Process Makes Perfect

Matt Kish’s pursuit of Moby-Dick leads to CAC show

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click to enlarge Illustrating Herman Melville’s 1851 literary classic changed the course of Matt Kish’s career.
Illustrating Herman Melville’s 1851 literary classic changed the course of Matt Kish’s career.


elf-taught artist Matt Kish had just turned 40 in 2009 and was considering giving up after years of receiving little recognition for his work.

Breaking through seemed as elusive as catching a great white whale.

He’d been married for eight years, had a promising new career as a public librarian in Dayton, Ohio and thought maybe it was time for new goals.

“I had made a few attempts in my late 20s to get some type of gallery show in the Columbus area, where I was living at the time, and was met with total indifference,” he recalls today. “So my creative outlet largely was limited to making comics that I would Xerox, staple together and sell at a few small-press shows. That took me through my 20s and 30s, but eventually I got to the point where I felt discouraged.”

He wanted one last shot at creating something notable. The project he chose was illustrating Herman Melville’s 1851 literary classic Moby-Dick, one drawing per day for each of the 552 pages in his Signet Classic edition paperback version of the novel. It took him almost one and a half years of exhausting work, but it changed everything.

By posting the daily illustrations on his blog, he caught the attention of the sizeable worldwide Moby-Dick community. That led to a contract with the prestigious Tin House press, which earlier had published the celebrated Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow by artist Zak Smith.

The result was a best-selling art book — 2011’s Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page , which is nearing 10,000 copies sold. Subsequently, it has led to further projects, including an illustrated version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

That Moby-Dick project now also has led to his first museum exhibition, a two-person show with Del Tredici at the Contemporary Arts Center called Chasing the Whale and Other Endless Pursuits.

Kish created three new related series for the show, which he shares with Robert Del Tredici, an accomplished artist who has also pursued Moby-Dick as a subject and has taught at Northern Kentucky University. The exhibit, co-curated by the CAC’s Steven Matijcio and NKU’s Robert K. Wallace, is up through Aug. 14.

Kish, now 47, and his wife, Ione Damasco, traveled down from Dayton on a weekday evening — after his library work was finished — to meet for a recent interview and photo session at the CAC. As a CityBeat photographer takes Kish’s picture standing by his work, a gallery visitor learns who he is and asks to have her photo taken with him. He is a celebrity now.

Afterward, he analyzes the reasons for his project’s success. One key point was his inventive approach. He drew his often-fantastical images upon pages from discarded old books, often now-archaic technological material like Blank Electronics Repair Diagram.

“That was a really intuitive choice,” Kish says. “Prior to 2009, I had not spent a lot of time thinking about process. But my drawings had been getting more and more obsessively detailed, to the point where the act of creating an image was getting psychologically and physically uncomfortable. I was spending hours hunched over a piece of paper making tiny marks, coloring in tiny areas, adding and layering all this detail.”

Kish had saved the discards when he worked at a used bookstore, hoping to someday figure out how to use them in his art. Maybe he would cut them up for collages, he thought.

But shortly before starting Moby-Dick, he found his answer. He would paint and draw on them, instead of on blank paper.

“The first time I painted on these was psychologically freeing for me, because I had to give up that obsession to cover every square inch of blank white paper with detail,” Kish explains. “I couldn’t control that when painting on an electrical diagram, or on an old map or printed text. Something from that material comes through — you can’t master that foundation.

“I found fascinating the way the marks, shapes and colors I was laying down on the paper worked with and against the lines already there,” he continues. “I think embracing those random elements just loosened me up. So I knew I had to use found paper on the Moby-Dick project. There was no way I could finish it if I made the obsessively detailed drawings I had done before.”

So he went at Moby-Dick with colored pencils, spray paint, collage elements, acrylic paint, regular pencils, nail polish, ballpoint pens and more. “I used everything I could get my hands on,” he says.

And as he kept going, Kish discovered something else. His new art-making process seemed right for the book. Somehow, it got at its meaning.

“I wanted my drawings to visually parallel the novel,” Kish says. “On the surface, it’s an adventure story in which an obsessed captain chases a whale that has maimed him. So that’s there.

“But the careful reader sees all these themes, these ideas, these grand statements under the surface,” he continues. “I noticed that on a lot of found paper I was using, the elements showing through hinted at some deeper knowledge. With each illustration I created, page by page and day by day, I felt like I was making a direct visual parallel to the structure of the novel.”

As someone self-taught who spent years — decades — being rejected or ignored by the art establishment, being the subject of a museum exhibition is a new experience for Kish.

“To be perfectly honest, it’s pure joy to see this happening to me — to see my work alongside Del Tredici, an artist I’ve long admired,” Kish says. “But I’m not sure I can predict what this means going forward because everything that has happened to me so far is what I never would have expected. But I know I will never stop making art.

“And I’ve slowly come to realize that in this grand body of arts, writing, poetry and filmmaking that surrounds the novel Moby-Dick,” he continues, “I’ve earned a permanent place.”


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