Back in 2005 when my wife and I visited my ancestral homeland, the Azores, at one point, we stayed on the lovely island of Fayal in a hotel which was once a fortress right on the water’s edge replete with cannons on an upper deck next to a big swimming pool and a castle-like entrance. One afternoon we encountered an American artist and his small group of watercolorists. I’ve known a few guys that did this European tour-thing with a gaggle of amateur artists/students who would sign on for a package deal of touring various countries, lodging, visiting museums and painting with critiques from their instructor-guide. The instructor was an amiable chap and he invited us to sit in on a critique of that day’s watercolors by his little gang of students. One woman had put some words into her picture for some reason which prompted the admonition from the instructor, “Never put words in your pictures!” He explained to her that written words have no place in a piece of art and that it had ruined her picture.
I wondered what he would think of a picture I had made 4 years earlier which I named “Call Me Ishmael” (the most famous opening three words of any American novel). I had been trying to think of a unique way to illustrate my favorite book “Moby Dick” and I had hit upon this idea of doing a large picture consisting of just words… the first page of Moby Dick.
The picture is 26″ X 40″. It’s a linocut. What I like to call a “linocut-collage” because I print on a variety of colored papers inking the block in a variety of colored inks. Then I select parts of each print and paste it all up to create my full color picture.
I penciled in the words in mostly capital letters, inventing shapes with them using positive and negative spaces as the forms presented themselves to me. It’s very hard to exactly explain so I am submitting here a few details from the picture along with a photo of the whole thing to show what I mean.
After I had carved all the lettering, I proceeded to ink the block and print on the colored papers. I stuck to mostly greenish and bluish, waterish colors. I made a blue print, a green print, a purplish print, black print, white print on black paper and so forth. I kept inking the block different colors and printing on many many Pantone papers until I had this bunch of prints. Now all I had to do was select parts of those prints and paste it all up as a collage. First I used one of the prints as a “master” to paste the other little letter forms from the big prints on to it.
I think this was the most satisfyingly creative picture I’ve ever made… full of improvisation.
Mystic Seaport sells giclées of it along with my whaling picture called “New Bedford Boys At Toil”.
When I show this picture to people, I tell them that I’m illustrating Moby Dick and that this is the first page… and I have only 822 pages to go!
Amidst my picture puzzle of letter forms in “Call Me Ishmael”, I have buried a few whaling images. There’s a harpoon, whaling spade, killing lance and a small white whale.
I guess the admonition to me would have to be… “Don’t put pictures in your words!”
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When you were born and raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts, as I was, you grow up in an atmosphere of whaling history. At one time back in the late 1840’s, New Bedford was the richest city in the world. That’s right –not the country but, the world! It all came from a Quaker business, the collection of whale oil. The oil generated by the New Bedford (and earlier the Nantucket) fleets of whaling ships supplied the street lights of the world, the lamps of Italy’s opera houses, buggy whips, canes, perfume enhancers, candles and hundreds and hundreds of other products. The oil from the Sperm whale is the finest machine oil that has ever appeared on this planet.
So, when you’re a kid in New Bedford and you go to the library or you accompany your parent to the bank or you go to a municipal building or go to school, you see all around you, paintings of the whale chase. Whales heeled over snapping whaleboats in their mighty jaws, hapless seamen falling through the air, mighty ships plowing through rampaging seas. Out in front of the New Bedford Public Library is the symbol of New Bedford, a sculpture of a strong whale man in the prow of a whaleboat, with his sharp harpoon in hand, ready to dart it. Now, on the other side of the library, stands a statue of a black harpoon maker named Lewis Temple. There are no existing pictures of Temple so the sculptor used a picture of his son as the model. This man invented a harpoon that revolutionized the whaling industry because it was designed in such a way that once thrust into a whale’s hide it stuck and didn’t pull out which was the problem with the harpoons that preceded it. It’s called the “Temple Toggle.” I own two 1800’s examples of this iron.
Another thing you do, while growing up in New Bedford, is you sing whaling songs in glee club. There was no escaping the pull of the whaling adventure. In New Bedford, we have the best whaling museum in the world and I practically lived in it as I grew up walking the deck of the largest model whaleship in the world.
Another factor was that I was born of Portuguese parents –Azorean Portuguese parents to be exact. The Azores are the nine, tiny volcanic islands that sit in the middle of the Atlantic 800 miles off the coast of Portugal. These islands produced the greatest of the world’s whale men. The New Bedford and Nantucket ships always stopped at these islands to pick up food, and boatmen. When they returned from their 3 and 4 year voyages to the Pacific, many of these whale men came to the U.S. instead of returning home. Thus, a huge population in New Bedford were Portuguese, mostly Azorean. As a side note, my father was born in a tiny village nestled in a volcano crater. I visited it once.
I left all this behind when I moved to Connecticut but as I started my illustration and cartooning career, thoughts of the whaling started drifting back to me and I found myself doing my first promotional mailing which was a woodcut whaling scene which I entitled “Fetching Whale Oil.” It was a joke because the word “fetching” hardly was adequate to describe the violent scene in the picture.
As the years went on, I started thinking about my childhood and heritage and I began reading some whaling books. It was startling to me because I found such a connection to it. I was reading books that constantly mentioned New Bedford and mentioned the whalecraft shops that I realized were right in the neighborhood that I had grown up in. In the later days of whaling, the American-Portuguese had, pretty much taken over the business. The captains had Portuguese names that I was familiar with. I started to discover a history that I really never knew existed wherein the whaling industry, playing a big part in the Revolutionary War (that tea-party adventure in Boston was on a whaleship), the Civil War, the Gold Rush and more. History teachers tell me that they too have been unaware of this rich history.
My first real elaborate whaling picture, “New Bedford Boys At Toil”, was made in 1994. I did a border design around the picture which was my habit sometimes in those days (the art directors loved my border designs) and Mystic Seaport in Connecticut later made 6 necktie designs, mainly from that border, utilizing the whale and whale men from the picture which they still sell online and in their store. along with some of my whaling pictures.
In my extensive readings on whaling lore, I discovered a whale named “Mocha Dick.” He was a white whale who rampaged through the Pacific in the 1800’s eating whaleboats and whale men seemingly seeking vengeance on the enemies of his brethren. He was based around Mocha Island off the southern coast of Chile. Mocha is pronounced with a “cha” sound rather than a “ka” sound because it’s Spanish (but try to tell that to the rest of the folks out there who study whaling lore). All the whale men of the era knew of Mocha, including Melville who later used a version of his name for his great Moby Dick.
An art director friend from The Wall Street Journal, Dan Smith asked if I’d like to do a book with him in his newly formed “Strike Three Press.” Dan loves books and he even likes to “make” books –I mean he binds them, hand stitches them etc. He asked me what I would like to do a book about and I quickly said “Mocha Dick”.
Dan went forth and studied up on Mocha Dick and 19thcentury whaling so he could get the “feel” of it for the structure of the book, the typography and so forth.
Dan, with the help of his wife, Virginia Cahill, bound and stitched 32 copies of the book until they ran out of steam (tough job). I had helped them pick out the paper and the cover boards etc. and I executed a suite of 11 linocuts and wrote a brief history of Mocha on each page opposite. We had a wonderful signed and numbered, limited edition of “The Life and Death of Mocha Dick” the hero white whale of the Pacific.
Later, around 2013, the award winning designer, Rita Marshall was at my house and saw a big picture of Mocha Dick that I had made. Months later she told me that she couldn’t get that picture out of her head and also said that they had a manuscript from a writer named Brian Heinz on Mocha Dick. And, so, another Mocha Dick book was crafted for her company Creative Editions. It’s a rather sophisticated children’s book. Thanks to some great starred revues from places like Kirkus and some mentions on important websites like Brainpickings.org and the Atlantic Magazine’s, we got so many advanced purchases on Amazon that we sold out the first edition two weeks before the book was even released. I was blessed to have a great writer on board that trip around.
The first book, “The Life and Death of Mocha Dick” also sold out it’s 32 copies for $200 each.
It pleases me now that when someone looks up Moby Dick or Mocha Dick on the internet, my name often pops up. I’m so glad I was able to make a connection with this whale and bring his story to more people that didn’t know of him before.