October 21, 2014

Steampunk Alert!

        It’s ten days until Hallowe’en and the costumes are complete!  So here we are, P having instigated a full-scale photo shoot to show off our finery.  He is ever-resourceful airship captain and inventor Nathaniel Tarlington.  I am Anna Nightingale, explorer and bard.  T is the odd one out, being a woodland elf involving no steam or machinery of any sort.  I’m the odd one out in that I will not actually be dressing up for Hallowe’en, having no place to go!  My costume is by way of encouragement and company for the others to make theirs.  (I’ll focus on the elven costumes another time: today it’s a Steampunk Alert.  It’s a shame we didn’t have some cool gaslit alley or retro industrial warehouse in which to stage our photo shoot, but what we do have is a yard and a lovely day, so we really can’t complain.)
        Without further ado, allow me to draw your attention to the highlights of our steampunkery.  First up, the requisite goggles designed not merely to protect the eyes but to provide assorted other vital (though somewhat ill-defined) functions.  P’s ray gun was shown already here, but his gauntlet is the newly completed masterpiece, involving a keypad, antenna, energy gauge, and energized dart mini-gun (with its clip of mini-darts.)  Its component parts include an old gardening glove, broken watch case, ball-point pen spring, length of broken watch band found in the gutter, metal number brads which P bought at a craft store, and a gorgeous piece of unidentified turned steel supplied by his uncle the scientist who donated some scraps from his work with instruments.  The picture also shows P’s pocket altimeter, which measures up to 25,000 feet both above and below sea level, since his airship can, when necessary, convert to a submarine.  I also really like his captain’s badge worn on his vest, (which he actually made some time ago but hadn’t come up with a use for until now.  Note more ballpoint pen springs.  Good thing I can never resist saving them when my pens die!)
        For my own costume, here are my goggles and gauges.  I posted a picture of the mechaniola before, and have made only minor tweaks to it since then.  I did want to include this necklace with which I am well pleased even though I can’t really wear it with the costume for fear of scratching and clanking against the mechaniola.  On the other hand, I can wear it on non-costumed occasions, which are considerably more plentiful.
        Happy costuming fun!

[Pictures: P, AEGN, and T wielding our weapons of choice;
P’s costume details: goggles, gauntlet, badge;
A’s costume details: gauges, goggles, necklace (Photos by AEGN and PGN, 2014).]

October 17, 2014

Confusion... and Wonder

        Tomorrow is Natick Artists Open Studios (if you’re in the greater Boston area, come by and see me this weekend!) and I have been hard at work preparing and setting up.  This evening is going to involve a lot of folding and packaging note cards.  In addition to replenishing the usual designs, I’ve also put together two new packets for this show: a set of 8 door designs from The Extraordinary Book of Doors, and the set of 4 magical cities.  So I don’t have the time or attention today to give you a big detailed introduction to some new and interesting artist I’ve discovered.  Instead I simply give you this very cool piece by Xiang Silou.  My big detailed introduction to Xiang and his work is here.  I didn’t have room to post this piece then, and it’s very different from the work for which he’s best known.  It really tickles me!
        I don’t know whether the title, “Confusion,” loses a little in translation.  I think this piece expresses a confusion that’s more like puzzlement, or a surprised bewilderment.  The birds look like they just don’t know what to make of the fish cloud.  The fish, on the other hand, seem utterly unconcerned about anything.  I guess they do this all the time!

[Picture:  Confusion 1, wood block print by Xiang Silou (Image from Frames Gallery).]

Tomorrow and Sunday I’ll be hanging out downstairs in the Morse Library in Natick, carving a block, and chatting with anyone who comes by.  (And allow me just to mention that we always have a fabulous spread of nibbles down there with us!)

October 14, 2014

Dreaming Beauty

        It's a strange enough story, with the tower no one had ever noticed before, and its inexplicable old woman and her antique spindle, as though wicked fairies have nothing better to do with their lives than spend 16 years waiting to inflict a half-baked curse, and at the end, of course, my sweet, heroic husband, the disenchantment, and the pathetic and hilarious attempts to get my parents, who were always old-fashioned, to understand a son-in-law a century and a quarter younger.  But none of the story, not the flies falling asleep on the walls, nor the fires reawaking unkindled on the hearths, nor the briar hedge that no horticulturalist could identify, not even the happily ever after, was ever so strange and wonderful as my hundred years of dreams.

It always was a strange, unlikely tale,
With all those fairies and the blunted curse,
And burning spindles reddening the night;
That tower, inexplicable and grey,
And waiting for her in it all those years
The thirteenth fairy tempting her to 

The counselors could not predict that 
Into a deep, unconscious fairy tale
That seemed a blink but was a hundred 
They couldn't ask -- there wasn't time to 
The softly falling shade of hazy grey
That shrouded them in timeless 
            deadened night.

There are no stars in their enchanted night,
The moon does not move up and smoothly spin
Across their sky.  The heavy, twilit grey
Is strange enough.  The faded tale
That others vaguely told about a curse
Grew like a hedge as nights grew into years.

Within the hedge, there are no passing years,
Above them hovers neither day nor night.
The cook falls blankly silent in mid-curse,
The spit across the hearth stops in mid-spin.
Not one ungrazing horse flicks with its tail;
The flies sleep on the walls, dark grey on grey.

And on the slated turret eaves the grey
doves rest unmourning through the timeless years.
The stream, lulled in the courtyard, tells no tale
Of other lands.  And through the sunless night
The breeze lies still and does not lift and spin
The dry leaves through the yard. That is the curse.

It is a dull and blunted sort of curse;
In all the time it rules, it cannot grey
The queen's brown hair.  It cannot spin
a single spider's web .  In all those years
it has not made the princess lose a night.
During this time there is a stranger tale.

When momentary sleep can weave a tale
or mesh the dreamer in a stifling curse,
When epics can be lived in half a night,
Imagine what strange lands of shifting grey
were roamed minutely in a hundred years -
dreams far more wonderful than fairies spin.

                        - Anne E.G. Nydam (1990-something)

[Pictures: “The castle surrounded by briars,” illustration by Arthur Rackham from The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated by Mrs. Edgar Lucas, 1909;
Approaching the castle, wood engraving by Gustave Doré from Les Contes de Perrault, 1867 (Images from SurLaLune).]

PS - Don't forget to come see me at Natick Artists Open Studios this weekend!  I'll be showing at the Morse Institute Library on Saturday and Sunday.

October 10, 2014

Linocuts by Cyganik

        I came across this piece about a week ago, and thought it was appropriate for autumn.  We’re not here yet, actually - most of our trees still have most of their leaves - but I didn’t want  to wait any longer to share the piece.  It’s a linoleum block print by Katarzyna Cyganik.  Her web site, where I found her work, gives no personal information, so I can’t pass any information on to you, but the work is beautiful and somewhat unusual.
        Cyganik has a very skritchy style, lots and lots of thin cuts.  Sometimes her cuts are fairly controlled as in this forest scene in which she’s made a masterful gradation into a misty distance, but sometimes they’re much sketchier.  True to my tastes, my favorites here don’t include the sketchiest pieces, but you can see what I mean if you go to her site yourself.  She also has a number of pieces in which the level of texture is fairly uniform over the whole block, but I like best the ones with some punches of black and white along with the texture.  I love the way the tiny white leaves are so bright against the “grey” background of the forest.  I love the black bicycle and railing against the lighter texture of the snow and the reflecting water.

        This scene of architecture in Kraków shows off the versatility of Cyganik’s carving.  The ground and the shading around the round windows is fairly loose and sketchy, the brickwork of the towers is very controlled.  The dark bush in the right foreground shows up even though it’s against a textured background, a technique I have trouble with, and the pattern of the roof, black grid on a white background, is actually one of the harder and definitely most tedious patterns to carve.  Every individual white rectangle must be carved out without accidentally putting too many cuts into the narrow black bits that must be left between them.
        That laborious technique of carving out tons of little white spaces is all over this final piece, too.  (Between the two lower left butterflies you can see an artifact of this, where Cyganik has neglected to carve out the linoleum from the interior of one of those little shapes.)  What’s particularly interesting here is that the background seems fairly precise while the butterflies, detailed and in the foreground, have a carvier look.  This is the opposite of most artwork.  The effect is also much more like a graphic design than her landscapes and other work.
        All her work is really impressive, and I’m so pleased to have found it.  I hope you enjoy it, too.

[Pictures: Forest, linocut by Katarzyna Cyganik;
Amsterdam, linocut by Cyganik;
Kraków, linocut by Cyganik, 2003;
Butterflies, linocut by Cyganik (All images from linoART Katarzyna Cyganik.)]

October 7, 2014

Importance of Fantasy - Importance of Liberal Arts

        Charles Dickens wrote in 1853 “In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected.”  When I read this it occurred to me how much broader this issue is than fairy tales only.  It certainly applies to the whole realm of fantasy, but even beyond, to the ideal of liberal arts.  I’ll explain, but first, a few words on Dickens’s agenda.  The piece in which the statement appears, called Frauds on the Fairies, was his answer to his [former] friend and illustrator George Cruikshank, who had dared to rewrite some fairy tales to preach his favored cause against the evils of alcohol.  Dickens praises fairy tales for their morality, simplicity, and innocence.  He calls them “nurseries of fancy,” with which I agree, but also goes on with a lot of Victorian sentimentalism of which I think the fairy tales must be found Not Guilty.  Moreover, he argues that the fairy tales must be “preserved in their… purity,” which is nonsense, as the fairy tales had never been static before and will continue to be retold and modified as long as they live.  It’s my opinion that anyone who wants to rewrite fairy tales is entitled to do so, and if they stink, they will simply fall by the wayside.  However, you can read the entire essay here, and you may be amused by Dickens’s satirical rewriting of Cinderella, which mocks all manner of absurd moral notions from health fads to women’s suffrage.
        But to go back to that opening claim, I think Dickens was getting at something bigger than his irritation with Cruikshank.  In a utilitarian age, it’s a great temptation to believe that fantasy, imagination, literature, the visual and performing arts, are all useless.  Even in my generally enlightened town people write letters to the editor arguing that art and music are a waste of money in our schools.  In Dickens’s own time it was considered utilitarian to put young children to work in those jobs too cramped, dangerous, delicate, or tedious for adults.  We see now that taking children out of school to perform jobs that are likely to kill or maim them is hardly good for society in the long run, but we still seem to have difficulty seeing that squelching imagination, critical thinking, and broad-mindedness is also bad for society.
        And that brings me to the value of a liberal arts education, and why it’s important that in this utilitarian age we don’t make the mistake of thinking too narrowly about what’s “useful.”  I am very pleased to be featured in this month’s newsletter of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, where I explain the importance of the liberal arts and sciences thus:  The liberal arts and sciences encourage a love of continued learning and a broad range of academic interests, as well as the habits of mind that allow us to take notice of interesting facts, follow up a thought to find out more, analyze, sift, critique, and be creative.  Creativity requires cross-pollination.  It involves pulling threads from many different areas to connect ideas that haven’t been connected before, to create new worlds that reflect our own back to us in new, illuminating ways.  Not one of my three jobs [artist, juvenile fantasy writer, stay-at-home-mother] is the kind you might expect to “require” a college degree, and yet my education is a vital part of how (on my best days!) I do my work in all three of those areas: with curiosity, critical thinking, and creativity.  And I believe that all of those jobs, done in that spirit, can help make the world a better place.  Please go read the whole interview here.

[Pictures: The Pumpkin… to take Cinderella to the Ball…, copper engraving by George Cruikshank, 1854 (Image from Antiqua Print Gallery);
The Open Book, rubber block print by AEGN, 2013.]

October 3, 2014

Dazzle Prints

        Here are some really funky wood block prints by Edward Wadsworth (U.K. 1889-1949).  They look like they might be op art from the 1960’s, but in fact they come from the Vorticist movement of the 1910’s.  Vorticism grew out of Cubism, but had more in common with Futurism, with its celebration of dynamism, the machine age, and modernity.  Wadsworth was one of the founders of the movement in 1913, but Vorticism proved short-lived as a formal movement.  World War I put a damper on many artists’ (as well as the public’s) optimism for modernism, in addition to the fact that a number of members of the young movement were killed.  Wadsworth continued to be interested in the bold geometric shapes and patterns, although his work later became more realistic and eventually quite surreal.  He continued to favor nautical themes for the rest of his life.
        However, it’s the dizzy Vorticist influence in today’s woodcuts that I’m enjoying.  These were all done towards the end of World War I, during which Wadsworth worked as a camoufleur.  But he wasn’t trying to hide anything; rather, his style of camouflage was intended to confuse, making it difficult for German U-boats to determine the exact speed and direction of ships, reducing their ability to target accurately - think of a herd of zebras, perhaps.  The ships painted in these huge, crazy, geometric patterns were called Dazzle ships.  What’s fun about Wadsworth’s block prints is that they employ the same techniques they depict.  That is, while the stripes and zigzags on the ships might be quite accurate and realistic, Wadsworth goes farther by using his geometry to break up outlines, confuse background and foreground, play with light and shadow and how they define form, and, in short, dazzle!
        My favorite is the first, showing a most complete and detailed scene.  It’s almost exactly the same scene that Wadsworth also used for a major painting the next year, although the painting doesn’t have the dazzle camouflage effect of the black and white block print.
        The second piece here is more obviously stylized, with its pillowy waves.  Although it’s really simpler than the first, it looks more confused because all the black and white areas are in the same scale.  In the first piece I like the way Wadsworth has used smaller shapes as a background for larger shapes, and vice versa.  That’s pretty darn bold and sophisticated!
        The third piece really gives a sense of the size of these ships and the monumental job it was to paint them.  By using a low perspective and a simpler background, Wadsworth makes the ship look truly towering.  I especially like the curves of its propeller.
        And finally another busier, more confusing one.  I really can’t quite tell exactly what’s going on here.  As far as I can make out from the writing underneath, this is another dock scene of another ship or ships, but exactly where any given object begins or ends is tough to discern.  Which just goes to show how good Wadsworth was at his dazzling job, I suppose!

[Pictures: Liverpool Shipping, woodcut by Edward Wadsworth, 1918;
Dock Scene, woodcut by Wadsworth, c. 1918 (Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art);
Drydocked for Scaling and Painting, woodcut by Wadsworth, 1918;
Dazzled Ship(s?) in Dry(?) Dock, Liverpool, woodcut by Wadsworth, 1918 (Images from fulltable.com and graphicine.com).]

September 30, 2014

Words of the Month - Of Nimrods and Nincompoops

        Bugs Bunny, smart alec that he is, is never without a snappy insult for his antagonists.  Some of his favorites, such as maroon, a simple mispronunciation of moron, he applies in many situations, but Bugs often gets more specific.  For example, in “Bully for Bugs” he calls Toro the bull a nincowpoop, tailoring his mispronunciation to the occasion.  This month’s words are three silly, sometimes even affectionate, Bugs Bunny insults that turn out to derive from the names of specific people.

smart alec(k) - Its first use in print is attested from 1865, but its probable origins lie with the shenanigans of a certain Alexander Hoag in the 1840s.  He and his wife ran a scam in which he would rob her customers while she kept them occupied (if you know what I mean, wink wink, nudge nudge).  Alec gave local cops a share of the takings in return for turning a blind eye.  Then Alec got smart.  He came up with a new way to rob the customers that wasn’t so obviously tied back to him, which he felt the cops didn’t need to know about at all.  Which was great until the police realized he was cheating them out of their hard-earned graft, whereupon they arrested Alec and his wife Melinda.  Thus the police gave the nickname Smart Alec to Mr Hoag and soon to other criminals who were too smart for their own good.

nincompoop - Dating back to the mid seventeenth century (and first spelled nicompoop) Dr Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary gave the word a derivation from the Latin legal phrase non compos mentis, which is a pretty appealing theory, but one for which linguists find no other evidence and can’t square the earlier spelling.  The current theory is that this is another word derived from another man who behaved stupidly: in this case, Jesus’s follower Nicodemus.  Now, it hardly seems fair that a respected member of the Sanhedrin who was later martyred and sainted should have his name turned into a synonym for fool, but apparently this is based on the incident where he questioned Jesus and had trouble understanding his teachings, and therefore was given as an example of someone who didn’t quite get it.  (Which just goes to show that folks in the seventeenth century must have felt pretty darn smug about their understanding of Jesus, because it seems to me that if not entirely understanding the teachings of Jesus is sufficient to qualify one as an idiot, then we’re all in trouble.)  Apparently in French nicodéme means "fool", making the name even clearer.

nimrod - In another example of Bugs Bunny’s ability to pick the appropriate insult, he calls the gweat hunter Elmer Fudd a “poor little Nimrod.”  Nimrod, as Bugs well knew, was another Biblical character, this time from back in Genesis and Chronicles, where he is named as a grandson of Noah, a king, and “a mighty hunter before God.”  That’s really about all the Bible has to say, but the religions that use these texts all have traditions that associate Nimrod with the Tower of Babel and opposition to God.  By the fifteenth century English speakers used the name Nimrod to mean “tyrant” and later to mean “hunter of great physical strength.”  It isn’t surprising that it should have been applied from time to time sarcastically, 
and Bugs Bunny was not the first to do so.  He was, however, the most public and popular to do so, and he did so at a time when fewer people knew their obscure Biblical hunters any more, leading to the widespread reinterpretation of the word nimrod as a synonym for “jerk, idiot, or dimwit.”  (At least, this reinterpretation is almost universal in Bugs’s homeland, but not common in other English-speaking areas.)

        This Bugs Bunny origin of the “idiot” definition of nimrod has had the internet all a-buzz recently, and I find it quite plausible myself.  This is the time, however, to note that all three of the etymologies I’ve shared today are, like so many others, best theories rather than proven facts.  It’s hard enough to prove any etymology conclusively, and slang terms are harder by far, because of their shyness about showing up in citeable printed records.  So, back to Bugs and Elmer…  The story of the fall of Nimrod is all over the web, but almost nowhere does anyone actually name a cartoon in which it appears.  The only one cited anywhere that I could find is 1940’s “A Fresh Hare,” but I watched it carefully, and Bugs Bunny never calls Elmer “Nimrod” here.  I’m not going to say the story’s busted, because I’m positive that I recall Bugs Bunny using the insult, but I can’t remember in which cartoon.  Can anyone else?  If any Bugs Bunny fans out there can tell me where this usage appears, I’d love to know!  In the meantime, we can all hope that our own names don’t someday end up in the dictionary meaning something bad.

[Pictures: Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, designed by Bob Givens, 1940;
Christ and Nicodemus, woodcut by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1919 (Image from LACMA);

Nimrod fights with the boar, engraving from a picture by Franz Ludwig Catel, from Historisches Bildrebüchlein by J.H. Kampe, 1801 (Image from Virtuelles Kupferstichkabinett).]

September 26, 2014

Good Children's Fantasy Block Prints

        As reported a couple of months ago, this summer I taught two week-long relief printing classes for children in grades 5-9.  I bewailed the fact that a concatenation of camera catastrophes deprived me of most of the photos I had taken of the kids’ wonderful work, so I haven’t been able to do most of the posts I was planning on various projects and themes.  However, I see that I do have a decent selection of fantasy-themed work to share with you.
        Classes, like individual children, develop their own personalities, and in the second week the particular mix of students inspired and encouraged each 
other to do mythical creatures, which was fun to see.  For some of these pieces, such as the unicorn and the Tardis, the kids used photos for reference, while others, such as the chimera and large dragon, were designed wholly from scratch (or at least with any references provided only by the kids’ memory.)

        You can see in all these pieces that students at this level tend to think first in terms of outlines or shapes, with very little work on texture.  I think this is partly because that’s a level of  complexity they aren’t ready to consider when this whole idea of carving is still pretty new and takes a lot of concentration.  I think it’s also partly because they’re impatient and don’t want to take so long on fiddly little details before declaring that they’re ready to ink and see what they’ve got!  Using lines instead of solid white or solid ink on something as straightforward as the hair of the unicorn’s mane and tail is about as far as they go at this stage.  I hope some of them will continue to do block printing in the future and eventually they can start pushing themselves further.

        Still, I was very proud of the work these kids did in one week, and there are elements of each of these pieces that are quite delightful.  Perhaps my favorite is the orange dragon with its fierce energy.  The carving of the chimera, by contrast, is impressively controlled and smooth, and it has an expression of charming benevolence.  (Two expressions, in fact.)  The Tardis makes strong use of black and white, while the unicorn is made especially magical by its rainbow inking.  The series of three small creatures were designed to be mixed and matched in various combinations.  So, five different students, five different takes on portraying fantasy themes, five different styles and approaches to carving…  I’m sorry I don’t have pictures of all the kids’ work so I could show you a few more examples (I remember a sea serpent and at least one more quite different unicorn, for example) but I hope these give you a taste of the skills and imaginations of these up-and-coming block print artists.

[Pictures: Dragon, rubber block print by AF, 2014;
Chimera, rubber block print by ME, 2014;
Tardis, rubber block print by AM, 2014;
Unicorn, rubber block print by AV, 2014;
Unicorn, Dragon, and Griffin, rubber block prints by TPN, 2014.]

September 23, 2014

The Good Child's Book of Stops

        I always like to observe National Punctuation Day, which is coming up tomorrow.  So today I have for you some funny wood engravings from Punctuation in Verse, or, The Good Child’s Book of Stops, of around 1826.  Here’s Mr. Stops, stopping the galloping reader for a 
toll.  Mr. Stops himself is pretty excellent, all made of punctuation as he is, with his fashionable neoclassical tollbooth surmounted by its exclamation point.  He contrasts delightfully with the realistically detailed horse and swans.  (Reading while horseback riding seems like a bad idea, but presumably not as stupid as reading while driving.)  It’s worth noting also that this book advertises itself as being “Embellished with Twelve Neatly Coloured Engravings.”  If this coloring job is neat, I’d hate to see the messy version!
        Mr. Stops proceeds to provide little Jane with two examples to prove the importance of punctuation.
     Four rooms I have and hating gloom
     I’ve twenty candles in each room
     Five and twenty in the four
     Indeed there are not less nor more

     Four rooms I have; and hating gloom,
     I’ve twenty candles.  In each room
     Five; and twenty in the four.
     Indeed there are not less nor more.
        Interestingly, one of the stops included at the end of the book is the ellipsis, which Madame Leinstein gives as a long dash, rather than the three dots we know today.  Also, she defines it as indicating omitted letters, rather than omitted words.  I wonder when the three-dot ellipsis came into use.  (Fun vocabulary word: using an ellipsis to show a sentence trailing off into silence is called aposiopesis.)
        But back to Mr. Stops.  Obviously these wood engravings were rather shoddily produced without any great care, with neither particular skill nor concern for artistry.  Today’s equivalent would no doubt be the generic cartoon-style illustrations of a 
million cheap educational paperbacks for kids.  But while the workers who hand-painted The Good Child’s Book of Stops were clearly not giving it their all, I think the artist who designed Mr. Stops must have actually had some fun.  And if there’s one thing that everyone agrees is fun, it’s punctuation, right?

[Pictures: Each galloping reader a moment should stay;
Mr. STOPS and little Jane, hand-colored wood engravings from The Good Child’s Book of Stops by Madame Leinstein, c 1826;
Additional marks, typesetting from The Good Child’s Book of Stops printed by Dean and Munday.  (Images from Internet Archive)]