Matt Kish presents “Moby-Dick In Pictures: One Drawing For Every Page”
By Ria Megnin
The legendary 19th-century novel Moby-Dick, or The Whale, is a story of obsession. No one, perhaps, understands that obsession quite so well as a Dayton librarian who spent 543 days creating an illustration for each of Moby-Dick’s pages – and now has the published book to prove it.
Matt Kish, who lives in Columbus, describes the closing months as brutal: “Those final 100 or so pages, when the book itself becomes pretty bleak, I had no personal time whatsoever, and I knew the only way I was going to get my life back was to finish this project.
“The only way through it was to symbolically kill the whale myself. I isolated myself, because I felt I had to save every available ounce of energy for the project. I became just as obsessed with finishing the project as Ahab was with the whale. Thankfully, my wife stayed with me.”
The final drawing emerged Jan. 29, his book contract was completed, and now the only obsession in Kish’s life is dealing with the incredible publicity his project has generated.
“I’m simultaneously excited by it all and overwhelmed and exhausted,” he says.
A whale of a response
How much publicity? Starting just a few days into the project, his posts to a daily blog for friends and family began to be featured on literary and art websites and talked about all over the globe. In December 2009, he was invited to speak about his work in New York.
Within days, even though he hadn’t even reached the halfway mark of the book, he was approached by an agent who almost immediately landed him a publisher.
“It started slow, but then things happened with dizzying speed,” Kish recalls. “This incredibly personal exploration of the novel suddenly had a contract and a deadline.”
He speculates that there’s three reasons for the powerful response.
“Moby-Dick is a cultural touchstone. Even people that haven’t read it, they know the whale, they know Ahab, they know Ishmael, they know that it ends tragically. It’s part of our cultural consciousness. It’s really an American myth.”
The second reason? Kish is not a formally trained artist. Yet his bold, unusual style is immediately gripping, conveying a raw emotional presence with every image. Some pieces are abstract, others intensely detailed. He used spray paint, brushes and ink, ballpoint pens, colored pencil, acrylics, collage, markers, stickers. The quickest took 30 minutes, others took up to 12 hours.
“I know if my work was to be critiqued, there are long lists of errors and completely missing blocks of an art foundation,” Kish says. “I didn’t even attempt to make my illustrations historically accurate. It’s very much about my life, my perspective – it’s influenced by video games I played in the ’80s, comic books from my childhood, covers of progressive rock albums from my dad’s basement. So it’s something that’s never been seen.”
The third reason? The sheer insanity factor of anyone taking on such a monster project.
“Monster” being the key word. Kish says his lifelong passion for Herman Melville’s 1851 novel began around age 5, when he saw a film version of the story.
“The movie monsters were fictional, but this grabbed me,” he says. “This was a monster that could almost have been real.”
An illustrated children’s version of the story was his next encounter with the white whale; he read the full novel for the first time in junior high. Seven more trips through the book would pass before he started the project.
“What’s odd is that each time I read it, it’s shown me things that almost seem to echo or parallel things happening in my own life — the complexities of growing up and growing old and dealing with life,” Kish says. “In some ways, really grappling with that book requires some life experience.”
In 2009, the former English teacher and bookstore clerk heard about a man illustrating every page of another famous novel.
“I was feeling very creatively restless. I wasn’t really enjoying what I was drawing anymore,” Kish says. “I realized it had been four or five years since I read Moby-Dick, the longest absence in my life. And I thought, ‘I’m just going to jump right in. It’s a way to get me closer to the book, and this is going to keep me inspired artistically.’ And the next day I got started. That was Aug. 5, 2009.”
Two years later, on Nov. 13, Kish will share his creation with readers used to seeing his touch in the DVD, CD and young adult collections. He says he’s not sure what art will flow next for him.
“This project completely shaped and structured my life every day for a year and a half, and that was really trying,” Kish says. “I had an intense sense of relief to finally be done. But I was also really wistful. All those characters had become companions to me.”
Matt Kish presents “Moby Dick In Pictures: One Drawing For Every Page” at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Dayton Metro Library, downtown branch, 215 E. Third St., Dayton. The event is free. Information: 937-463-2665, http://everypageofmobydick.blogspot.com.