Thursday, October 21, 2010

MOBY-DICK, Page 416

Title: "The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician's glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self."

7.75 inches by 10.75 inches
acrylic paint, charcoal, colored pencil and ink on found paper
October 21, 2010


  1. In the very early 90s, when I was an undergrad, a number of my close college friends were taking printmaking classes. They would bring back these enormously beautiful woodcut and linocut prints, and I would stare with envy at the editions they made. I was an education major, so the world of art majors was very foreign to me and rather closed off. Finally, I worked up enough courage to enroll in a beginning printmaking class the following semester. I had take a basic drawing class in community college in the late 80s, and apparently that was the only prerequisite required.

    As the next semester approached, I began to prematurely imagine the prints I would make. I started drawing one out so I would be all ready to dig in once we were given linoleum and knives. It was an image of Cora and Clarice Groan, the twin sisters of Sepulchrave Groan, the 76th Earl of Gormenghast from the Mervyn Peake books. The sisters were standing in front of the tree in their Room of Roots, and while the sisters looked rather like crude dolls, the tree was a crazy filigree of ink lines I had blown here and there over the page with wet ink and a straw. I was fond of it so I showed it to my roommate Jon Stavole, who had already taken printmaking.

    At the time, Jon Stavole was creating some of the most amazing art I had ever seen. I've sadly lost touch with him, and I wonder if he is still making art, but in college he was easily my favorite artist. His work was just phenomenal.

    Jon looked at my drawing and was quiet for some time. When I prodded him for his opinion, he very honestly told me he didn't think it would work at all. I specifically remember him telling me that I had three completely unrelated shapes in the picture. The textures weren't working together and the entire piece was a bit of a mess. I think that was hard for him to tell me, and it stung me badly, but then and to this day I deeply appreciate his honesty. I ended up withdrawing from the printmaking class even before it began, mostly because I didn't think I was good enough. I still struggle with those doubts, often about each and every illustration in the project. It's hard sometimes.

    Those memories rose to the surface of my brain as I was struggling and battling with this illustration. This chapter, with several of the main characters staring at the doubloon Ahab has nailed to the mast and each seeing something drastically different in it, is a strange one. For one thing, even though I've read the book multiple times, I had forgotten that the doubloon has 3 mountains - one a volcano, one crowned with a tower, and one with a crowing cock on the summit - on the coin and NOT, as I had illustrated, a crowned head. So there was that.

    Beyond that discrepancy though, there are the often bizarre meanings the characters take from the images on the coin. Ahab, as a monomaniac, sees himself in everything - mountains, flames, towers, cocks, and so on. It's a mystery to me how any engraver could pack that much detail on to the face of a coin, first of all, but each of those things seems, to me, completely unrelated.

    Initially, I thought this piece was coming together well. As I finished each element, I started to feel, as Jon had told me years ago, that I was working with completely unrelated shapes. They started warring with each other on the page, and this became an image of strife and rage instead of just a depiction of some symbolic inner vision. I was nearing despair as I finished the piece, but when it was done I saw that clash of shapes and textures and media as a perfect summation of Ahab, of the Pequod's quest, of the novel, and even of this schizophrenic endeavor I am currently involved in. So in a freakish way, even with me fighting against it actively this time, the image turned out to be quite attuned to what I see in Melville's great work and perfect for this page.

    Unsettling, to say the least.

  2. Oh, and the symbolism of the lightning-struck tower surrounded by flames is entirely intentional. For those in the dark about that reference, look for information on the Tarot card called "The Tower."

  3. Thank you for sharing the story about Jon and his critique of your early attempts at art. That must have been really painful at the time, but I think you've more than proven yourself as an amazing artist in your own right, art degree or not.
    What I find interesting about this piece is your own impression of it as a group of warring shapes that come together to form a cohesive whole image of Ahab. I actually thought the piece was very effective and integrated, not at all at odds with itself, although I think your explanation of how it works on a symbolic level makes a lot of sense. I think what really comes through is this enormous sense of power and destiny, which ties in really well to the idea of the Tarot card that it echoes. Fantastic.

  4. Rudy, that episode with Jon was indeed painful then, and the memory is painful now. Still, he did a great thing by being sincere and honest when it was crucial to do so. I remember Jon later talking about the general critique sessions that they had in his art and printmaking classes, and how the professors could sometimes seem almost savage in their critique. I asked him if that bothered him or if he thought that was a bad thing to do to the students and without hesitation he said it was not a bad thing at all. He felt there was great danger in encouraging someone to do something that they couldn't do very well, especially if there didn't seem to be much possibility they could improve. I'm not sure if he saw any potential in me way back then, but I have never forgotten his honesty, and always appreciated it.

    I am monstrously pleased that, as you wrote, you see a sense of power and destiny in this piece since that is a big part of what I was trying to show. The paradox is that Ahab's perceptions of his own power and the nature of his destiny are so vastly out of touch with reality. He is quite simply monomaniacal in his delusion and I hope some of that insanity comes through here too.


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