Notes From the Curator's Office:

An Art Project for a Favorite Novel

The Last Possessions of Professor Aronnax hangs by my desk.

A do-it-yourself way to commemorate your favorite book or movie and add a conversation piece to your home.

(09/09) One of my favorite books as a boy was an abridged version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Later on I would go on to read the full unabridged version multiple times, but that first book, with its beautiful color illustrations, remains one of my best childhood memories.

Though I never saw the motion picture until I was an adult, I'm also a fan of Disney's 1954 movie version of the book. The film, starring James Mason and Kirk Douglas, which actually includes elements from both the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Verne's Mysterious Island, is a classic retelling of the tale. In particular Captain Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus, designed for the film by Harper Goff, is a true work of art. A Victorian-designed machine in the shape of a sea monster, it was steampunk decades before the term was invented.

Because of this, when I decided to do a series of graphic novels based on classic books, 20,000 Leagues was my first choice. This gave me an opportunity to design my own Nautilus and try and capture Verne's story in pictures. (For those unfamiliar with the story you may want to look at my graphic novel.)

Art Project

About a year ago I came up with the idea for an art project based on classic literature. The idea would be to build a series of objects that appear in the book and arrange them as a display. For example, if you were doing a version based on Mary Shelly's book Frankenstein, you might want to include aged pages that recreat some of the doctor's laboratory notes.

My obvious choice for this project was, of course, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. For those of you unfamiliar with the story line, it starts in 1867 when Professor Aronnax and his two companions find themselves forced to join Captain Nemo and his crew on an undersea voyage in the mysterious submarine, Nautilus. The voyage lasts for a distance of 20,000 leagues (a league is an obsolete measure of distance equal to about three miles or five and half kilometers) and this, of course, is what gives the book its name.

A composite photo from different images created with Photoshop, then "aged."

Eventually Aronnax and friends escape, but the fate of the Nautilus, and its captain, are unknown, at least until Verne wrote the sequel Mysterious Island.

During the voyage Professor Aronnax records his observations in his diary and collects items of scientific interest. It occurred to me that this was the perfect launching point for my project: Aronnax could only have taken a few things with him when he fled the Nautilus. What would they be?

Whatever these objects were they would make the perfect collection for my project. Now one restriction with this was that I wanted to present my work in a shadow box that could hang on the wall. Whatever the good Professor brought back with him would have to fit into a space no wider than 1 and inches, the width of my chosen box.

So what would Aronnax bring back with him? One obvious item would be his journal. He constantly references it and the book is supposedly based on notes from it.


My first job was to get or make a journal that could pass for one owned by a French academic in 1866. One of the prerequisites for the journal was that it should have removable pages to make it easy for me to create the contents. I found someone on Ebay who makes journals that fit the bill. The one I selected has a leather cover with rough-looking paper. The pages are held in with a string that double as a means to tie up the journal when not in use. It looks precisely like what I might expect somebody to be carrying as a diary in the mid-19th century.

The reproduction of Aronnax's journal showing the Nautilus.

I untied the string to remove the pages. Because I don't have the ability to write as neatly or precisely with a fountain pen as an 19th century professor would, I decided to compose the interior pages on my computer using a font that looks like neat handwriting. In addition to the notes, the page contains a drawing of the Nautilus and a diagram of a diving suit.

Here I had to make a few decisions. Aronnax was French and undoubtedly his diary would be written in this language. Since I don't read or write French this was a problem. Also, most of the people viewing the work probably wouldn't speak French either, so the meaning of the notes would be lost to them.

I decided to cheat and have the Professor write his journal in English. A second consideration was what the drawing of the Nautilus should look like. There have been many interpretations of this famous submarine in different books and movies. I even did my own for my graphic novel. In fact, Verne enthusiasts Michael & Karen Crisafulli keep a wonderful website dedicated to different designs of the Nautilus (The Catalog of Nautilus Designs).

I decided to do my drawing in the style of design that Goff did for Disney. One of my ideas for the piece was to make it a bit of a riddle and not explicitly tell the viewer what he was seeing, but let him puzzle it out for himself. The Goff design, in addition to being striking, is well known enough by anybody who has seen the film to be a major clue to understanding the piece.

Since the journal was to be displayed with pages open inside a glass case, there was no need to create contents for the entire book, just the open pages. This was done with Photoshop. To make the page look more like it was done by hand instead of machine, I put some of the text at an angle and included little mistakes like ink blots.

With some trial and error I was able to get the content printed on the rough paper of the diary. After aging the paper and tying my pages back into the cover, my first item was complete.


The second item that occurred to me was a map. The Professor undoubtedly would have kept track of the Nautilus' location during the voyage. I tackled this item by first going to the internet and finding a large scale photo of a map from the mid-19th century. Pulling this into Photoshop, I created a line following the Nautilus' course as described by the book and putting in little notes for significant events in the voyage. For example, a note like "Battle with the Poulps" signifies the conflict with the giant squid.

Just as an aside, though everyone thinks of the Nautilus as being set upon by a single giant squid, as in the Disney movie the, Verne book actually had the submarines crew battling a whole troop of these monsters.

Old photographic prints and a note from Captain Nemo.

The map was printed out, and the paper aged. My method for this was to brew a cup of strong tea, then carefully wipe it on the paper to give the material a stained effect. While the paper was still wet I burned the edges to give a torn, uneven look. A bit of folding and crumpling was also helpful.

Fake Photos

Though photography was really primitive during the era when the book takes place, I decided that Aronnax must have used some of Nemo's advanced technology to take some pictures while aboard the submarine.

I used images found on the internet to create my photos. When Disney World first opened the Magic Kingdom back in 1971 it included a submarine ride with versions of Goff's Nautilus big enough for guests to enjoy. Some pictures of these, combined with ocean pictures, old photos of sailors and hardhat divers and a dead squid gave me three pictures for my project. The images were then aged through Photoshop (There are several tutorials on the web about how to do this so I won't go into the method here.) and printed at my local drugstore. To make the aging even more convincing, I roughened the edges of the prints and added a few fold lines.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was to create a sample of giant squid arm in a specimen jar. With a width of only 1 and inches to work with in the box, this eliminated most real specimen jars. I finally found a vase at the local arts and crafts store that was essentially just a cylinder just small enough to make it in the box. I fabricated a tip of the squid arm out of Crayola Model Magic and painted and sealed it. I submerged it not in alcohol (as you might a real specimen) but clear Elmers glue (this way after the glue dries there is no problem with the jar tipping over inside the box and liquid getting all over the place).

I added several other papers and a label with the title "The Last Possessions of Professor Aronnax." Included on the label was a picture of the Professor (really a shot of Jules Verne) and the words:

A tentacle from "poulp of unknown type" floats in its specimen jar.

The objects in this case are the only known possessions that Prof. Aronnax brought back with him from his extraordinary sea journey of November 1867 through June of 1868.

The completed exhibit hangs by my desk where the squid tentacle often catches people's attention.

Some people try to ignore it. Others stare at it. Some understand it almost immediately. Others are bewildered and have to have the whole thing explained to them. In any case it makes for a good conversation piece.

There are probably a lot of books that would lend themselves to this kind of project, so if you have an interest in arts and crafts and literature you might want to try doing something like this yourself. You might include the flask that Dr. Jeykll used to drink his insidious potion. Or perhaps part of an arm severed from an invading Martian tripod. The possibilities seem endless. If you do create something, drop us a line here at the museum and tell us about your project we will try and feature it here on the site.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2009. All Rights Reserved