We’re pleased to share this article highlighting a new work by our board member and volunteer Art Director/Designer. Jos Sances was the founder and Art Director of Alliance Graphics, MECA’s union screenprinting business, for many years and continues to volunteer his time to do beautiful design work for MECA and serve on our board.

Jos Sances’ Great White Whale
Berkeley artist’s monumental work Or, the Whale reflects a lifetime and beyond
By Janis Hashe, East Bay Express

The 14-by-51 foot piece covers an entire wall of the Richmond Art Center’s main gallery, and took Sances eight months to complete.

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.

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