In Which the Classics are Canvases: Matt Kish on Illustrating Melville and Conrad

Andrew David King
November 15, 2012
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Matt Kish’s project to create one image for every page of Moby-Dick takes its place in a long pantheon of artworks as veritably obsessed with Melville as Ahab was with chasing the whale. But Kish’s project, unlike Ahab’s, took him over a terrain far more varied than the singularly gray face of the Atlantic. His work in Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page is, more than anything, an exploration: into history, into ability, into exploration itself and the duration of its sustainability. Unexpectedly—or, perhaps, most expectedly—the images he produces are as miscellaneous as psychic shades can be, shifting between palettes of styles, color schemes, and aesthetic doctrines. The border between Kish’s life and id and the surreal mimesis of Melville’s classic novel becomes increasingly fraught the longer one considers it; modern and postmodern artistic techniques, including the incorporation of found text and abstract symbolism, adjudicate the experience of moving through these 552 frames (one for each page, he indicates, in the Signet Classics paperback edition). Roughly that many days from the project’s beginning, Kish had completed it, posting the last illustration on his blog along with a celebratory note and a caveat returning to a reflection on the strange ways in which fiction, by virtue of its imitating the real, can take on the sheen of the real: “What surprises me the most is just how sad I feel. It’s really, finally over. I am truly going to miss these characters. Queequeg and Ishmael. Starbuck and Ahab. Even Moby Dick himself. These characters have really become a part of my life, a part of my daily thoughts now, for well over a year. It will be sad not to think of them, not to see them as often as I have.” For Kish, Moby-Dick was as much a mental state—or a blizzard of mental states, each leading into the next—as a plot, as much a topography as a path through that topography. We receive, in Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page, one of the infinite number of possible maps through that mental topography, that landscape which has established the narrative of precisely the characters he named as something hagiographical, if not transcendental, in American storytelling.

But how does one find a way through a novel of such scope—nonetheless have such keen artistic sensibilities and capacities to both respond to and rehabilitate it in the medium of visual art? Kish, who’s read Moby-Dick at least seven times, knows—insomuch as he feels that he’s guided by something that his conscious self doesn’t have access to. “It’s almost an unconscious process now, really,” he said in a December 2009 interview with Volume I Brooklyn, not long after the 552-page-long undertaking had begun. “These pieces are really immediate and intensely personal reactions to the book and how it has impacted me.” Without giving three cheers for reader-response theory, Kish’s point shouldn’t be lost on anyone with a nuanced sense of what it’s like to experience a book as much interpret, or translate, the symbols contained within its text. His work is, then, a dual act: one of making clear the phenomenology, or surface impressions, of his movement through the novel, and another of disassembling the wall between the self and the text in order to see what alchemy the two produce. What results is both faithful and yet antagonistic, derivative and yet generative, recognizable and yet cyborgian. The meaning of any work changes with time, with age, and with new readers; what Matt Kish does (like others before and around him; Zak Smith authored Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow) is make that change available to us somehow by furnishing us with his vision of what might seem to many to be a set-in-stone masterpiece. Instead of stone, however, it’s something more malleable, something more conducive to the life with which his artworks are bustling.

Kish and I have exchanged emails for several months, in which he’s allowed me to ask him about his process, current and future plans (he’s working on applying the same treatment to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness right now), and what it’s like to be an artist moving about in a sea of quasi-mythological parables about mankind’s relationship to nature—which is, Kish’s work recalls, just another way to talk about mankind’s relationship to the fragmented and variable components that make up itself. Throughout our conversation, which is posted below, I’ve sprinkled excerpts from Kish’s work on Melville and Conrad (for a collection also forthcoming from Tin House Books); each work takes as its title an excerpt from the page he had in mind when creating it—just another way the ocean of the past floods over its shores to stain the present. All images are by Kish and relate to his Melville and Conrad projects unless otherwise noted.

Kenyon Review: On your website, your write the following about your work: “A lifetime obsession with Jack Kirby, Philippe Druillet and the Monster Manual led to all of this.” It’s interesting that you mention Druillet, whose own pieces have been inspired by Lovecraft and Flaubert, among others. What was it about the monstrous–or the supernatural, the superheroic–that led to your recent and current projects? Are there particular reasons you chose Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness to make art “about” (for lack of a better term)?

Matt Kish: It has always been difficult for me to articulately describe the appeal of the monstrous and the fantastic. I can recall, as a young child in elementary school, a mosaic of memories…well, a mosaic of feelings really, sort of loosely tied to particular occurrences…where I think this really began to take hold. There was a steady feeling of disenchantment, boredom, and in some ways, depression. Almost as if the color were gradually draining from things around me. It could be described as a youthful struggle with the question “Is this all there is?” and finding no satisfactory answers. So these things, these Jack Kirby comic books and Philippe Druillet stories from Heavy Metal magazine that were occasionally left lying around the house for me became a window into another more exciting, more brightly colored world. A lifeline of sorts. See, even as a child, I was keenly aware that these worlds existed only in these comics and magazines and books, or perhaps in the mind of their creators, but that didn’t make them any less real. It pained me at times that I could not go there, could not visit Kirby’s Negative Zone or Apokolips or the worlds of Druillet’s Lone Sloane, but that pain passed quickly because I had those stories and those images to immerse myself in and internalize.

That sense of wonder is an enormous part of what drew me to the story… and I truly mean “the story” and not “the book”… of Moby-Dick in the first place. Again, as a child in elementary school, I would spend Saturday afternoons at my grandmother’s house watching Japanese monster movies on the Superhost show, out of Cleveland on the syndicated local station WUAB-43. This was easily the high point of every week for me and I was obsessed with those monsters and with the titanic struggles to defeat them. One afternoon I was there longer than usual and the Superhost show ended, seamlessly segueing into a broadcast of the 1950s film version of Moby-Dick, with Gregory Peck as Ahab. I tuned it out for a bit, slightly bored by the costumes and the ships and the talking and all that “history” which was so obvious with every detail of the production. But at some point, the White Whale himself appeared and I was instantly drawn back to the screen. Here, in this semi-realistic movie full of “history,” was a monster! A monster which could almost have been real! To my young mind, there was very little distinction between the whale Moby Dick and Godzilla or Mothra or, for that matter, the Mole Man’s monsters from Fantastic Four. I knew none of them were “real,” but to me, through these stories, they were.

So Moby-Dick became very firmly fixed in my mind as a mythic story, a titanic clash, a struggle between men and monsters. To a young boy living in landlocked Ohio in the 1970s, the surreal ocean scenes and fantastic battles with that colossal White Whale were as unreal as any science fiction or fantasy struggle. And both, for me, were a refuge from my boredom and listlessness.

Thinking of my body of work as a series of projects is a recent development and a significant change in perspective that has come directly from this Moby-Dick work. When I began the illustrations, I was seriously questioning what role making art played in my life, and whether it was worthwhile for me to continue to do so. Part of the impetus for this project was to give myself one final challenge, one final project, and use that as a lens to determine whether I wanted to continue drawing or would set the pens down forever. In viewing the work from that vantage point, it is easy to see how so much of what I created is me looking backward over a lifetime of obsession with images, with mythic narrative images, and directly referencing that. I wasn’t sure if the Moby-Dick pieces would be a farewell letter to all of that, or something else entirely.

Heart of Darkness is a different kind of challenge entirely. Since I didn’t come to that story until I was an adult it doesn’t carry with it those same mythic associations. I do see my Moby-Dick illustrations as a love letter to my childhood and perhaps even a capstone to it, while these upcoming Heart of Darkness pieces are a way for me to cope with the struggles of approaching middle age and the challenges and complexities of a life where, whether one wants it to or not, the “real world” with all of its darkness and ugliness asserts itself often in brutal and unexpected ways.

KR: How does that different sense of engagement with each project—with your work with Moby Dick being, as you’re saying, a sort of paean to the American man-versus-monster mythos while illustrating Heart of Darkness allows you to confront life post-young adulthood—manifest itself in the work? I definitely see each project headed on a different aesthetic vector, so to speak; I might even go so far to say that the drawings you did for Moby Dick were more aesthetically diverse, and maybe also in terms of the different media used.

MK: I seem to be unable to focus on more than one thing at a time, and that has shadowed me and dogged me all of my life. In one sense, that allows me to focus to an almost terrifying degree of intensity on the task at hand, but it also keeps pushing me forward in an extremely linear way which tends to leave a lot of the mental landscape a featureless blur. That feeds into what you very accurately described as the “different sense of engagement with each project.” This comes from a notion I have that may very well mark me as deeply neurotic, but I can’t shake it. I have always felt like I have a limited amount of creativity and that it must be very carefully measured out and applied. It’s a precious commodity so to “waste” it by constantly noodling away at a sketchbook or setting my hand to two or three or a half dozen projects at once would be to deprive myself of the staying power I need to see these more ambitious and demanding projects through to completion.

And yes, I have always realized how preposterous this belief is. That doesn’t seem to help me break its hold though. I know that not diligently sketching and practicing is one of my many great weaknesses as an artist.

All of this is why I tend to see all of the creative endeavors I have embarked on as very separate and very distinct bodies of work. There is definitely a great deal of connective tissue holding it all together, to my mind at least, but each group of images stands on its own. So this Heart of Darkness project will be a vastly different thing from the Moby-Dick illustrations which were in turn very different my pinhole photographs or my comics and so on. But the Moby-Dick art bears special consideration because there, more than in anything else I have ever worked on, facets of all of my art coalesced into some kind of gloriously messy singularity. All of those pieces were very aesthetically diverse because of what was happening to me at the time I began that project, and what it meant to me. See, to me, as I started in on the Moby-Dick illustrations, I was truly standing on a precipice, creatively. I had been drawing since I was a child, but I had just turned 40 and was seriously questioning the role that making images was playing in my life. I was truly considering putting the pens down and never ever drawing again, but I couldn’t do something that final yet. So all through the Moby-Dick project, there was a terrifying sense of finality. I knew it might very well be the last thing I ever did as an artist, and so that created an almost frantic kind of energy. I had only those 552 pages to do everything I had ever wanted to do artistically, so I began reaching out and drawing on all of my influences, paying homage to all those artists who had thrilled me and shaped me, and dipping my fingers into every medium there was, even if I had never worked with them before. Because I figured, this was it. This was the end. It was “Do it now, or lose your chance forever.” Remember, at the time, no one had heard of me at all and there was no reason at all to ever believe these illustrations would ever become the book they did. It was all very introspective, very personal, and those Moby-Dick illustrations were as much about me and my own personal creative history as they were about Melville and his book.

It would be delightful to be able to write something suitably heartwarming like “I discovered things about myself and learned that art will always be with me” after I finished those illustrations, but that’s not entirely true. Certainly, having a book come out of it was a thrilling kind of validation for all of the hard work. And yes, I feel as if I am not ready to set the pens down just yet either. But I am honestly still not quite sure what role art will play in my life. I seem to do the best when I ignore boundaries and allow my ego to overwhelm things, but that can be dangerous when you’re working with the classics like Melville and Conrad. I have some very specific ideas about how I want to approach and engage with Heart of Darkness but these are all very personal and psychological and may very well fly in the face of what people… including my publisher… are expecting. It’s a real risk, but this whole project is a deeper risk than Moby-Dick was because now I am published, now there are expectations, now I have something to lose. Or at least that’s what most will project on me. It cuts even deeper though because Heart of Darkness is, to me, an ugly, crushing, but brutally honest book and it cuts very close to the things that, in the darkest hours of the night, I struggle with. I do have some worries about where this might take me. It was very hard to come back to my life after the Moby-Dick project – my wife, my friends, my daily routines – and while I think that helped the art a great deal, it was a price I am not so sure I want to pay again.

KR: That seems like a really complex struggle—trying to balance your own trajectory as a human being with what your projects, in turn, require. Moby Dick is, in my eyes at least, one of those “untouchable” books: I’d be concerned about altering or appropriating it in any way, I think, just because of its canonicity—I’d at least have to think about it in terms of its reified status. When you work with a classic text, one with a long history of importance, do you feel any sense of obligation or responsibility? In other words, did you feel more constrained than usual to meet a certain set of expectations when making art around it? I’m interested in this because your illustrations for Moby Dick incorporate found material, and I’m wondering if you feel that there are different sets of “rules” or parameters for working with a great American masterwork as opposed to a piece of paper you stumbled across. 

MK: I feel absolutely no sense of obligation or responsibility to any text or work of art or creative endeavor because of its perceived canonicity. I find it grimly amusing that the novel Moby-Dick is generally around 500 to 600 pages long, yet scholars and critics and academics have written tens of thousands of pages about the book. To me, that kind of thing always comes across as monstrously arrogant, as if some professor somewhere was hunched over his keyboard, cracking his knuckles, and thinking “Melville couldn’t really say what he meant to say, so I’m going to explain to the world what he REALLY wanted to do with this book.” It kind of sickens me really, and because of that I’ve spent the entirety of my teen and adult life actively avoiding that kind of immersion in the cacophony of academic noise and blather that seems to surround and, to me at least, ultimately suffocate the power of these books. Since this Moby-Dick illustration project was never intended for publication or even public consumption, I felt a sense of almost intoxicating freedom to interact with the book in any way that I wanted. This was to be my reading, my journey, my adventure, and ultimately my personal reaction to the novel. I know very little about Melville since, again, I don’t feel that it’s important to understand the minutia of a writer’s life in order to read and be powerfully affected by their words. But I do like to think that, if he were to somehow become aware of my project, whether he agreed with how I envisioned the story or not, he would at the very least respect the impact that his story had on me and the thoughts, ideas, and reactions it provoked. I know that my point of view will probably not be popular with the academics and scholars of the world, and it may even be seen as offensive. I don’t care. And I would add that, despite their objections to that line of thinking, Melville’s books, especially Moby-Dick, have affected my thinking and my identity deeply and profoundly. They are as real and necessary to me as the air I breathe.

Oddly enough, the only time expectations became a problem for me was around the time the project was greenlit as a book. That had a lot less to do with canonicity and everything to do with pop culture and the business of publishing. I knew that my publisher, Tin House Books, was taking an enormous risk with me. I was a completely unknown non-artist and the book would by its very nature take an enormous amount of time, energy and cash to produce. See, I was pretty sure that what most people who simply heard about the project but had not yet seen it would expect was some kind of lengthy but fairly consistent and realistic depiction of the action in the novel. You know, real sailing ships with masts and rigging, sailors that looked human in historically accurate costumes, and whales that looked like what we all see in encyclopedias. I knew that my vision of the story might be so unexpected and individual, so out of touch with reality, that it would be dismissed or even seen as offensive. And I didn’t want the book to do poorly because I didn’t want to be a burden on Tin House. That was really the only time I felt some kind of responsibility, some kind of obligation to perhaps meet the public’s expectations for the project. Fortunately, that didn’t last long and within a day or two I had settled back in to following my own vision. And for their part, Tin House and my editor Lee Montgomery were absolutely amazing to work with. At no point did they try to exert any kind of influence or control over the art, they simply left me alone to keep working and occasionally sent along messages of encouragement. I feel very lucky to have landed with a publisher that gave me that kind of freedom.

The use of found paper for the art actually had more to do with where I was heading as an artist than it did with any sense of obligation to a pre-existing history. As I mentioned, I had been drawing for my entire life, but for some time before starting this project, my drawings had become increasingly detailed, increasingly laborious, and increasingly stiff and lifeless. Simply put, the act of drawing was no longer enjoyable to me because I felt I had become far too reliant on the use of rulers and templates, overwhelming amounts of detail, and an obsessive sense of control over the image. I had begun experimenting on found paper a few months before the Moby-Dick project, seeing that as a kind of creative destruction. By forcing myself to make images on paper that already had some kind of visual noise on it, I could almost violently force myself to cede some of that obsessive control over the art and learn to let my impulses take over more. I liked the results, and since this Moby-Dick project was an all-or-nothing attempt to learn what art meant to me, I knew that I had to push myself and challenge myself in ways I never had before. I needed that constant sense of discomfort and lack of control to completely re-learn how to look at and make images.

KR: Your biography on the Huffington Post says that you were a hospital manager and cafeteria cook before moving toward the literary end of the employment spectrum as an English teacher and, now, as a librarian. How long have you been making art for, and how have these various industries influenced your art or your thinking about art, if they have? You’ve done work in collage, too, and I’m wondering if you think of the art-making process as a sort of psychological collage, as well as a physical one (in addition to the use of found paper, motifs, etc.), because your interests and influences manifest themselves so apparently. Your illustration for page 550 of Moby Dick, for instance, seems to borrow directly from the stylistic tradition of the comics you mentioned earlier.

MK: In spite of my rather peripatetic path through a wide variety of disparate careers, books and, later, art have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories are of the gorgeous picture books and illustrated story books that seemed to somehow magically fill my house. I think about that often because it’s not as if they were placed there for me since I was an infant at the time. Both of my parents were voracious readers though, and since I was born in 1969 and they were recovering hippies who had been mired in psychedelia and prog rock as college students, it’s only natural that everything in the house would bear some evidence of this aesthetic. Because of these memories, I have always been drawn to art that has a strong narrative element, and narratives that have a strong visual element. That is what, to me, always excites that sense of wonder and adds to the mythic element of all of these great tales that I have been obsessed with for so long. I know that is probably seen as rather gauche by some, or evidence of some kind of intellectual immaturity, but I long ago stopped being bothered by that.

Although I did work briefly as an English teacher and now enjoy a career as a librarian, making art has for me always been an escape, something very insular and very separate from my day job. Those boundaries are essential to me, and I spend quite a bit of time maintaining them and making sure that the walls are strong. That’s actually been a big challenge for me as this art of mine has made the transition from intensely personal explorations of the stories and characters that mean so much to me into something that I have been able to earn some income from and see exposed to a much wider audience through deliberately commercial venues. I like my publisher enormously, but I am always aware that at the end of the day they, like every publisher, are a business and they need to remain profitable. It’s strange to see my work fitting into that paradigm, and it’s been difficult to struggle with the almost-certainly self-imposed neuroses that kind of thing can bring.

For me, the art has always been and will probably always be an escape and a refuge from the rigors of demanding careers and the doldrums of adult life, where unfortunately we’re supposed to devote as much mental energy and creativity as possible to things like retirement plans, choosing political candidates based on our opinions of states’ rights versus the federal government’s rights, wading through health care benefits, and so on. It’s all so terribly dull and I realize just how pat and perhaps predictable this must all read, but it is the truth. There seems to be no joy, no sense of wonder, no appreciation of the fantastic or the unknown in most adults I know. The world is too often a very sad and grey place and for me my art is a doorway to something better, even when the art itself is grim or bleak or violent.

I always tended to think of my art more as a long road rather than a collage, but that impression is changing as I create bodies of work that are larger and more complex and are clearly the products of a lifelong accrual of images and techniques and ideas. For years, every project or “work” I created seemed so very separate from the others. Almost like spokes in a wheel or strands of a web all of which were emanating from some central hub. I guess the best way to say that is that I never really felt much continuity between each endeavor. The early photographs were as different from my first Archon drawings as those drawings were separate from the comics I was making and so on. But so much of that had to do with me exploring the boundaries of this inner landscape as an adult, in an orderly and somewhat methodical way. Piecing together some kind of disparate inner kingdom of unique places all united under some kind of personal banner. Over time, and without any real conscious effort, most of that territory was at least rudimentarily explored and, for lack of a better word, “claimed,” and I began to see how they really all were different facets of the same kind of thing. What, I hope at least, underlies every single thing I’ve ever set my hand to is that sense of wonder. That desire to confront and explore the strange and the unusual and to bring back some visual echo of that to share.

Since the Moby-Dick project began for me after over a decade of serious and intentional image-making and at a point where I was entering middle-age with several years of stability behind me, I was really able to look backward and draw heavily on the hard work I had done. Maybe even the dues I had paid. So I can look at the images in the book and see echoes… sometimes subtle, sometimes overt… of many of the works I had explored so heavily before. And all the imagery that had informed me. Since my earliest memories are visual, and these visual memories are comprised of picture book illustrations, fantasy art, vinyl LP art, comics and graphic novels, cartoons, and the general pop culture of the 1970s and early 1980s, those influences show very strongly in what I make. If one were to spend the inordinate amount of time necessary to look closely at all 552 of the Moby-Dick images, the influence of comics, which are truly the best kind of visual narrative there is, can be seen time and time again. Some of the illustrations use a panel structure similar to a comic page, some of the borrow heavily from the kind of iconic and oversimplified imagery of superheroes, much of the art uses linework, shapes and color fills the way a printed comic would, and so on. It’s all there and what always pleasantly surprises me is how much of it is simultaneously, paradoxically, and wonderfully intentional and unintentional at the same time.

The media, the found paper and so on, was always less important. That’s just a means to an end, really. A technique. A valuable and important one and, at the time I really began exploring it, a lifesaver for my art. But in the end I would caution anyone against reading too much into the use of found paper and even the layering of text and images. It’s there, and it’s important, and it did turn out to be a great deal deeper and more important than I might have realized, but ultimately, and for me especially, the art itself is the essential thing and the doorway to meaning.

KR: Can you tell me more about the differences between “means” and “ends” in your process? What interests me most, I think, is how what you’ve articulated to me here about your approach somewhat resembles a hierarchy: there’s an overarching goal, and then there are smaller steps—the incorporation of found text, for instance, into the larger project of arriving at that goal. When you began work on a particular piece for your Moby Dick illustrations, how often were you consciously working toward something? Or if you’re not working toward something—if you’re just taking your materials, as it were, and putting them your hands and moving them across the page—at what point in the process does that movement coalesce into intention? When do you realize the piece’s going to look a certain way, take on a particular aesthetic, etc. if you haven’t decided that in advance? Are there any pieces in the collection that particularly surprised you in the way they finally turned out?

MK: I think that this may be where my lack of formal training and education in the arts shows. I hear the word “process” used a lot, and I suspect this is something that is examined in great detail in BFA and MFA programs. Given that there seem to be decided differences in intent between what is often called fine art and what is labeled as illustration, or perhaps even commercial art, I am guessing that process has a great deal to do with this. I will somewhat embarrassingly admit to standing in museums and looking at contemporary art – installations, sculptures, multi media pieces and the like – and being utterly perplexed. At first glance, in any case. When I search for and read through the descriptor cards affixed to the wall and am sort of guided through the artist’s process in that way, I can appreciate the pieces a great deal more. I don’t blame art – modern or otherwise – for that, nor do I blame the artist. I think that reveals a shortcoming of my own, although I’m not sure I really feel the need to address that. I think the intent in illustration is far more direct, visceral and immediate and that is what appeals to me. I don’t like putting up barriers between my work, my intent, and the viewer. I like to be able to create something and have it be almost immediately understandable and graspable, yet to have enough complexity to reward return viewings. That is my overarching goal, for literally everything I draw. To create an image that makes and immediate connection with the viewer yet holds on to that viewer and hopefully sticks in their mind.

Your question about consciously working toward something is a fascinating one because I discovered a great deal about this process of mine through the 543 days of illustrating Moby-Dick. I am absolutely certain that a great deal of this was already happening for me on a subconscious level, the way we may recognize a hunger and simply eat based on the urge to sate that hunger. For me, creating these illustrations, especially at first, fulfilled that same kind of almost primitive need. As my progress through and exploration of the novel deepened, that placed greater demands on the illustrations. I was forced, in a sense by Melville himself, to think about each illustration more deeply and that naturally led to a greater understanding of the process of creation, from the initial conception to the finished work. I would be hard pressed to pin down the exact piece, it was such a gradual thing, but as I moved into the final 100 or so illustrations I had become very aware of that process of working toward a very specific and concrete visualization. The entire evolution remains deeply interesting to me because it represents an almost complete reversal of the working methods I had employed for so many years prior to this project, particularly in comics. Partially because of my natural distrust of and cynicism for trends, systems and popular culture, I deliberately resisted learning anything deemed to be canon in terms of how to make comics. I didn’t sketch, I didn’t plot a story, I didn’t do thumbnails, I didn’t even plan a page. I would just begin drawing in the upper left hand corner, allow my mind to wander freely with some vague idea of what narrative I wanted to convey, and move down to the lower right corner. And I would repeat that until I had run out of pages. It worked to a degree, but I look back at those endeavors now and while there is an intoxicating kind of freedom to that and a very natural and organic sense of line and form, they are virtually unreadable as stories. Especially to someone not well versed in the inner workings of my own mind. Which would be just about everyone in the planet. In a very real way, the way that this Moby-Dick project changed me was to force me to come to terms with an audience and the expectations they might have for the work, based not only on Melville’s great book but also on the nature of an illustrated story.

There is, though, a directness to my own work that I sometimes find frustratingly lacking in some fine art in particular. I am never sure if this reveals a fundamental flaw in me as a person or not, but especially now, when we are all absolutely deluged with imagery on a constant basis, I feel an incredible need to be direct, to be honest, to not waste a viewer’s time, and to give them some kind of value for the attention they pay to my work. I know that may narrow or at the very least restrict my audience, and I am aware that this might, to some critics, situate my work in what they would pejoratively label as some kind of populist, low-brow realm. But I can’t let that affect me because I can only make the kind of art that I would like to see.

KR: Earlier, you mentioned working through the “story” of Moby Dick as opposed to working through the “book.” But the subtitle to Moby-Dick in Pictures declares that there’s “one drawing for ever page,” so it seems like the physical object of the book—particularly, the fact that its material takes the form of pages, and the text of the “story” is divided up among those pages—served at least a structural purpose as you were proceeding through the novel. Do you think it’s important that works of art or literature are presented in books, or do the stories they contain supersede their material restraints? And on a somewhat related note, how frequently did you find yourself returning to the text when working, if at all, versus holding it in your head and allowing memory to mutate it?

MK: This may be seen as blasphemy, especially since I know that many of those that have discovered my illustrations and been enthusiastic about them come from a very literature-centric point of view, but to me the concept of the story itself has always mattered far far more than the structure in which the story is housed or represented. This is something that was impressed upon me from a very early age, and it has special relevance to the story of Moby-Dick. As a child in first and second grade, I would visit my grandmother on Saturday afternoons while my parents ran errands. I would spend that time watching Godzilla movie marathons on a local television channel. As a boy, I was obsessed with those movies because they had everything I craved – colossal, almost mythical monsters involved in world-shattering and violent conflicts against a backdrop of petty humanity. Already, seeds were being planted. One afternoon, my parents were later than usual and after the Godzilla double feature was over, the John Huston film Moby Dick came on the television. At first I was bored because I could tell by the presence of the “funny clothes” and the ships with all those ropes that this was something “historical.” As a child who was never especially fond of school, I knew that this would bore me. But I paid attention with half an eye and eventually that tiny little television screen was filled with incredible images of a monstrous white whale. I was fascinated because here was a monster that could almost have been real! I watched the rest of the film raptly, not noticing that my father had returned and was watching it with me. After it was over, he explained to me that this movie was based on a book and was a classic. This experience is notable and essential because my first and perhaps most important encounter with Melville and Moby-Dick did not come through the pages of a book, but through a movie, a visual story, and a discussion with my father. I knew right away how much this mattered to me, but it never occurred to me that it should somehow be important as a physical object, a book, or something else I could hold and regard. What mattered was the story itself, and the role that I played in it is a viewer and a silent member of that crew. To quote you directly, I believe that stories always supersede their material restraints, and that this is a fundamentally human way to see the world we live in.

Following along with this, it may come as no surprise that in spite of using the book, Melville’s own words, as a starting point for these illustrations, I very rarely returned to the text. Instead, I drew inspiration and energy from my own memory, my own experiences with the story of Moby-Dick and my own ideas of what the story meant to me. In one of the best and most accurate reviews of my own book, the reviewer stated that Moby-Dick in Pictures is as much about me, Matt Kish, as it is about the book Moby-Dick and that is absolutely true.

KR: There have already been a number of graphic novel adaptations of Moby Dick, not to mention a plethora of tributes in other genres and through other mediums: there’s the 1956 Huston and Bradbury film you already mentioned, a Dell Comics version that debuted the same year, an appropriation of the story by Marvel Comics that appeared in 1976, an opera by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, and even a few contemporary works of rock music—Led Zeppelin’s instrumental “Moby Dick,” Mastodon’s Leviathan, and Secret and Whisper’s Great White Whale. How do you think your work fits, if it does, into what seems to be a sizable tradition of Melville tributes? Were you aware of any of these other projects when you began your own? Even if you weren’t, what do you think it is about Moby Dick that’s drawn so many artists, writers, and intellectuals to it since its publication? The works of Poe, another titan, have also been imitated, recreated, parodied, and reiterated extensively, including in graphic novel format; do you think it’s the narrative—the “story,” again—that draws people to these works anew, or something else, even the historical fact of its passage down through generations of readers of English literature?

MK: I remain fascinated by this great mosaic of work that seems to have grown up like barnacles all over the hull of Melville’s great masterpiece. While I was working on the illustrations, when I was still inside of the work and could not step away and appraise its totality from a distance, I refused to even think on that. I didn’t feel comfortable situating my own work alongside any of that, whether it was just a heavy metal band’s concept album or Frank Stella’s conceptual sculptures and prints. After finishing the entire body of illustrations though, seeing the results collected and disseminated as a book, traveling the country to talk about my work with people in bookstores and libraries and other locations, and seeing the reaction is has received, I finally feel comfortable saying that I am proud of what I have created and I am comfortable placing it alongside all of those other notable explorations of Moby-Dick. The book itself, Melville’s book, is so vast, complex, challenging and multiple that I don’t think there can be any definitive vision of it. So in that sense it is a very forgiving book in that there is a great deal of room inside the story for almost anyone to mine a particular vein. It is a mighty book and because of that it can easily bear the weight of all of these peculiar visions, mine among them.

As to precisely how it fits, I am not sure I can answer that well because to do so requires a broad and accurate knowledge of many things from art history to the whaling industry to the history of American literature and really the whole of American society. Being from Ohio, having no formal artistic education, and having constantly lived far from the centers of art and culture, my perspective on that is extremely limited. I have a kind of tunnel vision, I suppose, although I have never felt any shortcoming along those lines and seem to get along in life well enough. I am not, however, what one might consider culturally well-heeled. I would have a great deal of difficulty telling you, for example, how my work might relate to and contradict the rise of abstract expressionism in the 1950s and 1960s, although I am sure someone else might be able to. No, for me, “how this fits” was never a concern at all. I did this for myself, and myself alone, although it has been a great honor to share it with so many. This body of work was never intended to be a conversation with other pieces of art, literary trends, musicians, or anything else. It was conceived independently, created in solitude, and offered up humbly but sincerely. While I do care what other people think of the work itself, I don’t care much at all how it fits in with the rest of what clings to Melville’s novel. It is what it is, and I remain proud of what I did.

I do think that what draws people to these works, again and again and again over years and years, is how vast they are. How much room there is in the tale. And of course, that sense of the unknown, the awe-inspiring, and the divine. That is clearly present in Melville’s work, and in Poe’s to a lesser degree. And in many writers whose work continues to provide a richness of inspiration for other creators to explore. Moby-Dick offers us a great and daunting challenge, a journey unlike anything else we could experience, especially in these times. The story rewards the person who experiences it in direct proportion with the level of involvement. Those who carefully read and re-read and re-re-read the book will be privy to experiences and ideas and thoughts far beyond what many experience in a lifetime. I believe the same for much of Poe’s works, and many other authors as well, such as Mervyn Peake, David Lindsay, William Hope Hodgson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and so on. Theirs is not a mundane vision, they are not concerned with small things. Their lens is wide and that will forever act as a magnet to readers whose minds crave more.

KR: To continue with the consideration of all of those offshoot projects that Moby Dick prompted, what do you think more modern takes on classic works of literature help a reading public do, exactly? Do they make the work “available” to a new audience by superimposing the aesthetic tropes of one era onto another? Some might say that we never really access “pure” history anyway, that we’re always retranslating facts at the same time we think we’re delivering them. But if one possible reason to take up a project like yours is to “update” Melville for the 21st century’s more visual, avant-garde sensibilities, then how much of this updating can we do? How many new angles of engagement can we have, before we get too far away from the original work? In other words, is it really Moby Dick the viewers of your artwork are being presented with, or is this just a starting point, a pretense for what really amounts to a presentation of your own psychological understanding of the story? The first sentence of your foreword reads, “Really, I just wanted to make a version of Moby-Dick that looks like how I see it.”

MK: The answer to this is contained within your question, actually. From the very beginning, I was aware of my intent, “to make a version of Moby-Dick that looks like I see it.” Remember, when this project began for me, it was purely personal. It existed as a blog only so that I could share the art with friends and family out of state. I had been making art for over a decade, I had been showing this art on a web site of my own for almost four years, and I had drawn and Xeroxed and sold several minicomics at small press shows in the eastern United States. And no one had ever heard of me. I was completely obscure. I had no reason to believe that would change, and changing that was never my intent. All that followed, from the interviews to the personal appearances to the agent to the publication of the book was entirely unintended and unexpected. There would definitely have been a more overt attempt at visibility and publication had this been an effort on my part to generate some sort of visual conversation with Melville’s work and contemporary aesthetic tropes, but since that was never any part of the impetus for this project I enjoyed unparalleled creative freedom to explore the story and what it had meant to me throughout my 40 year lifetime. That was an intoxicating experience, and I can already sense the loss of that kind of freedom as I work on the 100 illustrations for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a project which from the very beginning was intended for publication and consumption.

I hesitate to think too deeply about what my illustrations mean to the reading public, whoever they are. I think that to start considering that can lead to worrying about that, and worrying about that can lead to dangerous compromises, and dangerous compromises can lead to misery and phoniness. When I have been forced to consider that, I more or less suspected that what appealed to people was that mine was a thoroughly modern, popular culture informed, utterly unique and personal take on a cultural touchstone that nearly all Americans, even if they had not read the book, were familiar with. There was, again, an instant point of connection, and the illustrations were strong enough, strange enough, and compelling enough to warrant a closer look. I feel like some of what appealed to a handful was the idea that if this librarian with no artistic background can do this, anyone can. While that on the surface seems very inspirational and exciting, it overlooks the fact that I’ve spent a great deal of my life drawing and what I may lack in credentials I have more than made up for with hard work and discipline. I am no attic-room crafter, and while I have nothing against them, I do believe my illustrations have been subjected, by myself, to fairly strict critique.

I will absolutely agree with your contention that we never really access “pure” history though, and we are always retranslating facts. What I find so intriguing about that though is that one can trace that all the way back to the 1851 publication of Moby-Dick. While Melville himself had done time on a whaling ship and did have direct experience with that industry, the instant he committed that story to paper and it was read by people from Kansas to Scotland, there is already a veil between the reader and the reality. And that veil has been multiplied a thousand times over as the world moved on and the whaling industry died and the book nearly perished and was resurrected again, and so on. I am by no means the only one who has done this, and everyone who reads Melville’s book but has not set foot on a whaling ship in the 1840s is complicit in that. We do the best we can, as readers and as viewers and as writers and as artists, and ultimately the great value of an enduring story is what it can show to us now. Yes, that tiny window on a time and a world not our own is of some value, but what is ever more priceless is the way in which these stories change us as people, and change our view of the actual world we live in.

In writing this though, I’ve come to a kind of revelation about myself and my intent. While I like to maintain the pretense of a deep and abiding humility, I am gradually realizing and accepting that this approach I have to the making of art is in very real ways incredibly self-centered and egomaniacal. It’s a difficult thing to articulate because while I will admit to being thrilled when something that I create is received with praise by others, that’s not my primary intent and the lack of praise only strengthens my desire to look even more inward and pursue and even more personal vision. Even if that means potentially alienating viewers. 

KR: In another interview with PBS NewsHour, you affirmed that the project was “certainly not an attempt to create the definitive Moby-Dick.” Would it be possible, or desirable, to have such a “definitive” edition? What might other adaptations of the novel take up as their starting points? Is there anything you’d like to see somebody else working with Moby-Dick do or achieve?

MK: It would be neither possible, nor desirable, and that is as it should be. A “definitive” anything is as deadly to creativity as a trademark. It seals off the work, the idea, the story inside some hermetically sealed, brutally sterile museum case where any attempt to interact with the work in something other than the officially acceptable manner is deemed a crime against culture. That idea of a “definitive” anything sickens me, and as someone who is as passionate about looking at art as I am about making it, I am constantly seeking out new, challenging, unconventional, unexpected and subversive ways of exploring and interpreting these cultural landmarks of ours.

(I am not sure if this part below is worth including but it’s a part of my answer so here it is).

A great example of this “definitive” nonsense is the work which has grown up around Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Beyond Tolkien’s own illustrations, which seem to have been largely forgotten by all but a few, our contemporary vision of those books seems to be informed entirely by Peter Jackson’s films and the work of artists like John Howe, Alan Lee, and Ted Naismith. Their work dominates every annual Tolkien calendar, many hardcover art books, “making of” books and magazine articles, and so on. While their work is exceptionally accomplished and valuable, it has all contributed to a kind of “definitive” look at Middle Earth. There is another artist named Cor Blok who, in the 1960s, did a long series of illustrations of The Lord of the Rings in an artificially conceived style he named Barbarusian miniatures. This style he conceived of mimics the look of medieval miniatures. Figures are reduced to their most basic shapes, landscapes become simple swathes of color, and so on. His look at Middle Earth is utterly fresh, personal, and unique. In 2011 and 2012, the annual Tolkien calendars featured Blok’s work and the reaction was savage. Some of the online reviews included “The Lord of the Rings deserves majestic images, not childish, whimsical cartoons. Give us John Howe, Ted Nasmith, Donato Giancola, Alan Lee, Michael Whelan” and “The artistry(?) was muddled, confused and at time indecipherable. As I write I’m looking at 2011 October with what appears to be two sock puppet’s [sic] being groped by a duck. I can understand art that want’s [sic] to challenge and inspire but I’ve already used my imagination reading, why do I have to now use it to figure out what I’m seeing?” That kind of narrow-minded idiotically rigid thinking is what you get when you begin to bestow labels like “definitive” on anything. It’s absolutely toxic, it repulses me, and I will have nothing to do with it. 

KR: Has completing this project informed or modified your relationship with Moby-Dick in ways that you perhaps didn’t anticipate? And, also—I hope this question isn’t too maddening, though I’m inclined to think you’ve already thought about it yourself—were there any components of the work, whether in terms of methodology or aesthetics or attitude, that you would have done differently if you could start the project over again?

MK: I don’t think there is any way a project of this scope and intensity could avoid fundamentally altering one’s relationship with a text. The strange thing is that I headed into this without any real planning or forethought, and so much of what happened took me by surprise. In retrospect, I should have realized how deeply it would change my relationship with the story, and my experience as a reader as well, but none of that crossed my mind at first. Again, so much of that has to do with the idea that this was really never something I conceived of as an eventual publication. It was so personal, and so internal, and that’s what helped me skip merrily into it without a care.

I tend not to spend a great deal of time deconstructing or overanalyzing literature. I think that some might find that to be a critical flaw in my process, but I can’t hide it. The power of stories has always been something very immediate and visceral to me, and the times when I have worked hard and dug too deeply have robbed stories of much of their power. It’s very much like pulling back the curtain on The Great and Powerful Oz and finding a helpless old man from Kansas frantically working the gears. It’s been a real letdown. And with this project, making the conscious decision not to rip the thing to shreds to see what makes it tick was essential. In order for me to sustain the discipline, the obsession and the energy necessary to grapple with this story every single day for a year and a half with, literally, no breaks at all, I needed to cast all the pretense and the analysis and the critique aside and in just about every way but the physical become a sailor on board the Pequod. And that, for me, was how this experience changed my relationship with the story. Every single prior reading throughout my life ended and I was able to put the book down and consider it from the safe remove of the comforts of a modern life and a brain filled with other thoughts. This time though, having spent almost every waking moment of 543 days in contact and conversation with Ahab and Queequeg and Ishmael and Starbuck, that voyage has stayed with me. It haunts me still. And in depicting that doomed voyage in my own images, in giving it a sort of life outside the pages of the book, I felt painfully complicit in the massacre which ends the book. Not only was I a compatriot of these men, I was instrumental in assuring their death. I have never had such an intensely personal experience with a story. Ever. And in so many ways, I hope I never again do. I apologize for repeating myself, but it does haunt me. Still.

I have spent a great deal of time thinking back on what I did, how I approached the project, how I conceptualized what I would create and how I executed that act of creation. I am still immensely proud of what I made. I look back at those pieces and the memories come rushing in, so fast and hard I can barely control them. Not only memories of that mental journey with the sailors, but bits and fragments of my own life at the time. I can remember standing on the cold concrete floor of the garage in December, wearing a breathing mask, holding a can of spray paint and finishing the work on page 106 while conscious of the fact that I needed to hurry because my wife was finishing dinner. I can recall sitting at a table in the public library drawing the tiny details of the giant wave on page 216, feeling that I needed to stay away from home because my wife had been arguing badly with her brother. The entire experience is so full of the flotsam and jetsam of my own life, and it all blended in ways which I can scarcely and adequately explain.

I’ve rambled and I apologize. I would have done one thing differently. One crucial thing. I never, under any circumstances, would have chosen to create an illustration each day, every day. Near the end of the project, that pace, that obsession, that immersion in the story, the bleak and horrifying and nihilistic story, nearly cost me everything. If it had not been for the love and patience and kindness and support of my wife who suffered through the entire thing with me and basically did everything but make art, I truly feel I would have lost my mind. I became an ugly person. I became so obsessed with finishing this task, with murdering the white whale that the project had become, that I started to see friends and enemies who were getting in the way of my real work. I built walls upon walls around myself, driving myself further and further inside the story and shutting the rest of the world out. I am truly fortunate to have emerged unscathed, at least on the outside. I’ve come to see how badly I need some distance, and how dangerous my obsessions can be.

KR: In the foreword to your illustrated version of Moby-Dick, you write that it was “deeply important” for you to “reconnect these Moby-Dick illustrations to the older and more physical world of books and printing.” (You’re not alone; small artisanal presses like Arion Press have produced gorgeous new print editions in recent years.) You also note that much of the paper and materials you’d stored up were “faded, discolored, stained, and even creased, but I wanted the art to show the signs of human hands, the presence of years, and the marks of hard use.” In the interview with PBS NewsHour, too, you note that you want to “escape this creeping plague of digitally or digitally produced art,” and so I wanted to know more about your reason for preferring “analog” materials, as it were. Is this just a personal preference, or is it founded on your commitment to certain notions about what art should be, or how it should be made?

MK: Honestly, articulating this has been one of the greatest challenges I’ve had to struggle with. It’s something I feel so deeply, on such a visceral level, but I don’t know if I’ve been able to determine whether there are actual intellectual and aesthetic reasons for this feeling or if I am simply becoming a middle-aged curmudgeon concerned with keeping those lousy iPads off my lawn. I think about this almost daily though, and although the progress has been slow, I am thankfully beginning to believe very fervently that I have valid aesthetic reasons for the belief that art should be made by hand, with physical material, and should show the hand of the maker.

I have a great deal of difficulty navigating the intersection of art and commerce. I understand that especially for those who make a career of being an artist and make a living from their art, galleries and sales and assigning a monetary value to the work is essential. I’ve sold enough of my own art now that I realize there is a market for this kind of thing, and it seems to be a rather rigidly hierarchical market, with artistic ghettoes (i.e. illustration, comics work) and high rises (“fine” art). What troubles and confuses me about this is in how it can muddy the clarity of purpose. Why does one make art? And do these reasons have a significant effect on the art that is produced? Why do people buy art? And do these reasons have a significant effect on the art that they purchase? If a painter works until he is able to sell his paintings for $10,000 or more, should that painter continue to create work that he knows will continue to sell for that amount, regardless of whether or not that is what he wants to be painting? If a buyer amasses a significant collection of work from a single artist and the value of that collection increases over the years, should that buyer continue to acquire work from the artist regardless of whether or not the work appeals to the buyer? I don’t know the answers to this, especially on a broader cultural level.

I do know that on a personal level, the idea of making art specifically because it will sell is troubling and depressing and seems somewhat dishonest. And here is where we start to hew closer to one of my issues with digital art. Using a computer to make “art” is useful and essential if that art is nothing more than a product. In other words, if the art has to be made as quickly, efficiently, and cheaply as possible in order to sell magazines or comic books or compact discs or videogame guides, computers and programs offer the best way to do so. I’m not sure I would call that art though, and while we could argue back and forth endlessly over it, I have no desire to enter that fight. It seems to come perilously close to the idea that everything is art, at which point the word “art” loses any kind of meaning.

Let’s look at this another way. I spend a great deal of time conceptualizing and executing a drawing to illustrate a page of Heart of Darkness. I conceive of the image, I do several sketches and studies to place the elements of the composition, I rough the piece out in pencil first, I go back in with pen and ink to lay down the lines. When that is all done, I begin to lay in the color, using wet media like ink washes and watercolors one thin layer at a time. Suppose I discover, after the piece is nearly complete, that my color palette is utterly inappropriate and what I had hoped would resemble a steaming jungle is instead a muddy and indistinct mess of leaves and branches due to my poor colors. I’ve lost an entire illustration, many hours of work, and learned a painful and valuable lesson. This in turn is an incentive to not only remember what I have learned but to modify and improve my process, to begin to grasp color and perhaps composition more intuitively, and to, on a technical level at least, grow and evolve as an artist. Now imagine that same process, but completely digital, on a tablet device. My colors are horrible and muddy. All I need to do is click a button or two and they are gone! I can re-do the entire thing again. I’ve lost nothing, but I’ve learned nothing. Or at least, very little. From a business standpoint, it makes sense. But from a business standpoint, it also creates an equivalency between making art and making shock absorbers and oil filters.

Lastly though, my reasons are emotional and aesthetic. I simply very much prefer the look and the feel of art on paper. For me, it is essential to see the presence of the artist in the work itself. Anything else I find sterile, cold and soulless. For this reason, sketchbooks, drawings and studies are far more interesting to me than finished, polished pieces. I think this is because I see greater honesty in rougher, more intimate work like a sketch. And that’s what I want to see…honesty. I don’t have a lot of interest in what an artist manufactures and puts forth to maybe meet expectations. I want to see them exploring and working with parts of themselves. I hope this makes some kind of sense.

KR: What’s next after Heart of Darkness? Do you foresee an ongoing relationship with works of literature in your visual art? How might that relationship change?

MK: For the time being, I really do want a continuing relationship with, well, not so much “works of literature” but stories in my visual art. Since childhood, I have been drawn to art that conveys a strong sense of narrative. That is what lies at the heart of my great love of illustration, from children’s picture books to comics and graphic novels to illustrated stories for adults. Art, or should I say images, that expand a story, that make it more real than simple words on a page or voices from a throat, thrills me to no end. I’ve read so many wonderful and terrifying stories in my life and for nearly every one I have played that story out on the inner theater of my mind. To be at the point in my life where I feel skilled enough to begin to create those illustrations I could only previously imagine is amazing. It’s an opportunity I find myself literally unable to pass by, whether the work will be published and sold or remain as personal endeavor only. Eventually though, I want to begin telling my own stories, and creating my own narratives. I have a very specific idea that has been growing inside me for some time, but at this point I am so consumed with Heart of Darkness that I can’t see beyond it. In terms of other works of literature I would like to explore through illustration, the list is long. Ranked in order from those I know I will attempt to what may only remain a pipe dream, the titles would be David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone, William Hope Hodgson’s The Boats of the Glen Carrig or his The Night Land. Various stories by Poe and Lovecraft and Blackwood and Dunsany. My tastes, for good or ill, have always tended toward the weird, the fantastic and the otherworldly. Again, in terms of today’s literati, I realize all too much how drastically that curtails my potential reach as an illustrator, but to work on material that does not fire my imagination would be unfair to me and to the work.

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