Letter from Highland Heights: Moby-Dick Art by Matt Kish and Robert Del Tredici

November 24th, 2013  |  Published in November 2013

Letter from Highland Heights: Moby-Dick Art by Matt Kish and Robert Del Tredici

By Robert K. Wallace

Moby-Dick seems to be everywhere these days. This month of November brought me three new examples. On November 1 PBS broadcast Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera as part of its Great Performances series. A few days later, a student introduced me to the Thug Notes version of Moby-Dick on YouTube. Last week a direct descendent of Herman Melville who lives near Columbus, Ohio, sent me a charming new Moby-Dick Baby Lit book. This week, on November 21, the Archives of the Steely Library at Northern Kentucky University will be mounting an exhibition of Moby-Dick art to accompany the illustrated lecture that artist and photographer Robert Del Tredici will be giving as the keynote speaker for this semester’s Honors Convocation.

I first became interested in artistic interpretations of Moby-Dick when I walked into the Solway Gallery on Fourth Street in Cincinnati in November 1989 and saw seven brand-new Wave prints by Frank Stella. (Two of those prints, The Whale as a Dish and The Hyena, have migrated to the lobby of Greaves Concert Hall at NKU). I first saw eighteen of the pen-and-ink drawings that Robert Del Tredici created in the mid-1960s when Elizabeth Schultz reproduced them in her 1995 book Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century Art. One year later I saw many of Del Tredici’s original pen & ink images when I took students in my NKU class on Moby-Dick and the Arts to Schultz’s exhibition Unpainted to the Last in the Block Gallery at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Del Tredici, like Kish, ties his art closely to Melville’s words, as you can see in his 1966 drawing Meditation and Water (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Robert Del Tredici, Mediation and Water, photo-offset from pen & ink, 10 x 8 in., 1966. Collection of the author.

I first met Robert Del Tredici in Rockford, Illinois, in April 1997, when he was the keynote speaker at the Landlocked Gam, a joint exhibition of Moby-Dick art by Honors students in my Moby-Dick class at NKU and art majors in Robert McCauley’s studio class at Rockford College. To supplement the student exhibition, Del Tedici had created poster-size versions of his earlier pen-and-inks, a process that intensified during several visits to NKU in which he exhibited his photographs of the nuclear industry from Three Mile Island and At Work in the Fields of the Bomb, lectured on animated film and Japanese cinema, and began making a series of large silkscreen prints that transformed his earlier Moby-Dick designs into searing, glittering, gestural expressions for a new century. Left Wing Day of Judgement (fig. 2) is one of more than a dozen new silkscreen prints that were reproduced with many of the earlier pen & inks in Del Tredici’s 2000 book Floodgates of the Wonderworld (Kent State University Press).

Fig. 2. Robert Del Tredici, Left Wing Day of Judgment. Original pen & ink, 1964; silkscreen print, 30 x 22 ½ in., 2000. Collection of the artist.

Our November 2013 exhibition in the Steely Library Archive will display Del Tredici’s early pen & inks and later silkscreen prints along with photographs documenting the nuclear age and our post-9/11 consciousness.

I first met Matt Kish at Cincinnati’s Books by the Banks Festival in October 2011, when he spoke on his newly published Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page. In April 2013, Kish gave an illustrated lecture on that project in the Digitorium, the state-of-the-art projection space in our College of Informatics in which Del Tredici will be speaking on November 21. At the time of Kish’s April lecture, NKU acquired for its Archive twenty-three of the 552 original drawings that he had created for his 2011 book. Kish had made one of those drawings every day until he got to the end of the Signet edition of Moby-Dick he was using for the project. Nearly all of the drawings were made on found paper that Kish had salvaged from discarded books or pamphlets. In the published book, the reproduction of each drawing is accompanied by the passage from the page of Moby-Dick that inspired the drawing. Of the original drawings acquired by NKU in April, students in that semester’s class in Moby-Dick and the Arts chose the one illustrating page 75 of Kish’s edition to be framed for permanent display in the Honors House (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Matt Kish, drawing for page 75 of Moby-Dick in Pictures, pen and ink on found paper, 11 x 7 ¾ in., November 11, 2009. Collection of NKU Honors House.

You can see on the surface of this drawing words and diagrams from the found paper on which the image was drawn (in this case including a “Tube Failure Check Chart”). We have framed the original drawing at the Honors House so that the verso of the found paper is entirely visible. The text from Moby-Dick that accompanies this drawing in Kish’s book is the passage from “The Ship” in which Peleg accuses his partner Bildad of policies that would produce a conscience “heavy enough to founder the largest ship that ever sailed round Cape Horn.”

During his April 2013 visit to NKU Kish also did something he had never done before: he created a new Moby-Dick drawing before a live audience. He asked me and my students to send him three passages from anywhere in the novel to which he might respond, leaving it to the audience in the Digitorium on the afternoon of April 16 to chose which one he would draw. The audience chose the passage from “The Try-Works” in which Ishmael describes the process by which the whale, as his body is burned for its oil, “supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body.” The accompanying photo (fig. 4) shows Kish at his drawing board immediately after completing the drawing.
Fig. 4. Matt Kish immediately after completing live drawing of burning whale in NKU Digitorium, April 16, 2013.

Kish donated this drawing to the Steely Library Archive to accompany the others that were acquired at the time of his visit. In our November 2013 exhibit we will display this drawing (Kish 408a) immediately next to Del Tredici’s 1964 pen & ink of Left Wing Day of Judgment, which is inspired by the smoke that rises from the same page of Melville’s text.

Visitors to our November 2013 exhibition will see five of Del Tredici’s pen & inks from the 1960s side by side with five of the original drawings that Kish created fifty years later. Just as Del Tredici’s pen & inks will be accompanied by several of his screenprints from the turn of the century, so will Kish’s drawings be accompanied by one enlargement of his work. The NKU Theater department launched its Fall 2013 season with a production of Orson Welles’ Moby-Dick—Rehearsed. Director Michael Hatton had seen Kish’s presentation in the Digitorium in April and acquired Moby-Dick in Pictures as a resource for his student actors and production team. Student set designer Emily M. Graver integrated a number of images from Kish’s book into a constellation of painted canvases whose individual parts were revealed incrementally as the action evolved. The last canvas to be revealed (fig. 5) was inspired by Kish 409, the drawing in which Kish was himself inspired by the passage in which “the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.”

Fig. 5. Detail featuring the panel of Emily M. Graver’s set for Orson Welles’ Moby-Dick—Rehearsed inspired by page 409 of Kish’s Moby-Dick—Rehearsed, Stauss Theater, NKU, September 26 – October 6, 2013.

Although the exhibition in the Steely Library Archive will only be on display during the time of Del Tredici’s visit, the Kish originals now in the Archive collection can be examined there by appointment. The Honors House has on permanent display, in addition to the one framed Kish original, one of Del Tredici’s original pen & inks and four of his larger, later Moby-Dick screenprints. Each venue has other Moby-Dick works by artists worldwide for any visitor interested in the visual art that Melville’s 1851 novel continues to inspire.

The exhibition Companions on a Journey: Robert Del Tredici, Matt Kish, and Melville’s Moby-Dick will be shown in the Eva G. Farris Special Collection of the Steely Library Archive at Northern Kentucky University on November 21, 2013.

Robert K. Wallace is Regents Professor of English at NKU, where he has taught classes in Moby-Dick and the Arts since 1992. His books include Melville and Turner (1992), Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick (2000), and Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick (2013).

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