Drawing on Captain Ahab

Friday, July 16, 2010 - 10:46 AM

Illustration is hardly a new art form -- after all, it's been around for just about as long as stories have, although it's generally been confined to children's literature (where it's thrived).  But illustration has recently had a bit of resurgence in the grown-up art world.  Take Zak Smith's exhaustive project to depict every page of Thomas Pynchon's dizzying epic Gravity's Rainbow.  But my favorite is the cleaner and more colorful vision of a different American classic: Moby-Dick.


Matt Kish insists that he is 'not an artist' -- he could have fooled me.  He started his project last August. Working at the breakneck pace of nearly one per day, he is creating a small piece of art for each successive page of Herman Melville's iconic novel. With about 300 pages down and 250 to go, he is set to finish sometime next spring.

Kish's process goes something like this: he opens his copy of the book (the 552-page Signet Classic edition, to be specific), he reads the day's page, pulls a particularly juicy sentence, and illustrates it on found paper (scraps discarded from the used bookstore at which he worked as a grad student). The finished pieces vary considerably -- some are collages, some are paintings, but Kish is at his best when his work has a basis in line art.  The illustrations are meticulously detailed and often filled in with bright, colorful paints or pencils. And the outcome is nothing short of remarkable:

The recurring characters and images of the novel appropriately reappear throughout Kish's series. Captain Ahab, for instance, appears as a bucket-shaped head with a single, staring eye and a lightning-shaped mark down his temple, while Moby-Dick himself is huge, ominous and, of course, strikingly white.

I adore this kind of art.  When I was little, I wanted to be an illustrator -- every single entry in my first-grade journal is dutifully complemented with a careful crayon drawing depicting the words above.  These days, I've settled for doodling while I couple prose with sound instead.  But I'm dazzled by what Kish has already accomplished. I love watching him take a classic work of American literature and vitalize it with the sort of astoundingly beautiful images it deserves.

Here at Studio 360, we're also fans of Ahab and the great White Whale.  Listen to our American Icons hour deconstructing Moby-Dick with Tony Kushner, Ray Bradbury, and Stanley Crouch.

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