For years, Berkeley printmaker John Joseph “Jos” Sances was fascinated by Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. During the four years in which Sances taught printmaking in Baja Mexico, he had often used tiny boats to visit breeding grounds in the Gulf of California where he would be surrounded by gentle gray whales. As a gift, his wife gave him a coveted 1930 edition of Melville’s novel featuring the woodblock-style ink drawings by illustrator Rockwell Kent that are credited with helping to repopularize the once-overlooked masterpiece.
Sances read the book for a third time around the same time that he and his wife, the artist Robbin Henderson, visited the whaling museums of Nantucket and New Bedford. He was inspired to create a life-size scratchboard image of a sperm whale, whose body would encompass a dizzying number of images from American history. “I had a sense at that point of, ‘Let’s do the whale,'” he recalled.
It was only after retiring from his job as a printmaker that Sances could even consider doing a piece that sprawling and obsessive. Still, once he did the math, he was taken aback by how much it would cost to depict a life-size whale using scratchboard. Henderson offered to pay for the panels, however, and told him firmly, “If you don’t do it full-size, don’t bother.”
So began Sances’ nine-month journey in the intricate process of scratchboard, which uses kaolin clay, titanium white paint, and glue to produce black boards onto which images are “scratched” to reveal the white beneath. It is an artistic medium that deliberately contrasts with the historic use of whale bones and teeth in the carvings known as scrimshaw.
To the artist, the work that came to be known as Or, the Whale, currently on view at the Richmond Art Center, is about the human cost of unchecked capitalism and its destructive effects on the natural world. Yet the whale also symbolizes that world’s ability to transcend humans. “Do whales even believe in us?” he asked in his exhibition notes.
In creating Or, the Whale, Sances abandoned his usual work mode, which involves planning everything out. By the time that a third of the panels were done, he was working very instinctively, searching the Internet for images that would connect his story. “I couldn’t tell you what the next image would be until I found it,” he said.
Look carefully, Sances said, and you might spot a Donald Trump rally identifiable only by tiny lettering on buttons worn by attendees — although the president himself does not appear. On the other hand, the massacre of the indigenous Pequot people by Puritan settlers in 1637 is depicted, partly in homage to the Pequod, the ship’s name in Moby-Dick, and partly, Sances said, “because we are all on the Pequod right now, dealing with this lunatic.” Happy images include depictions of three smiling kids — Sances’ grandchildren.
As Sances worked on the piece, Richmond Art Center Exhibition Director Amy Spencer learned about it. “I immediately wanted to see this work in progress,” said Spencer, who was busy curating an artistic exhibition designed to investigate the troubled relationship between humans and nature. “I thought it fit really well with work by other local artists I was speaking to and eventually the whole show [Here is the Sea] developed around this piece.” When Sances laid out the piece in one of the center’s galleries it was the first time he’d seen his own entire work, as it was too large for his Berkeley studio. At that point, it was obvious to Spencer that something truly remarkable was coming into being.
“We’re so happy that the Richmond Art Center could debut Or, the Whale,” Spencer said. “We’re currently speaking with other organizations about potentially touring the piece. Eventually this piece needs to be in a museum’s collection.”
The story of how Or, the Whale came to be is really the story of a lifetime spent in art.
Sances was born in Boston, and remembers watching his Sicilian great-grandfather paint. But it was attending Catholic school, where his undiagnosed dyslexia caused him to struggle with academic subjects, that set his course toward art. “One afternoon a week, all through school, we had art class, and I really excelled there,” he recalled. “I won a prize every year.”
He went on to attend the Montserrat School of Visual Art in Beverly, Mass., and began painting as an abstract expressionist. “When I moved to San Francisco after the Vietnam War, I realized I wanted to make art that was narrative and political,” he said.
Yet he also wanted it to be accessible. Since no one he knew could afford to buy paintings, Sances turned to printmaking, a career that kept him busy as both a craftsman and artist for nearly 40 years. In 1980, he co-founded Mission Grafica at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco, moving on from there to found Alliance Graphics in Berkeley, a union shop from which he just retired. During all those years, he continued to create his own art, screenprints inspired by both politics and nature, and public art, including painted and tile murals. Describing himself as a “community collaborator,” he painted murals at the Oakland Coliseum and created tile murals at the Amtrak/BART station in Richmond, and the 16th Street BART station in San Francisco, among many others. In 2010, alongside longtime art partner Daniel Galvez, he completed a 7,000-foot mural for the recreation center at Oakland’s Ira Jenkins Park. Many of the pieces depict actual people, and some of the older pieces show individuals whose children and grandchildren now continue to view them, something he treasures.
Far from feeling his graphics work impeded his own “pure” artistic output, he offered advice to young artists starting out. “I never had a gallery. But I made a good living, used my art skills and never felt I was shortchanged.” Most artists will not end up “going the gallery route,” he said, yet that doesn’t mean they can’t find a way to earn a living creatively.
Not surprisingly, the political provocation of much of Sances’ work has generated backlash from time to time. He laughed as he remembered some of the comments his ceramic sculpture “Trump Tower” caused at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Ponoma, Calif. He laughed even more telling the story of a print he did years ago, a parody of Andres Serrano’s famous Piss Christ that depicted segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms and titled Piss Helms.
“It was supposed to be in a show about censorship — and they censored it!” he said, explaining that he then wheatpasted the image on the show building, at which point they relented and the piece was included. The controversy reached Helms’ native state of North Carolina, and Sances was invited to Charlotte, where he managed to wheatpaste the image on Helms’ campaign headquarters before getting out of town. Quickly.
As a founding member of the Great Tortilla Conspiracy, which produces “satirical edible art screenprinted with chocolate on tortillas,” inspired by the strange tendency of deities to manifest themselves on food items, he looks forward to spontaneous eruptions of tortilla printing. “I have some tortillas that are 15 years old,” he said proudly. “My archive is about 300.”
It’s embarrassing for Sances to hear Or, the Whale described as a masterpiece, but the image elicits that description from many. Here is the Sea opened March 26 and Or, the Whale has proved a stellar attraction. A full-length feature about Sances and the work recently appeared in the Italian cultural magazine la Repubblica titled “Nel Ventre della Balena” (“In the Belly of the Whale”).
Even so, “masterpiece” is a word Sances balks at. “I love that people are having these amazing reactions to it,” he said. “But it takes time to decide whether a work has the gravitas to deserve that description.”
Decide for yourself before Here is the Sea closes on May 17.