The Wild, Weird World of Matt Kish

Matt Kish’s artwork is jarring, vivid, totally whacked. Is it a visual riddle? A painterly koan? And what does it say about art and literature? Only The Lonely Harpooneer can say, and The Lonely Harpooneer says nothing.
Matt Kish photographed in disguise in Beevercreek on October 21, 2014

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Walter White had Heisenberg. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta has Lady Gaga. And as he stands in a vacant lot somewhere on the periphery of Dayton, Matt Kish has this guy: The Lonely Harpooneer.

People who make things, people who want to create something larger than the life they’ve lived, sometimes find it useful to invent a dopplegänger, a stand-in to draw attention away from who they “really” are. It gives them the freedom to forge ahead with their work. The Lonely Harpooneer stands in a field of nothing, scattered grass and dirt surrounding him to the horizon. He wears an oversized blue jacket, black slacks, skinny tie. A rubber unicorn head rests on his slumping shoulders; his hand grips a harpoon. On three (so far) video clips that Kish has posted on the Internet, the sad sack figure walks across the field, holding the harpoon, moving in a way that seems existential and sort of silent-movie funny.

The Artist Revealed.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

In the past few years, Kish has moved from being some guy who works at the Dayton Public Library—which is to say, an invisible figure to virtually all of us—to being the man in the Lonely Harpooneer costume—which is to say, a figure trying to hide from virtually all of us. What happened in between is what his story is about.

The character, Kish explains, stands for “the private part of me. It is how I coped with the feeling of being dragged into the spotlight, by putting that ridiculous head on and that hideous jacket. It’s my way of struggling with the privacy that I’ve lost. It’s, I guess, some way of creating an identity that I can maybe deflect people to. By wearing that mask and being that character, it’s an opportunity to be inscrutable and completely unknown and unknowable, to be this cypher—a bizarre figure that is absurd.”

Unknown. Unknowable. Useful adjectives for the work that has caused Kish to put on that mask. His graphic art is unsettling in ways that aren’t immediately understandable. He draws beasties that seem alive without being like us, horrible and quasi-human at the same time. There’s something almost decadent in their richness, and yet a sense of horror hangs everywhere. These creatures are fixtures of their own worlds, drawn in fields of jarring color, luxuriant decoration, and sensuous backgrounds. But the way Kish represents them, they aren’t far from us or profoundly “other”; without knowing it we have entered their world, and they make us feel things, unaccountable things, and sense memories of events we haven’t lived yet. This is art that stays with you. You put your hands on it and what sticks to you can’t be washed off.

The librarian is now home from work. He stands outside his suburban development in Beavercreek, called The Village at Stone Falls. “It’s just a collection of three random words that when put together have a vague connotation of serenity,” he says. “Welcome Home” reads the sign at the entrance. There are rows of faux-Americana homes curling around geometrically placed cul-de-sacs, just in time for the Twin Peaks revival. His wife, Ione Damasco, is cooking spaghetti in the kitchen, and the smell of tomato sauce floats up the stairs. As we climb to his workspace on the second floor, Kish shows off what he calls “the world’s largest personal collection of Nazgûl art”—several dozen portraits of the Witch-King of Angmar, a.k.a. the Lord King of Nazgûl, a.k.a. the Black Captain. If none of these names rings a bell, please turn in your geek badge at the gate. The Witch-King was a very evil figure from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga, and the various drawings and paintings, culled by Kish from friends and strangers he’s met on the Internet, are a diverse and disturbing ensemble of twisted powers and night thoughts: Monsters with an improper amount of heads attacking a modern city from the sky; robed skeletons mounting flying horses….

The private exhibition says two interesting things about Matt Kish. First, a whole lot of un-civil, haunting, and adolescent ideas have dug their fingers deep into his cortex. The second thing it says concerns his relationship to his own work. Because nowhere in the world’s largest personal collection of Nazgûl art, and virtually nowhere on the walls of his home, is there any art by Kish himself. “I read somewhere that Prince never listens to his own music around the house,” he says by way of explanation.

Kish has never been to art school, never studied formally, and has not spent much time hanging with artists. Evidence indicates he doesn’t know how to be an artist other than by doing what he does and feeling extremely self-conscious about it. This is an artist who would be doing exactly the same thing he is doing right now even if nobody else was looking. Kish is somebody who has to make.

Which is exactly what he was doing five years ago, when, at the age of 40, he got it in his head to illustrate Moby-Dick, making a picture for each page he read. At the time, Kish and Damasco were living with her parents in Dublin, Ohio. They had one room to themselves, and Kish took a closet, painted it blue, shut the door behind him, and started drawing—“in almost breathtaking solitude.” He was putting the images online, sharing his work with friends and newcomers—folks into comic books, graphic novels, Tolkien. His audience started growing way beyond people he knew, and soon agents, and then publishers, were sending him inquiries. In 2011, Tin House Books published Moby-Dick in Pictures. It was an attention-getting debut. The Atlantic called it “a treasure in and of itself, one that not only pays homage to Melville, but also reimagines what it means to embark on a modern-day epic voyage of creative restlessness.”

“He’s so talented, and he’s almost apologetic about it,” the book’s editor, Lee Montgomery, marvels. “He’s kind of a madman in his details, and a really sweet guy.”

Moby-Dick was followed two years later by Heart of Darkness, pairing Kish’s hallucinatory visions with Joseph Conrad’s unsettling novel about a man named Marlow, his nemesis Kurtz, and a long, strange trip up an African river. The artist isn’t illustrating the action in any legible way; his paintings are elusive, yet they seem to inherently capture something deep about the tone and themes of the book. “We’ve all seen rivers and human beings and boats,” Kish says. “I wanted to cut closer to the ideas of the book and represent those ideas through a rich language of visual symbols. The symbolism isn’t always terribly subtle—it can be almost brutal. But it’s never just a representation of the narrative.”

Kish’s latest project has him, along with artists Leighton Connor and Joe Kuth, making pictures that are tied to passages from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The Italian writer’s novel was (partly) an elliptical set of prose poems narrated by a fictional Marco Polo, all describing cities that the explorer has witnessed. Artists have fallen in love with this book because of how strongly it sings of the power cities have to birth forces of imagination that can transcend academic knowledge. The paintings, done mostly in watercolor, are meant, according to the Tumblr where Kish and his friends post them, as a way “to ‘see,’ through the creation of illustrations responding to and exploring the ideas in the texts” assembled by the philosophical author.

A watercolor from Kish’s Invisible Cities Project.

Matt Kish

“Calvino is one of those writers who I have always struggled to see as I read. And to me the act of seeing is a necessary and active component to the act of reading,” Kish says. “I think we have been incredibly successful in doing something that is almost impossible to do: to do the work justice.”

Over a century ago, another artist was building his name drawing pictures of wild-looking, half-human creatures. He, too, was good at it. As a boy Winsor McCay was a fiend for drawing, but his dad could not have been less impressed, sending him instead to learn a proper trade at business school in Ypsilanti, Michigan. McCay, however, strayed far from Ypsilanti, and his talent went totally off-leash when he got to Cincinnati, in 1891. He stayed for 12 years, during which time he worked at Kohl & Middleton’s Dime Museum on Vine Street between Fifth and Sixth. Dime museums were the big-city version of a sideshow, with entertainers, freaks and geeks—the real kind—all on lurid view for one shiny silver wafer.

McCay landed a job drawing the attractions on “Now Showing” signs posted on the street, come-ons to excite pedestrians. There was the Wild Man of Afghanistan, shackled, growling, and gnawing on meat; a two-headed calf; Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy. Legend has it his drawings were so lurid that the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union stormed the museum in protest.

McCay did such a great job attracting the public that he was hired by the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune and then the Enquirer, where his comic strip A Tale of the Jungle Imps depicted ever more fantastical creatures. That got the attention of a New York newspaper editor, and within a few years, McCay was drawing some of the most celebrated comic strips of all time—and at the moment when the form was just taking off. Little Nemo in Slumberland, McCay’s groundbreaking strip, made him a star. He even had an act—drawing—on the vaudeville stage. In time, Little Nemo became a Broadway production and McCay went on to draw some of the earliest animated cartoons.

The rising pop star was so outside the flow of things he was himself a bit like a dime museum attraction: there was no niche for the art he was making, no way to absorb it except utterly on its own fantastically demented terms, and there were few role models for the star he was becoming. He made it up as he went. And he was loving it, giving interviews and gleefully showing mass audiences how well he could draw right before their eyes. If Winsor McCay ever felt compelled to put a rubber mask on his head, the event has been lost to time.

The comic world for Matt Kish is a radically different place. On the one hand, it’s an uphill battle for the work to transfix an audience the way Little Nemo did; we’ve all seen too much, and images flood our screens 24/7. We’ve grown up to see comic strips rise and fall, and comic books turn into movies while they fade from the racks. At the same time, the culture industry has accepted comics as art to a degree that would have shocked McCay: The notion that he would have illustrated Moby-Dick, say, would have brought a whale-sized wave of scorn from the literary establishment.

Kish places himself in the tradition of comic artists. “My life has constantly been full of comics and science fiction and fantasy magazines, illustrated picture books,” he says. He points to a shelf of bound works by the master Jack Kirby. There is a set of Marvel’s The Eternals, and the Fourth World saga, which Kirby did for DC in the early 1970s. Kirby is almost universally respected among his peers, but in his lifetime he was treated as a cog in the comic book industry and had to fight to get the acclaim he has only received in recent decades.

“A big part of what has influenced me all my life is what would probably be termed lowbrow art, very pop cultural art,” Kish says. “Jack Kirby is a huge, huge influence. I remember the first time I read him, it was The Eternals. I was 13 and I literally thought my brain was exploding.”

The job title of comic artist has gone from New Thing (McCay) to lucrative piece work (Kirby) to…what? Provider of peripheral art-static that momentarily buzzes across our screens? Creator of something weighty and valid like Heart of Darkness itself? Kish frets his place in the larger picture, all the while saying he’s fine with whatever comes next. An artist like Kish today could maybe move to Hollywood and get a gig on a Cartoon Network show, or design book covers for a New York publishing house. The world at large greets his dark visions, when it sees them at all, with a certain amount of interest and acceptance. But curiosity from just about anyone in his immediate surroundings stirs up enough questions and unwanted attention to turn Kish sideways. “I went from absolute obscurity to marginal obscurity in a blink of an eye, and it’s been a major adjustment for me,” he says.

He tried very hard to keep the people he works with at the Dayton Public Library from knowing he had this other thing going, but now they know. Now the library owns copies of his books.

As a selector, Kish’s job is to buy new materials for the library—his turf includes teen books, audio-visual material, and graphic novels. According to his boss, Jean Gaffney, he’s a hard-worker who eats his lunch at his desk. “Occasionally somebody will come into the office who wants him to sign a book,” says Gaffney, “but otherwise he doesn’t talk about it that much.”

Now that “the cat is out of the bag,” she adds, “some of the younger staff think he’s really cool—I can tell they are just in awe of him. But it hasn’t changed how you interact with him every day; he’s still just Matt, very serious about providing materials for library patrons. When he comes here it’s all about doing the best job he can every day.”

He grew up in Amherst, a town near Cleveland, and jokes that his parents were “filthy hippies”; his dad was a punch card programmer, his mom was a nurse. The household was full of comic books, fantasy and science fiction novels, and he soaked them all up. His dad was an avid reader of Mad magazine, and so was the son—you can see the influence of Mad-man Basil Wolverton in some of his work.

Kish drew a lot as a kid, but art was more or less something outside of life, and the life he was presented was one in which art was not seen as practical. “It was very, very subtle,” he says. “[Becoming an artist] was sort of the elephant in the room. It was never vocalized. But looking back, since I was such a voracious reader, what they did was steer me toward the degree I got in education,” from Bowling Green State University. The message from his parents, Kish says, was implicit: “ ‘You can be an English teacher. You can make a nice living for yourself in the Midwest and never worry about starving, providing you have a job as a teacher….’”

One more vista from Invisible Cities.

Matt Kish

He didn’t completely take the bait. “In a weird sort of way I felt like careers are not as much fun as what you do when you are not at work,” he says. “And art is what I knew I wanted to do when I wasn’t at work.”
His success has laid a trap for him—because after you have reimagined Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness, what Great Book can you possibly tackle next? The project Kish dreams of doing would instantly alter his direction, which is why his agent has tried to steer him away from it: “He says, ‘You can do it, but nobody knows it and nobody is going to know anything about it.’”

The agent is not wrong. To describe the book he wants to do, Kish first needs to describe a smell—a powerful, unforgettable smell for anybody who grew up loving book stores. He remembers a used book store, the very first used book store he ever went to, one he’s never really left. It seemed warehouse-sized to the then-teenager, and it had that wall of used paperbacks, the musty indeterminate-colored rug smell that now brings Kish to a just-audible sigh. “Even in high school I always wanted to find the weirdest book I could get,” he says. “I didn’t want to read what my dad was reading; I didn’t want to read Conan. I spent a lot of time trying to find the strangest thing I could get my hands on.” That search led him to A Voyage to Arcturus.

When the Scottish writer David Lindsay published it in 1920, Arcturus sold only 596 copies. It took 43 years for an edition to finally come out in the United States. Today, Arcturus is a cult objet among science fiction fans who embrace its passionate philosophical conversations spouted by aliens with names like Crystalman, Spadevil, and Krag. Even now the book has the ability to make willing readers question basic assumptions about good, evil, and the riddle of existence. It’s a trip.

“I felt almost overpowered as a reader by how bizarre this story really was,” Kish murmurs. “It’s so very strange and…visual. The writing and the ideas are presented in intensely visual language—really, it’s like painting a picture with words.”

As he talks about it, his voice moves from rhapsodic love for its vision to quieter probings of its chances in the marketplace today—if an illustrated book ever makes it to the market, rather than just showing up on a website, where it will be available for free, and will inflame the minds of thousands and thousands of fans.

Is that enough? Only the Lonely Harpooneer can say, and the Lonely Harpooneer says nothing. For now Kish and the guy in the unicorn mask are twins, sharing existence on a mental dimension that you don’t have to be a science fiction fan to understand.

“I think I will be done with that figure when I am forgotten,” Kish says one day while on break at the library. “It is very much a reaction to how public Matt Kish has become.

“Look,” he says, suddenly aware of how that sounds, “I have no illusions about my position. I can tell from looking at my royalty payments, which are nowhere near those of even the average children’s book illustrator.” Yet the success has changed him, and he can’t pretend otherwise. Will he ever change back?

“For me that character will cease having relevance when there are no more comments on the blog and no more e-mails, requests, and commitments. At that time I can retire the mask and the harpoon and go back to being the person I was at the beginning. Be the same person now as when I was 16 and wandering around in those dusty paperback aisles of that bookstore. It helps me stay humble and sane and grateful, and not make of this anything that it isn’t.”

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