Obsession of a modern-day Ahab

I haven’t given Moby-Dick its due in my reading life, not like Matt Kish, who’s read the classic close to 10 times. Now he’s illustrated the whaler’s story using the Signet Classic paperback edition with the Claus Hoie painting “Pursuit of the Great White Whale” on the front. In the Foreword to his new book, Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page, Kish writes, “So many editions of the novel have boring historical illustrations on the cover; this one really appealed to me for its fearless modernism.” But the Signet Classic also conveniently fit Kish’s project by beginning the story, with its famous opening line “Call me Ishmael,” on page one — Kish intended to create one illustration for every page of the book. 

Working like a modern-day obsessed Ahab, he also set a goal to create those illustrations for the book’s 552 pages one per day, forcing himself to work creatively but efficiently. He ended up completing the project in 543 days.

I heard Kish speak at the official book launch held at the Wexner Center for the Arts where he remarked that as he got further and further into the project, he struggled with the relentless schedule that at times became depressing and bleak. It didn’t help that his creative space was the size of a closet – because it was a closet, approximately three feet wide and six feet deep. Much of Kish’s story about his days illustrating Moby-Dick in Pictures can be read in his book’s Foreword and also on Kish’s blog, which began the day he started the project, August 5, 2009.

The pace sounds like torture, but to hear Kish speak about the project with his energized joy is to hear the truth about what it’s like to set your mind on a project without any ultimate value attached to it other than personal achievement. No one urged him to start this rigorous creative project except himself, and he kept to it, day after day, while holding a full-time job that involved a 90-minute commute one way. That is, three hours in a car every day to get to and from work. Kish, having no formal art education, does not consider himself an artist. “Since I have never had to depend on art for an income, I have always been able to make whatever kind of art I want. The work is for me,” he writes in the Foreword.

A publisher eventually came knocking, but that was neither envisioned nor expected. And when that happened, Kish said he “weirded out” over the idea that someone now wanted to put his illustrations into a published book for retail. Thoughts of “Will the book sell? Will people like it?” troubled him but not for long. Kish said he knew the illustrations were about Moby-Dick, not him, and that’s what kept him going, focusing on his personal and immediate responses to Melville’s story, guided by his intuitive and instinctive reactions.

The illustrations are created with an assortment of acrylic paint, colored pencil, ink, marker, spray paint, watercolor and other materials. And because they are created on found paper, intriguing images and words often are visible in the background of the drawings, such as a description of sleeve finishes for a sewing project, numbers on a tube placement chart and instructions on how to prune roses.

Moby-Dick in Pictures is a beautiful book. The natural response upon picking it up is to flip through the colorful illustrations, and then to casually read Melville’s quoted words next to them. But true engagement comes from starting as Kish did, on page one, so you can see how Melville’s story evolves under Kish’s creative eye. Also, that approach inspires a desire to read Melville’s classic again, or for the first time. Because as Kish writes, “…Moby-Dick is a book about everything. God. Love. Hate. Identity. Race. Sex. Humor. Obsession. History. Work. Capitalism. I could go on and on. I see every aspect of life reflected in the bizarre mosaic of this book.”

Illustrations posted here are photos I took from my copy of Kish’s new book. You can see more illustrations from Moby-Dick in Pictures on the websites of The Huffington Post and The Atlantic. Finally, the Signet Classic paperback of Moby-Dick includes an introduction by Elizabeth Renker, who teaches English at The Ohio State University.

One thought on “Obsession of a modern-day Ahab

  1. Neat post. Thanks. Geoff Smith tells me that this author will display about 20 of these paintings at OSU Library starting in December……


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