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

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

Jeff Markham spent quite a bit of our lunch hour transferring the video he had brought of the Moby-Dick sculpture his high school students had created in Illinois into a format that could be projected on the Budig Theater screen (whose system had been state-of-the-art some time ago).  With help from Chris Bowling and others from technical services, we got done in time to have a good bite to eat before the first afternoon session.  I guess this was the technical equivalent of the artistic process Emma Rose described of taking that visual image off the brain by making a physical object that others can see.  Melville described a similar process, in reverse, in the letter he wrote to Evert Duyckinck when in the midst of creating Moby-Dick in December 1850:  “taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel—you have to scrape off the whole brain into order to get at it with due safety—& even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble.”

Jeff Markham began our pedagogical session on “Moby-Dick Art in the Classroom” with a presentation I had been looking forward to ever since meeting him at the Moby-Dick Marathon in New Bedford last year and hearing about the work he does with his students at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois.  Every other year he enters into a year-long project with an art teacher in which their students, after studying Moby-Dick, create an art exhibition in which each student expresses his or her creative response to the novel itself.  Last year their group project resulted in a life-size sculpture of a sperm whale on whose white body were tattooed images that each student had designed.  Jeff’s video showed these students in the process of creating, discussing, and exhibiting the sculpture they called Tattooing the Whale.  Their communal art project will have a permanent home in a hallway of their school.  Seeing Jeff’s students at work, and hearing them discuss what they had achieved, was a great pleasure in itself.

Jeff Markham projecting video of his students’ project Tattooing the Whale

Jeff Markham projecting video of his students’ project Tattooing the Whale.  Video stills in Budig Theater courtesy NKU Media Services

Jeff followed up the video by addressing the pedagogical potential of “Using Visual Arts in the Classroom.”  His practice is driven by Emerson’s contention that “we animate what we can, and we see only what we animate.”  Students learn when they bring a subject to life, and they can see what they are learning only by making it visible.  Jeff likes to begin with a one-to-one exercise in which each student draws his or her image inspired by a specific passage in the novel (such as Ahab’s idea of “a complete man” in his conversation with the Carpenter in chapter 108).  As students move on to more complex artistic responses to the novel, Jeff finds that they often reach a level of intuitive, resonant, or even ecstatic learning they seldom achieve through the written word alone.  Jeff’s presentation reminded me of how many of my college students over the years, when taking the artistic plunge, have said, “I haven’t done anything creative since the fourth grade.”  His Emersonian mantra that “we see only what we animate” felt like an echo of  Emma Rose’s “How do you show what you see unless you make it?”


Don Dingledine from the University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh had already shared a good deal of his experience as a teacher of Moby-Dick in his keynote address to the Honors Capstone students on the day before our Moby Arts Fest began.  Over the weekend, Don had been working on this new talk when not attending the Friday night Symposium at the Cincinnati Art Museum or the Marathon Reading at the Covington Public Library.  For some time he has taught Moby-Dick in an English department capstone course, but after reading the Moby catalog and seeing the Covington exhibition he regrets that artworks have only occasionally made it into his own Capstone course.  Because student learning is assessed in his department solely through verbal evidence, the occasional artwork is only smuggled in as a “stowaway.”  Don’s only opportunity to incorporate art work into the substance of his classes is when he teaches in the Honors program, which he calls “the watery part of the academic world.”  Only there can he pursue the kind of “landlessness” he relishes in the “Lee Shore” chapter, exploring the open ocean in which “the highest truth resides.”

Donn Dingledine on the

Don Dingledine on the “landlessness” of the lee shore

Don emphasized the importance of “trust” in allowing students leeway in exploring a literary text.  One student did bring art into Don’s English Capstone course by creating a graphic novel, which qualified in this sense as a “literary” product.  Even so, he felt she might have done even more with the visuality of this project if she had been freed from a literary narrative.  Speaking immediately after Jeff Markham, Don had been amazed that Jeff’s quote from Emerson about “animation” so closely anticipated the slide he would soon be projecting of the cover A Mighty Animation, the title of his Capstone student’s graphic novel.  Don closed his presentation by citing two artist statements from the catalog for our Moby show. He liked Fred North’s internalization of the “open independence” of the lee shore in an attempt to balance his life as a husband and father with that of a student and factory worker.  And he admired Abby’s Schlachter’s description of her body casts as a way to fit her “shape” into a university whose conventional paths had no room for her.  All of this has given Don a new sense of the efficacy of art “in creating new paths that can liberate both teachers and students.”

Title page of “A Mighty Animation,” graphic novel by Dingledine student

Cover art for A Mighty Animation, graphic novel by Dingledine student

Aaron Zlatkin began by saying that the “class that never ends” has become “the class that won’t go away.”  Nevertheless, he enjoyed revisiting his experience in the 1996-97 Moby class as well as the essay he had published in Leviathan a few years later.  In addition to discovering that he had a “pompous writing style” as an undergraduate, Aaron learned some things about the 1996 class from looking at the original and revised syllabi for the course that are still posted on the Moby and the Net website (http://www.nku.edu/~moby).   In my instructions for keeping a running log in response to each assigned section of the novel, he focused on the phrase “depth of thought and fluidity of expression will be highly valued.”  He does not remember such qualities being called for in any of his other classes, and he feels now that the invitation to imaginative thought and expression in this early assignment helped to empower the entire class to propose creating their own art exhibition at the end of the semester.

Aaron speaking about

Aaron Zlatkin speaking about “depth of thought and fluidity of expression”

Aaron was also struck by the extent to which the 1996 course led students out beyond the classroom, not only on the overnight trip to see the Unpainted to the Last exhibition at Northwestern University, but also, for example, in contacting some of the world’s leading Moby-Dick artists for permission to put their images on the class website.  Such activities could be “quite intimidating as freshmen and sophomores,” but they made students feel they were part of a larger conversation about Moby-Dick and the arts.  This further empowered them for their joint exhibition with students at Rockford College in Illinois when they returned for “Further Studies in Melville and the Arts” in 1997.  When Aaron published an essay in the October 2000 Leviathan about his learning experiences in these courses, he called it “Coffins into Life Buoys,” alluding primarily to the way in which Queequeg’s coffin becomes Ishmael’s life-buoy at the end of the novel.  Aaron’s classmate Abby Schlachter had created her own versions of Queequeg’s coffin in 1996 and 1997; she was to be making her own Life Buoy a decade later, as we  saw in the morning session.

Aaron's essay in October 2000 Leviathan

Aaron’s essay in the October 2000 Leviathan

Ashley Theissen, after her experience as an undergraduate student at NKU and a teacher during her graduate studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, worries about how difficult it is for teachers to enable students to “do creative work”–especially at the undergraduate level.  As a teacher of lower-division English courses at Bloomington, Ashley had no room to give creative assignments.  An undergraduate English major, she had felt tremendous pressure to get good grades–“to ace the Humanities”–if she wanted to get into graduate school.  This made her, like other students, afraid to take courses that might be particularly adventuresome or exploratory.  And that led to the subject she wanted to address today: “vulnerability.”  Because “creative work can be really scary.”

Ashley speaking about vulnerabilty

Ashley Theissen speaking about creativity and vulnerabilty

By the time Ashley was a senior English major she had no doubt that she could do what was needed to write a critical research paper.  But when she decided to make a film about the artwork of Kathleen Piercefield and George Klauba as a graduating senior in my Moby class, she was plagued with doubts.  Even after successfully interviewing each artist and documenting the opening of their exhibition at the Rockford Museum of Art in Illinois, she worried about whether the project was worthwhile or whether she would succeed.  She did end up loving this project and working on it “for months after the class was over.”  Both her own project and those of her classmates helped her to see that “engaging in creative work can teach us lessons that other courses and projects simply can’t.”  They also helped her to see that “the dichotomy between creative and critical work is a false one.”  Ashley was happy to tell us that her 2009 documentary about the artwork of Piercefield and Klauba (Fast Fish Loose Fish) is still on the website of the New Bedford Whaling Museum at https://vimeo.com/8846235.

A still from Ashley’s film showing Kathleen Piercefield with Pip triptych in Rockford, Illinois

A still from Ashley’s film showing Kathleen Piercefield with her Pip triptych in Rockford, Illinois

After graduating from NKU as an Studio Arts major last December, Mary Belperio now “practices energy healing,” a profession in which intuition is as central as it is in the world of Moby-Dick and the Arts.  For her, art has always been something that “filled my soul.  Humans are in their very essence creators.”  When doing research for an Art Education course, Mary found in study after study that “art increased the capacity for retention when integrated into other subject matters.”  But our educational system very rarely acknowledges this.  When she saw that a course was offered on Moby-Dick and the Arts she simply thought, “this is how learning is supposed to be.” She and Emma Rose Thompson were the only Art majors in that class, but the artworks that were created by students who were not trained in art validated Mary’s strong feeling that all humans are inherently creative and that “limitations in creative expression are simply illusions that we have imposed upon ourselves.”

Mary Belperio speaking about humans as creators

Mary Belperio speaking about humans as creators

Mary ended her presentation with her own carefully phrased definition of art, one that echoed in an uncanny way the formulations advanced earlier in the day by Jeff Markham, Emma Rose, and Matt Kish: “Art is inspiration made tangible, expressed so that it might be experienced by others, in a way that we experience it within ourselves.”  During the same semester in which Mary was creating Snuggles Beneath the Counterpane, she was learning from her classmates that allowing “artistic expression in a group of mostly non-art majors inspires creativity on a truly committed level that exceeds our ideas” of what one might expect.  The artworks in the Covington exhibition created by non-art majors in Mary’s class include sculptures, videos, paintings, drawings, posters, finger puppets, and mixed-media collages created by majors in Political Science, Journalism, Media Information, Psychology, History, and English.  Mary feels that the art option “allowed for our own personal experience with Moby-Dick,” and “personal experience is what motivates us as human beings.”

Mary, Emma Rose, and classmates on the last day of class

Mary, Emma Rose, and classmates at the end of the 2013 Spring Semester

I had been scheduled to give the closing remarks in this session, but I had been too busy in the last three days to prepare anything in advance, so it worked out well that we were already right at the end of session, at 2:30, when my time came.  I did speak briefly about my original inspiration from Fred North, about my early doubts about whether giving English majors the creative option would serve their needs or those of the department, about the rare camaraderie that can be achieved by an entire class when they all make the choice to make art, and about the difference between writing a research paper about Moby-Dick (in which you have an established format to follow) versus creating an artwork (in which you begin with what you have thought and felt).

emma rose andrew & campus buideAfter thanking all who had shared their own thoughts and feelings about Moby-Dick and the Arts in our first three sessions, I announced that we would be leaving for our walking tour of Moby-Dick art in ten minutes, and that Emma Rose would be passing out a Campus Guide to the sites we were visiting.  Emma Rose’s friend Andrew had picked up the freshly printed guides from Staples the day before, and brought them to us at the Marathon.

(Live video recordings by Media Services of the successive speakers in the pedagogical session are posted following the Art Walk at the end of this entry.)

Shay’s Immortal in his Species near the Stego sculpture

Shay Derickson’s Immortal in his Species near the Stego sculpture

Campus Art Walk.  Our Campus Guide features five different sites displaying original Moby-Dick artwork, but we only had time to visit three of them during the period between the two afternoon sessions of the Symposium.  One of the two sites we were unable to visit was the third floor of Steely Library, where Shay Derickson’s sequence of five photos of an automotive graveyard entitled Immortal in his Species from my 2006 Moby class is permanently installed next to Patricia Renick’s 1974 Stegowagenvolkssaurus.  The other site we could not work into our afternoon walk was my office, Room 536 in the Landrum Academic Center.  Most of the student artwork I usually keep in my office was either in our Dickinson show in the Steely Library or our Moby show in the Covington Library, but I did have original Moby-Dick artwork by Frank Stella, Robert Del Tredici, Aileen Callahan, Mark Milloff, and A. C. Christodoulou in my office that I would have loved to show to our out-of-state visitors if we’d had time to stop by.

Descending from the main plaza to the Lobby of Greaves Concert Hall

Descending from the main plaza to the Lobby of Greaves Concert Hall. Photo courtesy Abby Langdon

Jeff Markham, Beth Schultz, Caitlin Sparks, and Tom Lohre aka Ahab

Jeff Markham, Beth Schultz, Caitlin Sparks, and Tom Lohre aka Ahab.  Photo courtesy Abby Langdon

Our first destination from the lobby of Budig Theater was the lobby of Greaves Concert Hall on the First Floor of the Fine Arts Building.  For those who were comfortable walking on this sunny springtime day, I led a group along the main plaza to the stairs that descend between Steely Library and the Fine Arts Building to the lower plaza from which you enter the concert hall.  Immediately inside the doors you see two original, multimedia Moby-Dick prints by Frank Stella, The Whale as a Dish and The Hyena. Each print is 67 inches high by 54 inches wide.  Each is one of thirteen Wave prints that Stella created between 1985 and 1989 in an edition of sixty.  I had first seen these two prints at the Solway Gallery in Cincinnati in November 1989.  The Whale as a Dish was right inside the door; it challenged and mesmerized me much as had the painting Ishmael sees right inside the door of the Spouter-Inn in the novel.  No less than the Spouter-Inn painting, this print resembles “chaos bewitched.”  It reminds me of the passage in which Ishmael says of the Sperm Whale’s head, “I but put that brow before you, read it if you can.”

Frank Stella’s The Whale as a Dish (left) and The Hyena (right) from Campus Guide

Frank Stella’s The Whale as a Dish (left) and The Hyena (right) from Campus Guide

Contrasting the reproduction with the original.  Photo courtesy Numediacy

Contrasting the reproduction with the original. Photo courtesy Numediacy

The University acquired these two prints and installed them in the Greaves Lobby soon after I published my book on Stella’s Moby-Dick Series in 2000.  It had taken me more than a decade to write and publish that book after first seeing The Whale as a Dish in 1989, just as it had taken Stella more than a decade to create one or more artworks for every chapter title of the novel in the Moby-Dick series he began in 1985 and completed in 1997.  I love to bring students the Greaves Lobby to show them the difference between the seeing the reproduction of The Whale of a Dish on page 10 of my Stella book and seeing it in person.  I also like to ask students to write down the first word that comes to mind as an overall impression of this work when they first see it, and then share that word with other members of the group.  Alert viewers invariably have widely different perceptions, which always leads to an interesting discussion.

Looking at The Whale as a Dish.  Photo courtesy Numediacy

Looking at The Whale as a Dish. Photo courtesy Numediacy

Matt Kish in Archive.  Photo courtesy Numediacy

Matt Kish in Archive. Photo courtesy Numediacy

Our next stop was only a short walk across the lower plaza to the Steely Library Special Collections and University Archives.  Here archivist Lois Hamill had set out the Moby-Dick artwork from her collection that she and I had selected the week before: the Whiteness book by Claire Illouz, the White Whale on black paper by Carola Bell, posters of Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick works from around the world, a dozen Moby-Dick prints by Robert Del Tredici from the mid-1960s, another sixteen prints by Del Tredici from 2013-14, and two dozen original Moby-Dick drawings on found paper by Matt Kish, most of them reproduced in Moby-Dick in Pictures in 2011 but several of them newly created since then.  It was a real honor to have Matt Kish with us for this visit, so after I showed a few examples of what can be learned interpretively from examining the reverse side of the found paper on which he has drawn, I turned the rest of the Archive visit over to Matt, who spoke about his own process in making these drawings and took questions.

Looking at two tables of Del Tredici prints in the Archive.  Photo courtesy Numediacy

Looking at two tables of Del Tredici prints in the Archive. Photo courtesy Numediacy

Honors House on day of campus tour.  Photo Courtesy Numediacy

Honors House on day of campus tour. Photo Courtesy Numediacy

It would have been a pleasure to spend the rest of our art walk with Matt in the Archive, but we had plenty to see over in the Honors House as well.  We began in the room they call the “library” near the back of the first floor, which has three small, brilliant Moby-Dick prints by Greek artist and translator A. C. Christodoulou in addition to one of Del Tredici’s iconic pen-and-inks from the mid-1960s, Inscrutable Tides of God.

Vali Myers, Moby Dick, in reception room of Honors House

Vali Myers, Moby Dick, in reception room of Honors House

In the reception area of the Honors House we saw a feast of original Moby-Dick art work by Matt Kish (the drawing for page 79 of Moby-Dick in Pictures, framed so you could see both sides), two rare giclee prints by Vali Myers (Moby-Dick and Stella Maris), one of four giclee prints that Mark Milloff released in 2005 (Stripping the Whale), the poster for an exhibition of Stella’s Wave prints in 2005 (reproducing The Counterpane), and four large screenprints from the turn of the century by Robert Del Tredici (Folly Beast of Earth, Boggy Soggy, and variant versions of Sick Civilized).  Because two Moby-Dick works by student artists were currently on loan to the exhibition in Covington (Shear by Danielle Kleymeyer and Queequeg in her Coffin II by Abby Schlachter Langdon), I had temporarily replaced them with framed prints of Del Tredici’s Face in Water and Stella’s Dare, Dream, Discover, the Christopher Columbus Quincentennial print Stella had adapted from his Moby-Dick print The Battering Ram

Kish and Del Tredici in the Honors House.  Photo courtesy Numediacy

Kish drawing and Del Tredici prints in the Honors House. Photo courtesy Numediacy

Links to the live video recordings by Media Services of each successive speaker in the session on “Moby-Dick Art in the Classroom”:

Jeff Markham in Pedagogical Session


Don Dingledine in Pedagogical Session


Aaron Zlatkin in Pedagogical Session


Ashley Theissen in Pedagogical Session


Mary Belperio in Pedagogical Session


Robert K Wallace in Pedagogical Session




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