September 21, 2018

The Happy Little Elephant

        I’d like to share with you one of my early literary masterpieces, a short story entitled The Happy Little Elephant.  Here it is:
        Once upon a time there was a fuzzy little elephant, who had a gray trunk and tail and ears.  She was a Happy little elephant, she lived in the woods all by herself.  the end.

        I wrote and illustrated this epic in first grade (age 6), and must give major thanks to my mother for saving it so that I could have the data-driven benefit of this early sample of writing and illustration.  (Also so I could have the amusement.)  I’ve found that it’s helpful to share this story with third and fourth graders when I do classroom visits about writing.  I ask the children, “What is this story missing?”  It’s got setting: the forest.  It’s got character: the little elephant, about whom we actually learn quite a bit.  I could perhaps even argue that it’s got theme: the value of solitude.  But what it’s missing, as students can gleefully point out after a little reflection, is conflict.  Had I introduced a tropical storm, loneliness, hunger, poachers, or a lost left sock, I might have had the makings of a real-page-turner.  That is, if I’d managed to go on to a second page.  But without conflict, there is simply no plot.  To keep a plot going, you have to keep adding conflict.  No fictional elephant should ever be as content as mine until the final page.  (To be fair, my elephant isn’t content until the final page, either…)
        This probably reveals something about my own predilections: I suppose it’s true that to this day I love character and setting, but still don’t care for too much conflict!  But the lesson that any avid reader and developing writer soon learns is that a story can’t be about the perfect way things ought to be.  I can only be about getting there.  And that makes sense, because it so happens that our world is not yet perfect, but we can always be the kinds of characters in our own settings who work on getting there.

[Picture: Title page and illustration of The Happy Little Elephant by AEGN, 1976 or 7.]

September 18, 2018

What's New in the Studio - Philosophers

        Here is one of my newest pieces, based on Rembrandt’s The Philosopher in Contemplation, but with some twists of my own.  First of all, I’ve acknowledged that both the people in the room are philosophers instead of assuming that only the man is actually relevant.  But more importantly, I’m imagining these as the sort of “philosophers” who may be making the Philosophers Stone, and are undoubtedly studying alchemy, sorcery, magical creatures, and so on.  The man is putting the finishing touches on his clockwork robot, while the woman is tending to the dragon egg in the fire.  A couple of salamanders are sporting in the fire, too, and above it flitter pyrallises.  In the warmth of the hearth bask a small dragon and a large cat.  I’ve also included a griffin, a jinni, and some sort of little imp or brownie, who clearly also has a scholarly bent.  He has his own tiny doorway to the room, and of course it’s natural to wonder what might be behind the odd door behind the man’s chair.  The dragon lair, perhaps?  A tunnel to an underground grotto?  The laboratory?  A brick oven for making really large pizzas?
        My initial temptation was to fill the picture with lots more creatures, too.  The more the merrier, I figured.  But then I decided if it was just cluttered up it would lose the charm of being a more “plausible” scenario.  I mean, dragon, griffin, and jinni?… Fine.  But dragon, griffin, jinni, unicorn, niffler, tarasque, and chupacabra?… Let’s not be ridiculous!
        My primary challenge was to try to capture the wonderful light of Rembrandt’s original, at which I did not succeed so well as I had hoped.  Still, I think it’s a lot of fun, and makes a nice place to start some excellent imaginings.

[Picture: The Philosophers at Home, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]

September 14, 2018

Gearhart's Sky

        Here’s a pleasing wood block print by Frances Hammel Gearhart (USA, 1869-1958).  The RISD Museum, where I saw this piece, explains, “Frances Hammel Gearhart was first influenced by Japanese prints in about 1910, when she visited exhibitions in California that included the work of Hokusai…  She then began to teach herself to make woodblock prints, likely receiving some training from her sisters, who… had studied with artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow.  Dow promoted Japanese printmaking techniques and the use of water-based inks, and he encouraged his students to use these methods to record and interpret the American landscape.”  I like that Gearhart is at least somewhat self-taught.  Given that in Japan printmaking was taught by a long, strict, arduous apprenticeship with an emphasis on getting everything perfect according to tradition, it’s interesting that an artist like Gearhart could figure out for herself a technique that, while certainly not as technically perfect as a traditional Japanese print, is nevertheless very beautiful.  I also like the idea of adapting the Japanese style to capture the artist’s own native landscapes.  It looks to me like Gearhart used four blocks: sky, background, foreground inked with multiple colors, and black key block.  I especially love the sky, with its carved clouds and its painted texture.

[Picture: High Skies, polychrome woodblock print by Frances Hammel Gearhart, 1922 (Photo taken by AEGN at RISD Museum).]

September 11, 2018

Lucifer in Starlight

        This sonnet by George Meredith (UK, 1828-1909) is mythic.

On a starr’d night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screen’d,
Where sinners hugg’d their spectre of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he lean’d,
Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careen’d,
Now the black planet shadow’d Arctic snows.
Soaring through wider zones that prick’d his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reach’d a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he look’d, and sank.
Around the ancient track march’d, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.

        Meredith gives us an epic image of the dark angel so huge that he passes from Africa to the Arctic in a single line of verse, like a dark planet.  The image of Lucifer’s shadow sweeping across the globe is paired with the mention of sleeping sinners, so that I imagine unconscious people turning uneasily as he passes without knowing why.  The personification of Lucifer with scars that prick at the reminder of his past choices and defeat is pure mythology, akin to images of Greek or Norse gods, with human emotions at epic scale.  Another interesting image is “the stars, which are the brain of heaven.”  I’m not even sure exactly what it means, but it suggests all sorts of interesting possibilities.
        Yes, there is a certain theology embedded in this poem, but I don’t think Meredith was trying to propound theology.  As I said, I think this is about storytelling: a narrative that points at truths not by stating moral laws or philosophies but by illustrating a vignette that fires the imagination with its fantastical images.

[Picture: His steep flight in many an Aerie wheele, wood engraving by Gustave Doré for Paradise Lost (Book III), 1866 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

September 7, 2018

Elizabeth I

        Today is the birthday of Queen Elizabeth I of England (she would be 485 years old), born a princess who never expected to become queen, and who was lucky even to survive the tumultuous politics of her childhood and adolescence.  She undoubtedly enjoyed good luck throughout her life, but she was also intelligent, exceptionally well-educated, and shrewd enough to know the value of good publicity.  Those around her also knew the value of flattery, with the result that her long reign provided opportunities for her image to appear all over the place in the relatively cheap and easy form of wood block printing.
        The first example is a later portrait after her death, which I find pleasingly bold, but the others are all from books published during Elizabeth’s reign.  A guide to falconry features Elizabeth in its illustrations.  She is not named in the picture titles, but I think was intended to be recognizable to to all, not only with her features and dress, but her servants wearing the Tudor rose on their doublets.  Presumably Elizabeth’s presence in the book would have added cachet, implying that the author’s methods of falconry were those followed by the very highest in the land.  This is a very attractive woodcut, with the beautiful horse, lithe dogs, and a lovely landscape in the background.
        The author of The Compound of Alchymy was not so subtle.  His dedication to Elizabeth, including this nice little portrait of her enthroned in the initial letter E, is fully fulsome.  He lays it on thick… But despite claiming that his book contains “the right & perfect meanes to make the Philosophers Stone,” he clearly didn’t make any for Elizabeth, who died twelve years later.  I do like the portrait, though, with nice detail in its very small space, and charming curlicues.
        The alchemist Rabbards lavishly invokes God’s wondrous providence in making Elizabeth queen, but the publishers of A Booke of Christian Prayers go one better.  They put a full-page portrait of Elizabeth at prayer on the frontispiece where, apparently, a Catholic book of prayers would traditionally have had a picture of the Virgin Mary.  Elizabeth, following her father’s lead, was head of the church in England, and this book aimed to make that crystal clear.  (Actually, she was technically “Governor” since some bishops felt that a woman could
not be “Head.”)  Interesting details include the sword on the ground, along with another object I can’t make out.  I’m sure there’s symbolism there, but I don’t know what it is.  It’s a wonderfully detailed woodcut altogether, with shading almost as detailed as an engraving, and elaborate patterns decorating Elizabeth’s dress, the curtains, the back wall, and more.
        Elizabeth was not without her vanity, and I assume these portraits pleased her.  They please me, anyway!

[Pictures: Elizabetha Regina, woodcut by anonymous artist, 18th century (Image from The British Museum);
To flye at the Hearon, woodcut from The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking by George Turberville,   1575 (Image from The British Library);
Elizabeth enthroned, woodcut from dedication of The compound of alchymy, by Ripley and Rabbards, printed by Thomas Orwin, 1591 (Image from Beineke Library, Yale);
Elizabeth Regina at prayer, woodcut (possibly by Levina Teerlinc) from A Booke of Christian Prayers printed by Richard and John Daye, 1578 (Image from Booktryst).]

September 4, 2018

The Book of Arnold

        We recently had the opportunity to see the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” which had funny moments, and dark moments, and an awful lot of obscene moments, and of course lots of entertaining song and dance…  But to my surprise it turned out to be largely about the power of story to improve the world, and that’s a message I’m always interested in exploring.  At the beginning, Elder Arnold Cunningham’s storytelling proclivities are not particularly productive, but eventually he begins to realize that his stories have the power to help people, to make them think about their experiences in new ways, to change their perspectives and their relationships, and to make their world better.  At that point, he’s no longer “lying;” he’s composing “fiction” (or perhaps “fan fic.”)  After all, most people don’t believe his stories literally; as one villager explains witheringly, “It’s a metaphor!”  Cunningham’s stories teach people, in a message LeGuin would approve, that the way things are is not inevitable.  His stories give role models for new modes of relationship, and offer the hope that creativity can be brought to bear even when all other hope seems lost.
        The stories that Cunningham tells, claiming them to be gospel, are utterly nutty mash-ups of the actual Book of Mormon with hobbits and Mordor, Darth Vader and the Death Star, the Starship Enterprise and many unfortunate frogs.  Significantly, though, they aren’t merely hilarious (or merely crude); they are made up out of a desperate desire to help desperate people, and to help those people make sense of and deal with their reality.  And that is, at its heart, one of the deepest purposes that fiction, and speculative fiction in particular, can have.
        “This book will change your life” could be true of many books.  For some people it’s The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, for others perhaps it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or The Lorax, or The Phantom Tollbooth.  Whatever it is, if you’re a reader, you remember that feeling: that awe and wonder as your mind blossoms into bright new light and the world is never quite the same again.  The musical The Book of Mormon claims that any story that can do that is enough gospel for anyone, and while I don’t agree that any and all fiction should be equated with divine revelation, I do agree that there is a valid point here.  Story has a power - sometimes even a divine power - to change lives and to change the world.  And that’s certainly worth singing and dancing about!

[Picture: Darth Vader and Death Star, linoleum block print by Peter Santa-Maria (Image from his Etsy shop ATTACKPETER).]

August 31, 2018

Words of the Month - The Sweet Smell of Odor Words

        Here’s something to consider: English famously has a huge vocabulary, extraordinarily rich in expressing fine shades and distinctions of meaning.  English has as many basic color words as almost any other language in the world, plus hundreds of additional words to describe the colors we see.  (Read all about it here.)  We have dozens of words to describe fine nuances of tastes, textures, sounds… But strangely, English has very few words that describe smells.  We have smelly, fragrant, stinking, aromatic, and malodorous, but those are telling us little more than degree of stinkiness and basic pleasantness vs unpleasantness.  Of words describing the quality or particular type of smell… not so much.
        Pungent is particularly penetrating; musky is like musk; sulfurous is like sulfur; but mostly we have to fall back on the same words we use for taste (fruity, spicy, sweet, acrid) and on simply naming the thing that the smell smells like (like cinnamon, like vanilla, like disinfectant, like wet dog, like new-mown grass).  This isn’t to say that we can’t describe or talk about smells.  Of course we find ways to express what we need to express, and of course perfumers have a huge vocabulary with which they describe aromas.  Nevertheless, there seems to be a qualitative difference in the sorts of words we use: metaphoric uses drawn from words for other senses, such as “bright with notes of cherry.”  Why?
        It may well be that in all sorts of languages humans find it easier to describe what they see than what they smell.  After all, our sense of sight is more dominant for us than our sense of smell.  As Kenneth Grahame notes in The Wind in the Willows, “We others who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s inter-communications with his surroundings… and have only the word 'smell’, for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling.”  But there are languages whose speakers do better than English.  Jessica Love cites a study about the language Jahai, spoken by a group of hunter-gatherers in Malaysia.  Speakers of Jahai were able to describe scents just as well - and just as consistently - as they were able to describe colors.  Speakers of English did better describing colors, but far worse on scents.  Why?
        We don’t really have an answer.  Different languages carve up the world into different words, and focus their linguistic attention on different areas (consider the “Eskimo words for snow” stereotype), so on the one hand, this is simply within the range of human linguistic variation.  On the other hand, surely this is an area ripe for English innovation.  We can start with snorky, brambish, and brunky, and move on from there.  We’ve got a lot of work to do!

[Picture: Calvin and Hobbes, comic by Bill Watterson, Feb. 13, 1995 (Image from GoComics).]
Why So Few English Words for Odors?, article by Jessica Love, 2014.

August 28, 2018

Students' Collagraphs

        This summer my classes produced some particularly pleasing collagraphs, and I’d like to share a few.  For a refresher on the definition and techniques of collagraph, check out this previous post.  I’ve given students a variety of materials to use over the years, ranging from classes in which anything goes, including dried leaves, and scraps of every imaginable textured material, to classes who used nothing but puff paint.  This year’s provided materials were basically puff paint, craft foam, and corrugated paper.  This first picture is a sampler I created to demonstrate the effects the different materials could have.
   1. printing styrofoam (the kind usually used by kids too young for carving tools)
   2. a foam sheet that came wrapped around some books I ordered
   3. corrugated paper
   4. textured mat board
   5. craft foam
   6. crumpled paper
   a. puff paint (atop the types of foam, and on the base board)
   b. pressing into the two types of foam with a pencil
        This first piece made particularly nice use of the puff paint on top of craft foam.  I like the effect of the white shadow around the raised paint, contrasting with the more clearly visible edges of the craft foam shapes.

        The artist of the second piece made the unusual choice of building the bird's outlines with narrow strips of craft foam, instead of drawing them with the puff paint.  The wing is a larger foam shape, but only its outlines show because two stripes of corrugated paper were glued on top.  Its charm is in its simplicity.
        And finally, a duck that uses the variety of materials especially well.  The wing is corrugated paper, and the reeds long strips of cardboard that got a little crumpled or bent.  The water is the packing foam, and the white speckles on the duck’s body are indented into the craft foam with a pencil point.  It printed so clearly in part because instead of gluing the wing on top of the body, this artist fit the shape of the wing into a space on the body like a puzzle piece.  That means that all the raised areas are raised to roughly the same level, thus getting inked more consistently and printing more uniformly.
        I think I’ve finally found the right balance of materials to give the kids some options to stretch their creativity, while ensuring that all the materials used are stable enough to make successfully printable blocks.

[Pictures: Collagraph material sampler, by AEGN, 2018;
Flower vase, collagraph by EK, 2018;
Bird, collagraph by K F-K, 2018;
Duck, collagraph by SA, 2018.]

August 23, 2018

Mythical Reptiles

        This week I saw several mythical creatures in the wild!  First of all, I saw a number of basilisks, and I provide for you a photograph I took, along with an official depiction.  The “official” depictions in this post all come from a 1514 book of poetry (first edition from 1476) that includes dozens of natural history woodcuts of animals.  You can see that the basilisk I saw was missing its wings, but it had a bonus set of legs to make up for it.  What are perfectly clear are the crest and the spiky claws.  I came quite close to this one, and luckily managed to remain unscathed by its poisonous presence.  And while, thank goodness, its gaze did not actually prove lethal, you can see that it certainly has a pretty intense glare.  (See here for a previous mention of the mythical vs scientific attributes of basilisks.)
        The cocodrillo I saw was also missing its wings, but perhaps that’s because it was only a young one, clearly much smaller than the creature in the illustration menacing a man.  In fact, though, it’s a little difficult to square this fabulous winged, two-legged, eared, leopard-like creature with the reptile I saw.  About the only things they really seem to have in common are webbed feet, a suggestion of spottiness, and suspiciously narrowed eyes.  Most people probably don’t think of crocodiles as mythical, but looking at this early depiction, there can really be no doubt.
        And finally, a viper… which is also apparently missing its wings.  It makes me begin to wonder whether all reptiles have wings and two legs.  I haven’t seen a picture of a winged, two-legged turtle, but surely it can’t be far behind.  Both depictions of vipers have long, coiled tails, but other than that it’s difficult to spot any resemblance here.  Clearly the
viper I saw must have been disguising its true nature, ready to pop out a pair of legs and unfurl its hidden wings  in the instant when it attacked.  And if so, then these are definitely mythical powers, worthy of any fantasy tale.
        One of the chief characteristics of mythical creatures is that they almost always live far away from wherever a writer happens to live, in exotic, seldom-explored lands.  Now that my family and I can actually hop on an airplane and travel to far-away lands, the mythical creatures will either have to move even farther away, or they’ll have to learn to disguise their wings, as these reptiles have all apparently managed to do.

[Pictures: Badalischo, wood block print from Lo illustro poeta Cecho Dascoli by d’Ascoli Cecco, 1514 (Image from Penn Libraries);
Basilisk lizard, photo by AEGN, 2018;
Cocodrillo, wood block print from Lo illustro poeta Cecho Dascoli by Cecco, 1514 (Image from Penn Libraries);
Young crocodile, photo by AEGN, 2018;
Vipera, wood block print from Lo illustro poeta Cecho Dascoli by Cecco, 1514 (Image from Penn Libraries);
Side-striped palm pit viper (Photo from WIkimedia Commons because I saw it at night and couldn’t get a photograph myself).]