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to attract much attention, such as a chemistry textbook from the 1950s, a tractor repair guide for discontinued models, outdated and mismatched encyclopedia sets where Germany was still split into two countries and the U.S.S.R. still dominated Asia, would also be discarded.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.