Shawn, Vali, and Alison

Began this entry Sunday morning, May 24, 5:50 am

Alison Lundergan Grimes looks to be about the same age as Shawn Buckenmeyer (Daniell). I just checked the internet, and Alison is one year younger, born in 1978. Both were experiencing exceptional personal and professional growth early in 2014. I do believe that Alison embodies many of the values of self-actualization and self-expression that Shawn embodied in the life she led and the art she created. I did not have a chance to converse with Shawn about politics. But I’m quite sure she would have been as enthused as I am about the senatorial race in Kentucky, and as hopeful as I am that like-minded voters in Campbell County can have a strong voice in its outcome. The “Voyage of one Shawn” is ending prematurely at very moment that the “Voyage of one Alison” is gaining national recognition. Given the history of Mitch McConnell, there is certain to be a “Bloody Battle in Kentucky” over the summer and through to the fall to the November 4 election.

Vali Myers, Stella Maris, NKU Honors House

Vali Myers, Stella Maris, 2001 giclee print from 1998 drawing, NKU Honors House. Photo Emily Wiethorn

Shawn was not one to remain confined to one location for long, so sometime this summer Chuck will carry her ashes to Italy, where they would have been honeymooning in early June. He will release them somewhere in the Bay of Naples, where they will enter into rhythms of the ancient Mediterranean. I like to imagine her remains, still buoyant, floating alongside the island that Vali Myers depicted at the heart of Stella Maris, the drawing in pen, sepia, and watercolor that she completed in 1998 (posted here). The island in the center of the drawing is the one Vali saw every day from the refuge for endangered animals she had established high up in a steep valley ocwelooking the Bay of Naples high above the town of Positano, between Sorrento and Solerno on the Italian coast.

Vali drawing White Whale in Stella Maris accompanied by her loving creatures

Photo of Vali drawing White Whale in Stella Maris accompanied by her loving creatures, gift to the author

Vali had mentoned to me that Stella Maris is the name of the Pagan goddess of the sea worshipped along this coastline before the dawn of Christianity.  She liked the fact that the island she saw through the tunnel of her secluded valley resembled the body of a female at rest. The Stella Maris of her drawing is weeping like a crucified Christ for the sins of the modern world, specifically for the destruction mankind has inflicted upon its fellow creatures. The white whale depicted at the upper right is rising one more time against the men who have attacked it.  The welcoming space below the teardrop of the Mediterranean sea sustains and shelters living creatures representing those that Vali actually sheltered in her own nature refuge (as seen in the photo she sent me of herself drawing the white whale in Stella Maris surrounded by her creatures curled in comfort)..

Vali Myers, Moby Dick, NKU Honors House

Vali Myers, Moby Dick, 1996 giclee print after 1974 drawing, NKU Honors House. Photo Emily Wiethorn

Rob Kallmeyer, one the students in my class in Moby-Dick and the Arts in 1996, had fallen in love with Vali’s 1974 drawing entitled Moby Dick when we saw it in Beth Schultz’s exhibition Unpainted to the Last on an overnight trip to Northwestern University. He found a way to telephone Vali in her Italian valley and had several very inspiring conversations with her that then led my correspondence with Myers about her Moby Dick drawing as well as the Stella Maris then underway. We ended up ordering special giclee prints of each work that now hang in the Honors House in which most of my Moby classes have been held.

The Fall 2013 Moby class in which Shawn enrolled met for three hours one night a week. On one of those nights we took an “art walk” through four buildings on campus that house Moby-Dick art. We were only a few weeks into the course but Shawn was already “in the process of figuring out what direction to take in my project” at the end of the semester. During our art walk, the artist she was “drawn to the most was Vali Myers: “Her use of dots to create beautiful, surreal, curved lines and shapes is what drew me to her piece Moby Dick. There’s so much going on.  In the fore front we have a lounging, sensual female unabashedly lying naked across the bottom of the canvas. Is she mother nature? A female representation of Ishmael? I almost envision her as a genie in a bottle. In the background we have Moby Dick and a ship battling. Notice a few dead bodies swirling in the waves. On both sides of the canvas, we have two faces, one looking angrily at the woman while the other looks at the battle between the ship and Moby Dick. Perhaps the faces are Man; looking, judging, angry men. The lounging female doesn’t seem concerned. I found it interesting when we were discussing eco-feminism and the fact that Myers wanted the whale to win. I don’t know much about eco-feminism, so I’ll have to do some research and maybe find a way to apply it to my project.” She certainly did.

Cover of catalog for Vali Myers retrospective in Australia, 2013-14

Cover of catalog for Vali Myers retrospective in Australia, La Trobe University Museum, 2013

Vali Myers died of cancer in Melbourne, Australia, in 2003. At the time of Shawn’s death in April 2014, six of Vali’s Moby-Dick drawings were part of major retrospective of her career on tour through her native country of Australia. The exhibition had opened at La Trobe University in Melbourne while Shawn was taking our art walk through the Honrors House in September. On April 14, when Shawn was giving her Celebration presentation, the exhibitioin had just arrived at the Maitland Regional Art Gallery, where it will still be on display when the Charles W. Morgan is scheduled to sail into New Bedford on June 25.  In addition to reproducing Vali’s Moby Dick on the cover of the catalog, the organizers of the exhibition invited me to contribute an essay discussing all of the works in the show with a Moby-Dick component.  I called my essay “Vali Myers, Moby-Dick, and Eco-Feminism,” and stressed that Vali’s lifelong engagement with the novel made her a pioneer in the eco-feminist movement that that has resulted in some of the finest literary and artistic responses to Moby-Dick in our new twenty-first century.

Vali’s admiration of the whale, not the men who were trying to kill it; her deep fellow feeling for the living creatures she assisted in her wildlife refuge and celebrated in her art; her unapologetic embrace of a female perspective centered in a female body; her prophetic sense of a sacredness in nature that mankind has mindlessly desecrated; and her extraordinary graphic ability to address all these themes in the context of Melville’s Moby-Dick—in all these ways Vali Myers has already inspired an impressive variety of female artists across this country and around the world. Here in my own classes in Highland Heights, Kentucky, male as well as female artists have been inspired by Vali’s example. In the photo posted here, Shawn and her I & Q are accompanied by the three other female students who presented their Moby-Dick creations in the April 2014 Celebration: Danielle Kleymeyer, Mary Belperio, and Ronnie Mitchell.

Danielle Kleymeyer, Mary Belperio, Shawn Buckenmeyer, Ronnie Mitdchell, and their teacher at 2014 Celebration

Danielle Kleymeyer, Mary Belperio, Shawn Buckenmeyer, Ronnie Mitchell, and their teacher at 2014 Celebration

Vali Myers, Holy Ghost, 2001-02

Vali Myers, Holy Ghost, 2001-02, p. 62 in Dusk to Dawn catalog

The academic thread of the “Voyage of one Shawn” that has suddenly ended will be completed in December when she will be awarded a posthumous M. A. degree in English from Northern Kentucky University. The corporeal component of her life voyage will find its last expression when Chuck releases her ashes into the Bay of Naples sometime this summer, enacting her own personal variation on Ishmael’s image of those who have “placelessly perished without a grave” as he contemplates those marble tablets memorializing sailors lost at sea in the Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford where they can still be seen today (“The Chapel,” chapter 7).


As for the spiritual element of Shawn’s life voyage, I would compare that with Vali Myers’ Holy Ghost (2001-02), the last major work Myers completed before her death. There is no whale in this drawing, but this is her last homage to Moby Dick, for she had written to me of the giant squid, “which lives in the deepest valleys of the ocean,” as being the natural prey and worthy opponent of her beloved sperm whale. In this work, Vali imagines herself taking her final rest under the sheltering arms of that enveloping creature, now as peacefully at rest as the recumbent female shape of the island at the center of Stella Maris (which reappears, heavily shaded, just below the horizon line in Holy Ghost). Turn one of Shawn Buckenmeyer’s corporeal, spiritual female nudes from vertical to horizontal and you have a fitting companion to Vali’s peaceful self-portrait at the bottom of the drawing..

Mark Milloff, Stripping the Whale, NKU Honors House

Mark Milloff, Stripping the Whale, 2005 giclee print after 1985 pastel, NKU Honors House. Photo Emily Wiethorn

By the time that Shawn Buckenmeyer (Daniell) is awarded her posthumous degree in December 2014, we will know the fate of the maiden “Voyage of one Alison Lundergan Grimes” into some of our nation’s most violent political waters. She is likely to encounter the senatorial equivalent of the passage in Moby-Dick in which the sharks feed on the body of the whale with such “incredible ferocity” they “viciously snapped, not only at each other’s disembowelments . . . but bit their own; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound” (“The Shark Massacre,” chapter 66). I am hoping that she will survive like the White Whale that turns on its bloody pursuers in Vali’s Moby Dick and rises with its fiercest pursuer lashed to its body in Vali’s Stella Maris, winning the election that will enable her to make the U. S. Senate a more functional body for the common good.


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