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.
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Matt Kish is a librarian and artist from Ohio. He has tried his hand at black and white photography (with real film and real chemicals), but these days he draws as often as he can, often with whatever he can find. Moby-Dick in Pictures is his first book.
Books mentioned in this post
Matt Kish is the author of Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page