Entry begun on Thursday, August 5, 9 am
Since returning home from the voyage on the Fourth of July, in addition to working with Emma Rose on the 2015 Moby-Dick exhibition and catalog, I’ve been working on a number of exhibitions to coincide with the production of Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera in Cincinnati in 2016. In July I attended two of this year’s Cincinnati Opera summer productions, Silent Night (by contempoary composer Kevin Puts) on July 12 and La Calisto (by Baroque composer Francesco Corelli) on July 27. Now that this summer’s season is over, I will be meeting with members of the Cincinnati Opera staff to bring them up to date on the artists and venues actively interested in exhibiting Moby-Dick art concurrent with the opera production June 2016. I will then arrange a meeting of representatives from the interested museums and galleries, and I will continue to be in touch contemporary artists who are in the process of creating new Moby-Dick art that could be considered for one or more of the exhibition venues.
The Cincinnati Opera sent a large delegation to see the world premiere of Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick in Dallas in 2010 because Heggie’s Dead Man Walking had been very popular with Cincinnati audiences in a 2002 production. The Cincinnati delegation was highly impressed with Moby-Dick in Dallas and wanted to bring it to Cincinnati as soon as possible. Given the lead time required for opera contracts these days, that would have been in this year, in the summer of 2014. This plan had to be suspended when a major renovation was proposed for Music Hall, home of Cincinnati Opera’s summer season. Their next option was to produce Moby-Dick during the 2015 summer season, but as the plans for the renovation became more an more convoluted, uncertain, and politicized, there was no way to tell whether the renovation would be underway, completed, or not even begun, by that date. No longer willing to be held hostage to the uncertainties surrounded the renovation, the opera company booked the Aronoff Center in downtown Cincinnati for June 2016 so they would have a secure venue if Music Hall were to be unavailable. The Aronoff Center was designed to handle large Broadway musicals on tour and its largest hall will easily be able to accommodate the sloping white wall that provides the backdrop for much of Heggie and Scheer’s shipboard opera.
Ever since I saw Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick in Dallas in 2010 and published a book on it in 2013, I have been hoping to organize several exhibitions of Moby-Dick art concurrent with its Cincinnati production in June 2016, wherever that production may be. All of the art institutions with whom I have so far spoken have shown an active interest, and three of them literally surround the Aronoff Center on Walnut between Sixth and Seventh Streets. The Contemporary Arts Center, in the splendid Zaha Hadid building completed in 2003, is directly across from the Aronoff Center on the northwest corner of Sixth and Walnut. The 21c Museum and Hotel is immediately adjacent to the Contemporary Arts Center across Walnut from the Aronoff. The Weston Art Gallery occupies the corner wing of the Aronoff building itself at the southeast corner of Seventh and Walnut. The Marta Hewett Gallery is less than a mile north of the Aronoff Center in the Pendleton Arts district. Music Hall is about a mile northwest of the Aronoff Center and its surrounding galleries. All four of the above art venues are interested in exhibiting Moby-Dick art in June 2016 that will supplement the production of the opera while also meeting their own artistic missions.
Most of the Moby-Dick artists currently being considered by the above galleries are contemporary artists, several of whom are represented in the current Art of Seeing Whales exhibition in New Bedford. One artist from the mid-twentienth century will also be included if technical details can be worked out. Gilbert Wilson (1907-1991) was a native of Terre Haute, Indiana, who devoted his life to creating a Moby-Dick opera. He created over three hundred artworks depicting scenes and characters from the novel as well as stage sets for his projected opera. He wrote several complete librettos for his Moby-Dick opera projedt. Wilson corresponded at length with composers from Aaron Copland, to Dmitri Shostakovich, to Leonard Bernstein imploring them to write the music. All of this was to no avail, and Gilbert Wilson was essentially unknown until Elizabeth Schultz discovered his work while researching Unpainted to the Last. Schultz discussed and illustrated a great variety of his work in the text and plates of her 1995 book, reproducing all six works of the Insanity Series in which Wilson depicts the sequential progression of Ahab’s madness (c. 1850). The Insanity Series was part of the exhibition Unpainted to the Last that opened at the Spencer Art Museum at the University of Kansas in Lawrence in 1995 and traveled to the Block Gallery of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 1996. Students in my 1996 Sprng Semester in Melville and the Arts were deeply impressed with Wlson’s work when we took a field trip to Evanston in February to see the show. .
Through Schultz’s efforts, Wilson’s entire Moby-Dick oeuvre was acquired by the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute. Students in my classes have been deeply drawn to Wilson’s work simply from seen the reproductions in Schultz’s book, and several have driven to Terre Haute to see works from the series in person (including one who created a 30-minute film on Wilson’s career). Wilson’s artistic response to Melville’s novel anticipates many of the most important elements of the opera Heggie and Scheer were to create a half-century later, especially in the treament of characters such as Ahab, Starbuck, and Pip. One of the masterpieces of the series is the triptych of the Cosmic Whale that Wilson designed for a mural project on the ceiling of a former federal post office in Frankfort, Kentucky, that was never painted (c. 1970). The coming of Heggie and Scheer’s opera to Cincinnati in 2016 will be the perfect occasion for the power and scope of Wilson’s lifetime achievement to become known to a much wider audience.
Among the many contemporary artists who have already created a large existing body of Moby-Dick art that would enrich one’s experience of the opera, there are a significant number who are still in the process of creating new work that could also be available for exhibition in 2016. Seeing a sample of the new work that these artists are still in the process of creating will expand our sense of what may be available by the time the opera arrives in Cincinnati.
In the early 1960s, Robert Del Tredici began a series of Moby-Dick pen-and-ink drawings that ended up as 100 designs which he published as offset 8 x 10 prints on photo offset using colored paper stock. In the late 1990s he began a new Moby-Dick initiative by transforming many of the pen-and-inks into poster-sized silkscreen prints, using a gestural approach to the medium that made every print unique in the editon of 20. Many of the original pen-and-inks and twenty new silkscreen prints were reproduced in his book Floodgates of the Wonderworld in 2001. Last November, when coming to speak to Honors students at Northern Kentucky University, Del Tredici brought with him ten entirely new Moby-Dick drawings printed on metallic paper, inaugurating the third phase of his career as a Moby-Dick artist. Already in 2014 he has printed seventeen additional designs, with more to come. Most of the new prints measure 11 x 14 inches on metallic paper. Like Jake Heggie in his Moby-Dick opera, one of Del Tredici’s challenges has been to find a way into Ahab’s inner life, something he has done impressively in several of the new prints on metallic paper. Those posted here show Ahab alone (Elm) and with Pip (Malady)..
Thanasis Christodoulou, who hosted the first International Melville Society Conference in Volos, Greece, in 1997, is another long-standing Moby-Dick artist who continues to create new work year after year. In 2009 he donated thirty of his original drawings dating back to the 1990s to the Melville Society Archive in New Bedford. Two of those works, Loomings IV and The Symphony are part of the current exhibition The Art of Seeing Whales in New Bedford. Christodoulou has continued to make new Moby-Dick drawings since then, two of the most explorations of Ahab’s psyche being The Pipe, and entirely new creation in 2013, and a new 2014 version of The Chase–Third Day..
Matt Kish published Moby-Dick in Pictures, one drawing for each of the 552 pages in the Signet edition, in 2011. This year he created the twelve new portraits of the crew of the Pequod that I took with me to New Bedford as the 2014 commission from the Melville Society Archive. Having completed that body of new work, he is now beginning a gallery of fourteen different species of whales cataloged by Ishmael in the “Cetology” chapter. These drawings will vary in size according to the relative size of the whales themselves, some of them possibly being as large as 24 x 30 inches. This new series is likely to be completed well in advance of June 2016 and would be wonderful to hang as a complete set along with his new portrait gallery from the Pequod. These newest works by Kish could also be supplemented by some of this original drawings for the 2011 book now in the collections of the Melville Society Archive and Steely Library Archives at NKU. In earlier sections of this blog we have seen Kish’s new drawings of Queequeg, Daggoo, and Fleece. Posted here are Tastego and Ahab.
Aileen Callahan is another extremely prolific Moby-Dick artist who is creating a large body of new work in advance of 2016. As mentioned above, she had created a series of large oil paintings such as White Whale early in this century, followed by the sequence of paintings imagining the Birth of Moby Dick in 2005. Since then she has been exploring the body of the whale in both oil and charcoal in her Furnace Mouth and now her Whale’s Skin series. The Skin’s Path drawing now on view in New Bedford is one of more than a dozen large charcoal drawings of the whale’s skin in the last few years, and there are many more to come. On a visit to Cincinnati a few weeks ago, Aileen showed me a rich series of brand new drawings, some of them 15 x 20 inches, others as large as 22 x 30 inches. It is wonderful to see an artist take up a subject such as this and continue to find rich new meaning and modes of expression over and over again.
Vanessa Hodgkinson, my shipmate on the Charles W. Morgan in June, is another contemporary Moby-Dick artist who is actively making new work as I am writing this blog entry. I have already shown in this blog the seven new watercolor-and-ink drawings she completed within three days of getting off the whale ship. She will obviously be working for some time to create a film out of the video footage she took of herself when trying to enact the experience of a woman trying to pass as a man on a nineteenth-century ship such as the Morgan. A third artistic project from her voyage will be a series of studio photographs exploring the same questions of identity she will be exploring in the video. She expects to create a series of at least six photos, but she cannot say for sure, because this particular project has only just begun. She has given me permission to reproduce here her first works-in-progress towards the series Whale Portraits, sent to me last week. Together, these newest works by Callahan and Hodgkinson help so show, as does the experience of the Charles W. Morgan on Stellewagen bank, why eco-feminism is one of the strongest movements for interpreting Moby-Dick today, among visual artists as well as literary critics.
Much remains to be seen about the performance venue for the Moby-Dick opera in June 2016 as well as about the visual artists who will be featured in whatever exhibitions are actually mounted to accompany the production. In addition to the past, present, and future work of such out-of-town artists such as Del Tredici, Christodoulou, Kish, Callahan, and Hodgkinson, a number of works by local artists to be featured in the Moby Comes to Covington exhibition in April and May 2015 are likely to be included in one or more of the 2016 exhibitions. We will also be able to consider new works still in the process of being created by these and other local artists.
Abby Schlachter, who has made a name for herself as textile artist after exhibiting Life Buoy in 2009, is already far along in designing a large white whale that can float high above one of our local exhibition spaces, accompanied by suspended whaleboats and a coffin. Kathleen Piercefield, who currently has two works from the Schultz collection in the Art of Seeing Whales in New Bedford, has a number of new ideas that are likely to find strong visual expression by the time the opera comes to town. Jean Grangeon, a French artist relatively new to the art scene in Cincinnati, is beginning an ambitious new Moby-Dick series based on his own reading of the novel in collaboration with the work of a neurobiologist friend in Switzerland who has recently published a French-language essay on Ahab and monomania.
I am very excited about the new artworks that these and other Moby-Dick artists are creating in advance of the opera production in 2016. Even more exciting are future developments of which not only I but the artists themselves are currently unaware. I am also hoping that we can find Cincinnati venues for three Moby-Dick musical creations in 2016. One is And God Created Great Whales, the brilliant two-person chamber opera and performance piece premiered in 2001 by Rinde Eckert, who write the libretto, composed the music, and performed one of the two roles. Another is the Ahab Symphony by Jake Heggie that premiered at the University of North Texas at Denton in April 2013, a composition for tenor, orchestra and chorus that juxtaposes Ahab’s words on the Last Day of the Chase with W. H. Auden’s poem on Melville. The third work is the Moby-Dick Oratorio that Molly Herron and her colleagues in the West Fourth New Music Collective composed for its premiere performance in Brooklyn earlier this year, on the same day that Heggie and Scheer’s opera was having its Washington DC premiere with the National Opera.
This, I believe, is the appropriate place to end this blog primarily inspired by my experience as a 38th Voyager on the whale ship Charles W. Morgan in June 2014. My one-day voyage on the whale ship is now six weeks past. Many exciting Moby-related activities are looming on the horizon. If it feels like the right thing to do, I will create a companion blog to this one in order to share the process of implementing various initiatives relating to Moby Comes to Covington in April 2015 as well as to those exhibitions that will eventually accompany the Cincinnati production of the Moby-Dick opera in June 2016, with maybe a few Japanese adventures in between.
[Note to reader: I have begun a new blog entitled Dickinson and Moby-Dick in 2015. As an epilogue to this blog I am posting a the text of the one-page report I submitted to Mystic Seaport Museum after completing my whale ship project.]