The great white whale settles in Covington


Photo by Christian Glass

Abby Schlachter’s cast covered in writing on display at the festival.

Dr. Robert Wallace takes a step back in the lobby of the Covington Public Library, and his eyes light up as they pass over the seven quilts hanging up, tightening the grip on the peg leg in his hands. He knows the story behind each piece of artwork that he’ll be setting up in the coming days, preparing the library for Moby Comes to Covington.

Wallace, whose office was featured in The Northerner’s Top Offices, has gathered 105 pieces from 53 former students to celebrate Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” and show students what they can create in response to a novel of that caliber, which Wallace says is on par with the Bible and Dante’s Inferno as the most artistically responded to literary work.

From April 17 to May 15, the Covington library will have its three floors lined with Wallace’s collection spanning two decades, which was sparked by an innocent question. Fred North, an art major taking Wallace’s class, asked him if instead of turning in a standard term paper over Melville’s novel, he could instead create an art piece. Wallace gave him his blessing and a tradition was born.

“He’s the kind of guy you could trust with that,” Wallace recalls. “He’s really the genesis for this whole thing. If he doesn’t ask that question, none of this ever happens.”

Wallace started offering an alternative to cranking out a paper for a grade: create a work that speaks to the theme that meant the most to you. Since its inception, Wallace has seen an unorthodox, but strong reaction, especially with those whose talents aren’t in meeting a paper length. Wallace said he hasn’t tired of the perspectives students show him through their work.

Wallace, who has never curated a gallery before, has leaned heavily on Emma Rose Thompson, his co-curator and former student who also helped curate an Emily Dickinson exhibition in February.

Thompson said Wallace’s passion in the class helped her find her own way through the classic.

“If you’re asked to give a plot line of the book, you’re going to go all over the place,” Thompson joked. “Some parts read like a novel, and then suddenly it’s a reference book, and then it’s a play.”

For her final project, Thompson proposed an exhibition for all the work to be displayed to the public and says Wallace almost immediately approached her about making it a reality. From there they set out looking for a venue, ultimately landing on the library, which is admittedly unconventional for an art gallery.

“It’s a public space. Everyone from higher up businessmen to homeless people come here to read or use computers, so more people will see it, “ said Thompson.

In addition to the gallery, there will be a marathon reading of Moby-Dick 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. April 25 and 26, where anyone can sign up for a ten minute slot to read a section. There will also be the panel discussion “How a 19th Century Novel speaks to the 21st Century.”

A catalogue of all the artists will be available to purchase with proceeds going to NKU’s English department.

Wallace and Kathleen Piercefield holding up her artwork inspired by the book.
Photo by Christian Glass
Wallace and Kathleen Piercefield holding up her artwork inspired by the book.