Tuesday, January 8, 2013

17th Annual Moby-Dick Marathon

This past weekend, I was able to finally visit the Moby-Dick Marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. I was very kindly assisted in my trip there by both the Museum and The Melville Society. It was, quite honestly, an astounding and revelatory experience. I was treated like an absolute star there, which was deeply humbling. I've been able to travel all over the country to talk about my book Moby-Dick in Pictures, from bookstores to museums to colleges. While I have enjoyed every one of those experiences, nothing can compare to this past weekend. In a bookstore, the emphasis is very understandably on selling books. But here, in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, in the heart of this reading Marathon, I was surrounded by people from all walks of life who were united by their love and passion for Melville's great book. It was exhilarating! Readers young and old, male and female, of all races and ethnicities, gathered together to read, to meet old friends, to experience the wonders of the Whaling Museum again, and simply to celebrate Melville and Moby-Dick in all its forms and iterations. I will definitely be back.

The weekend was really quite a whirlwind. Since I had to work on Thursday, my wife and I flew to Providence, Rhode Island Friday morning, rented a car, and got to New Bedford shortly before dinner. After a quick check-in at the hotel, we rushed to the museum to touch base with Dr. Robert Wallace from Northern Kentucky University and Bob Rocha of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, each of whom helped ease us into the pleasant madness of the proceedings. A quick dinner where I was introduced to more folks from the world of Melville scholarship than I would have imagined existed (which was wonderful) and then it was time for my 7:15 lecture on my art, my book, and the story behind it. I was quite literally terrified. I mean, it's one thing to stand in front of a small crowd in a Manhattan book store and talk about your work, but quite another to stand in a museum auditorium lined with relics, figureheads and other ephemera from the long history of whaling and address a crowd of 150 people, many of whom are scholars and academics. But it went well! It went really well, and they seemed to respond genuinely and honestly to my tale.

Back to the hotel that night, then another whirlwind day on Saturday which first brought a Stump the Scholars panel that I was (rather hilariously, since I am NO scholar) a part of, the kickoff of the Marathon, lots of networking and meeting new friends, a lengthy book signing / drawing in, a meeting with director Brian Holton and his partner and co-producer April Gustafson about their upcoming film AHAB the movie, a small and personal Chat with the Artist session in the Wattles Gallery of the Whaling Museum, a few goodbyes, a late dinner, and then bed. Sunday morning bright and early we flew back home and here I am.

I didn't get to take as many photos as I would have liked, I didn't get to spend nearly as much time as I wanted investigating this phenomenal museum, and there was no room for me in the long list of readers for the Marathon, all of which will bring me back next year. But I did take a few pictures so perhaps these will give you some kind of idea how amazing this weekend was.

Our rental car, which was appropriately large, white and gracefully curved. It's as if they knew we were on our way to a Moby-Dick event! Since I tend to give all inanimate objects names and personalities and I knew this car would have to keep us safe from harm for the weekend, I named it the X-99 Biter on account of its license plate. That's my wife, getting in.

It was dark by the time we reached the New Bedford Whaling Museum that evening, and this was my very first look at the place. With the night sky and the bright lights, it seemed almost to be a holy place.

The very first thing I saw as soon as we walked in were these colossal whale skeletons hanging over the main hall. Just absolutely awesome. When I was a child, I loved going to the Museum of Natural History in Cleveland, Ohio and I was obsessed with the dinosaur skeletons there. That obsession continues.

My wife and I were told that, in spite of how long one of the skeletons has been hanging, it still occasionally drips. That is so perfect!

I never get tired of seeing my book in different places. Not because I am some kind of egomaniac, but because it constantly thrills me and I have to remind myself that it's not some kind of wonderful dream but reality, and that it truly exists, and that I honestly made that art. Here it is in the Museum gift shop.

I got no photos at dinner, although I was lucky enough to sit at a table with my wife, Dr. Tim Marr from the University of North Carolina, documentary filmmaker Dr. David Shaerf, author John Minichillo and artist Jason Hancock among others. This was nice because I had met and spent some time with Dave during the book tour in December of 2011 so he is now almost an old friend. I had not met John before but we had exchanged lots of emails and I had created a small suite of illustrations to help promote his book The Snow Whale...

...which is a delirious, sometimes terrifying, sometimes hilarious modern re-imagining of Moby-Dick and highly recommended by me. I talked a bit about Frank Stella's work with Dr. Marr and Justin Hancock, who had an exhibit in the Whaling Museum while we were there and whose work is staggering in its scope and power. It was that best kind of meal, where the food and drink is tasty and the companionship and conversation makes an hour feel like a minute. Then it was off to the auditorium for my lecture and after a few deep breaths I was ready. I didn't get any photographs of my talk, but Dr. Wallace did so here are his. First, me at the podium, with page 402 on the screen behind me.

Me, reading Melville's words.

And two shots of the crowd shortly after I was finished. The first is from Dr. Wallace and in the foreground you can see my wife (with the partially shaved head) and just behind her James Russell, President of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and Bob Rocha, Science Director of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. These guys are HEAVY HITTERS but they treated me phenomenally well. Really, truly, phenomenally well. I can't say enough about this group of people or this Museum.

This is one that I took, just before I left. A few more people had left, but this is more or less what my view was from the podium.

I was exhausted, so I said hello to as many people as I could, shook hands and introduced myself to those I hadn't met, and headed out to get back to the hotel. John and Dave stuck around and we walked part of the way together. Here I am outside the Whaling Museum with John Minichillo...

...and Dave...

The next morning, and a bright, clear dawn. This strange structure was just outside of our hotel and I found the sign and the way it had fallen into disrepair very visually fascinating. Abandoned spaces are magnetic to me, and I wish I could have seen the inside of this place.

A few more photos, in daylight, from the courtyard of the Whaling Museum...

The first event was the Stump the Scholars panel. On the way into the auditorium though, this was taped to the door. Melville humor! Only at the Marathon!

Also, this poster, for the Marathon. I had to take a picture because my name was on there. TWICE. Do you have any idea how exciting that is for me?

First, the lecture. "With artist Matt Kish." Very cool.

And next, "Chat with Melville artist Matt Kish." Again, very cool.

Now, Stump the Scholars. Here's the deal. Three years ago, in order to start adding even more events to this wonderful Marathon weekend, someone decided to gather the nation's eminent Melville scholars and put them on a panel where they would field questions from audience members trying to stump them. This year, for personal reasons, one of the six scholars was unable to attend the Marathon so I was asked to fill in. Yes, me, Matt Kish, the man with nothing more than a master's degree in library and information science, and the farthest thing from a scholar. When they asked me, I agreed immediately, not even thinking it through, but as the event drew nearer and nearer I was starting to freak a bit. I mean, I was up there with five scholars who had at least five PhDs among them and probably more, in addition to decades of brilliant research into Melville and Moby-Dick. I've never even read a biography of Melville! I was going nuts! The scholars were divided into two teams. The Cods consisted of Dr. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards from the University of Connecticut, Dr. Timothy Marr from the University of North Carolina, and Dr. Jennifer J. Baker from New York University. The Clams consisted of Dr. Robert Wallace from the University of Northern Kentucky, Dr. Wyn Kelley from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and...Matt Kish. I was wondering how the moderator, Michael Dyer of the Whaling Museum, would introduce me since he was rattling of the names as "Tim Marr from the University of North Carolina" and so on. He was brilliant though, and when he got to me, the fifth in line, he intoned "Matt Kish from the Universe!" It was a great start. Here I am, with my Clam teammates, nervous but ready.

And it went well! There was quite an array of questions, from ones with quick factual answers to ones that required a great deal of speculation. My favorite was why is a whale called out with a "Thar she blows!" when, especially in Moby-Dick, some of the whales are clearly male and in many cases the gender is not known? Anyway, this was the third Stump the Scholars event and the previous two had ended in ties, but this time...we won! The Clams beat the Cods! And I even gave a few answers! Here we are basking in the glow of victory. From left to right, Dr. Wyn Kelley, me, and Dr. Robert Wallace.

I spent some time before and after lunch with a new friend, Jeff, from Massachusetts. He has been collecting Melville and Moby-Dick art, books, editions and more for many decades now and he brought along some of his more intriguing portable pieces to share with me. It was great fun. Here is his copy of Dr. Elizabeth A. Schultz's seminal book Unpainted to the Last, a survey of Moby-Dick art, drawn in by artist Robert del Tredici himself...

...as well as Barry Moser!

I LOVE this kind of thing. Here is a book that is unique, like none other. A talisman, possessed of great energy and power. I envy him. And this is why I always draw in everyone's copy of my own book. A signature alone just won't do.

After this, it was a long afternoon signing and drawing in my own book for the Museum store and prepping for my Chat with the Artist talk that evening. Another high point though was meeting filmmaker and director Brian Holton and his partner, girlfriend and co-producer April, the people behind the upcoming independent film AHAB the movie. I've written a bit about the movie on this blog already but, although we had shared quite a few emails, I had not yet met Brian and April. They are fantastic people and I enjoyed every second I spent with them.

I was absolutely honored to be asked to create the art for the movie poster for AHAB the movie and I was finally able to see the finished product. I'm going to save that for the next post, tomorrow, because the posters are done and signed and available and they are absolutely GORGEOUS. I am not kidding. More tomorrow on that.

The Chat with the Artist was a wonderful way to wind down the day. And I finally got to meet Susan, who between herself and her family has many many of my Moby-Dick illustrations. Meeting people who own my art is a thrill and an honor and Susan and her husband were very very kind. I truly hope our paths cross again.

An amazing weekend. This Marathon is just...well, words kind of fail me. The joy, the energy, the enthusiasm and the camaraderie and unsurpassed, and these people welcomed me like I was a long lost brother. Many many thanks to Dr. Robert Wallace and the Melville Society for getting me there, and everyone from the New Bedford Whaling Museum for treating me like a king, especially James Russell, Bob Rocha, Michael Dyer and Michael Lapides. Until next year!

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