Tuesday, October 19, 2010

About this project, #1

(In late May of this year, Daryl L. L. Houston invited me to be a part of a group reading of Moby-Dick and to join his blog Infinite Zombies to write about my experiences. Over the six week course of the group read, I was able to write eight fairly in-depth pieces exploring this illustration project and some of what went in to the some of the earlier pieces. There is a ninth piece that is sort of half done that I may finish and post here if there is some interest. Since some of you have been incredibly encouraging and (surprisingly, to me) interested in what goes on behind the art, I decided to re-post those short pieces here. This is the first one. I'll have some art posted up here later this evening.)

On August 6th of last year, my lifelong obsession with Moby-Dick reached what may come to be its zenith. That was the day I decided, almost on a whim, to embark on a project to create one illustration each day for every one of the 552 pages of my Signet Classics paperback edition of the novel. You know, the blue one with the amazing Claus Hoie painting on the cover.

I have never considered myself an artist. My undergraduate degree is in secondary education with a focus on English, and my master’s degree, earned over a decade later, is in library and information science. I have no MFA, or even a BFA, to bolster my credibility or lend authenticity to any “artist’s statements” I might hope to one day display on a placard pasted to a well next to where one of my illustrations hangs. And yet, in spite of this, I have been making pictures for my entire life.

My earliest memories of reading, of the thrill of being able to pull books that I had selected off a bookshelf and read them at my own pace on my own time, are of illustrated stories. Mostly myths, fairy tales and folklore. Collections by Andrew Lang and Padraic Colum, illustrated by the likes of Willy Pogany, Kaye Nielsen, Arthur Rackham and others. And honestly, for good or ill, I’ve never really grown up, whatever that means, since then. Sure, I’ve read plenty of books without pictures, whether for school or for pleasure or to keep up with my mature friends. But for me, there is absolutely no thrill compared to that of journeying through a fantastically illustrated story.

Those early experiences led to a childhood, and adolescence, and even adulthood immersed in imagery. Occasionally lowbrow imagery. Silver Age Marvel comic books, pulp science fiction and fantasy paperback covers, Saturday morning cartoons, prog rock LP covers, Heavy Metal (the comic, not the music) magazines, action figures, 8-bit videogames, and Dungeons & Dragons books. Often my memory of these things eclipses my memory of actual events, relationships, and experiences.

So, in spite of never considering myself an artist and of having no formal artistic background or education beyond the ordinary high school classes, I’ve been almost obsessed with making pictures ever since I was old enough to look at them. Like many people, I imitated what I loved and aped the style of my heroes. I drew mostly monsters – dragons, sea serpents, and dinosaurs with the occasional robot or alien threw in. And I did that for years. Years and years and years. Well into adulthood, really.

Actually, I still do it.

I’ve tried my hand at making comics, mostly to Xerox and staple and give to friends, and over the years I’ve slowly developed a personal mythology that I’ve taken stabs at illustrating when time allows. But I’m always being drawn back to books and stories and that sense of narrative. Late last summer, taken with that (simple?) idea of creating what I’d like to see, I decided it was time to take everything I’d learned, everything I’d seen, everything I’d done and made and give life to my own vision of Moby-Dick.

The pace, one illustration per page, per day, every day, for 552 days, was a deliberate conceit and the only rule I set. Many of my drawings had become almost overwrought with obsessive detail and the act of drawing was beginning to feel like a prison to me. I dreaded that. I thought that by forcing myself to complete one illustration per day, every day, I would be forced to step back from my overreliance on detail, my close personal partnership with rulers and circle templates, and my own very real sense of horror vacui. I would have to learn to work quickly, to do more with less, and to explore other media beyond colored pencils, pens and ink.

Beyond that, there were no rules. I would create each illustration in any media I chose, whether it was ballpoint pen, collage, cheap craft paint or magic marker. After years of working in used bookstores, and taking home the detritus of what customers didn’t want and the bookstore couldn’t sell, I decided to create each of these Moby-Dick illustrations on “found” paper, or paper I had harvested from these old books and encyclopedias and manuals. I was especially drawn to diagrams, maps, and anything with a pictorial representation of information. While I didn’t consciously realize it at the time, I know now that my use of this found paper, which allows me to layer paint and ink and color over other layers of imagery, is a deeply personal response to the layers and layers of meaning and narrative in Moby-Dick itself. The book that is at once a story about just about everything there is or ever was. I spend very little time specifically selecting the paper and media to use, relying primarily on my own intuition and gut instincts. Fascinatingly, on many occasions I have seen elements revealed through the juxtaposition of my own art and the elements already on the found paper that seem to almost eerily mirror the tone or content of the line of text from the page of Moby-Dick that I am illustrating. It has been both unsettling and thrilling, both.

In every way possible, this project of mine is astoundingly self-indulgent. Yes, I have seen the Moby-Dick illustrations by luminaries and giants such as Leonard Baskin, Boardman Robinson, Rockwell Kent, Barry Moser, Frank Stella, Bill Sienkiewicz and Gilbert Wilson (tough to find good links, so just do a Google image search and you'll see some amazing art) among others. I am certain I have internalized some of that. And I am even more certain that I have and will continue to at times pay homage to that, sometimes overtly in my own paces. But more than anything, this is my Moby-Dick. This is how, over the years and all the many times I’ve read the novel that I have come to see the men, the ships, the whales, and that world.

I still don’t consider myself an artist, but I do like the pictures I’ve made and I am looking forward to sharing some of them with all of you as well as some of what went in to how each was made.


  1. Glad you're posting these here, Matt. Your pieces over at IZ were among the highlights for me, and I know your audience here will find them fascinating as well.

  2. Thank you Daryl, it was largely because of your encouragement, and your email regarding artist's statements, that I decided to go ahead and post these here. I suppose that final piece, intended for Infinite Zombies, will see the light of day after all.


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