale paintings of the whale at the turn of the century followed by a series of smaller drawings on The Birth of Moby-Dick, is now making charcoal drawings of the skin of the whale unprecedented in their imaginative and tactile range.  Schultz sees no evidence that the magnetic draw of Melville’s novel has diminished, with, instead, more and more to revel in, both here and around the world.

Beth Schultz telling Matt Kish she is honored to be speaking in his presence

Beth Schultz telling Matt Kish she is honored to be speaking in his presence

Beth Schultz discussing drawing of the whale's skin by Aileen Callahan

Beth Schultz discussing drawing of the whale’s skin by Aileen Callahan

Beth’s talk makes clear that Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center will be on the cutting edge when it exhibits Moby-Dick work by Matt Kish and Robert Del Tredici Moby from April to August 2016.  So will Cincinnati’s Marta Hewett Gallery when it features Aileen Callahan along with a number of local Moby-Dick artists in an exhibition concurrent with one at the CAC.  Many of the local artists to be featured in the Marta Hewett exhibition are in the current Moby Comes to Covington show, and a number of student artists and alums were among the student artists who were soon to be speaking at the NKU Symposium Beth had just opened.  One of the pleasures Emma Rose and I have had in curating the exhibition at the Covington Public Library has been to show the work of NKU students and alums to Steven Matijcio of the CAC and to Marta Hewett in separate tours of this impressive venue for public art.   .

Our second event of the morning, scheduled to begin at 10:30, was a panel discussion on “Creating Moby-Dick Art” in which Matt Kish was followed by NKU student artist alums Kathleen Piercefield, Abby Schlachter Langdon, Danielle Wallace, and Caitlin Sparks, with closing comments by Emma Rose Thompson.  We had some portable microphones set up on two tables on stage for a discussion session that would follow the individual presentations, but we were running a little late when the session began, and each speaker had a lot to say, so we never made it to the discussion part of the session.

Matt as seen from author's seat

Matt as seen from author’s seat

Today Matt Kish spoke more about his actual process of making art than in the Friday night lecture addressing Moby-Dick in the wider culture.  He emphasized from the beginning that the project was “intensely personal.”  He had not been trained in making art, but he had been immersed in images as a child and had always liked to draw.  By the age of forty, he had “come to realize that the making of art is for me a kind of external memory.  It is a way I have of preserving, ordering, and organizing my own life, my own experiences, and in some sense creating a record of my identity.”  Having found a very satisfying full-time job as a librarian, and having drawn quite a bit of art for himself without anyone else really being interested, he decided to give the art-making process one last chance by taking on “the idiodic task of trying to create one illustration for every single page of Moby-Dick.”   By this time he had already read the novel eight times, beginning in junior high school.  Each time he read it he felt it was a mirror into his own life.  As a reader of this book, or any other, he had “always seen what I read, not just the words on the page, but literally seeing the imagery, the action, and the narrative of what I was reading play out in a sort of internal theater.”

For this all-consuming project he set several goals in advance.  To draw one image every day for each of the 552 pages.  To progress sequentially through the narrative of the book so his art would evolve along with the story.  To use every kind of media he might possibly wish to use since this might be his last art project ever.  And to make his drawings on pieces of “found” paper, since he has “always been interested in the visual reproduction of information.”  As he superimposed his drawings upon each printed page, he loved the “bottomless ocean of information, and suggestions, and juxtapositions, all of which are sort of swimming beneath the main thrust of the narrative being carried by [his] drawings,” a dynamic that felt very close to that of Moby-Dick itself.  “Everything that I read in that book seemed to have some sort of real world connection or echo.  I was amazed at how Moby-Dick seemed so intimately interwoven with every single aspect of not only my life personally, but our life as Americans, as contemporary 21st century people.”


After framing the larger project in this way, Matt showed how various influences had found their way into specific drawings.  Some were from comics, others from record covers, others from films, others more directly from the action of the novel or the thoughts of the characters, but very few were inspired by other Moby-Dick artists such as Rockwell Kent, Barry Moser, or Frank Stella, all of whose achievements loomed so large they might have diminished his own personal expressiveness.  Look back at it now, he realizes that his images of Ahab “began to resemble a series of self-portraits as the project became more and more maddening for me.”  Even so, he found that he had “subconsciously” entered into a “creative zone” in which the project felt less and less his own but more as “an intuitive and unstoppable act of creation.”  In spite of the continuous surge of creativity he felt toward the end, he because increasing “anxiouis to be finished,” something he feels is particularly evident in the anguish of his last drawing of Ahab, as the whole project had become “a kind of mortal enemy” to his life beyond the project itself.  Matt is “endlessly proud” of Moby-Dick in Pictures, but the obsessive effort “was a helluva price to pay” and “I’m not anxious to recreate that experience.”

Matt Kish projecting his last image of Ahab in the 2011 book

Matt Kish projecting his last image of Ahab from the 2011 book

Kathleen Piercefield began her presentation by comparing herself to “the crew of the Pequod and Ishmael” in the novel, in that she “did not know what [she] was getting into” when she signed up for Moby-Dick at the Arts in 2004.  She was already a senior BFA Printmaking major who had come to NKU after raising a family.  Even so, “coming to Moby-Dick at this point in her life “had a tremendous impact on my own personal growth.”  As soon as she began reading the novel she began to record “images that started to spring up into my consciousness” from the words on the page.  She asked herself “what meaning could a woman find in this largely male-dominated book.”  One answer was The Women of New Bedford, the etching and aquatint she had created by the end of the semester.  As a printmaker, her “focus has always been on making marks.”  In her advanced printmaking course during the same semester, she was learning the process of collagraph, which enabled her to make and layer marks in a new way.  This heightend her appreciation of Melville’s attention to visual markings in the novel, whether in tattoos on the human body or those lines incised in the whale’s skin “as in the finest Italian line engravings.”  Kathleen already had four major Moby-Dick engravings well underway by the time she finished the class, but she wanted to do “something spectacular” for her Senior Show at the end of the next semester, for which she created her larger-than-life Queequeg in his own proper person, the BFA magnum opus in which she “incorporated all of the printmaking techniques I had used in previous works.”

Kathleen discussing The Women of New Bedford

Kathleen discussing The Women of New Bedford

Kathleen entered into a second stage of Moby-Dick art-making when she was invited to create new work for an exhibition in Rockford, Illinois, in 2009.  She had always wanted “to show Moby Dick not as the horrible vindictive monster so many artists” had depicted, but as he is seen on the First Day of the Chase before the men attack him in the novel, “gliding” through the ocean with “a gentle joyousness—a mighty mildness of repose in his swiftness.”  The result is the mixed-media diptych print that Emma Rose chose as the wraparound cover for our Covington catalog and that I am using as the banner image for this blog.  But Kathleen had other business to attend to, too.  There was a suppressed tender side to Ahab in need of visual representation, so she created two versions of Ahab: I’d Strike the Sun, a multi-media print in which he is torn between his deadly obsession and his compassion for Pip.  And she created her Pip triptych, three successive prints depicting the terror of being lost at sea, the surrender to larger cosmic energies, and the unconsciousness embodiment of spiritual transcendence.  Kathleen concluded her talk by comparing her own transformation to that of Melville in writing the novel and Ishmael in narrating it.  “The person I was when I started this work in Bob Wallace’s class was not the person I was at this point in my life, and Moby-Dick had played a large part in transforming me—and transforming my work—into something new.”

Kathleen discussing Pip: Transcendence

Kathleen discussing Pip: Transcendence

Abby Schlachter Langdon remembers being a sophomore at NKU unsure of what to do with her life.  She “never would have imagined the impact that Moby-Dick would have on me—or that it would give me tools to navigate the choppy seas of life.”  As female college student, she found herself relating to Queequeg.  Uncertain of her own path, she saw that “he never wavered from who he was.  In everything he did, his motives were bold and clear, yet . . . there were mysteries in him even he could not decipher.  It was those contradictions in him that so strongly reminded me of myself and whom I was striving to be.”  The one passage that “completely hooked” her is the one describing the tattooing on his body “as a complete theory of the heaves and the earth.  . . . so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold, a wondrous work in one volume, but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own heart beat against them.”  Abby in the 1996 Moby class created a plaster cast of her own body on which she inscribed her own “theory of the heavens and the earth.”  She sees it now as “a self-portrait of a girl lacking in confidence.”  She is just beginning to “find her voice” and you have to get very close to her body to see the words that are inscribed there.  “Many of her truths are there to be seen, but are only just emerging.”  One year later, in Queequeg in her Coffin II, “a transformation is immediately recognizable.”  This cast of her own person “takes on a more confident stance. . . .  This girl appears comfortable in her own skin.  The voyage from sophomore to junior brought me a step closer to becoming the girl I meant to be, and my two coffin lids reflected this progress.”


The “opportunity” to make a third body cast “came quite a few years later” when Abby “was pregnant with my daughter in 2005.”  Abby created the shape of this cast during her pregnancy, but she completed her meditative artwork on this shape, entitled Life-Buoy, for an exhibition in 2009.  In this body cast “we see the girl who’s grown up, married, and is producing a child.  Much as Queequeg’s coffin becomes a life-saving vessel for Ishmael, my body became a life-giving vessel for my daughter Kalllisto.”  On the outside shell Abby represented the constellation for which Kalli was named.  But she was more interested in “the view from within.”  She imagined “my little unborn daughter, picturing the world outside her mother’s protective womb.”  She collaged images from Kalli’s early years on the inside of the cast and then covered those images with writing, some of which described “the tumultuous ocean of pregnancy this life buoy carried us through.”  Abby concluded her talk by “looking back on this ongoing education I’ve received from Queequeg.  What I see now is that I am certainly my own living parchment.  My body carries so many markings that show me who I am and where I’ve been—scars, stretch marks, tattoos.”  Even now, “I am a puzzle still unfolding.”  But “I am most definitely a wondrous work in one volume.  I took me a long time to earn the self-confidence and self-love to say that, but better late than never.”  A self-portrait of herself as “a warrior” is now in the works.  “That girl from nearly 20 years ago could not know what life had in store or how far this project might go, but I’m quite certain she would be pleased.”


Danielle Wallace was a double major in English and Art with a minor on Honors when she took Moby-Dick and the Arts during the 2009 Spring Semester.  She had not read Moby-Dick before, but the idea of studying such a “heavy and meaty book” through the lens of visual art was appealing to her.  Because “we were actively looking at art” while we were reading the novel, and because of the nature of Melville’s prose, her mind was flooded with visual images as we read.   In her career as an artist, she had always been interested “in narrative art that tells a story.”  In this story she was particularly drawn to those “vivid action scenes” with so much “chaotic imagery” at the end of the book.  She had planned to make a painting inspired by the Chase scenes at the end of the book, but she was also taking a Ceramics course in primitive firing techniques, and a new idea came to her.  As she thought about painting the Epilogue, “I wanted to show Ishmael desperately out there waiting for the Rachel to rescue him, but I was also interested in what was going on below the surface of the water—in what happened to the rest of the crew and the sinking of the ship.”  She asked herself “what would happen if I put these images on a physical form—if I wrapped the action above the water around the outside of a cup, and had the inner scene on the inside, so that the cup becomes the Epilogue.”  Then, if you fill [that cup] with liquid or water, you are actually re-enacting the final moments of the book.”  Once Danielle came up with this idea, she “had to run with it.”  Before the semester was over she had made a complete Moby-Dick Tea Set with a dozen clay cups surrounding a large porcelain tea pot.


Once Danielle chose the ceramic vessel as her medium, new possibilities opened up for representing the action of the novel.  In the Chase scenes you sometimes don’t know “who is chasing who.”  With the Chase cup, she realized that “by wrapping this long narrative image around a three-dimensional shape you get this idea, when you spin it, that you don’t really know where the one image ends and the other begins.”  Similarly with Pip in the Castaway cup.  The outside of the cup shows the massive ocean waves under which Pip has been lost.  Within the cup is Pip’s tiny body, “so that when you fill it up with whatever liquid is in there, he is being lost overboard, being submerged,” but “you then rescue him back from the cup as you drink it.”  After creating cups for the action scenes, Danielle went on to individual subjects such as Queequeg, Ahab, Fedallah, Squid, and the Sperm & Right Whale, saving the master vessel, the tea pot, for Moby Dick himself.  In 2011 when Danielle was commissioned to create her Moby-Dick Tea Set II, she improved on some of her original designs and added some new ones—a creamer depicting action in the city of New Bedford, a sugar container for the action in the Spouter-Inn, and a “cute, little, frolicsome white whale” to represent Moby Dick as “a young, innocent whale before he’s been attacked by whalers.”

Danielle and the Pip cup

Danielle and the Pip cup

Caitlin Sparks had taken my 2011 class in Moby-Dick and the Arts because she “was a Photography major who needed a writing course.”  She was happy to find an English course “with Art in the title.”  Moby-Dick itself was very hard to read.  She felt a lot was “going over my head.”  Beth’s Schultz’s Unpainted to the Last helped her “stay connected to the book.  To see so many artists, to see all that effort, those beautiful works of art, was exciting to me.”  Caitlin wrote a research paper on Gil Wilson’s Cosmic White Whale triptych.  Before the course was over she applied for an Undergraduate Research Grant that allowed her travel that summer to Terre Haute, Indiana, to see hundreds of Wilson’s original works in the Swope Museum of Art.  (Jay Gray had come along as her videographer and that was the beginning of their Numediacy art partnership today).  For her final project in the class itself, Caitlin chose “to make three series of photographs.  In these photos I’m describing three different characters.  The are essentially self portrtaits.  The first one I’ll describe is Ahab.”

MD-146 MD-145

Ahab is four photographs.  They are framed in old window frames.  The paint is chipping off the old wood; the glass is cracked; there is even a piece of rope that is left of the workings of the window.   In these frames is a very soft and blurry image—a figure draped in a red cloth—and she is a one-legged person. With that work I’m thinking about Ahab’s wife on shore, the damage that she endures because of his voyage.  And she’s probably the only insanity that’s left of this man.  And she is the other half of Ahab.  And that is who I am describing in that piece.”  After similar descriptions of her White Whale triptych in three separate gallery-style frames, and her Whiteness triptych collaged together within another old window frame, Caitlin related the projects she created in response to the novel to the “environmental themes” that have become central to her life and art.  In conclusion, she “could never have imagined that this undergraduate artwork would continue to live on.  Or that it would be featured in an exhibition or a catalog.  Or that I would be on WGUC talking more about my artwork.”  The worlds of art and ecology will be hearing more from Caitlin.

Caitlin Sparks concluding her presentation

Caitlin Sparks concluding her presentation

We had nearly reached the scheduled end of this session at noon when Emma Rose presented her closing remarks.  She responded to that situation with succinct and incisive commentary.   Recalling the experience in the 2013 Moby class that eventually led her to become co-curator of Moby Comes to Covington, she “really loved” studying the works the artists had created “in relation to the text.”  Writing about Moby Truck by Ralph Goings, she was amazed that this one image could inspire so many comparisons between the automotive and the whaling industry.  “Right after we started on this exhibition. I started looking at the [student] artworks while we were making the catalog, and I realized what a lot of other people have realized, that words are sometimes just not enough.”  As a reader, “you feel compelled to make these images . . . because you’ve got this mental image, but how is anyone supposed to know what that image unless you make it, unless you see it?  Seeing is really knowing, in a lot of ways.”


From this central premise, Emma Rose asked a series of rhetorical questions specifically relating to artworks discussed earlier in the morning.  “How do depict what you think is a ‘mighty mildness?’”  There are “so many ways” to imagine what this looks like.  “How do you show ‘the worsting of Ahab?’”  This, too, many will see in different ways.  “How do you show a ‘whale-eye view?.  We don’t know literally what a whale sees . . . .  But unless you make an image of what you think the whale sees, how is anyone supposed to see what you see in your mind?”   And then you have Caitlin’s Ahab.  “Anybody that knows anything about Ahab, you see the leg missing and the slash of red and you think, ‘Oh, that’s Ahab.’  But, at the same time, it’s not. It’s a woman. And Caitlin has put herself into her artwork.  All these artists have put themselves into the artwork. They reflect the novel but also themselves, and that is really what Melville was doing, reflecting on humanity.”


Our two morning sessions had given us a lot to think about.  The speakers had not coordinated what they planned to say but they had spoken to each other in overt and covert ways all morning long.  We were all ready for a break and we were all ready to reconvene at 1 pm.  After I thanked our morning speakers and outlined the most convenient lunch venues on campus, we walked off in small groups—except for those who stayed for tech checks in advance of their afternoon presentations.

As I prepare to post this blog entry on the morning of Tuesday, May19, after having taken down the Covington show yesterday morning, I am struck by the educational role of simultaneity in the experience of  the student artist alums who spoke during the morning session of the NKU Symposium.  If Kathleen Piercefield had not been learning the technique of collagraph in Andrea Knarr’advanced printmaking class at the same time she was in my Moby class, she would not have internalized the various “marks” and “layers” of Melville’s novel in the way she did.  If Danielle Wallace was not taking an Ceramics course in ancient firing techniques while she was in the Moby class, she would not have had the idea of converting the idea of a 2-D painting of the Chase scene into the reality of a Moby-Dick Tea Set.  If Caitlin Sparks had not been studying Unpainted to the Last immediately after reading Moby-Dick, she may never have found a way to discover so much of herself in Melville’s book.  Similarly, studying the artists in the Schultz book brought a very difficult book alive for Emma Rose.

In the language of Melville’s “Mat-Making” chapter, the projects of all the above student artists show “chance, free will, and necessity . . . all interweaving working together.”  The most striking example of “chance” for me was happening to see Emma Rose in the stacks of Steely Library soon after she had proposed her hypothetical exhibition based on the Schultz book as her final project.  This chance meeting prompted me to float the idea of the exhibition that eventually became Moby Comes to Covington.  This was quickly followed by Emma Rose’s “free will” when she answered “yes” to my proposal.  “Necessity” eventually led us away from our ideal venue in NKU’s Main Gallery (when our proposal was rejected), to the life-buoy we gratefully grabbed from the Covington Arts Gallery (until they sold their site to a microbrewer), and then to the Covington Public Librray, which turned out to be a much superior venue to either of the other two  (not only for the exhibition itself but for the Marathon Reading designed to showcase in the best possible way the communal inspiration from which each student’s artwork derived).

Emma Rose saying

Emma Rose saying “It was the same day”

Emma Rose had opened her closing remarks for the morning session by correcting something I had said while introducing her.  It was “the same day” that she had proposed her hypothetical exhibition, “not the day after,” that we had our chance meeting in the library.


Immediately below are links to the live video by Media Services of each successive speaker in the session on “Creating Moby-Dick Art” (Beth Schultz had asked that her keynote address not be recorded since her Powerpoint included so many copyrighted artworks):

Matt Kish in Artist Session  


Kathleen Piercefield in Artist Session


Abby Schlacter Langdon in Artist Session


Danielle Wallace in Artist Session


Caitlin Sparks in Artist Session


Emma Rose Thompson in Artist Session




2 thoughts on “NKU Symposium on Moby-Dick and the Arts, Part 1

  1. As ever, it is wonderful to see the clarity and perception you demonstrate in your summary of the various speakers’ presentations. Outstanding!


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