Posted by Matt Kish,
November 11, 2011 11:50 AM
Finishing was the hardest part. When I began, I identified quite a bit with Ishmael. Here was this man who had been struggling with a November in his soul and decided it was high time he set sail and see the world a bit. Ishmael is a cipher, a non-entity, whose only role is to tell the tale. I would, in my own way, be re-telling the tale of Moby-Dick
with my drawings. Who I was didn't matter and my part in the journey would be small. Just as the story itself is what mattered, my drawings were the only thing I thought should matter.
That perception suited me well, particularly for the first half of the project. Although it was at times trying to force myself to be as visible and accessible as the requirements of the blog and the new book demanded, I was always able to retreat back into a life of privacy and obscurity. In the beginning especially there was still some time each day to sit down and talk to my wife, read another book, or take a walk.
As time went by and the events of the book edged closer toward their nihilistic climax and my involvement with the art became deeper and more demanding, I found myself changing. Often in ways I could never have predicted, and sometimes in ways that were abhorrent to me. Instead of feeling like Ishmael, a simple passenger on the voyage whose role it was to recount the events to those interested, I began, as cliché as it may seem, to identify more and more with Ahab.
It's interesting to note that my first drawing of Ahab was crisp, precise, pristine, and rendered primarily in cool nautical grays and blues. That, I suppose, is much how I felt at the time. As the months rolled by though, Ahab's madness seemed to claim me as well. My drawings of him became looser, sloppier almost, more and more unhinged. The formerly strict and orderly captain was showing his true colors as a revenge-obsessed monomaniac willing to push himself and his crew to any length to achieve his goal.
The project now had a deadline. A contract had been signed. And I was still working more than 40 hours per week and spending at least three hours every day in the car. Time was shrinking, dilating, until the lack of it nearly asphyxiated me. And yet, night after night after night, through the dimming days of fall and the icy nights of winter, I spent time with this book. With this captain and his madness. Finding, somehow, images inside of me to put down on paper.
The project nearly devoured me. I found myself thinking about the art incessantly. Every single second I could spare, every single second that I didn't spend working, driving, sleeping or eating I spent in the closet studio drawing or thinking about drawing. I began to build walls, pushing people away, seeing them as hindrances to what I really needed to be doing.
It was a difficult time for me. And then, so suddenly that it took me by surprise, I was finished. See, I would never let myself look ahead. I knew that to do that, to start counting the pages to the end, would be to rob what I was doing of the kind of urgency and energy that I needed. So, much like the sailors and harpooneers on the Pequod, I took each day as it came and thought nothing of yesterday or tomorrow. And, I suppose, much like the sailors and harpooneers on the Pequod, the end arrived quickly, suddenly, and with very little warning.
I had known what I wanted to draw for that last page for almost 18 months, so in some ways, this was the easiest image to create. But in so many more ways, it was the hardest. It was finally over, and while I was overjoyed to have my own life back, to have the kind of freedom that had been missing from my life for a year and a half, it was bittersweet. I had spent so much time with this story and these characters that their absence left a hole inside me. Even in the darkest, most desperate, most solitary hours in the studio, I still walked with Ahab and Queequeg and Starbuck. And now they were gone. But the work was finished, and the drawings remained. And of that, I was very proud.
Looking back, I have no regrets. I will not read Moby-Dick
again for some time, but I will read it again. I would never choose to experience something like this again, but I think it is right that I did. While I have gained much from this — a deeper understanding of Moby-Dick
, the most personal and intimate reading of a book I have ever journeyed through, an art book full of my own drawings, a body of art that I am immensely proud of — what I value the most is what I learned about myself and about people. I went from almost total solitude to a place of being more connected, in more ways, with more people than I would have ever realized. Being able to share this art and this journey with so many people, through interviews, blogs, videos, and the book itself, has been an experience that will continue to shape me for decades, and one I'll never forget or take for
Posted by Matt Kish,
November 10, 2011 12:51 PM
Yes, I really did read more than one page a day.
I am familiar with the novel. This reading, the one that led to these 552 illustrations, was actually my ninth journey through the novel. It is important to note that my first reading was in junior high school, and was more or less a disaster. Of course I was thrilled by the action and the adventure, but I plowed my way through huge sections of what my adolescent self would have called "the boring parts" with all the attention span of an apple. It wasn't until my third or fourth reading, as an undergrad in the '90s, that the shape and texture of the story began to really make themselves known. And that is only one of the many many magnetic properties of this great novel. It rewards — deeply rewards — repeated readings.
I won't go on here about the structure and nature of the text. Others have done that, and done a far better job than I could ever hope to do. I will simply add that the book is a mosaic, a vast tapestry of images and ideas, themes and stories, symbols and ciphers. This mosaic nature was an essential part of what freed me to visualize the pages in any way that I wanted, and to feel no misgivings about stitching this panoply of images together and having the audacity to call it a single body of work.
Each week, I would read several chapters ahead, simply to familiarize myself with the story. I would let those words roll over and over in my mind, allow the ideas to chase on another around before it was to be their moment on stage.
At some point each day, I would turn to the page that was to be illustrated next and just read and re-read that page in a kind of trance until something provoked a personal and visceral response in me. Sometimes, what provoked that response was a line of text or dialogue. Sometimes it was a specific idea or concept. Sometimes it was a description. Sometimes it was the appearance of a character. There was rarely any real shortage of inspiration from this incredible book and often, especially in the latter half of the book, the greatest challenge was in trying to select one passage to illustrate when several, or at times the entire page, provoked all sorts of responses.
Once I had made that point of connection with a particular line of text, I waited until an image came to my mind. This often happened immediately, in a purely intuitive manner. Since my first experience with this story was seeing the Gregory Peck film, and my second was with a heavily abridged yet heavily illustrated 200-page children's version, there was never a time for me when Moby-Dick
did not exist as a visual narrative. So many of the illustrations I created for this book were really just an actual physical realization of a cinema show that had been playing in my head for years as I read and re-read the book.
Since the majority of these illustrations were completed on weekdays, when I spent most of my time behind my desk at work, I would just roll the image around in my mind for hours and hours. Testing it, poking it, turning it over to see what was underneath. There was never any sketching or pre-planning for the final illustration. In fact, I superstitiously believed that to do that would be to curse the image and drive the inspiration farther away rather than bring it nearer. And each time, every single day, by the time I returned home and stepped into the closet studio, the image had almost completely resolved itself inside my head. It was then time to work.
I chose each piece of found paper intuitively. I didn't spend time searching for a book or a page that I felt corresponded with the image I needed to create. The choice always seemed clear, and I was able to begin work right away.
These illustrations are rough pieces. They were never meant to be slick or polished. They are immediate. They are raw. They are as pure as the transition from a mind to a piece of paper allows them to be. Each and every one is my own deeply personal response to this book. Each one is an exultation of total personal and artistic freedom. And as I look back at them all, at the range of images from the crude and abstract to the lushly detailed, I am still proud of them. Every one of them is truly exactly what I intended it to be.
Posted by Matt Kish,
November 9, 2011 11:09 AM
I set only two rules for myself when I began this project. The first was to create one illustration per page per day. That was to force me to re-assess my art and, in a very real sense, drag me out of my comfort zone. That looming deadline, every single day, for what I projected would be a year and a half of constant work, would constantly nip at me and keep me running to stay ahead. The second rule was to proceed through Moby-Dick
sequentially, from page 1 to page 552, without skipping around to illustrate the pages I might have found most exciting or interesting at the very beginning. Just as the reader begins a story with a blank slate, gradually filling in details of place, time, character, and description, I wanted to see that reflected in the art I was making. I wanted to see how these images would develop, grow, build on one another and hopefully reference one another as I worked my way through the story the same way a reader would.
Beyond those two rules, I freed myself to do, literally, anything I wanted. I allowed myself to use any and all media, from ballpoint pen to collage to crayon to craft paint. I allowed myself to use any and all manner of visual representation, from abstract to cartoonish to semi-realistic. I knew even at the beginning that a project like this, one that was really just a personal exploration of this great book, could become a chore and could burn me out. By giving myself this level of freedom, I felt I had reduced the possibility of burning out and thus walking away.
Immediately upon beginning the illustrations, I posted them online on a new blog
for one reason only — to share the art with my friends and family who lived out of state. I suppose there was also that feeling of increased accountability as well, since I knew that these same friends would not hesitate to contact me and push me to get back to work if I skipped more than a day or two of drawing and posting. Beyond that though, there were absolutely no ulterior motives to posting this online. The illustration project was always intended to be a deeply personal response to this great novel, and an attempt to create the illustrated version of Moby-Dick
that I had always wanted to see. I had been drawing for over a decade and I had a web site of my own full of drawings and comics, and I was still completely and totally obscure. I had no illusions at all about my status as a non-entity in the art world, and that suited me fine. These drawings were, after all, for me.
Everything changed so fast though.
Within a few days of beginning the project and posting the Moby-Dick
art on the blog, I was contacted by Meg Guroff who, among other things, runs a wonderful web site called Power Moby-Dick
, an online annotated edition of the novel. She asked if she could do a very short email interview with me for another blog. I was stunned. The first thing I did was reply and ask how she had found out about me, which she graciously answered by filling me in on the mysteries of the Google alert. The second thing I did was forward her emails to my wife, asking "Do you think this is real?" My wife, who is always a great deal more perceptive and balanced than I, replied that yes, she thought it was real and yes, she thought I should do the interview. So I did. At least, as best as I was able.
Even that tiny level of increased visibility was off-putting for me. Suddenly, though the numbers were small, people I had never even heard of were visiting the blog and leaving comments. Very slowly, over the next few months, there were a few other interviews. All were from bloggers of various levels of professionalism and sophistication, but the questions became more and more complex as the body of work grew. While I was still uncomfortable with this level of visibility, there was a certain joy in the feeling that there was some external validation for what I was doing.
In December of 2009, roughly four months and 100 illustrations after starting, the blog was mentioned on the web site BoingBoing
and was buried under what was, to me at least, an avalanche of new visitors. Suddenly, interview requests were coming from web sites as far away as Germany. I was contacted by a museum. People started asking if they could buy the art. It became surreal.
As a result of that mention, I was invited to travel to Brooklyn to talk about the project as part of the Open City Dialogue
bi-monthly lecture series at a bar called Pete's Candy Store. My wife and I have been to New York many times and are always looking for an excuse to go, so I accepted immediately. And here is where the wheels really started turning.
A children's picture book illustrator found out about my lecture through a brief write-up in one of the local free papers. She was not able to make it to the event, but she did check out my blog, which at this point included the first 200 or so illustrations, and emailed me to encourage me to keep going. She asked if I had ever considered turning the illustrations into a book and I wrote back to say that no, that had never ever crossed my mind. Not even as a pipe dream. Honestly, I just didn't think it would even be possible for a whole list of reasons which started with the fact that no one really knew who I was and I didn't consider myself an artist. She was very kind and suggested that a good friend of hers, who was an agent, look at the project and decide for himself.
Well, he did so and very enthusiastically wrote me saying wonderful things and indicating that he really did feel it was worthy of publication. I was inherently suspicious, as I often am, and gave him a rather hard time. I asked all sorts of questions, some of which were valid and some of which were probably annoying, but eventually I relented. I decided that, at worst, a book pitch would fail and the project would remain exactly what it was... a deeply personal, private exploration through illustrations of one of the world's greatest novels. And at best, it would become a book, which would be phenomenally thrilling to me.
From there, the rest was a blur. I signed with the agent, put together some promotional material and a PDF of the project so far and turned it over. Within a week, he called me back saying that Tin House Books
was interested. I was beside myself. Tin House! I had known about them for many years, had purchased many issues of their excellent magazine and had always deeply appreciated their vision. It seemed like a perfect fit, and it really was.
But I still had to finish the work. And that proved to be the hardest of
Posted by Matt Kish,
November 8, 2011 12:21 PM
At some point, I am always asked some variation of "Why did you create these Moby-Dick
illustrations on found paper?" Generally, that's followed by something along the lines of "What are these? Electrical diagrams?" The answer, as happens so often, has its roots in the past.
While I was in grad school in the early 2000s, I worked for a large used book store in Ohio. Customers would bring us their books, and one of the store's rules was that we always made a cash offer for every single item. It could be as low as a dime for a box of moldy books, but there was always an offer. A great deal of the material we bought would be cleaned, priced, and shelved, stocking our store with a wide selection of current and unusual titles. But there were always exceptions, and sometimes there were stacks of exceptions. These were the books that were simply too damaged or too ephemeral to even earn a spot on the bargain shelves, where all the books were priced at a quarter. Anything with a badly damaged spine, mold, severe foxing, or missing pages would be discarded in a large recycling dumpster out behind the store. Additionally, anything that was just not going to attract much attention, such as a chemistry textbook from the 1950s, a tractor repair guide for discontinued models, outdated and mismatched encyclopedia sets where Germany was still split into two countries and the U.S.S.R. still dominated Asia, would also be discarded.
This detritus fascinated me. Every single one of these books, in some way, represented someone's dream. Every single one of these books was the result of hard work, inspiration, and aspiration. True, I had come from a home where as a child I was taught that all books had some inherent value, which is probably why I found it so difficult, even on an emotional level, to throw all of these volumes in a dumpster.
I was also fascinated by the pages inside these books. The maps, the diagrams, the charts... really, any kind of unusual visual representation of information drew my eye immediately. It was the lure of the arcane. Here, I knew, was some story, some mystery, something that could be unraveled with enough scrutiny and effort. This was human knowledge given shape and form, preserved for the ages. It was our history, and our culture.
I asked my manager if I could start taking some of these discarded books and pages home. He gave me a rather strange look as if he had never been asked that before, but ultimately agreed as long as I was cautious about it. At the time, I had no idea what I would use this material for, but I was certain that at some point, something would suggest itself. I began to stockpile anything that I found visually interesting. Sometimes, they were entire books about the history of shipping, TV repair guides for long out of date models, maps of the Soviet Union, children's books about snakes or time, or collections of early photographs. Sometimes they were just a handful of pages of charts or diagrams that I found visually appealing. I filled boxes and stacked the material on shelves and there it all sat for years, waiting for some kind of rebirth.
By August of 2009, I was feeling creatively restless and listless. I knew that I wanted very badly to be doing something with my art, but drawing had become a laborious and depressing endeavor that brought me no joy. My drawings had become overly detailed and I felt I was too reliant on rulers, circle templates, and other mechanical aids.
That confluence of events that brought me to the idea of creating one illustration per day per page of Moby-Dick
demanded some new way of making images. I would never complete anything, ever, if I relied entirely on filling every bit of the paper with lines and details, and I didn't want to do that anyway. I very badly needed to find a new way to make art. I had experimented a bit in the past with painting over these found pages, and while I initially found that lack of control and that visual battle with the elements of text and image already on the page very upsetting, there was something about that discomfort that drew me. The initial decision to use this found paper for the Moby-Dick
illustrations was for purely aesthetic reasons. I knew I would have to strip down my art to the simplest elements of shape and form, learn how to do more with less, and work harder on composition and color instead of simply relying on detail.
After completing two or three illustrations though, I quickly realized that I had intuitively arrived at the best possible decision for visualizing this great book. Just as Moby-Dick
is, on its surface, a very direct adventure narrative describing a doomed captain's obsession with hunting the whale that maimed him, its depths are profound. Just beneath that surface tale there are seemingly never-ending layers of meaning, symbolism, and narrative. The book is a mosaic which rewards repeated readings, deep scrutiny, and intense thinking. I realized that the art I was creating was in many ways a visual parallel to the structure of the novel. On the surface, the viewer would be able to look at the ink and paint that I had laid down and see the image I had created... a visualization of some aspect of the novel. Beneath my own illustrations, sometimes intentionally, but often randomly, elements from that found paper would show through. Portions of diagrams, fragments of maps, and bits of text would swim underneath the illustration hinting at greater and deeper meanings. Sometimes inscrutable, sometimes obvious, this collision of text, diagram, and image frequently resulted in unusual and sometimes chillingly appropriate juxtapositions. The entire result was intoxicating.
The TV repair diagrams formed the bulk of the found paper that I used, and even here the parallels were apparent. These diagrams were from the 1960s, for televisions which no longer exist and would be considered absolutely obsolete by today's standards. Their importance is gone, and they exist as nothing more than history. Moby-Dick
is in many ways the story of American whaling, a profession and a calling that is now completely obsolete and largely forgotten. These sailing ships decked out with ropes and rigging, bristling with harpoons and crowded with crews of brave men who would not set foot on land for years at a time were, in a strange way, siblings with these hulking television sets that at one time had filled nearly every American living room, providing a window to the world. Both were once central to American life, both had changed and evolved, and both had in some ways had disappeared from all but the mustiest history books.
Posted by Matt Kish,
November 7, 2011 11:50 AM
Looking back, I should have realized at the time that turning 40 years old that summer had a great deal to do with it all.
I've been drawing pictures as long as I can remember. My earliest memories are purely visual, and my childhood was shaped by picture books, illustrated storybooks, and comics. My parents were avid readers and they did their best to make sure I followed in their footsteps. Oddly enough, I don't remember ever being given any of these colorful illustrated books when I was young. They were always just there, on some shelf, ready for me to open and fall into. I stared at those pictures long before I was able to read the stories they accompanied, so, for me, no story or book was ever complete without images.
In spite of this childhood saturated with images, both my own and those I saw in books, it never occurred to me to pursue art as a career. Drawing was something I did for fun, and only that. Drawing as a career seemed as feasible to my young brain as eating candy for a career. I just didn't think it was possible and now, as an almost middle-aged man, I feel fortunate that I never did take this thing which is so dear to me and make it into a job. To be fair, it's not that I was ever discouraged. My parents were very understanding, allowing me to pursue whatever I was interested in exploring. I am certain they would have had no issues whatsoever with me working toward a fine arts degree instead of an English education major as an undergrad.
My earliest drawings were pure imitations of what I liked in other books, and, because of that, there was always a story to every image. There was always something which came before each drawing and something which came after ? a narrative flow to the pictures. I could point to every single detail in every single drawing and explain it to anyone. All the characters had a back story, all the places had histories, and all the objects had names. It was this strong sense of narrative that hooked me and drew me to art. I needed to see, and to make, pictures that were stories too.
In my early 30s, comparatively late in adulthood, I began illustrating my own stories. Without text, of course. I drifted toward illustrating my own personal mythologies, fueled by those fantastic stories of my childhood and a childlike sense of wonder that has never left me. There was never any attempt to share these, although a few friends did become part of the trusted inner circle. These were for me and for me alone.
Eventually, I went a step further and began creating my own comics, elaborating on these drawings of mine with actual words. That was an exciting time, but I quickly discovered that telling stories with words was a great deal harder than I could ever imagine and for the first time, my drawings began to fall short of what I wanted them to be. It seemed such an awkward fit, trying to take what for me existed as pure imagery and weigh it down with words.
I began to question myself. Why was I doing this? These images were fantastic, to be sure. At a time when most of my friends and peers were concerned with settling into adulthood, advancing careers, caring for children, dealing with getting older and so on, I was dreaming of colossal angelic robots striding across galaxies, hurling stars at one another, and wrestling in the forges of creation. What was wrong with me?
The fact that the drawings and comics simply weren't what I wanted them to be wasn't helping. True, colored pencils and ink pens weren't costing me a great deal of money, but the greatest cost was time. I was fortunate enough to have finally found a career I was passionate about and very happily married to an adventurous and exciting wife. Why was I so willing to spend so much time alone with pens and pencils and paper, shutting out the real world? Was it worth it? Was it time to finally lay the pens aside? These thoughts roiled through my mind for months in 2009, the summer that I finally turned 40 years old.
Like many, I was paralyzed with indecision. I juddered back and forth between vowing to leave the art behind for good and striking out on some bold new adventure. The ambitions changed daily, leading to more and more unhappiness. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be doing something, but I had no idea what.
A chance confluence of events and thoughts ? a message about Moby-Dick
from an old friend on Facebook, my creative listlessness and indecision, my awe of Zak Smith's illustrations for Gravity's Rainbow
? somehow combined in an almost alchemical, unknowable way and with no planning, no forethought, and no real idea of where it would lead me, I decided in the heat of the moment that the only way to rescue myself from the artistic limbo I was in was to create one illustration per day, per page for my favorite novel ever, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick
Now that the project is complete and the results have been (hopefully) preserved for the ages in a real book, I'm able to look back with a bit of perspective and see that, despite the fact that, in general, age means nothing to me, I was, like Ishmael, grappling with my own "November in my soul." That artistic malaise that plagued me was in a very real sense one of the many results of turning 40 years old and foundering in the lull that it brought. Like Ishmael, I had little money and "nothing particular to interest me on shore." Thankfully, my intuition brought me to sailing about a little to "see the watery part of the world" through this great book, and my closest, most personal, most challenging, and most visceral reading ever.
What unfurled over the next 543 days would forever change