Moby Monday — Moby-Dick Illustrated, Page by Page

"But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive."
Here’s a bookmark for you:, where last week, artist and blogger Matt Kish began posting one drawing per day, with the intent of illustrating each of the 540 pages in his Signet Classic paperback copy of Moby-Dick. Kish renders page two as an alienated assortment of tubular, googly-eyed Manhattoes “seemingly bound for a dive.” Page three? A steampunky spermatozoon within a blue bubble, “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life.”

I tracked Kish down at his southwest Ohio home to ask him about himself and the project.

Are you a professional artist?
I am a librarian employed in a large urban library system. I am nowhere near being a professional artist and I am almost entirely self-taught. Drawing has always been a very private pursuit for me, and only in the last few years have I started sharing it with a wider audience.

Which artistic media do you work in?
I don’t restrict myself at all, and often use a variety of media in each piece. I tend to favor using found paper, especially paper that already has something printed on it, but I use Bristol board sometimes. Never canvas though. I think the size and the perception that canvas is for museums and “fine art” has always kept me away.

More often than not I use pens, ink washes, acrylic paint and perhaps some colored pencil, but I’ve used everything from crayons to spray paint to stickers to nail polish in some pieces. Really, to me, the more handmade, chaotic, and slightly skewed a piece looks the happier I am with it.

Have you done similar projects about other books?
This is my first, although I have always loved illustrated narratives. I was inspired by a similar series that the artist Zak Smith had done for Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and the ongoing project that Zak, Shawn Cheng, John Mejias, Sean McCarthy, Matt Wiegle, and Craig Taylor are doing for Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Something about the gargantuan, almost destructive nature of committing one’s vision and ability so completely to one endeavor really appeals to me. Even if I complete one piece a day, it will be almost a year and a half before I’ve completed Moby-Dick, so I won’t be taking on any other novels any time soon, but I have been thinking about doing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness after this, and perhaps Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan after that. But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself; Moby-Dick is all I can think about right now.

How long has each page taken you to draw?
In the past, my drawings have been intensely, almost agonizingly detailed; each one took me 40 to 60 hours to complete. That, combined with a full-time job, spending time with my amazing wife, and trying to have a life meant that a finished piece could sometimes take me a month.

I grew very frustrated with that kind of slowness, and the heavy level of detail began to feel more like a prison than a joy. With the Moby-Dick project, I am making a conscious effort to let the art flow very quickly from my mind to the paper, working rapidly, intuitively and almost crudely. Each piece has taken me around an hour to complete. I’m fairly happy with this pace and with the pieces in general, but I am extremely curious about how these things will change after 10 or 50 or 200 pages.

Do you have any plans for the pages—to sell, exhibit, etc.?
I’m too far away from completing the art to have really solidified any plans, but when I’m done, the first thing I’d like to do is show the entire series in a gallery somewhere. Since I’ve got absolutely no experience with setting up something like that, I worry that might be a long shot. I’d also like to see if I could somehow get it all published, but again I worry that might be just a pipe dream. When the series is complete, I will definitely be selling many of the pieces as well. And of course I’ll be keeping the entire thing available and viewable on my blog and on my website.

What makes you like Moby-Dick so much?
Moby-Dick in one form or another has fascinated me since I was very, very young. My earliest memories are of seeing bits and pieces of the 1956 film, the one with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, and I remember seeing the whale’s eye on the screen, rolling and staring wildly. The colossal malice and fury that radiated from that eye terrified and enthralled me.

Shortly after that, I somehow acquired one of those thick little abridged versions on newsprint. I was only 5 or 6 but I remember devouring every page over and over. For some reason, I really remember Fedallah particularly from that book.

Finally, in junior high school, I read the actual novel for the first time. While a great deal of the deeper meaning escaped my young mind, I could sense that there was so much more to the book that was just out of my sight, like vast monstrous shapes lurking just below the water.

What I love about Moby-Dick now are the seeming contradictions inherent in the text, and the way that Melville seamlessly wove these together. Moby-Dick is bleak, nihilistic, hopeful and optimistic. It is deeply terrifying and outrageously funny. It is dangerous and essential. It is heretical and devout. To me, it really is everything a novel could possibly be.

Margaret Guroff is editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.

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Washington DC writer, teacher, magazine editor.

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