NKU Symposium on Moby-Dick and the Arts, Closing Remarks

Entry begun on Friday, May 15, 8:00 am

The weather remained pleasant for our walk back to Budig Theater.  We arrived relaxed, refreshed, and ready for our final session in which Jeff Insko and Sam Otter would each make closing remarks.

Jeff Insko is a professor of English and colleague of David Shaerf and Adam Gould at Oakland University in Michigan.  He is also a Melville scholar who has written about relations between Literature and the Arts.  When he heard that David and Adam were coming down to film our Arts Fest, he decided that he would like to come to see the exhibition, participate in the Marathon, and attend the Monday Symposium.  I was delighted to hear this, and asked if he would like to share his impressions in a somewhat impromptu manner in the final session on Monday afternoon.  As he began his Closing Remarks, his colleague David Shaerf was right in front of the podium to film him.


Brian Cruey, Whenever I find myself pausing before coffin warehouses

Brian Cruey, Whenever I find myself pausing before coffin warehouses

Jeff began by saying that seeing the exhibition at the library and hearing the presentations today has made him think differently about his own courses.  He has taught Moby-Dick at Oakland every year for at least a decade now, and every now and then some student has shown an intense, unsolicited interest in responding to the novel through the visual arts.  So maybe students “all these years have been asking me to teach the course that Bob is teaching here, that Jeff is teaching in Illinois, that Don is teaching in Wisconsin.”  At the exhibition in Covington, Jeff was “struck by how the student artists absorbed and appreciated the book’s tremendous wit and playfulness.”  He saw this “in Ronnie Sickinger’s Whale Dinner and in Camilla Asplen’s cookbook, both of them irreverent in ways that Melville would have appreciated.”  And then you have Brian Cruey’s “wonderful Coffin Warehouse photo.  It manages to do both things that Melivlle does.  It is haunting in a way, but it is also a reminder of how funny that moment is in the first chapter—funny and morbid at the same time.  What better way to create more readers of Moby-Dick than to let them realize it’s not the big scary book that no one can finish—that it’s actually full of many joys and pleasures and moments of glorious laughter.”

One of Caitlin Sparks' three White Whale photographs

One of Caitlin Sparks’ three White Whale photographs

Second, Jeff was “really struck” with the “ways into the novel” that female artists have found.  “Like Caitlin’s remarkable, beautiful, ghostly, phantom-like images.  So many images that we’ve seen of Moby-Dick are so busy.  Milloff’s paintings are full of stuff.  Even Matt’s are so dense.  But Caitlin’s are so spare.  They remind me of the moment when Ishmael says, ‘Don’t try to enlarge you mind. Subtleize it.’  There’s something beautifully subtle about these works.  Abby’s plaster casts are really remarkable too.  I am really interested in that kind of embodiment.  And Mary Belperio’s Snuggles Beneath the Counterpane is so wonderful and playful and lovely.”


“Don’t try to enlarge you mind. Subtleize it.”

Landon Jones, Ahab's Iron Crown

Landon Jones, Ahab’s Iron Crown

Jeff’s third point was that “there’s so little of Ahab in the art” on display.  You do have “Jordan Small’s portrait.  It’s really great.  I love the creases around the eyes.”  And you have “Ahab’s leg” in the rock garden.  But Ahab remains “tough” for student artists as well as for experienced artists and even teachers.  Jeff feels this will be “a challenge for classes going forward,” including his own.  “I’m going to have to be more mindful than evrer to find ways to help students today connect with Ahab.”  The two artworks in the Covington show that address the complexities of Ahab most directly are probably Kathleen Piercefield’s Ahab: Thou must not follow, created for the Rockford show in 2009, and Landon Jones’s Ahab’s Iron Crown, created  in my Honors Freshman Composition class during the Fall 2013 Semester by a pre-engineering student who had not read Moby-Dick itself, but who had attended a production of Orson Welles’ Moby Dick—Rehearsed by NKU’s undergradaute Theater department .  Maybe Landon’s artwork does protend a deeper engagement with Ahab by new generation of students.

Jeff Insko’s final impression that he will take away from the Covington show is simply that these student artists understand “the joys and the pleasures and the remards and the difficulties and the dangers of reading Moby-Dick.”

Sam Otter began his Closing Remarks by emphasizing “something that no one else has mentioned” about the Covington catalog: the bibliography that “comes after the eloquent artist statements and the spectacular images.”   In that bibliography “you learn that there have been 15 exhibitions of Moby-Dick art by NKU students locally and  nationwide.  You also learn that there have been 31 publications by and about NKU Moby artists.  That is an astonishing and impressive record, showing that the work done by Bob and his students here at Northern Kentucky University . . . has a life circulating far outside the campus.”

Samm Otter Opening his Closing Remarks

Samm Otter opening his Closing Remarks

Brian on the book stacks leading to Caitlin by the window

Brian Cruey’s photos on the book stacks leading to Caitlin Spark’s photos  by the window

Before addressing in a fairly systematic way the question of why Moby-Dick appeals to such a variety of visual artists, Sam offered several observations about the Covington exhibition and the NKU symposium.  Over the last four days he had learned that Beth Schultz’s Unpainted to the Last is “a palpable presence” not only for Melville scholars but “in the lives of artists.”  Earlier today, Ashley Theissen’s “eloquent” comment about the false division between “the critical and creative” reminded Sam of Melville’s implicit insistance that we “beware of tempting, illusory binaries, beware of false choices.”  One thing that surprised Sam about the student art work in the Covington show was the “wide variety of media: prints, drawings, photographs, collages, sculpture, porcelein, dance, video, stop-frame animation, artist books, dioramas, posters, textiles, fabric reliefs, body casts, quilts, felt sculptures.” Just as “art fills the pages of Emma and Bob’s catalog,” it “also fills the Covington library.” Sam thought it was a great way to see the art,” to be in a space that has you “thinking you’ve finished seeing the art and then turning a corner and realizing there’s another room of art to see.  Or art on the end of stacks.  Or art down corridors you haven’t been to yet.”

In both the exhibitoin and the catalog, Sam was struck by “the outpouring of creative work by a range of students, formally trained or not.”  He feels that “that outpouring resonates with the democratic experiment that is one of the topics of Melville’s book: the sense that art is not produced only by the formally trained, only by the elite, only by those in particular departments.  I think that is not an accidental resonance” between the artwork and the book, but a “creative response” resulting from a deep engagment with the book itself.

Sam saying art is not produced only by those in particular departments

Sam saying art is not produced only by those in particular departments

vedder cover 3 +At this point, Sam paused in his Closing Remarks and asked my students and former students in the audience to come up with us on stage.  In their presence, he presented me with the most meaningful professional gift I have ever received: my own copy of one of Herman Melville’s most prized possessions late in life, Elihu Vedder’s illustrated 1886 edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.  As Sam well knows, I have studied Melville’s own copy of this book, now at the Houghton Library at Harvard, quite carefully as part of my ongoing research into Melville’s print collection,.  To have a copy identical to his to study and savor here at home will be a lifetime pleasure for which I will be eternally grateful.

Sam presenting me with Vedder's edition of the Rubaiyat

Sam presenting me with Vedder’s edition of the Rubaiyat


Now, finally, Sam got down the the business at hand, a consideration of “how we may account for the extraordinary visual response to Moby-Dick” by artists in diverse places, times, and media.  I have room here to touch only briefly on his three main points.  One reason for “this creative outpouring” in response to this book is “Melville’s visual imagination, his own intereset in art, but also his own visual pictorialism.” A second reason is “the book’s challenge of representation, most prominently having to do with the whale—massive, elusive, saturated with meaning.”  Sam suggested that Melville’s three chapters evaluating the representation of whales in diverse media “indicate the range and variety of media in which the book can be responded to.”  Making his own variation on Ishmael’s “I but put that brow before you.  Read it if you can,” Sam sees the book itself as saying to artists “not only read it if you can,” but “paint it if you can, draw it, etch it, sculpt it, carve it, film it, dance it, if you can,” offering the artwork in the Covington exhibition as evidence.

“Paint it if you can, draw it, etch it, sculpt it, carve it, film it, dance it, if you can”

Kathleen Piercefield, collagraph, monotype with hand coloring, 2008

Kathleen Piercefield, Bosom Friend, collagraph, monotype with hand coloring, 2008

In additon to Melville’s visual imagination and the book’s challenge of representatioin, Sam also suggested that Moby-Dick’s “variety of forms and speakers helps to explain the artistic response.”  This novel “licenses the reader, indulges the reader, goads the reader, and the artist, to use all available forms.  Melville himself uses narrative, poetry, digression, meditation, abstraction, fantasy, realism.  The book encourages a response, encourages experimentation.”  This includes a flexible interplay between word and images.  In Covington, Sam was “surprised and pleased to see how many of the student art works incorported words.”  And he was “fascinated”’ to hear Kathleen Piercefield describe how “discovering the technique of the collagraph” gave her a new appreciation of Melville’s attention to mark-making in the novel, which in turn informed her own mark-making practice.

Holly Doyle McAtee's Self-Portrait in Moby-Dick

Holly Doyle McAtee’s Self-Portrait in Moby-Dick, 2006

This example from Piercefield led Sam to one more thought about the extraordinary visual response by visual artists to Moby-Dick:  the book “draws readers into its obsessive quest, its unfinished quest.”  As in the case of Walt Whitman’s poetry, “an intimate connection is established with readers, a sense that the writer invites his readers, needs his readers, summons his readers, compels the readers to finish his work.”  Responsive readers each do their individual parts “by completing the circle of communication” that “can never be finished.” And “readers and teachers and students alike have responded” in this way to Moby-Dick.  “And we’ve seen, over the past four days, one remarkable pattern of response in today’s Symposium and in the two decades of Moby-Dick art” that are brought together in the Covington exhibition and its catalog.


When Sam left me alone at the podium after the many kinds of gifts he had given me, my students, and the audience in these Closing Remarks, I thanked him, the speakers, my student artists, and the audience for what had been a remarkable four days.  And what struck me, with my heart so full, was everything Emma Rose had done to bring this element of my teaching career, these achievements of my students, to full expression.  Yes, I had had the pleasure of teaching the Moby course every other year for twenty years, enjoying the sequence of artworks that students would present at the end of each semester, and from time to time following those artworks out of the classroom in whatever exhibition or publications might result.  But many of the artworks in the Covington show had never been seen outside of the classroom.  And few of the artist statements or classroom presentation photos that anchor the catalog had ever been seen outside of the binders into which I had inserted them at the end of each semester (in my role as Melville’s sub-sub-librarian).

vlcsnap-2015-05-21-04h37m49s34All of these archival materials were brought to life and given a purpose by Emma Rose’s decision, a few weeks after Spring Break in our 2013 Moby class, to co-curate what became the Covington exhibition and co-edit what became its catalog.  It is literally true that without her saying “yes” to this project there would have been no Covington exhibition, no companion catalog, no four-day Arts Fest, and no excuse to invite so many wonderful, talented people to come and share their own experiences with us.

After sharing some of above thoughts and feelings, it was time to invite our audience members, most of whom had been with us the whole day, to make their way down to the exhibition space in Covington for the Reception for Student Artists and Guest Speakers that would conclude the scheduled portion of this marathon day.  I was driving Beth and Sam, as I had in the morning, and we would have made it to the Reception more or less on time had I not again lost track of that box of catalogs that Emma Rose and I had inscribed for our student artists.

Catalogs now back in the trunk of the car again

Catalogs now back in the trunk of the car again

Before the keynote speech in the morning I had left that box near the table that the NKU Bookstore had set up in the lobby for selling Melville-related books.  I knew that the bookstore would be removing its merchandise while we went on our art walk, but in the afternoon I had forgeotten about our catalogs until it was time to pack up after the Closing Remarks.  By then the box had migrated to an undisclosed location and it took quite some time, with the help of several people, to find it and once more load it into the trunk of my car, this time to have on hand for any student artist at the reception who did not yet have his or her copy of the catalog.

Live video recordings by Media Services of the sequence of Closing Remarks:

Closing Remarks by Jeff Insko


Closing Remarks by Sam Otter


Closing Remarks by Robert K. Wallace



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