A month or so ago, we gave you the heads up on Matt Kish, the artist behind One Drawing for Every Page of Moby Dick. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about how he came to this project and what goes through his head when he’s doing what he does.
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What do you think of when you think of whales?
It’s funny, I think this might be at odds with what most people think of. Even some of the people that have visited my site and looked at the art. I think a lot of people, when asked about whales, imagine this Greenpeace-y kind of gentle giant. A steward of the seas. Some vast, serene, gently floating creature singing songs in the azure deeps. For me, when I think of whales, I think of them as gigantic and incredibly cool monsters. I know that may read as somewhat juvenile, even in terms of the vocabulary I chose, but that’s because my inner vision of whales was formed at a very young age and after seeing an awful lot of monster movies as well as the 1956 version of “Moby-Dick” with Gregory Peck. I had never seen an ocean, let alone a whale, so the Atlantic and the Pacific might as well have been outer space for all the experience I had. And here, in these unimaginably vast and watery wastelands you had these simply colossal beasts capable of smashing ships to pieces, chewing and devouring sailors, blowing huge spouts of water out of the top of their heads…man, that just blew me away as a kid and it’s just never really gone away. You know how you can look at old books that chronicle the sea journeys of antiquity, and they have those engravings of tusked, scaled leviathans with two or three spouts of water jetting out of these weird curved horns on their heads, jaws like dragons and huge fluked tails? I guess for me, whales have always been like that, if not in appearance at least in spirit. Which is why, for this Moby-Dick project, the pages where I get to illustrate whales have been the most fun for me to do. It’s like being a child with crayons again. Monsters!
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you were inspired by ‘outsider art’. Do you mean that as a kinship in style or just in the spirit of art being a more democratic, non-ivory tower sort of thing?
It’s really a little bit of both, but weighted much more toward the “democratic, non-ivory tower” side of things. The kinship in style, for me, comes from the fact that I took a few art classes in high school, graduated in 1987, and took one drawing class at community college the next year. Ever since then, nothing. No training in art. No kind of education, formal or otherwise. And until very recently not even any real peer group to bounce my ideas off of and get critiques. My style, although it feels very strange to call it that, is something that I guess just developed over years of screwing around with art supplies and filling my head with all sorts of visual imagery from Jack Kirby comic books to S & M photography. I have so many limitations as an artist. Everything is very flat, there is no depth or dimension to my art, my compositions tend to be very centralized and simple, I focus too heavily on texture and patterns ignoring shape and weight, almost all my lines are straight and drawn with a ruler or template, and on and on and on. I’ve had to find ways to work within my limitations and have never really struggled to change or correct those deficiencies. I definitely have a kind of aesthetic tunnel vision.
The “democratic, non-ivory tower” aspect of it is especially important and inspirational to me though, and it’s that part of it that I really identify with. It took me a very long time to build up enough confidence to show my drawings to even my closest friends. I don’t know where I picked up the intense fear of ridicule that I have, but at some point in my adulthood I became very aware that to even get a show in a tiny local gallery, an artist generally had to have a BFA or an MFA as well as an artist’s statement, a prepared portfolio, slides of their work, and so on. I never had anything other than a loose stack of colored pencil and ink drawings sitting on a bookshelf. So for a long time, I felt permanently shut out from any avenue of sharing my work. I was never really interested in making art a career, and the allure of something like a gallery show, even in a tiny local gallery, was really more the thrill of being able to share my labors with strangers and see what they thought of it. Of course I was hoping for compliments and praise, but at the very least I wanted to be able to show people something they might not have ever seen before. Beyond that, I had no desire to become part of an art establishment or to be labeled and heaped in with some kind of movement. Anyway, even that felt like it would forever be beyond me because of my lack of credentials, whatever that meant.
It’s a simple idea, really, but discovering outsider art, and reading about all of these untrained artists making art for personal reasons, whether it was some kind of compulsion or simply the reward or creating a painting, resonated with me deeply. Really opened my own eyes to the fact that I didn’t need degrees or schooling or galleries or artist’s statements or sales to justify the existence of my drawings and paintings. The fact that I was willing to do them, to make something with my own hands, was reason enough. It’s hard to describe now because I realize how basic that idea is, and how maybe when we are kids with crayons that seems as normal and everyday as the sun rising and the grass growing. But somehow I got sucked in, suckered, and slapped about the head and body a bit the the artistic establishment and I got scared. It cowed me, made me fearful. So I hid for years and years until I discovered outsider art and realized it was okay for me to do what I wanted to do.
Being something of an non-pedigreed, non-certified (read: didn’t go to art school) artist, where along the way did you decided that art was going to be an abiding part of how you live? Was it a moment or just something that creeped up?
Again, it’s a little of both, but I can remember some very specific and powerful experiences from my early childhood that had an enormous impact. To start, I have been absolutely fascinated by and smitten with pictures and images ever since I can remember. My parents were filthy hippies, so my childhood was spent surrounded by posters of Middle Earth, album cover art by Roger Dean (all those crazy “Yes” albums, on full gatefold vinyl!) and lushly illustrated picture books from the 60s and 70s. I can’t really ever remember a time when those things weren’t a part of my life so it’s hard if not impossible to determine whether that love of images was innate or whether it was something I took to based on my environment. I learned to read at a very early age and my parents were wonderful in supplying me with picture books and folk tales and illustrated collections of myths and legends. Perhaps it’s because that’s what they liked, or perhaps it’s because that’s what I seemed to gravitate to, but that’s all I read. I can vividly remember paintings by Arthur Rackham, fine pen and ink pieces by Willy Pogany, and even those drawings by Tolkien that graced early versions of “The Hobbit.” I would “read” those images as closely as I read the words, and they came to seem inseparable to me. So I was drawing things — mostly monsters and spaceships and heroes — from preschool.
Most of what I drew were just imitations of what I saw in my books though, and I can remember being 8 or 9 and camping with my older cousin Jason. He was, and still is, an immensely talented artist, and while we were bored on a rainy afternoon we spent hours drawing together. I was probably running through the motions of drawing the same things over and over, but Jason drew this incredibly bizarre, crescent-moon shaped monster with multiple eyes and tentacles. It floored me. Even the fact that it was an asymmetrical, non monster-shaped monster just blew the top of my skull right off. I remember that as possibly being the first time I saw a piece of art that was different, challenging, weird, and a little upsetting. But all in very good ways.
After that I started paying much closer attention to what my friends drew and I saw such an incredibly diverse range of styles and imaginations that I started thinking maybe I could do this myself. Sadly, it probably took me 20 or 30 years before I felt like I really had developed a style and an aesthetic of my own, and even today I can see so many influences running through some of my pieces that I worry people will call me a hack, but it’s hard not to let the indelible power of those visions course through me.
So where do you find your found materials?
I’ve actually been harvesting this stuff for years. From 2003 to 2005 I worked for a large used book store chain. Customers would bring books in, we would buy them, and then we would re-rice and re-sell them. An awful lot of what people brought in was simply no good. Too old, too ephemeral, too out of date. This stuff we would either price for a dollar or two and put in our bargain section, or just throw out. Employees were not supposed to pick through the stuff that was going to the trash, but the managers generally looked the other way as long as it wasn’t too blatant. I was able to snag a small pile of really interesting things, mostly old text books, encyclopedias, and repair guides. Stuff that was really of no use to anyone, being so completely out of date. At the time, I had no idea what I would do with it, I just thought it was too good and too interesting to throw away. So I held on to it all for quite a few years without using it for anything more than a drawing or two. And then, when the idea to do this “Moby-Dick” series came to me, it seemed like a perfect match since the art is so indebted to the printed words of the novel.
What about an item makes you want to hang on to it and include it in a piece?
You know, it’s weird because when I started these illustrations I was doing them all on these old electronics repair guides. Something about those old diagrams fascinates me because their symbols and and all those lines and drawings and letters look almost alchemical to me. Magical. So the thought of all of that unfathomable information, a bit buried but lurking just beneath the paint and ink really spoke to me. It hinted at the deeper themes and mysteries of Melville’s novel as well as the mysteries lurking beneath the sea. After working that way for a few weeks, I began to dig more deeply into my collection of discarded books finding new and more intriguing ways of bringing some of Melville’s themes, the ones that were really important to me as a reader, into the art. So if you look closely, you will see a lot of recurring imagery, not just of electrical diagrams and ships, which are fairly obvious, but of phrases and bits of text, pieces of art, old photographs and so on. Some of the symbolism is a bit overt, some less so, and some probably so personal it seems obscure or random, but every piece of paper was chosen very very deliberately. It has been amazing for me as an artist to see, more often than not, elements in a finished piece that I did not consciously realize were there but which must have somehow made themselves known to me at a subconscious level. For example, on Page 28 I illustrated the aphorism “However, a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing…” and a caption for a photograph which appears on that page reads “Europe was no longer hospitable to the imagination.” I didn’t catch that at first, but it seemed to work nicely with the place that “Moby-Dick” occupies in the pantheon of new American literature and the role Melville played in carving that out. Another very obvious element is on Page 112, my illustration of Flask, the third of the mates. I knew each of the mates, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, were crucial to an understanding of the novel and were all, in some ways, similar as well as uniquely different. The page where I painted Flask is from an old sewing guide and has a large vertical heading reading “The parts of a pattern.” Given that the reader is just now beginning to see and understand the composition of the Pequod’s crew and the manner of her governance, that page fit.
How do you cut out the time from the rest of life to work on a project of this size?
It has been very very difficult. Some history is in order here, to give this context. Prior to beginning the Moby-Dick project, my art had been incredibly detailed, time consuming, a bit overwrought, and ultimately frustrating to complete because of this. I had begun to feel really trapped by the media I was using, the way I was working, and the images I was making. It was not at all unusual for me to spend 20 to 60 hours on a single colored pencil drawing. Yes, they were lushly and radiantly crafted, but I was sick and tired of only being able to complete 3 or 4 drawings a year. I really needed something to force me to change and to find new ways of making art. I knew it would have to be something that came with a deadline built in and some kind of preconceeved structure. I had seen Zak Smith’s paintings for every page of Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” and the idea had always stuck with me. In a flash, it all came together, and deciding to create one illustration for every page of “Moby-Dick” and to complete a piece of art each day seemed like the perfect way to jumpstart this process. I would simply have to find ways to work more quickly but also to make art that I enjoyed and was proud of.
When I began this project, I was living in an apartment with my wife about 20 minutes from my day job. I had plenty of time in the evenings to work, even if I wanted to spend 2 or 3 hours on a piece, and I could still do laundry and see movies and spend time with my wife. Plus, autumn was coming, the days were growing shorter, and I had less and less desire to go outside as the weather cooled. In November, we moved to be closer to friends and family. But my 20 minute commute became a 90 minute commute. And that’s one way. So suddenly, I am waking up at 5:45 every morning, spending 3 hours in the car every day, getting home at 6:30 in the evening, and trying to squeeze in an hour of drawing between dinner, exercise, laundry, and chores. Honestly, at times, it is a nightmare. In a strange way, I have become more like Ahab in that this has become an endeavor which haunts me and enrages me. I have had some rough nights where I’ve thought of simply disconnecting and giving it up. But something keeps me focused on the endgame, and at times it is a kind of rage. Sometimes, when I am just exhausted and completely spent, the only thing that can rouse me enough to continue this daily pursuit is rage and hate. That is leavened somewhat by the kind comments and emails I’ve been receiving, and that kind of thing has become absolutely necessary to help keep me anchored and stop me from becoming completely lost in this quest to finish.
And riffing off something you mentioned… how have your reactions changed to the novel as you’ve made your way through the novel for this project?
Each and every time I have read “Moby-Dick” I have seen more and more of the novel emerge. We could go on at length here about Melville’s multi-layered narrative and how what at first seems to be a simple whaling adventure is everything from a treatise on the nature of America to a an epic with Biblical themes of piety and blasphemy to a metaphysical investigation of the nature of existence and faith. Over time, much of that has been revealed to me and even now, as a 40 year old man, I feel I am only just beginning to see the great outline of Melville’s thoughts. But this journey through, specifically, has forced me to visualize the narrative in a way I never had before. By giving life to each and every one of these sailors, whalemen, and harpooneers, by depicting their ships and the great leviathans they hunt, I’ve anchored it in such a way that I will never be able to un-see what I myself have created. Ishmael will forever more be a symbolic rectangular mask with two wall-eyes and a wave across his face, the man with the sea inside of him. Ahab will always be a towering slab of something metallic, head like a fiercely peering turret. Tashtego has become a lumbering, crow-headed predator. And so on. For me, now, depicting “Moby-Dick” like this makes it forever my own vision. Realized in the fullest with ink and paint and paper, but always my own. I guess I’m more like Ahab, for good or ill, than I might have ever wanted to be.
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A few other interviews here, here and (sorta) here.
As of this writing, Matt’s still churning them out, day by day, over at http://www.everypageofmobydick.blogspot.com/. You can buy some of his older art here, including some whaley, sea-monstery stuff.
For those of you in the Brooklyn/NYC area, Matt will be talking about his quest and showing slides at Pete’s Candy Store on April 19th as part of the Open City Dialogues.
portrait of Matt Kish by Aaron Cael