Whitewashed Wale

On illustrating Moby Dick

by by Timothy Nassau

I am absolutely bizarrely obsessed with Moby-Dick and with this art,” says Matt Kish. From August 5, 2009 to January 29, 2011, Kish drew, in order, an illustration for every page of Moby-Dick, all while driving three hours to and from work five days a week. His illustrations were published in October as a book (Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page) and can also we seen on his website, Obsession indeed, but an obsession for a book about obsession is fitting, almost as if Kish were part of the book. The first time I emailed him, I addressed him as Mr. Kish. “Call me Matt,” he replied.

The Independent: How did you start making art?

Matt Kish: Even now I don’t consider myself an artist, I don’t like to use that term. I’m a librarian, and that’s something I feel very comfortable repping because I’ve always had this lifelong connection with books. I would pull books off the shelf and there were these amazing pictures: children’s picture books, illustrated story books…For me, very early on the idea of the book as an illustrated object, as a synthesis of text and images, was fixed in my head. I’m 42 now. I can remember bringing home pictures from kindergarten when I was four or five years old. Every kid is thrilled when their mother puts them on the refrigerator, but that was something that went on and on and on through elementary and middle and high school and really just never left me.

Indy: But you didn’t want to study art in college?

MK: I’m not sure that art school or an art degree would have really made me any happier than I am now. The nice thing about not having the weight of that BFA or MFA is that I don’t really have a lot of expectations one way or another; I haven’t been indoctrinated into any particular kind of representation. I’ve always had total freedom as someone who likes to draw to just do whatever it is I want. In a weird sort of way, that total freedom is what led me to tackling this immense project: I just basically wanted to create the illustrated version of Moby-Dick that I had always wanted to see, the way it always looks to me in my own head. And I set out to do it, and I did it. It sounds kind of simple and kind of pat, but that is it in a nutshell. I wanted to do it. I sat down. I did it, and I’m really proud of it.

Indy: How closely were you able to stick to a schedule of one drawing a day?

MK: I would like to say that I kept to that rigidly, but that got pretty elastic. On many days I would begin and complete one illustration. There were some days, especially on the weekend, when I would, if feeling especially inspired, complete two or three illustrations per day. That gave me the flexibility, especially near the end, to spend more time than I had on any particular day to finish a piece. So it was kind of an elastic timetable by the end, but the two things that matter are: I worked every day on art and I completed 552 illustrations in 543 days.

Indy: So some pages were more of a challenge than others?

MK: It was actually surprisingly difficult for maybe the first 100 pages or so. There’s an entire chapter just about chowder. Forcing yourself to create one illustration for every page means for that three page chapter on chowder, you have to find some creative and exciting way to visually represent chowder. There were some pages at the beginning where I found myself reading the page over and over again just looking for some access, something that provoked some kind of response in me. I look back at those pieces and they’re some of my favorites because they are so obtuse, and they forced me to really think about things in a very lateral way, a way that I might not have ever approached the novel or my art. I was grateful for the challenge but man, at the time, I was pulling my hair out.

Indy: Why did you work chronologically instead of skipping around?

MK: That was very important to me because I knew that with this project, I was going to be entering new artistic territory. I knew that I was going to be exploring all kinds of different media, and I also knew that I was going to be revisiting some of the same characters over and over again. I knew I was going to draw Ahab dozens of times and so it was very important to me to see how the art would evolve over the course of the novel. I knew that my first illustration of each character as they appeared were going to be important because they were going to set the tone, they were going to be that primal image from which every other image could spring. But I also knew that they would be the most loosely formed and the most basic. I wanted to see how my exploration of these characters visually would continue to evolve over the course of a novel the same way a plot evolves for a reader. It was really to visually parallel the way that a story unfolds for a reader.

Indy: You mentioned before the new artistic territory this project took you to. What kinds of materials and techniques do you use for your illustrations?

MK: Everything analog that I can get my hands on. I like to use found paper—paper that I harvested from old books, things that were going to be discarded—because I kind of like the idea of giving it a second life in a way. In terms of media, prior to this Moby-Dick project, I was only using pen and ink or colored pencil. And so when I began this project, I wanted to give myself total freedom to use any media I wanted because I was curious about it, but I was also really intimidated. I had never painted anything. I don’t think I had used a paint brush since junior high. So I used everything from acrylic paint to ballpoint pens to nail polish, spray paint, crayons, colored pencils, pen and ink, collage, charcoal… there was nothing I wouldn’t use if it was on hand.

Indy: Over the course of this project did you learn about other illustrated versions of the book?

MK: I was actually aware of them before I even began the project because I had seen so many illustrated editions. I was always in awe of them, but what fascinates me about them is that the illustrations that I had seen were so vastly different from one another. You have these fairly realistic engravings by Rockwell Kent and then you have these incredibly abstractprints or sculptures that Frank Stella is doing. They’re like six feet by ten feet and they have three-dimensional elements but also print-making elements. It’s so abstract that had you not been told this was based on Moby-Dick you might almost miss that. Then there have been these comic adaptations. Bill Sienkiewicz did one. Walt Whitman has that line, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” and in a sense I think that that’s very true of Moby-Dick. It’s such a big book, such a giant book, that I truly feel there is room for all of these different interpretations, these different expressions of the novel.

Indy: Did you ever refer to those works while doing your own illustrations?

MK: I tried very hard to keep that from my mind. I didn’t look at any of them, I didn’t reference any of them other than at one time: there’s a piece I did which is a direct homage to a Rockwell Kent illustration that I was really taken with. But beyond that, I really wanted to keep it extremely personal and have it be my own vision.

Indy: Does your version do anything the others don’t?

MK: Historical accuracy is something that has been done in not only illustrated versions of the book, but illustrations surrounding the book. It’s not difficult to go to any bookstore and pick up ten random editions of Moby-Dick from ten different publishers, and inevitably nine of those ten are going to include either an actual historical photo or engraving from the days of American whaling. Perhaps even a modern painting or illustration, but one that is historically accurate:the ship will have the proper number of sails and masts, rigging will be accurate, and so on. I have nothing against that, but it kind of bores me a bit. So when it came time for me to begin really visualizing and creating on paper my version, this version I had always wanted to see, I started to think more about the ideas behind these things. For example, one of the things that has constantly astounded me about these whalers in the 1850s, 1840s: they were fairly young men and they would get on these boats and they would set sail and they would not set foot on familiar land again for three or four solid years. The only thing they would see would be the ocean, whales, and the men on the ship. That just astounded me because I could not even conceive of the absolute willpower and discipline that might take. It almost seemed inhuman to me, so when I first began, within the first ten pages I was called upon to depict some of these sailors and I couldn’t see them as really anything other than almost resembling the ship that they sailed on. If you look closely at many of the images of the sailors and the seamen, they are almost ship by shape. They are made of metal and wood and they have these sort of curved, prow-like bodies and heads, turreted heads and rivets all over their body. That was the way I saw it, the courage and the willpower of these men and what they were willing to do, going out into the middle of the ocean and basically stabbing to death monsters 70, 80, 90 feet long that could shatter them with one twitch of the tail. That was something I had never ever seen before. My sailors look almost like robotic ships, not at all like men.

Indy: Why illustrate Moby-Dick in particular and not another epic novel?

MK: It is absolutely my favorite book.It is the book that has meant the most to me and shaped my life the most. I’ve read it seven or eight times and every single time I read this book it’s this incredibly challenging read, but it’s so immensely rewarding. It seems to reveal not only more and more to me every time I read it, but it’s almost a completely new experience reading it each time. I have never found a book to be as giving and as rewarding and as endlessly fascinating as Moby-Dick is and I truly do feel that everything one would need to know about life and how to be human is contained somewhere in that book if you’re willing to look for it.

TIMOTHY NASSAU B’12 stabs monsters to death.