The beaching – and threatened explosion – of a whale near a small town in Newfoundland last month was a reminder of just how huge, mysterious and fascinating these creatures are to humans.
Artist Tristin Lowe was so intrigued by the tale of a rogue albino sperm whale from the 19th century that he decided to recreate the whale at full scale in felt. Mocha Dick is a fifty-two-foot-long sculpture of a legendary whale that was said to have attacked numerous whaling vessels near Mocha Island in the South Pacific in the early 19th century.
Writing in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1839, Jeremiah Reynolds described the original Mocha Dick as appearing “as white as wool . . . as white as a snow drift . . . white as the surf around him.” This was especially striking because sperm whales are usually dark gray, brown, or black. The unusually colored, highly aggressive creature provided the inspiration for literature’s most famous cetacean, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, published in 1851.
The “white as wool” description (and Melville’s novel) spurred the imagination of Lowe, who had previously made smaller pieces in felt. To work on this massive scale, he collaborated with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia to make the sculpture: a large-scale vinyl inflatable understructure covered in highly detailed white industrial felt.
Lowe was careful to give the sculpture a personality. He imagined the whale at over forty years old, covered with hand-stitched scars and barnacles. “All of his life is revealed on his skin,” says Lowe. “He wears that.” And like the real Mocha Dick, this 700-lb sculptural whale is well-traveled. Made in 2009, Mocha Dick has been exhibited in galleries and museums in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
A video with more information about the artist and the piece is here.