A Little Lower Layer

Just as student paragraphs are made vivid when supported by specific details, the same is true of a provisional travel plan. One unknown component of the summer exhibition at the Whaling Museum when I met with Christina and Michael in April was the new work that the Melville Society Cultural Project had commissioned from Matt Kish as our 2014 Archive artist. Kish was to be creating for New Bedford images that were inspired by Moby-Dick but entirely different from the 552 drawings he had published in Moby-Dick in Pictures in 2011. These would be larger than those for the book and they would be independent images, not drawn on found paper. He had proposed two subjects, a gallery of various whalers on the Pequod or a gallery of various whales in the ocean. Christina, Michael, and I all wanted to include these new works in the summer show, but we did not yet know what they would be.

Matt Kish, Queequeg, new drawing May 2014

Matt Kish, Queequeg, first of a set of drawings for 2014 commission for the Melville Society Archive

I found out a few days ago when Kish sent me a digital file of his new Queequeg, who was to be the first of eleven whalers from the Pequod he expected to complete by the time I left for New Bedford on June 23. In doing the new drawing, Kish was thinking about how lithe and muscular Queequeg and the other harpooners needed to be to succeed in thier work. I am eager to see Kish’s new depictions of Queequeg’s fellow crewmates. The gallery of whales will have to wait for a later day. Christina and Michael and I have agreed to feature the new Kishes, when we see them, as much as possible—which will mean trying to project, as much as is possible in advance, other images from the collection that will go best with them.

Vanessa Hidgkinson,  Squeeze of the Hand, 2013

Vanessa Hidgkinson,
Squeeze of the Hand, 2013

I’ve been in touch with Vanessa Hodgkinson, who will be one of my crewmates on the Morgan, because of several interests we have in common. Vanessa is a visual artist from London whose project for the voyage is to explore, through research and her own experience, the subject of women on whale ships. I met Vanessa during the Moby-Dick Marathon in New Bedford this January when she exhibited some Moby-Dick-inspired art at a gallery a few blocks from the Whaling Museum. We knew then that we had each applied for a spot on the Morgan this sumner, but we would not know until March whether either of us would be accepted. Apart from the voyage on the Morgan, I was interested in Vanessa as one of many female artists who have in the last decade been strongly drawn to Moby-Dick.

Talise Trevigne as Pip in Heggie and Scheer's Moby-Dick

Talise Trevigne as Pip in Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick (copyright Karen Almond Dallas Opera)

In 2013 I published a book on Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera, which had premiered in Dallas in 2010 and which cast Talise Trevigne, a soprano, as the African American cabin boy Pip. The opera is coming to Cincinnati, near my home in northern Kentucky, in June 2016. I am in the process of organizing a number of Moby-Dick art exhibitions in the city to coincident with the run of the opera, and I am expecting that Vanessa might be creating something from the voyage on the Morgan that could be featured in one of those exhibitioins. With this in mind, she has put me in touch with Jessica Rinland, another young British artist who has been making works about whaling, and I have been trying to get Vanessa in touch with Talise Trevigne.

All of this came together in a surprising way for me when I called Bow van Riper, the research librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to see exactly what materials they might have on either the history of whaling or the Wapanoag culture when I arrived for a few hours on June 24. I had skimmed over their online finding aids on both subjects. After asking some questions specific to my own research interests, I said I’d had noticed that one of the finding aids listed some materials relating to women on whale ships, a subject of great interest to one of my June crewmates on the Morgan. He mentioned that quite a bit had been done with Laura Jurnegan, a local girl whose parents had taken her on a whaling voyage when she was six, but that there were certainly others as well, and he would be glad to have some materials for me to look at and the day I arrived. From that conversation I Googled “Laura Jurnegan” and found the website Laura Jurnegan: Girl on a Whaleship that had been recently created by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum with assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a number of Massachusetts funding agencies.

Laura Jurnegan as a young adult

Photograph of Laura Jurnegan as a young adult by O’Neil studio, Martha’s Vineyard Museum

The image posted here of Laura as a young woman was taken by a photographer in New Bedford. Exploring this fascinating website made me wonder if this young woman from Martha’s Vineyard had been the same young girl whose real-life experience had inspired Vanessa’s friend Jessica to create Electric Oil, one of the Rinland films Vanessa had forwarded to me (and winner of the ICA award for Best Experimental Film at the 2013 London Short Film Festival). Yes, indeed, here is a passage of the text that Jessica wrote to accompany her film: “In 1868, Laura Jernegan, a 6 year old girl from Massachusetts, USA set out on a three year whaling voyage. During this voyage, she wrote a journal about her life on the whaling ship.” That young girl’s handwritten journal, which is reproduced and transcribed on the website, is one of the things I will be sure to see in Edgartown before boarding the Morgan on June 24.


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