Artful whale inspired by a tale

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WILLIAMSTOWN -- Whales may beach themselves routinely on the shores of Cape Cod, but one has found its way far inland, to the Williams College Museum of Art.

There it lies placidly in a cavernous space, a 52-foot-long, white sperm whale, dwarfing viewers and regarding its surroundings with baleful eyes that seem oddly contemplative

Created by Philadephia artist Tristan Lowe, out of white industrial wool felt, "Mocha Dick," as it is called, has an unsettlingly life-like appearance.

The wool is stitched and pieced together so that the seams and zippers look like wrinkled skin. There are even squid tentacle marks on its sides and clusters of barnacles, all made of wool, clinging to its forehead.

The whale was inspired by one that actually harassed sailing ships in the mid-19th century near Mocha Island in the South Pacific Ocean. That one became the basis for Herman Melville's 1851 novel "Moby Dick."

Melville worked on "Moby Dick" while living in Pittsfield from 1850 to 1863.

WCMA Director Lisa Corrin, who knew of Melville's Berkshire roots, heard about "Mocha Dick" while it was being exhibited at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia last year.

She went to see it and invited Lowe to make WCMA its next stop. It will be there until Aug. 8.

The artist, 44, who earned his BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and studied at the Parsons School of Design and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, responded to an Eagle e-mail interview this week from his home in Philadephia, about the whys and hows of his oversize undertaking.

Q: You are described by WCMA as "a multidisciplinary artist interested in using a range of materials toward unexpected ends." What other disciplines and materials do you work in?

A: Well I'm defiantly drawn to materials and how they're used and their inherent qualities. A lot of my earlier work had a kinetic or mechanical element to it. There's a little bit of a garage tinker/inventor in me.

Q: Would you say your career followed a well-defined path or have you taken many artistic detours?

A: It's a path of curious detours. The notion of breathing life into something, filling it with hopes, dreams aspirations was a metaphor for using inflatables. This precarious nature led to another piece about Frosty the Snowman and employing real snow or in my case frost to bring Frosty to life.

Q: What brought you to the "Mocha Dick" project? Had other work been leading up to it or does it represent a new direction?

A: Well I actually had intentionally stopped making work that was kinetic. I felt it had come to an end. And had started making work in felt, making work of a detritus nature, work about an end, things used up -- empty bottles, trash cans, empty mud buckets, all sewn; a lot of pattern-making and form work.

Q: Why use a heavy felt fabric that had to be stitched and zippered, rather than some polymer or vinyl plastic that could have been more easily molded and then inflated, as I gather is the case with the skeleton, or armature, inside the whale?

A: I had made inflatables before and really was no longer interested in "Mocha" having a plastic or cartoon quality that those materials talk about. It wasn't about the balloon or a lightness.

For me the felt is polarized. It is opposed to the mechanical/kinetic work. It is used to absorb sound and light. There is an inherent quietness/ stillness in the material. It's the oldest textile on the planet and is formed in an almost sedimentary process accumulating lint or wool.

There's a weight and solitude or peace in the wool that was essential.

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Q: Did you work on the construction yourself or did you draw up the plans and ask the Fabric Workshop and Museum to execute them?

A: No I worked on the piece two to three days a week and, in the last month and a half, nights and weekends where needed to finish.

Actually I'm not used to collaborating on my work. But it turned out to be a really great experience. Andrea Landau, my project manager at the Fabric Workshop, was the best. To be honest the whole team who worked on "Mocha" were stellar.

Q: Why choose a whale, and this particular whale, as your subject?

A: This is the archetypical whale. From a little kid you say "whale" and this is it. Jonah to Pinocchio, it all about the sperm whale -- even the origins of the name.

It's so symbolic: "Moby Dick," the white whale and to have it all based on a real whale "as white as wool" it was all too perfect.

There's a majestic quality to the whale, a calling, almost like the sea/ocean itself.

Q: The piece is so realistic anatomically, with its wrinkled skin,scars and barnacles, and you made it life-size. Where did you get your information?

A: Most of it was gathered studying underwater video footage sourced on the Internet, and then stilling the image and drawing.

Q: Again, it is so realistic and anatomically correct: What makes it an object for an art museum rather than a museum of science?

A: I don't know. It seems this is almost more about a feeling, presence, an encounter. The whale is and isn't that realistic; it's made of felt. How much is projected on to it from the viewer? It's really only realistic in form, not texture or color. It's a poetic rendering of the form of the whale in felt.

Q: You told me you prefer not to talk about what your work means, that you'd rather viewers simply respond to it on their own. Do you actually have an artistic agenda or are you more inclined to follow where inspiration leads?

A: It's sort of both actually

Q: What project are you working on now?

A: Right now I'm working on a fabric piece, "The Moon: Under the Influence," a show for Judith Tannenbaum at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design.

It's in felt, but not sewn. All the crafter work is done with tweezers. It's molded, but soft.

It's the convergence of a lot of different ideas. [The moon is bombarded by celestial objects and] is full of holes [or craters]. So it wears its history on its sleeve.

It's a parallel for the self -- your hide, what you're wearing on your sleeve.

The whale is like that. It's topographical.


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