The first time Robert Carioscia picked up a copy of “Moby-Dick,” he couldn’t finish it.
Anyone who has tried can certainly relate.
Herman Melville’s circa-1851 epic is nothing short of a tome — a staggering 136 chapters that follow the obsessive quest of Captain Ahab aboard the whaling ship Pequod, out for revenge against Moby Dick, the white whale that claimed his leg.
“Well, as Nathaniel Philbrick has said, the book is a mess,’” Carioscia said, referring to the author’s classification of “Moby-Dick” as “a great disaster.” “It’s so layered and it goes into so many different territories that the narrative gets lost somewhere in the middle — and I got lost, too.”
Two years passed and, backed by sheer will and determination, the Sag Harbor-based artist gave the read another try, and triumphed, making drawings along the way.
“I said, ‘I’m gonna do this,’ and I set myself out on the task of doing it. And I saw it in a different light,” he said. “I began to appreciate all the different layers that Melville was putting forth: the cytology, all of the natural science of that particular period, his categorization.
“Maybe, partially, I was projecting, but I began to see his struggle with hunting whales and also the metaphysical aspect of the whale, and the sacredness of it,” he continued. “That was one aspect that really grabbed me.”
Following in the great tradition of writers rousing artists, and vice versa, Carioscia evolved his “Moby-Dick”-inspired sketches into a dozen metaphorical paintings and subsequent digital prints — a selection available starting Thursday, June 6, at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, as a warm-up to the annual marathon reading from Friday, June 7, to Sunday, June 9, at various locations across the village.
“I’ve never participated in the readings, but I have attended some of them,” Carioscia said. “I enjoyed it. To sit through the whole thing is overwhelming, but I was there for an hour or two, and this year I think is very special — not only because I’m involved, but because it’s the 200thanniversary of Melville.”
Born in 1819, the novelist, short story writer and poet mentions Sag Harbor in four chapters of “Moby-Dick,” forever cementing the novel in village history.
“Melville’s use of language, it’s sort of like jazz, in a way, because there’s so much dissonance in it. I think that’s very contemporary,” Carioscia said. “He’s not a minimalist, by any means. Writers generally don’t write like that today, too.
“He was way ahead of his time, in his use of language and his mix of poetry and prose, and giving us all these observations of all different aspects of human behavior and the interaction of humans in the sea. I think that today, we’re concerned with that — the environmental consequences of what happened during earlier periods, and even today.”
Before Carioscia picked up “Moby-Dick” for the second time, his studio was home to a group of Sag Harbor paintings focused on East End suburbanization, development, and the exploitation of the land and the sea. When he saw similar themes of environmental degradation and industrialization arise in the Melville classic, he felt a new series begin to take shape.
And so, the digital prints on view at Canio’s are not meant to be literal illustrations of “Moby-Dick,” though loyal Melville readers may recognize loose references. Stepping away from the body of work, Carioscia now does, too.
“Everybody takes their own experience to it,” he said. “In fact, I was just looking at the originals and re-reading a little bit of ‘The Chase,’ and thinking, ‘You know what? Wow, this really portrays it.’ And it wasn’t necessarily my intention to make something so exact. But yeah, if somebody is very familiar with ‘Moby-Dick’ and has read it intently, they might see a certain aspect of the book in the work.”
In an effort to reacquaint himself with the classics, the artist had just finished reading a gorgeous edition of Walt Whitman’s “Specimen Days and Collect,” printed with Civil War-era photographs. “In my old age, I just said, ‘I have to read these books. I have to get out of reading comic books,’” he deadpanned.
Diving into Whitman, Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau, he recalled the Golden Age of Quattrocento, when artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci all contributed to a, collectively, magnificent body of work — just as the classic American authors helped define literature to the United States.
“It’s just incredible, as far as a literary tradition,” he said, “and then overlapping that with the Romantic tradition in the arts in the United States, which began to flourish around that period.”
And while “Moby-Dick” indirectly inspired Carioscia, he sailed a parallel wave of creativity, landing ashore as a Melville fan.
“I’ve been sucked into it,” he said. “How could you not be, living out here? And being in the middle of such an artistic and literary community.”
An opening reception for Robert Carioscia’s whaling prints will be held on Thursday, June 6, at 5 p.m. at Canio’s Books, located at 290 Main Street in Sag Harbor, leading up to the “Moby-Dick” Marathon on Friday, June 7, through Sunday, June 9. For more information, call (631) 725-4926 or visit caniosculturalcafe.org.