May 22, 2015

Eiffel Tower

        Today I printed the piece I began carving at my last show.  It’s based on a photograph I took on a trip to Paris fifteen years ago, standing under the Eiffel Tower and looking up along one of the legs.  I liked the way it seemed almost abstract, yet still actually depicted something, and I liked the way there were areas of black on white and areas of white on black.
        While I was working on it I thought it would be interesting to see how other artists have depicted the iconic tower, and I found these two and a half block prints to keep mine company.  The “half” is apparently really a lithograph, although it’s obviously in the style of Japanese wood block printing.  It’s not entirely clear whether the original was a wood block print and the reproduction is a lithograph, or whether Henri Riviere never carved a block at all, but merely mimicked the look.  In any case, I love the 
way he’s obviously playing off of Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji.  I also think it’s super cool that the Eiffel Tower is under construction in this piece.  It took almost two years to build, but it’s hard to picture a Paris with half a tower looming on the skyline.
        I’ve also found a beautiful, detailed view from the year of the tower’s completion.  This image was probably considered journalism more than art at the time, but I think it’s really quite lovely.  It also puts my level of detail to shame!  I worked so hard and long on all the little tiny lines on mine, and this anonymous artist has bested me by orders of magnitude!
        And lastly, an image of an artist beholding the glory of the tower - much simpler, no twiddly bits, but utterly unmistakeable.
        Indeed, the Eiffel Tower is so famous, so easily recognized, so ubiquitous an image, that I thought it would be fun to show it from an unusual, less recognizable view.

[Pictures: Eiffel Tower, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015;
From the series Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower, lithograph by Henri Riviere, 1888 (Image from The Blue Lantern);
The Eiffel Tower at the time of the Universal Exposition, wood block print by an artist whose name I can’t make out on the corner of the block, from La Nature, 1889 (Image from Elevator Systems of the Eiffel Tower);
Untitled woodcut by Helena Bochorakova-Dittrichova from the graphic novel The Artist on her Journey, 1930s (Image from National Endowment for the Arts).]

May 19, 2015


        It’s one of those dull rainy days here.  Thank goodness, because we’ve been in desperate need of the rain, but nevertheless it’s making me feel sleepy and I just can’t seem to get any energy today.  So I’ve chosen to go with it and feature some block prints that celebrate sleeping.  Of course you have to understand that I wouldn’t be honoring the theme if I got all into deep reflection and in-depth analysis about these pieces.  That would take energy.  So I don’t intend to say much.  Just sit back and enjoy the beautiful black and white.
        First, a woman asnooze with a couple of dogs, by Gwen Raverat.  You can read my previous post on Raverat here.  Since the woman’s hair is done and she’s wearing slippers, this seems the closest to how I feel right now: like lying down on the couch in the middle of the day and dozing.
        Next, a woman asleep with her child, by Käthe Kollwitz.  You can read my previous post on Kollwitz here.  When you have a baby, you grab whatever sleep you can get, so this woman is undoubtedly more genuinely exhausted than simply lethargic, like me.  As always, Kollwitz does a beautiful job with the light and shadows.
        This next woman is about shape and line rather than light and shadow.  But my main concern at the moment is not the Elements of Art but the art of the nap, and I don’t think this one looks nearly so comfortable with her body twisted and her arm thrown up over her face.  Maybe the artist, S.J. Melcher, kept insisting on shining the light in her eyes while she was trying to sleep.
        And finally, a napping ploughman by Miriam Macgregor.  Actually, although the title refers to a ploughman, he looks more like a shepherd to me, complete with sheep and crook.  In any case, he’s probably just had his lunch and is enjoying a rest in the 
shade.  No rainy day for him.  Possibly not much sleep for him, either, with the parrot squawking on his knee!
        And that’s enough for today.  I wouldn’t want to overtire anybody.

[Pictures: The Sleeping Beauty, woodcut by Gwen Raverat, 1921 (Image from the Raverat Archive);
Schlafende mit Kind (Sleeping Woman with Child), woodcut by Käthe Kollwitz, 1930 (Image from Lempertz);
Asleep, woodcut by S.J. Melcher (Image from Live Auctioneers);
Ploughman’s Parrot Press, wood engraving by Miriam Macgregor (Image from Primrose Hill Press).]

May 15, 2015

The Rifle on the Wall

        Anton Chekhov famously wrote, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”  He added in a variation of the same statement, “It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”  This principle, encouraging Occam’s razor and discouraging false foreshadowing, is generally taken as advice to writers, which it was meant to be.  But it also tells us something about ourselves as readers.  That is, we expect everything that’s mentioned to have significance.  Presumably this is because authors have trained us to expect significance.  In the mystery genre especially we’re always looking for clues and we feel wonderfully clever when we think we’ve noticed the significance of the rifle on the wall.  Of course, mystery writers want to keep us guessing.  Therefore they sprinkle the room not only with a rifle on the wall, but a couple of knives in the drawer, a brass candlestick on the mantelpiece, a pistol in the desk, and some poisoned brandy on the sideboard.  That way the rifle may never be fired after all.
        In a related effect, as readers we expect that any character given a name will be significant - or at least more significant than any nameless characters.  Again, this is simply a convention employed by writers and learned by readers.  In real life everyone has a name, of course, but a significant role in my life could easily be played by a person whose name I don’t know - and conversely, there are plenty of people to whom I’m introduced by name who then never enter my life’s story a second time.  However, while readers may have been trained by our books to expect significance from anything specifically mentioned, there may also be some innate human characteristics that are reinforcing the habit.  For one thing, we’re hardwired to look for patterns, so we want to make connections between everything that’s drawn to our attention.  Researchers discovered that if a character in a story is introduced only by name, without any further information given at the point of introduction, readers keep that name in a specially accessible part of their memory until they learn sufficient background information to slot the character properly into the framework of the story.  In other words, our brains are designed to use certain criteria to determine that some things are significant (such as proper names), and to treat significant things differently from all the other details in life that fly by (such as the people to whom we’re never introduced).
        Now back to the rifle that was never fired because in fact the crime was committed with the fireplace poker.  (Ha ha - fooled you, didn’t I?  But I told you there was a mantelpiece, so you should have deduced the poker!)  Chekhov is urging us to cut out all superfluities, and he’s quite right; everything in writing should be there for a reason.  Just remember that the reason doesn’t necessarily have to be so obvious as Chekhov implies.  I shouldn’t hang a rifle on the wall of my story for no reason at all, but that doesn’t mean it absolutely must go off.  Perhaps the rifle is there to indicate that Major Grumbacher is a man who admires and celebrates the manly arts of hunting and war.  Perhaps the rifle represents the memory of violent Grandfather Silas, whose oppressive influence hangs over the house like a shadow.  Perhaps the rifle is simply a red herring.  Perhaps the rifle is a rare and valuable piece that once belonged to Annie Oakley and will be stolen by idealistic young Charlotte as an icon to represent the achievements of women.  Perhaps taking the rifle off its display hooks reveals the lever that opens Lady Davenport’s secret wall safe behind it.  Perhaps the rifle is a stage prop from Tony Terrence’s one great success 45 years ago…  You get the idea.  By all means cover your stories’ walls with rifles, but don’t be so boring as to make them all go off!

[Pictures: Soper’s Rifle Mechanism, wood block print from The English Mechanic & Mirror of Science, 1870 (Image from Andy Brill);
German Falconer, wood block print by J. Amman, 16th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

May 12, 2015

Nesting Birds

        To my delight, chickadees have been busy at my birdhouse again, and it looks like the robin’s nest in the hawthorn will be occupied once more.  A catbird was seen entering the shrubbery with a load of fluff in its beak, and of course the dratted English sparrows are setting up house in all the gutters.  Yes, it’s nesting time here, and I’ll celebrate with a selection of relief block prints.
        First up, a nesting box by Mariann Johansen-Ellis.  We have one on a tree in the back yard.  It was home for house wrens one year, but was unoccupied last year.  The house favored by the chickadees hangs under the eaves of the front porch where I can watch them going in and out all day.
        Next is a funny little bird on its tidily swirled nest.  The lines that fill the background actually emanate from the tip of this bird’s beak, like sonic waves filling the air.  Stylized as this bird is, with its geometry, the simplicity of its beak and sketched-in wing, and the exuberance of its tail like a volcano or a tassel, it has a solid energy.  Sometimes these tiny feathered creatures do indeed seem to take over the airwaves disproportionately.
        Here’s my hummingbird, the only nesting bird I’ve done (and with only one left before it’s sold out.)  I’ve been toying recently with the idea of doing a portrait of my chickadees and their house, but so far it’s only images in my head and nothing has yet emerged onto paper.  As for the hummingbird, she’s on the nest in this print mostly because I didn’t know how to capture the movement of hovering at the feeder!  Also, though, I’m fascinated by the architecture and skill some birds display in their nests, and hummingbird nests are absolutely minute palaces with their precision craftsmanship and luxury materials.
        Finally, a pair of birds with their family-to-be in the nest.  This comes from a series of linoleum block prints of the twelve months of the year by John Hinchcliffe.  Naturally, this one represents May.  I don’t know what particular species they are, but they remind me of American robins.  The nest in our hawthorn is definitely not this tidy, though!

[Pictures: Nesting, linocut by Mariann Johansen-Ellis (Image from her Etsy shop linocutheaven);
Nesting Bird, linocut print by Karen Pirie (Image from Karen Pirie);
Hummingbird Nest, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012;
May, lino cut by John Hinchcliffe (Image from John Hinchcliffe Fine Prints).]

May 8, 2015

The Elfin Artist

        Today’s fantasy poem is by Alfred Noyes of “The Highwayman” fame.  It’s not a particularly good poem, I’m afraid; it’s terribly Victorian in its overwrought descriptions and sentimental subject (despite being published in 1919).  But I wanted to share it because, twee as it is, it speaks a truth that means a lot to me.  No, not the truth about fairies with butterfly wings, but the truth about “the things that matter.”

In a glade of an elfin forest
When Sussex was Eden-new,
I came on an elvish painter
And watched as his picture grew.
A harebell nodded beside him.
He dipt his brush in the dew.

And I laughed in the sweet May weather,
Because of the themes he chose.

For he painted the things that matter,
The tints that we all pass by,
Like the little blue wreaths of incense
That the wild thyme breathes to the sky;
Or the first white bud of the hawthorn,
And the light in a blackbird’s eye;

And the shadows on soft white cloud-peaks
That carolling skylarks throw,
Dark dots on the slumbering splendours
That under the wild wings flow,
Wee shadows like violets trembling
On the unseen breasts of snow;

With petals too lovely for colour
That shake to the rapturous wings,
And grow as the bird draws near them,
And die as he mounts and sings; –
Ah, only those exquisite brushes
Could paint these marvellous things.

        I may be no elfin artist, and I may not have those exquisite brushes, but this is exactly what I hope to do in my art - to show the things that matter, the things that we all pass by.
        This is Children's Book Week, so I'll also mention two picture books with the theme of noticing the beauty around us.  Neither has a fantasy setting, although both use a certain sense of fantasy in their illustrations in which the dull everyday as noticed (or, rather, unnoticed) by busy adults is in black and white and grey, while the touches appreciated by the children are infused with color.
The Man with the Violin by Kathy Stinson and Dusan Petricic is about a boy who wants to stop and listen to the music played by a violinist in the subway.  The music swirls through his day in  waves of lovely color and even makes the boy float right off the ground in the illustrations.
Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith is wordless and laid out in comic-book style panels.  A girl takes a walk with her oblivious dad and picks the full-color weed flowers she notices growing in the city.  The lovely thing about this book is that as long as she’s simply noticing and collecting things for herself, there are only individual tiny touches of color, but when she starts giving her flowers away, the color begins to spread into the whole pictures.  It doesn’t matter whether or not the recipients are responsive; it’s the act of giving that does the trick.
        Never mind that all the adults in these books are such bad role models and it’s only the children who are free-spirited and heart-whole enough to notice and appreciate the beauty around them.  I identify myself with the children, and with the elfin artist, and I hope that every once in a while my art might help an oblivious human adult become a little more full of wonder — thus, in the visual vocabulary of the poem and books, infusing the world with color even though my art is black and white!

[Picture: Blackbird and Hawthorn, rubber block print by AEGN, 2014.]
(Read the entire poem here.)

May 5, 2015

Clockwork Chiropterid

        Today I finished the block I worked on at my open studio show this past weekend.  I didn’t know what people would make of the design as they watched me carve, and I must confess I was rather surprised by the positive response.  I think only two people used the word “steampunk,” so this probably isn’t the population that’s a natural target audience for Nycteris & Flederer’s Patent Mechanical Chiropterid (Model 3).  Nevertheless I had an unexpected number of fun conversations about the charms of robot bats.
        It’s my son P who’s been encouraging my predilection for steampunk animals.  (He’s been advocating for a clockwork pelican, which may come in time, although I actually want to do a real pelican, too.)  I thought a bat would be cool because I was picturing how a mad scientist-type might build such a thing, and I originally envisioned it with kitchen funnels for ears.  But I couldn’t make them look good despite several attempts.  I think I redid the ears more than anything else on my sketch before settling on placing the wind-up key atop the head (or, since it’s a bat, below the head, I guess.)  Because I’m not really an engineer designing a real functional device, I admit I’m a little vague on the actual workings of this critter.  The wind-up key implies clockwork, while the dials imply steam power.  I make no claims that the gears shown would produce successful powered flight.  What I was aiming for was a basic level of plausibility, topped off with a dollop of all the fun stuff.
        As for the carving, I wanted this bat to be hanging in the dark, with enough shadows that its eyes would look like lit lightbulbs.  I’m not sure I quite succeeded in that - I just can’t seem to help myself from carving out plenty of white instead of leaving dark and shadowy texture.  But I’m happy with it anyway.  After all, I never intended it to be spooky or sinister.  I wanted a friendly robot bat, and I think I got one.
        And now I need to come up with another idea for another block, because my next chance to sit carving for a weekend comes up in just two weeks at Dedham Open Studios.  Hmmm… So many wonderful possibilities!

[Picture: Nycteris & Flederer’s Patent Mechanical Chiropterid (Model 3), rubber block print by AEGN, 2015.]

May 1, 2015

Poetry and Art in Needham

        Yesterday I was at P and T’s school hanging mounted and decorated poems the seventh graders had written, and today I’ll be returning to be in the audience as the seventh grade poets present their masterpieces.  I’m so glad the kids have done such an extensive poetry unit, because I see in the schools a disturbing trend to concentrate more on “useful” skills, the sorts of things that will no doubt help them get good jobs or something.  But I believe it’s a terrible mistake to think that art and poetry aren’t useful.  They foster and encourage those parts of the mind and soul that are absolutely vital for creativity, empathy, and - yes, I’ll come right out and say it - happiness.  Even in the most purely practical sense it’s surely obvious that people are more productive at their jobs when they’re creative, empathetic, and happy, but I also believe that we should be teaching our children (and ourselves) that there is indeed more to life than getting a “good” job.  So as I tacked poems onto the bulletin boards yesterday I was delighted to see the wonderful ways in 
which the kids at P and T’s school had decorated the papers, and I look forward to hearing them read out the words of their poems this morning.  It is in the children’s poetry that I find hope for our future.
        As soon as I get home from Poetry Day, I’ll load up the car and start setting up for Needham Open Studios, which is this weekend.  I’ve got an interesting new print design to work on as I sit with my display for the next two days, and I’m also excited about my ArtWeek Boston event on Saturday at 2:00.  There’s something deeply satisfying about using your hands and  carving right into a fresh block to make something new.  One of the things I love best about relief block printmaking is that even though I usually plan my blocks, the finished print isn’t the same as the sketch I draw.  I never know just how it will look, and there’s always suspense as I ink and press, and then the surprise when I pull the first one.  Accidents of carving are often frustrating, but sometimes give the print that mark of the hand which makes it more interesting than I ever could have planned.  For the hands-on activity at my Boston ArtWeek event, people won’t even plan 
what they carve (unless you want to!) so there’s even more surprise, and even more delight when you see the beautiful, intricate designs you can get by inking, stamping, and combining multiples of your own small block.
        Come join me during Needham Open Studios to see my process of making a large relief block print, and then try your hand at carving and stamping your own miniature block.

[Pictures: Emily Dickinson, wood engraving by Barry Moser;
 E.E. Cummings, wood engraving by Moser;
William Carlos Williams, wood engraving by Moser (Images from]

April 28, 2015

Words of the Month - The Suffixinator

        A productive suffix is one that can be actively used to form new words in a language.  An example is 
-ability.  As new verbs enter the language, -ability can be added to them, with a meaning that is readily apparent to and accepted by speakers (despite a certain curmudgeonliness about jargony coinings.)  The hackability of computers is evidence of this.  (An unproductive suffix, naturally, is one that was once used to form words in the language, but which can no longer be added to bases to form acceptable new words.  Think of the -head in godhead and maidenhead, or the -lock in wedlock.)
        English has recently gained a number of newly productive suffixes which are particularly interesting because they’ve been adapted from words in which they were not originally suffixes or separable parts at all.  In other words, English (perhaps primarily American English) seems to have a recent predilection for randomly chopping the ends off words and investing these word fragments with new meanings as suffixes.

-burger - Anything to which this suffix is added becomes a patty of ground food, as in cheeseburger, turkey-burger, and veggie-burger.  But burger doesn’t mean “minced meat” in the original hamburger from which the “suffix” was chopped, which is why, of course, hamburgers aren’t made of ham.  Burger really means “a person or thing from a fortified settlement” in German, in this case specifically something from Hamburg.  There are varying accounts of the invention of the hamburger and its name, but burger as a freestanding word seems to date from the late 1930s, at the same time that -burger became productive as a suffix.  Now one can request an ostrich-burger, scoff at a gristle-burger, or threaten to pound Ernie’s face into an Ernie-burger, and the meaning will be perfectly clear.

-kini - The bikini was named for an atoll in the Marshall Islands (as explained previously), which comes from Marshallese Pikinni meaning “surface of coconuts.”  It’s broken smack through the middle of one Marshallese element, so it isn’t really any word any more… except that in English it’s become productive as a suffix meaning a bathing suit that isn’t a normal one-piece tank suit.  This gives us tankini, in which the top half of the bikini is lengthened into a tank top, and skirtini in which the bottom has a mini skirt.  But an even more charming reinterpretation of the original bikini takes the bi- which used to be half of Marshallese “surface” instead to be Latinate “two.”  You can then replace it with other numbers, producing the monokini (the one-piece bikini bottom worn alone) and the trikini (a three-piece suit with separate cups on top.)  Presumably that makes nude beaches the place to look for the nullkini.

-oholic - One of our most popular new suffixes, this denotes addiction despite there being no etymological sense of addiction in the history of that combination of letters.  It’s simply half the alcohol of alcoholic, and in fact it’s often spelled -aholic, coming even farther from its etymological origins (as explained previously).   Apparently it was first used as a combining form for sugarholic in 1965, and within the next twenty years we coined workaholic, chocoholic, and shopoholic.  If I described myself as a bookoholic, a printoholic, a soupoholic, or a daffodilaholic, everyone would recognize my words at once (and perhaps even join me in confessing their shared passions for these things).

-athon - The marathon running event, named in 1894 after the Greek place name of legend (which means “fennel”), soon came to mean by extension any long, grueling event or activity.  It was first chopped apart and its second half used as a suffix in walkathon around 1931.  There followed talkathon, telethon, dance-a-thon (also spelled danceathon and dance-athon) and readathon.  And the suffix is still freely available for me to indulge in a cleanathon (ugh), a bakeathon (yum), or a printathon (oh joy!)

-gate - There’s no joy in the unfortunately ever-productive suffix denoting scandal.  It derives from chopping the end off the place name “Watergate,” the site of what obviously wasn’t the first political scandal but was in 1972 perhaps the first big one to keep the national media frenzied in the era of extensive television coverage.  Although a gate is, of course, just an innocent door in a wall or fence, we now hear about everything from Weinergate and Gamergate to utter trivialities in sports and entertainment.  I think it’s a scandal how overused this suffix is, and if I thought it was a conspiracy, too, I’d allege a Gategate.

Finally, a suffix to keep an eye on, as it’s become productive in comic slang (and among cheesy corporations):
-inator - It’s unclear exactly when this began.  Perhaps it comes from the Terminator movie in 1984, with the morphemes split after term instead of after terminate.  Perhaps its first true use was Trogdor the Burninator in 2003.  The feel of redundancy or overkill is deliberate, and it implies destruction to comic effect with overtones of mad science.  It’s used as the go-to suffix by the mad scientist Dr Doofenshmirz on Disney’s animated show “Phineas and Ferb.”  He has invented devices from the obvious Shrinkinator to the less obvious Giant Dog Biscuit-inator.  Cheesy actual corporations using the suffix seem to be mostly in the pest control business and include Moleinator and Pestinator.  But this is a suffix that isn’t as clearly defined as today’s other examples.  A Destructinator seems pretty straightforward, but if I were to invent the Printinator, would it destroy prints, like the Pestinator (heaven forfend!)?  Would it transform everything into a block print?  Would it stamp relief prints onto everything?  Perhaps that’s why this one really ought to remain in the world of comedy and fiction.  When -inator is involved, you know you’re unleashing something of ridiculously awesome destructive power (or perhaps awesomely ridiculous destructive power), but the details may be dangerously vague.

[Pictures: Hamburg, woodcut from Cosmographia by Sebastian Munster, c. 1570 (Image from Albion Prints);
Crossing the Haha, Holkham, wood engraving by Cordelia Jones (Image from the Norwich Print Fair).]

April 24, 2015

Pattern on Pattern

        Here are three bright variations that seem springlike to me, in the daffodil and hyacinth colors of my garden that make me so happy at this time of year.  These pieces are by Dan Rizzie (USA, b. 1951) and they are color woodcuts with chine collé.  Because I have not seen them in person, but only in reproduction on-line, I’m trying to figure out exactly how they were made.  The most obvious explanation is that Rizzie carved two blocks, one that was printed in color, and one for black.  For each color he printed on colored paper: pale blue paper under the blue ink, pale green under the green, etc.  But looking closely, most visible on the lower left of the blue version, there’s some evidence of an intermediate blue-grey color, too.  Is this a third block?  And another possibility is that the colored background patterns were on preprinted paper.  Chine collé is when a layer of paper is adhered between the background paper and the inked block.  (For more details, see my explanation here.)  Most often it’s plain colored paper, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be patterned paper.
        However Rizzie made these, I like the idea of layering pattern on pattern.  I like how sometimes the black shapes and lines echo or emphasize the shapes and lines in the background, and how sometimes they cut across and complement each other.  I like how the scale of the background is bigger and bolder than the scale of the black.  This is another idea that I might like to experiment with some time myself.  This could also be another possible idea for this summer’s printmaking classes I’ll be teaching.
        As for Rizzie’s three color variations, I think the texture is clearest on the blue and green, but even so I like the yellow best, because it’s so cheerful and bright.

[Pictures: Blackberry Thieves II (yellow), Blackberry Thieves I and III (green, blue), color woodcuts with chine collé by Dan Rizzie (Images from the Cleveland Museum of Art).]