In Pursuit of the Great White Whale, via Paintbrush

BY Lauren Knapp  October 10, 2011 at 3:39 PM EDT

In August of 2009, librarian and artist Matt Kish was looking for some inspiration. After what he calls “a summer of boredom and creative restlessness,” he found himself searching for a project that would bring him out of his artistic ennui.

Inspired by artist Zak Smith’s illustrations for each page of the post-World War II novel ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ Kish decided to attempt a similar feat, but with the maritime classic, ‘Moby-Dick’.

“‘Moby-Dick’ was a very easy choice,” he told Art Beat in a recent interview. “It came to me almost in a flash because it’s been a book that’s been a companion my entire life.”

He chose to illustrate the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition, and over the course of the next 543 days created one drawing for each page — plus 20 extra.

“This is not an attempt to create a storyboard of the novel,” says Kish. Rather each drawing is based on a particular passage or line of text from the page.

Kish posted his progress on his blog, where he displayed the pages as they were finished. People started to notice – other artists and bloggers used his work as inspiration for creating their own art. And, by June 2010, he had an offer to turn his project into a book – ‘Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page’.

View a slideshow of Matt Kish’s illustrations:

Read the full interview after the jump.


ART BEAT: What was the impetus for this project?

MATT KISH: I’m a librarian, actually. I’m not an illustrator or an artist. I don’t have a degree and I never attended art school. And yet, drawing and making images is something I’ve been fascinated with and enjoyed doing ever since I was very young. So in late summer of 2009 I was feel directionless – I wanted to do something creative, but I just didn’t know what it was I wanted to do. I was tired of the things that I had been doing and the art that I was doing just wasn’t exciting me any longer. I was familiar with an artist named Zak Smith who had done a similar project for Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”. And I knew that giving myself something that ambitious would be the perfect way to jump-start myself creatively and really force myself to find some kind of discipline and just keep moving forward. “Moby-Dick” was a very easy choice. It came to me almost in a flash because it’s been a book that’s been a companion my entire life. I’ve read it multiple times, I’ve seen the films, I’ve read abridged versions, it seemed like something that’s always been a part of my experience and it was fairly obvious that it’s my favorite novel of all time. There’s so much in it, so much to learn, so much to experience. So it really all came together in this flash of intuition and I decided, a bit spur of the moment, that this would be the perfect thing to attempt.

Looking back on it, I wish sometimes I had planned it out a bit better because the edition I chose to illustrate had 552 pages and very shortly after I started I discovered there were some versions where the font size is a bit smaller and there were only 3-400 pages, which would have, of course, had saved me months and months and months of effort. But in the end, I’m very proud of what I was able to accomplish.

ART BEAT: What is it that draws you to “Moby-Dick”?

MATT KISH: What’s really fascinating to me about the book is that it seems to be a different novel every time I experience it. My first experience with it was as a very young child – probably 5 or 6 years old and seeing the movie on television. And like a lot of young boys, I was kind of obsessed with monster movies. And just seeing that white whale – I have this very vivid image of this eye rolling under the water. So that struck me immediately as a child because here was a monster that was almost real. So, that crossing over, that blurry line between fantasy and reality hooked me right away.

Very shortly after that, either my parents or my grandparents gave me this very tiny abridged version. It had a page of text on the left and an illustration on the right. So every other page has some sort of drawing. And obviously this version was heavily abridged. But that was the first time I’d gotten to know the characters: Captain Ahab and Ishmael and so on. I was 6 or 7 years old and I was smitten. So I knew the story from a very early age.

My first attempt to read the unabridged novel was in high school. And, of course, when you’re a high school reader, you miss a great deal, but there was enough there that appealed to my immature sense of symbolism and grasping for meaning. What does the world mean and all these questions that a teenager struggles with. And so the book showed a lot. It felt like everything you needed to know in life was in the pages of this book. Then I read it in college and I read it as an adult several times. Every time I come to the book, I see parallels to stages that I’ve gone through in life and more and more is revealed to me. It’s seemingly endless.

ART BEAT: By taking on this project you became more intimately involved with “Moby-Dick”. Did you discover new things about the book or have new interpretations?

MATT KISH: Sometimes I feel it’s easier to define my project more by what it’s not than by what it is. It is certainly not an attempt to create the definitive “Moby-Dick”. My illustrations are not even remotely historically accurate at all. Many of them are rather fantastic. The whole illustration project is an intensely personal exploration of the book and what the story is to me. Doing this project, though, was really the most personally intimate I had ever been with the novel and near the end it began to be really more of a mirror of myself and some of the things I had experienced, and what my life had been like so far, and how the book had been a companion to me throughout my life.

So in a sense these illustrations are just as much a representation of me as an individual as they are of the novel. And, you know, it took me to some pretty dark places at times. The book, near the end, is frightfully bleak and nihilistic and it exposed some of those elements inside myself and really made me confront some of the things that had been plaguing me for a long time. It really was an ordeal, it really was a long journey. But by finishing, I really feel that I was able to put some of those things to rest and close a part of my life and move forward.

ART BEAT: It sounds almost therapeutic at times.

MATT KISH: Yes, very therapeutic, but in a way I hadn’t expected. I really hadn’t expected to uncover some of those things about myself and see those parallels in the novel. And I realized that perhaps this is why the book has been a subconscious allure to me throughout my life.

ART BEAT: Why is it important for you to point out that you are not an artist?

MATT KISH: First of all, it’s a label that’s fraught with a lot of baggage. When you say you’re an artist it carries a lot of connotations – sometimes good, sometimes negative. A part of it that I’ve mentioned before, is that I don’t feel like getting into any confrontations with anyone. I don’t feel like I need to justify what I did by attaching that kind of label to it. It was something I did for personal reasons and I’ve been overjoyed to share it with so many people. But I think that there have been a handful of people that have perhaps been a bit resentful that I’ve had this opportunity without at least, in their eyes, doing the work to earn the opportunity.

I have a great deal of limitations in what I can do in terms of drawing and painting and some will attack you and jump on you for that. I’ll be the first to say, you’re absolutely right, I don’t have an MFA, I don’t necessarily have the background and composition. But, I didn’t position the work as if it was going to be the definitive visual edition of “Moby-Dick” anyway.

ART BEAT: Could you tell me about the materials that you used and the found paper that you used to draw on?

MATT KISH: That was actually very important to me – the use of found paper and inexpensive materials. More and more these days you can’t go to the movie theater or open up a magazine or open up a book or anything printed and escape this creeping plague of digitally or digitally produced art. And that’s something that has always left me very cold. I find digitally produced art very sterile, very impersonal, very slick and extremely commercial. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when it’s positioned as art or as something personal, I find that offensive.

So I knew from the beginning that I wanted this art that I was making for the project to be a real antithesis to that – to be something that was very much tied to the tradition of print that “Moby-Dick” comes from. I had spent a number of years prior to this project and prior to graduate school working in a used bookstore. We would discard all of these books that we weren’t able to sell and it just seemed like such a shame to me because there were so many interesting charts and maps and diagrams and I just started harvesting them thinking one of these days I will find a use for these old discarded books. Because really, every one of those books represents someone’s efforts, someone’s dreams. And so when that flash of intuition came to me to do this “Moby-Dick” project, I instantly thought of all of those pages that I had sitting on shelves that I had torn from these discarded books, thinking that this is going to be the perfect space for all of these illustrations. Rather that do something slick and digital and efficient and commercial – I would do it by hand, using old materials, using found materials, using materials that had come from printed books, printed maps, printed diagrams, because I had really wanted to attach this art to that tradition.

In terms of using the less expensive materials – everything from ballpoint to nail polish – that was two-fold. One was that I didn’t want to give myself any limitations. I knew that in doing 500-plus pages of art that there was always going to be the possibility that I could get burned out, that I could get exhausted, that I could feel myself getting closed in, the same way that I had felt prior to the project. So I wanted to open myself entirely and give myself the opportunity to explore all sorts of media depending on what my whim was at the time. And one of the reasons I chose deliberately inexpensive materials was, again, that feeling that it’s not necessarily important for me to buy the finest acrylics and position this as fine art. What’s important is that this comes from me as a normal human being.

ART BEAT: Your depiction of the sailors is very machine-like. What led to this decision?

MATT KISH: Creating and imagining and visualizing the sailors and harpooners -
One of the things I ran into right away was that I have a very difficult time accurately drawing human beings. And so at first the book appeals to me because I think I’m going to get to draw all of these monstrous whales. But the truth is that there are hundreds of pages of nothing but sailors talking to one another and rigging the sails and doing their duties around the ship. And so I knew that right away I had to come up with some way to accommodate that artistically.

So I began thinking less in terms of realism and more in terms of the impressions I had always had of the men who did this. A lot of people are surprised to find out that I don’t read a great deal of history about sailing and whaling – and so the little I do know generally came from reading “Moby-Dick”. And in thinking about these men who were not only able, but willing to leave their homes for two, three years at a time – who were willing to not set foot on solid ground for year after year after year, sailing around in what doesn’t amount to much more than a big pile of wood on these huge oceans, and then going out on these rowboats with nothing but spears and fighting the biggest creatures on the planet – it seemed almost inhuman to me. It seemed almost as if these men themselves were like machines, like they became the ships. And so that Idea really led me to the way I began to depict the sailors and the harpooners. They represent the ships that they sail on because to me that was the most obvious and important way to depict their courage and their iron will power and their ability to deprive themselves of what so many of us take for granted – a warm bed on a solid floor. And they did this for not a tremendous amount of money either.

ART BEAT: Did your understanding of the characters change or increase over the course of the project?

MATT KISH: At the beginning of the project I identified more with Ishmael because throughout so much of the novel, he becomes not more than a passive observer. He’s narrating the tale, he’s recounting everything that happened. But Ishmael himself is not really a factor. And since I have read this story so many times, it’s a novel that I’ve witnessed but never really felt like a participant. The life of a whaler in the 1800s is of course very far from the life of a librarian in Ohio in the 21st Century. So I identified a lot with Ishmael because his are the eyes through which the tale unfolds. And in creating all of these illustrations, I was functioning in that same role.

As time went on though, and the project began to take it’s toll, there were times when it was very difficult. Especially near the end, I had gotten so deeply into the project and felt that I had already sacrificed so much – personal time, time with my wife, so much just to keep this project going. I did, as cliché as it may sound, begin to identify with Ahab because finishing the project became an absolute obsession to me. Ahab’s entire obsession within the novel is to kill this whale which has wronged him and taken his leg and unmanned him. And near the end it became a burning obsession of mine to simply finish, to get to the end, so that I could put it away and I could have my life back.

And there were some pretty hard times because I finished in the end of January. So through that long winter it was just sleeping and working and working on the art. I would wake up and it would be the first thing I would think about. It would be the first thing that would come into my mind when I came home from work. It drove me constantly, and the feeling that I had when I was finally finished was indescribable.

ART BEAT: Was there a moment when you realized that you had reached the point of no return?

MATT KISH: Actually, yes. There was a very specific moment. The project has 552 pages, and very shortly into it I began to think, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” but I had already made so many promises to friends and family members that I was going to do this that I knew I couldn’t quit.

So I kept going, even though the fair really gripped me. So I divided the number in half and knew that when I reached the 226th page I would be closer to the end than to the beginning. So in terms of pure mathematics, that was a big watershed moment to me. In terms of an overall sense of personal terror that came relatively early – really right around page 10 or 11. It dawned on me that this was going to be the shape of my life for the next year and a half. I was pretty terrified.

ART BEAT: What went through your head when you finished that final drawing?

MATT KISH: It’s almost embarrassing to say. Some of those last drawings – the last 10 or 20 pages – are amongst the most harrowing pages ever written in American literature. I was really pushing myself toward the end because at that point I knew there was going to be a book, which I did a pretty good job of keeping that idea at arms length and not letting it change my focus. But I can’t lie, there was an added layer of accountability because more people than I had ever imagined would see this art. So it became very important to me not just on a personal level, but in a public sense too, to make sure the images I was creating matched the intensity and ferocity and nihilism of those last pages.

So I pushed myself harder than I ever had before in terms of creating art for those last 2 or 3 weeks. And that was definitely the darkest part because the end is within arm’s reach and the only thing stopping me really is just time. At that point if I could have worked on it 10 days straight – I would have done so because I wanted to be finished so badly, and yet the work was so public that I couldn’t cut corners. So I was in a state by the end.

The last couple of pages were actually relatively calm and peaceful and when I actually set the pens and brushes down after finishing that last page, it’s almost indescribable what went through my mind. I’m not ashamed to admit that I did actually weep a bit because there was this enormous sense of relief. This huge burden, finally, I could put down. I was elated because I was able to look back at all of those pages and all of the memories associated with them. And I was proud of what I had done. I had not made any compromises and I had stayed true to what my vision was and I had completed the task I set before me. And in a sense I was a bit sad. It’s almost what I imagine a prisoner might feel like after being released from jail for so long – you almost don’t know what to do with yourself because your life has been so governed by these rules and these restrictions that in a sense I was a little sad and a little frightened. There was a part of me that thought I would miss those characters, because the story had become more real to me throughout this project than ever before. So it really was this crushing welter of all these emotions just cascading through my head and I just needed some time to sit quietly in my studio before I could even go out and face my wife who had been anxiously awaiting this day for a year and a half.

ART BEAT: Do you plan on reading “Moby-Dick” again?

MATT KISH: I do need a bit of a break. This has been such an intense experience, but I will definitely read it again. I actually look forward very much to the next time I read it and revisiting my illustrations and seeing how they hold up to me and how they changed the story for me and how they fixed certain ideas or images in my mind in a way that previous readings have not. But, it will be a few years. I do need a bit of a whale break, a bit of a sea break, a bit of a break from “Moby-Dick”. And so I’m looking forward to looking at it on the bookshelf and not reading it for a few years.