By August Steigmeyer
Matt Kish considered his exploration of Captain Ahab’s final sea voyage the last great test of his artistic abilities, an all or nothing personal challenge that would determine whether he would ever draw again. It took him 543 days to produce 552 illustrations, one for each page of the Signet Classics Edition of Moby Dick: Or, The Whale.
The collection of Kish’s art was published as Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page last October, and his original art premiered at a show in the Basil Howard Gallery in Portland, Ore. last November. Kish, a 42-year-old employee of the Dayton Metro library system, has never had formal art training or created art professionally, but now he finds himself drawing offers for gallery shows and illustration jobs. Kish will present his art and talk about the project at a Kenyon Review event today. The Collegian spoke with Kish about his voyage of personal visions and interpretation.
The interview below has been edited for clarity and space.
What was the genesis of this project?
I’ve been drawing for my whole life, ever since I was very young. The last art class I took was in 1987 as a freshman in community college. When I turned 40, I started asking myself some questions about art: the amount of time, the amount of creativity that I was pouring into it, and I really didn’t like the answers. It had gotten to a point where I felt like maybe it was time for me to stop drawing for good. But something wouldn’t let me do that. I felt I didn’t want to do that.
I was familiar with Zak Smith’s project Gravity’s Rainbow; he had done an illustration for every page in that book. That had always stuck in my mind because his art is absolutely incredible and the ambition involved in doing something like that is just immense. So as I was contemplating quitting art forever and being unable to come to terms with that decision, I decided that I thought it would be best to give myself one last gargantuan, ambitious challenge so I could really test myself and really see if art has a role and a place in my life.
The choice of using Moby Dick was really easy for me because it is a book that I had read eight times. It is a book that has always occupied a central place in my life, and it was something I had always seen in a visual way as I read it. I decided this was going to be my last challenge and if it goes well, I’ll continue drawing.
What kind of reception did you get at the gallery events?
For someone who’s never had a gallery show before, having two in a 12-month period is certainly a new experience. The reception has really been good. People have been genuinely kind and really supportive, really interested. I think the familiarity worked in my favor because everybody’s aware of Moby Dick. It’s a touchstone for everyone. It was really easy for me to cross so many boundaries with this project, because so many people have already experienced it in some way.
How did you select the sentences and passages you illustrated?
I would read a chapter or two ahead, then on each day, when it came time to begin work on an illustration, I would read and re-read and re-read the page that was to be illustrated that day until something in the text provoked a visual or personal response. At the end of the book, it became difficult for me to narrow it down to one particular sentence or one particular passage. So I kind of narrowed it down to whatever provoked the most powerful personal response in me. This kind of sounds egotistical, but the illustrations are as much about myself as they are about the novel.
Did you keep yourself on a strict schedule during this process?
When I started, my plan was to do one illustration per page, per day and proceed in page order. It was very important to me to see this art evolve over the course of the story, the same way the narrative evolves over the course of the pages. Unfortunately, that had to become rather elastic. The overwhelming amount of work really was completed in that way. There were a few days, though, where I did have to travel so I would not create any art at all that day. Near the end I became obsessed with finishing, so I would often work ahead on the weekends to do two or three illustrations – not to hurry it, but to exploit the timeline I had.
How did you choose the style for each page? How did it develop as the book and project progressed?
Really, the style was largely determined by the tone of the content of whatever I was illustrating at the time, and very personal preference, what I wanted to do that day. I was very egotistical in that I always did what I wanted. I never considered what others might prefer in terms of the style. I thought that really mirrored the novel itself, which is a really bizarre patchwork of narrative styles and themes and ideas.
Why did you choose to create your illustration on “found paper” (old repair manuals, etc.)?
I became interested in found paper many years ago when I was in graduate school and I was working at a used bookstore and I was just fascinated by the way information was presented on these pages, visually. These days so much is digitally produced. What I wanted to do was reconnect with that idea that this is something that exists physically, and this is something that’s connected to the tradition of bookmaking, the tradition of print. It had to be very analog.
What is your next project?
Now that I can completely put this year behind me, I actually think I will do something similar for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness because it’s something I want to do. There’s no specific reason for it. It’s another book I’ve always seen as I’ve read it, and I’d like to be able to truly, physically see it.