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Call Him Ishmael

Illustrator Robert Del Tredici plumbs the depths of Moby Dick


Published September 13, 2006 at 2:21 p.m.

Robert Del Tredici didn't have a grant or a book contract when he first began illustrating Herman Melville's classic whale tale Moby Dick nearly 40 years ago.

"I did it out of sheer necessity," recalls the Montréal-based artist, photographer and college professor, who exhibits and speaks about his illustrations at the Burlington Book Festival this weekend. "It was a lifeline for me."

That's an ironic thing to say about a book in which nearly everyone drowns. But then, the illustrator sees more than just tragedy in the story of the doomed crew of the Pequod and their mad captain, Ahab, who hunts the white whale until it kills him. Del Tredici sees a pathway to survival.

He first encountered Moby Dick as an undergraduate in the late 1960s. He had just quit a Catholic seminary after eight years, and had enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, to study literature. "Every day for a year I just burst into tears without even knowing what I was crying about," he says of this difficult period. "It was really painful."

When he read Herman Melville's classic 1851 novel, it hooked him instantly. Three sentences in, the narrator, Ishmael, describes the emotions that drive him to sign up for a three-year whaling voyage on the ship. "Whenever . . . it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off," Melville writes, "then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

Del Tredici, 67, explains his attraction to the passage, and to the subsequent line about the nautical excursion being Ishmael's substitute for "pistol and ball": "He's either going to blow his brains off or become a serial killer," he says. "He's just seething with frustration. And that's exactly how I felt."

Del Tredici began making pen-and-ink drawings of his favorite passages, beginning with this one. In his drawing, Ishmael, fists clenched, glowers at a fragile stick-figure family. The image soon became one of 100.

Del Tredici put his Moby Dick drawings away during the 1970s and '80s, when he worked on At Work in the Fields of the Bomb, a 1987 book of photos chronicling the U.S. nuclear industry. But he came back to the sea story in the 1990s, turning some of his black-and-white drawings into colorful silkscreens. In 2001, Kent State University Press published Floodgates of the Wonderworld, a collection of his prints, in honor of the novel's 150th anniversary.

Silver Maple Gallery in Burlington is displaying examples of both his drawings and his silkscreens. Gallery owner Bill Dodge, who owned a Montréal bookstore in the 1980s and '90s, recommended Del Tredici for the festival. Dodge describes Del Tredici's illustrations, coupled with his hand-lettered quotes from the novel, as "poetic."

They're definitely unique. Unlike earlier artists who attempted to capture the spirit of Moby Dick, Del Tredici doesn't focus much on gruesome encounters with whales, concentrating instead on the psychological, moral and spiritual aspects of Melville's text. "Most people just illustrate the narrative and that's it," he suggests. "I wanted to go after the philosophical stuff that keeps the book afloat."

His images do not disappoint. They range from the playful to the terrible, and Del Tredici's emotions are etched into every squiggly line. "Cannibal Springs," for example, shows a comically grinning Queequeg leaping into bed with the wide-eyed Ishmael, while "Left Wing of Judgment" depicts the funeral pyre of a whale being burned in the Pequod's try pots. A demonic red figure with black, oval eyes arises from the smoke. "It smells like the Left Wing of the Day of Judgment," reads the quotation that Del Tredici has embedded in the smoke. "It is an argument for the pit."

Even more striking is "Ahab's Glare," in which a mottled blue, gray and green sperm whale rises behind a bearded Ahab, as the Captain stares at the viewer. Ahab's expression - the black eyes, the flared nostrils - is particularly malevolent. Below the figure, Del Tredici has copied in the words, ". . . there lurked a something in the old man's eyes, which it was hardly sufferable for feeble souls to see." The look on his face is indeed terrifying.

"It scared me," Del Tredici admits. "It came from a real place. It wasn't just doodling around."

Del Tredici was drawn to the book because Melville recognized and embraced this destructive energy. "Melville had a real grip on the dark side of human nature," Tredici opines. "That's what makes that book far more than just a sea tale, just an adventure story. The universe is just crackling with a certain kind of potent energy that you have to really be careful with."

Del Tredici hasn't just experienced that dark side in himself; he's documented it extensively in the world at large. For At Work in the Fields of the Bomb, he spent six years completely immersed in the atomic bomb-making process. He traveled to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, spoke with bomb survivors, interviewed its creators, met with the workers who manufacture various bomb components, and produced photos of the nuclear-weapon production process that are frighteningly banal.

He sees his bomb work and his Moby Dick drawings as intimately connected. "I've always felt that Herman Melville, of all the writers from the 19th century, would have easily understood the atomic bomb," he says, "because he shows that he understands human ruthlessness."

But there's more to the connection than that. Del Tredici believes Melville's novel offers answers to the question of how to live in a world that includes nuclear weapons.

The artist points out that Moby Dick is really Ishmael's story, not Ahab's. And Ishmael is the Pequod's only survivor. He makes it, Del Tredici notes, "by being so adaptable, and so curious, and through his wondrous connection to Queequeg, who represents the sort of aboriginal unspoiled qualities."

The illustrator also argues that Ishmael is buoyed by his acceptance of the chaos that surrounds him. One of Del Tredici's favorite passages asserts, "There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns."

The quote is from a chapter entitled "The Hyena," and Del Tredici has illustrated it by showing Ishmael in a rowboat beneath a giant floating hyena head.

Del Tredici summarizes the message: "It's all a joke, and the joke's on you, and you don't get the joke," he says. Del Tredici takes heart in how Ishmael is able to confront this painful truth and still render an honest, compassionate account of his adventure. "He's not complaining," he explains. "That's why I like it."

Del Tredici argues that this same philosophy relates to Americans' post-9/11 lives. "It's a very dark time," the artist notes, "and what do you do about that? Do you curl up and close yourself off into a cocoon, or what?"

Del Tredici looks to Moby Dick for an answer to that question. He muses, "I think Melville is telling people, 'Work with it, work with it.'"

Graphic Artists at the Book Fest

ROBERT DEL TREDICI exhibit, Silver Maple Gallery, all weekend. "Whales, Atoms, 9/11: Robert Del Tredici and the Uses of Visual Language," Fletcher Free Library, Saturday, 4-5 p.m.

HARRY BLISS Saturday, 1-2 p.m., Fletcher Free Library, and Sunday, 11 a.m. - noon, ECHO.

EDWARD KOREN Saturday, 2:30-3:30 p.m., Fletcher Free Library.

ALISON BECHDEL Saturday, 5:30-6:30 p.m., Black Box Theatre.

TIMOTHY ERING Sunday, 2-3 p.m., ECHO.