On August 6th of last year, my lifelong obsession with Moby-Dick reached what may come to be its zenith. That was the day I decided, almost on a whim, to embark on a project to create one illustration each day for every one of the 552 pages of my Signet Classics paperback edition of the novel. You know, the blue one with the amazing Claus Hoie painting on the cover.
I have never considered myself an artist. My undergraduate degree is in secondary education with a focus on English and my master’s degree, earned over a decade later, is in library and information science. I haven’t taken an art class since community college in 1987. I have no MFA, not even a BFA, to bolster my credibility or lend authentication to any “artist’s statements” I might hope to one day display on a placard pasted to a well next to where one of my illustrations hangs. And yet, in spite of this, I have been making pictures for my entire life.
My earliest memories of reading, of the thrill of being able to pull books that I myself had selected off a bookshelf and to read them at my own pace, on my own time, are of illustrated stories. Mostly myths, fairy tales and folklore. Collections by Andrew Lang and Padraic Colum, illustrated by the likes of Willy Pogany, Kaye Nielsen, Arthur Rackham and others. And quite honestly, for good or ill, I’ve never really grown up, whatever that means, since then. Sure, I’ve read plenty of books without pictures, whether for school or for pleasure or to keep up with my mature friends. But for me, there is absolutely no thrill compared to that of journeying through a fantastically illustrated story.
Those early experiences led to a childhood, and adolescence and even adulthood immersed in imagery. Definitively lowbrow imagery. Silver Age Marvel comic books, pulp science fiction paperback covers, Saturday morning cartoons, prog rock LP covers, Heavy Metal (the comic, not the music) magazines, action figures, 8-bit videogames, and Dungeons & Dragons books. Often my memory of these things eclipses my memory of actual events, relationships, and experiences.
So, in spite of never considering myself an artist, of having no formal artistic background or education beyond the ordinary high school classes and the aforementioned community college Art 101, I’ve been almost obsessed with making pictures ever since I was old enough to look at them. Like most, I imitated what I loved and aped the style of my heroes. I drew mostly monsters – dragons, sea serpents, and dinosaurs with the occasional robot or alien threw in. And I did that for years. Years and years and years. Well into adulthood, really.
Actually, I still do it.
I’ve tried my hand at making comics, mostly to Xerox and staple and give to friends, and over the years I’ve slowly developed a personal mythology that I’ve taken stabs at illustrating when time allows. But I’m always being drawn back to books and stories and that sense of narrative. Late last summer, taken with that (simple?) idea of creating what I’d like to see, I decided it was time to take everything I’d learned, everything I’d seen, everything I’d done and made and give life to my own vision of Moby-Dick.
The pace, one illustration per day, every day, for 552 days, was a deliberate conceit and the only rule I set. Many of my drawings had become almost overwrought with obsessive detail and the act of drawing was beginning to feel like a prison to me. I dreaded that. I thought that by forcing myself to complete one illustration per day, every day, I would be forced to step back from my overreliance on details, my close personal partnership with rulers and circle templates, and my own very real horror vacui. I would have to learn to work quickly, to do more with less, and to explore other media beyond colored pencils, pens and ink.
Beyond that, there were no rules. I would create each illustration in any media I chose, whether it was ballpoint pen, collage, cheap craft paint or magic marker. After years of working in used bookstores, and taking home the detritus of what customers didn’t want and the bookstore couldn’t sell, I decided to create each of these Moby-Dick illustrations on “found” paper, or paper I had harvested from these old books and encyclopedias and manuals. I was especially drawn to diagrams, maps, and anything with a pictorial representation of information. While I didn’t consciously realize it at the time, I know now that my use of this found paper, which allows me to layer paint and ink and color over other layers of imagery, is a deeply personal response to the layers and layers of meaning and narrative in Moby-Dick itself. The book that is at once a story about just about everything there is or ever was. I spend very little time specifically selecting the paper and media to use, relying primarily on my own intuition and gut instincts. Fascinatingly, on many occasions I have seen elements revealed through the juxtaposition of my own art and the elements already on the found paper that seem to almost eerily mirror the tone or content of the line of text from the page of Moby-Dick that I am illustrating. It has been both unsettling and thrilling, both.
In every way possible, this project of mine is astoundingly self-indulgent. Yes, I have seen the Moby-Dick illustrations by luminaries and giants such as Leonard Baskin, Boardman Robinson, Rockwell Kent, Barry Moser, Frank Stella, Bill Sienkiewicz and Gilbert Wilson among others. I am certain I have internalized some of that. And I am even more certain that I have and will continue to at times pay homage to that, sometimes overtly in my own paces. But more than anything, this is my Moby-Dick. This is how, over the years and all the many times I’ve read the novel that I have come to see the men, the ships, the whales, and that world.
I still don’t consider myself an artist, but I do like the pictures I’ve made and I am looking forward to sharing some of them with all of you as well as some of what went in to how each was made.
Welcome, Matt. This is a great intro, and I can hardly wait to see what’s coming up next.
I have recently undertaken a project I call A Daily Doodle . It is daunting for me to do ten-fifteen minutes of dooding a day. So I can only imagine the effort that this is taking. And I can awe at the satisfaction you’ll get when you’re done.
This is a great intro, Matt. I’m looking forward to seeing your illustrations! Have you seen the Will Eisner Moby Dick version as well?
Matt K., I’ve been enjoying looking at your work! This project is a glorious tribute to one of our great American novels, and your drawings are interesting meditations/distillations/amplifications/derivations/reverberations of the text. I like ‘X-a-day’ art projects because they bring the direct confrontation of the creative process with the exigencies of the mundane right to the fore. There’s also a lovely implicit “formalism” to this kind of project, which also appeals to me. Look forward to reading along with you.
Hello Matt, thank you for the feedback. I’ve read a great deal of Will Eisner’s work (mostly his autobiographical comics and some Spirit) but I had never seen his Moby-DIck. I’ll have to see if I can track that down. Thanks for the tip!
Christina, thank you, those are very kind words. The “meditations/distillations/amplifications/derivations/reverberations” was a far more articulate way of describing the project than I could have come up with, but very accurate I think. It has been an intriguing, frustrating, enlightening and sometimes terrifying journey so far, and I am not quite halfway through. The next 9 months should be interesting indeed.
Matt, I love your point about how the variety of your found paper reflects the encyclopedic ambition of Moby-Dick itself; that’s a great insight, and one that touches on one of the book’s qualities that I find particularly dear.
Jeff, thank you, I really hope that point resonates through these illustrations I am working on. I have occasionally gotten some flack for using the found paper, mostly from people that think it would be great to publish a collection of these pieces but are unreasonably terrified of copyright issues. My choice of the found paper was a deliberate artictic decision, and is instrumental to this vision of the novel.
I am preparing an numismatic exhibit entitled Coins in Great American Literature. Do you know where I might find an illusdtration of the doubloon in Moby Dick?
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