Tristin Lowe’s colossal sculpture Mocha Dick is a fifty-two-feet-long recreation of the real-life albino sperm whale that terrorized early 19th-century whaling vessels near Mocha Island in the South Pacific. Mocha Dick, described in appearance as “white as wool,” engaged in battle with numerous whaling expeditions and inspired Herman Melville’s epic Moby-Dick (1851). Lowe worked with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia to make the sculpture: a large-scale vinyl inflatable understructure sheathed in white industrial felt.

Tristin Lowe’s massive sculpture takes its name, anatomy, color, and inspiration from a legendary albino sperm whale that inhabited the South Pacific waters near Mocha Island in the early 19th century. Vividly chronicled by a New England seafarer and published in the monthly Knickerbocker magazine (1839), the creature was said to have attacked as many as twenty whaling vessels. The graphic account describes the elusive behemoth, known as Mocha Dick, as a ghostly presence: “As white as wool . . . as white as a snow drift . . . white as the surf around him.” This notorious creature was especially striking because sperm whales are commonly dark gray, brown, or black.

The great 19th-century work of art that also drew its inspiration from this infamous white whale is Herman Melville’s epic Moby-Dick, published in 1851. Lowe’s reckoning with the mythic mammal can be traced to his fascination with Melville’s novel and his research into maritime history. He built his fifty-two-foot sculpture true to the scale of a sperm whale. The work has a coat of thick wool felt covering an inflated vinyl armature. Clusters of handcrafted barnacles are appliquéd to the whale’s body and scar-like stitches zigzag across its surface. These naturalistic embellishments attest to the creature’s long years spent roaming the seas, battling giant squid and predatory seafarers.

As in the Melville novel, Lowe’s work expresses a profound awe and empathy for the beleaguered beast. “This project was like the story of Moby-Dick—embarking on a journey, transfixed by the call of the sea,” Lowe says. “It is not about Ahab’s quest for revenge, and not even about the whale itself, but more about Ishmael’s search for the unattainable.”

Lowe created Mocha Dick during a six-month collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, involving a team of technicians, apprentices, and a project manager, supervised by the artist. The completed sculpture is fifty-two-feet long—the size of a real-life sperm whale—and weighs approximately seven hundred pounds.

Lowe (born 1966) studied at Parsons School of Design before earning a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art, Boston. Lowe’s choice of medium has always been low-tech and low-brow, allowing him as an artist to explore unorthodox new directions and materials in his work. He has had solo exhibitions at New Langton Arts in San Francisco (1998), the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia (1999), and the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin (2005), and his work has been widely exhibited in numerous Philadelphia group shows at venues such as the Institute of Contemporary Art, Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, and Moore College of Art and Design. His work has been acquired by major museums such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Tristin Lowe: Mocha Dick is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and curated by John B. Ravenal, Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. The sculpture is on loan courtesy of the West Collection, Philadelphia and was created in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

All images courtesy of Fleisher/Ollman Gallery and The Fabric Workshop and Museum.

Event Has Concluded