How 'Moby-Dick' helped Matt Kish reignite his passion for illustration

Chicago Tribune reporter

A couple of years ago, about the time Matt Kish turned 40, he decided his hobby was becoming laborious and unrewarding. By day he drove from his home in Columbus, Ohio, to Dayton, where he worked in a library, his title, "audio-video materials selection specialist," as exhausting as his commute. But by night he painted and drew — so much so that, though Kish had never taken art classes, trained as an illustrator, found gallery representation or sold a single piece of art, he considered himself something of a frustrated artist.

"When you are basically doing it for yourself," he said, "and the work is stale and you're bored, why do it?"

And so, naturally, as these kind of stories go, just when all hope seemed lost, um, well ...

Moby-Dick surfaced.

Or, to put it another way, Kish, tapping into his lifelong obsession with Herman Melville's 160-year-old leviathan of literature, decided to make the book itself his muse. "It really was like this revelatory moment of self-help," he said, "this strange sort of act I hoped would shock me into rediscovering the joy of creativity."

And so, in the summer of 2009, he began a project that, depending on how you see it, was ambitious, gimmicky, stupid or obsessive-compulsive: He began making 552 dizzyingly distinct works about "Moby-Dick" — paintings, drawings, collages. He made one for every page of his Signet Classics paperback edition. As a catalyst, he selected a line from each page and created works in sequential order, trying to finish one new piece each day. He also started a blog, he said, so friends who knew about the project could goad him on.

This drew the notice of publishers, and after 18 months of dutifully creating "Moby-Dick"-inspired art, Kish had "Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page," a handsome, whale-long coffee table book/monument to tenacity. You don't have to have read Melville to appreciate its vast range of styles; it's more riff on Melville than adaptation. But even a vague knowledge of the original will help decipher its surreal imagery — whales grown over by icebergs, grinning skulls surfing tidal swells, smiling trees, robotic whalers, hallucinogenic clouds.

He also wasn't the first to try something like this; in 2004, artist Zak Smith's page-by-page illustration of Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" was part of the Whitney Biennial (and Kish acknowledges Smith as an influence; indeed, Tin House Books, which is publishing Kish, released a similar book of Smith's images).

But why "Moby-Dick"?

Even if the answer seems obvious to you, artist Rockwell Kent already got to the book more than 80 years ago, producing an iconic woodcut-illustrated edition for Chicago's Lakeside Press, images that still grace the Modern Library edition. Kish, however, said that though the book bored him as a high school student, "as I got older, like a lot of fans of 'Moby-Dick,' I started to read more of myself in it, and I would come back to the book again and again, and — it really is about everything, which sounds very sweeping, but it's true."

Nathaniel Philbrick, author of "In the Heart of the Sea," a best-selling 2001 history of the events that inspired the novel — and now the author of a slim, passionate manifesto named "Why Read Moby Dick?" — wasn't remotely surprised by Kish's reaction. Philbrick himself refers to Melville's classic as "the American Bible," a work that has offered readers "a kind of spiritual sustenance," he said from his home on Nantucket Island, off of Massachusetts. "Though it may not offer answers, it does point out paths. And like the Bible, it is a repository of knowledge and writing styles, and I think you can open it to any page and just start reading."

The other similarity between "Moby-Dick" and the Bible, he said, is that Melville's book inspires big reactions, "not the same kind of loyalty, but it does invite some great, ongoing, relentless obsessiveness."

Melville himself, however, writing in the mid-19th century, couldn't foresee a time when man would be able to watch the entirety of a whale as it swam in the ocean. Melville's "Moby-Dick" even includes passages about whale art but concludes that the whale "is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last." He never met Matt Kish, so obsessed with this American classic that many of his "Moby-Dick"-inspired pieces are painted on top of pages from TV repair manuals.

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