Artist profile: Matt Kish, Moby-Dick in Pictures

From the October 6, 2011 edition

Call him an illustrative Ishmael … or maybe Ahab.

Matt Kish began a project in 2009 that nearly made him as mad as Herman Melville’s fictional captain hell-bent on killing Moby-Dick.

Kish’s obsession, though, has a happier ending. It harpooned him a book deal. Tuesday, Tin House Books debuts its tome of Kish’s illustrations, “Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page.”

The former English teacher selected a phrase, theme or quote from each page of the Signet Classics edition of “Moby-Dick” and translated it into a drawing. It took him 543 days to illustrate the 552 pages.

Kish lives in Dublin but sails I-70’s sea of traffic to his job as an audiovisual specialist at a Dayton library. Kish has no art training. His studio is a four-by-seven-foot closet. And his work was found only because he posted it on a blog for his family and friends.

“It still kind of blows me away,” Kish said, “that people would be so interested in something that’s really just personal.”

Kish first faced the whale as a Godzilla-loving toddler at his grandma’s. There he saw the 1956 movie “Moby Dick.”

“I was completely captivated because I was smitten with monsters,” Kish said. “Here was this monster that could have almost been real and it’s sort of a realistic story.”

At 42, Kish has read the book at least eight times and calls it a “constant companion.”

The Moby-Dick project began as a way “to force my art to become a little more random, a little dirtier, a little less predictable,” he said. The multimedia works were mostly done on paper from books Kish saved while working at a bookstore.

“In some ways, [old maps and diagrams] represent someone’s dreams and ambitions,” Kish said. “In a sense that was kind of mirroring the structure of the book itself.”

His own life also began to mirror the book.

Kish’s wife, Ione Damasco, said, “Mentally, he had to take himself to some really dark places, because that’s where the book was going.”

“The obsession and isolation drove me on but are also things I’m not sure I want to come close to again for a very long time,” Kish said. “Near the end, portraits of Ahab are self portraits. That sense of isolation and anger really colored the last few pieces.”

One of those pieces, “534,” attracted a University of South Carolina emeritus professor of American literature.

“I bought the image because I thought it one of the best representations of Moby Dick breaching that I have seen,” said Joel Myerson, who owns nearly all of the illustrated editions of the tale. “It combines the motion of the whale coming out of the water with a sort of impersonal, almost mechanistic nature that challenges Ahab’s attempts to personalize the beast.”

Will Kish ever read “Moby-Dick” again?

“Yes,” he said, laughing. “I don’t want to read it for a little while now, though.”