A Whale of a Show

Peter Michael Martin takes a page out of a
legendary tale with his awe-inspiring artwork

Herman Melville’s classic “Moby-Dick,” the story of Captain Ahab’s relentless pursuit of the giant white whale, has captivated readers, filmmakers and artists for more than a century. 

For Peter Michael Martin, an artist and former educator who lives in Mattapoisett, not far from where the ship that Melville sailed on was built, “Moby-Dick” has been the source of his creative journey for seven years. Since a chance meeting in a frame shop with a Melville scholar, Martin’s deep reading of the book has inspired him to create unique works of art using cut paper, Tyvek and sailcloth.  

Martin’s monumental, playful and profound artworks don’t illustrate Melville’s words but rather the personal images they evoke in his mind. “I’ll read a page and ideas spin off in my head,” the artist explains. A word, a context, an event, can spark ideas that he then realizes in powerful imagery with rhythms that seem to carry the energy of the sea.  

Martin has shared his visual inspirations at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and in presentations around the country. Now in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, visitors to the Cape Cod Museum of Art will be able to experience his soaring work at “Moby Dick: Inspired Visions” through August 25. The exhibition also includes smaller works of woodblock prints, but Martin’s works are primarily several feet long, created from silhouettes, which he cuts out of black paper or Tyvek, a fiber construction material, and mounts on stretched Tyvek or recycled sailcloth.  

Connecting so deeply to Melville’s world has led Martin to connect to his own past. Searching his family genealogy, he discovered an ancestor who died in a whaling accident on a ship out of New Bedford at the age of 25 in 1824. Looking up to the rafters in the museum’s historic Hope-McClennen Gallery, visitors will be able to marvel at Martin’s suspended artwork, “R.I.P. Uncle Benjamin,” on a 23-foot-long sailcloth in memory of his ancestor Benjamin Jenney, who was buried at sea. In his own script, Martin announces the death notice that appeared in the New Bedford paper at the time. 

While working on his large woodblock print “Melville, Above the Rest,” Martin realized that it wasn’t only the story of “Moby-Dick” that kept him inspired. He says he is “drawn to Melville as an artist and for the risks that he took. As with other artists, there is a sense of vulnerability that we share.”