November 25, 2014

Helpful Cat

        Having done prints of several dogs in the past year, and having sold out of most of my earlier cat pieces, I thought it was time for a new cat.  It took me a while to get around to it, though, because I didn’t want to do it if I couldn’t try something different from the huge amount of Cat Art I’ve done before.  I had a few ideas, but the cat wouldn’t cooperate.  I’ve rhapsodized before about how our cat Nightshade was such a muse, but recently Talia has been a veritable anti-muse.  Every time I saw her in the right pose I’d grab my camera for a reference photo, and every time she’d wait until I was just about to snap the picture and then move.  If I even so much as reached for a pencil, she’d 
stretch and shift just before I could sketch anything.  She’s been unhelpful like this for months!  But finally I came up with something to work with, and I carved and printed this rather intense cat.  To tell the truth, this isn’t quite what I was intending.  I was imagining a mellower look in its eyes, but when I inked the block and saw it glaring up at me so challengingly, I decided this was probably more representative anyway.
        But despite her apparent reluctance to be a model, Talia has managed to participate in the printmaking in a more hands-on way.  Yes, I really ought to say “paws-on.”  In the midst of a block she jumped onto my table, right into the middle of the ink plate.  Startled, she ran off over the table, along the windowsill, and across the floor, leaving her own trail of relief prints behind her.  I know I always say I encourage everyone to make block prints, but I draw the line at printing 
all over the floor!  I like having the company, but I can do without the participation.

        Happy Thanksgiving to those in the US!  May your family and friends be loving and your feast lovely.

[Pictures: White Paw, rubber block print by AEGN, 2014;
Cat tracks, photos by AEGN, 2014.]

November 21, 2014

The Lamp-post in the Wood

        In the next week we have the anniversaries of C.S. Lewis’s birth and his death, so this seems a good time to mention Narnia.  The Narnia books are, of course, extravagantly praised and extravagantly condemned for their Christian theology, and I intend to write about religion in fantasy some other time.  But Lewis himself didn’t set out originally to write Christian apology for children, however much Narnia may have ended up there.  In fact, as he said himself, it “all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: 'Let's try to make a story about it.’”  It’s funny that this picture stayed with him so long, because it’s the same picture that has stayed with me the most clearly, with the addition of the lamp-post, glowing in the snowy dusk.  It’s not the escape through the woods, or the childrens’ heroism, or even the resurrection of Aslan that stays with me most vividly, but that picture of the lamp-post, Mr Tumnus, the parcels, the umbrella, and the snow.
        So the principle I’m interested in today is how a story doesn’t need to begin with a grand concept - even a story that ends up being about as grand a concept as Christian Salvation.  In fact, often the books with the aim of grand concept-ness only end up being preachy.  A good story begins with something that begs to have a story told about it.  I’ve written about how my story The Extraordinary Book of Doors was inspired quite simply by the images and ideas evoked by the title of Sebastiano Serlio’s Extraordinary Book of Doors.  Sometimes a story is inspired by an imagined character.  Sometimes it starts with an interesting setting, sometimes with a little-known factoid (I think a lot of whodunits begin with factoids.)  So the point is that anything can potentially inspire a story.  The trick is to notice these inspirational snippets - notice them, remember them, cherish them, revisit them, mull about them, and then sit down and actually begin to write.  That’s the stage I’m in now, with a sequel to The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  I’ve collected pages of notes on all manner of little inspirations: historical facts, new characters, lines of conversation, and other cool things.  But now I have to write, because no inspiration, however brilliant, is a story until I can get it out of my head and onto the page.

[Picture: Meeting Mr Tumnus, book sculpture by Justin Rowe, 2013 (Image from Days Fall Like Leaves).]
Quotation from It All Began with a Picture, C.S. Lewis, 1960.

November 18, 2014

Embroidery in Wood?

        Doing a little research for the barely-begun sequel to The Extraordinary Book of Doors, I came across some wood block print designs for embroidery.  This isn’t really a surprising thing, since as long as woodcuts were the technology available for illustrating books, they were made to illustrate and instruct on all manner of activities.  I find it interesting that at least some of these books of textile designs were marketed not to professionals but to gentlewomen at home.  I expect that in the Victorian era, but not in the 16th century.
        Technically, the carving took a lot of skill.  In this middle piece particularly it would have been difficult - and quite tedious - to carve out the interior of every little square in the grid, leaving behind only the thin lines in between.  This design is truly intended to lay out exactly how to make the design, so it requires that level of technical accuracy.  The third piece, by contrast, is carved more traditionally, and is more in the nature of inspiration or general ideas for embroidery than an actual design to follow.  I’m intrigued by the hoops around the dogs’ middles, as well as by the winged sprites or fairies growing out of the flowers.  They’re like mermaids, only botanical.  Somebody was clearly doodling!
        My favorite embroidery design, however, is the first one, also the earliest.  I like the black-on-texture carving style, and I like the variety of patterns, from naturalistic to stylized to geometric.  This would actually be easier to carve than the others, but I like the balance of 
black and white.  I’m guessing that with books of this sort none of the craftspeople involved were considered Artistes.  Nevertheless, they had mastered their skill and used it to create something both useful and pleasing.  I wonder how many women embroidered these very designs, and what color schemes they chose to bring these black and white guidelines to life.

[Pictures: Page 1 from Ein ney Furmbüchlein, woodcut designed by Johann Schönsperger the Elder, c. 1525-30 (Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art);
Woodcut from Ornamento Delle Belle & virtuose Donne by Matteo Pagano, 1554 (Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art);
Woodcut from La vera perfettione del disegno, by Giovanni Ostaus, 1567 (Image from mfa).]

November 14, 2014

Altum Incognitum

        You’ve heard of terra incognita on old maps, of course: unknown land, unexplored territory.  But unexplored land is scarce these days, and if you want to find the true unknown on earth you need to look to the depths of the ocean: altum incognitum.  Here’s my new leviathan block print, which does just that.
        For the first stages in the creation of this piece, and the description of the leviathan, you can refer back to my earlier post.  More than anything else, in this piece I was trying to experiment with depicting light.  Sunlight fades as the water gets deeper and deeper, so the first job was to try to make a gradation from top to bottom.  The leviathan itself had to be visible, but I tried to give it a sense of looming out of the darkness.  To this end I put white outlines only along the top edges, and left the bottom undefined.  I also tried to give an appearance of glowing to a few spots of bioluminescence, and finally I wanted to show the stirring up of the water as the monster writhes about, as the description of the leviathan demands.
        The leviathan isn’t the only inhabitant of the ocean, of course, so I added some other fun details.  From the top going down you can see great white sharks (although they’re black), blue whales (although they're white), a couple of disproportionately large sea turtles, and an oarfish, which is one of the creatures given as the scientific explanation for a number of sea serpent sightings.  Also a few schools of unidentified fish.  Continuing down still further, there are sperm whales and a giant squid, but also a plesiosaur of some sort and the kraken itself, huge, of course, but rather small compared with the leviathan.  And finally, down near the ocean floor, a somewhat ill-defined gulper eel and anglerfish, giant tube worms near the deep sea vents, and some truly enormous sea stars.  I had fun deciding what to put into the picture and how to compose it, and I challenged myself on the small details and precision of lines depicting the water and leviathan.  Alas, the biggest challenge of all on a block with this much black is to get the inking relatively dark and smooth.  I never did get it as perfect as I would have liked, but I’m still pretty happy with my image of the mystery of the unknown deep.

[Picture: Altum Incognitum, rubber block print by AEGN, 2014.]

(And thanks to local Latin teacher L. Downey for obligingly checking my Latin phrase!  When it comes to Latin, I know only enough to know that I don’t know enough.)

November 11, 2014

The Poppies Blow

        First Armistice Day, celebrating the end of hostilities in the war that was to end all wars, then Remembrance Day, and now, in the US, Veterans Day, I’m sorry that we seem to have turned a celebration of peace into a celebration of militarism.  But whatever the day is called, we can all agree that those who were killed in war must be remembered.
        The red poppy has been a symbol of the dead since the Napoleonic Wars, because it grows in the disturbed earth of battlefields and field graves.  Popularized as a symbol by Canadian John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields at the beginning of World War I, and spread still further after the war by US-ian Moira Michael, the poppy is a beautiful reminder of the terrible costs and sacrifices of war.  Here’s a bouquet of poppies in relief block prints.
        Thinking of all this, it seems to me that there’s something poignant about relief block prints of these ephemeral blossoms with their tissue petals.  First there’s the contradiction of carving their image into the block, like carving up the earth, using physical effort, cutting and pressing, to replicate something effortless and fragile.  And then of course, all this work is to make permanent record of something that lasts only a few days - what is a block print of a flower, after all, but a remembrance of something precious and gone?  How fitting.  The difference, of course, between remembering the poppies and remembering the dead of war is that next year’s poppies will bring us all the joy and beauty of this year’s.  Let us 
never forget that each individual human, unlike a poppy is not only precious but unique and irreplaceable.

[Pictures: Poppy Field, linocut by Helen Maxfield (Image from;
Papaver, woodcut by Leonhart Fuchs from De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, 1542 (Image from University of Minnesota Libraries);
Common Poppy, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997;
Summer Song:Poppy, reduction woodcut by Renee Covalucci (Image from Zullo Gallery).]

November 7, 2014

Ambum Stone

        Here’s a funny critter that looks quite fantastical.  This sculpture, called the Ambum Stone (or sometimes Ambun), comes from Papua New Guinea.  It’s tentatively dated to 1500BCE, although it wasn’t excavated properly.  No one knows its original use or what it meant to the people who made it, but modern New Guinea people often consider ancient stone sculptures to be of supernatural origin and use them in their own religious or ceremonial ways.  This one is about 20 inches tall and is one of the earliest and most detailed of prehistoric Pacific sculptures.
        What I’m most interested in, however, is this creature’s identity.  It looks as if it would be right at home amid mythical beasts.  Some scholars think it’s meant to depict the embryo of an echidna, which is certainly an obscure enough thing to make a sculpture of.  You can see that this newborn echidna (called a puggle, because obviously we need a word that’s both cute and silly to describe such a creature) 
shares our Ambum’s curved profile, nose, and tummy.  Cryptozoologist Karl Shuker, however, points out that the Ambum sculpture’s ears, big round eyes, and defined neck (and lack of spines) are inconsistent with an echidna and suggests it could be a palorchestes.  What’s a palorchestes, you ask?  Sheesh, don’t you know anything?  Well, its a genus of terrestrial herbivorous marsupial with (paleontologists think) a long schnozz.  You can see from the picture that this animal, too, bears a certain resemblance to the Ambum critter.  Unfortunately, as far as any evidence goes, palorchestes lived only in Australia 
and went extinct some 11,000 years ago.  So, while it isn’t inconceivable that something in the genus lived in the wilds of Papua New Guinea until three or four thousand years ago, it’s a long shot.
        Personally, I rather like the idea of the Ambum Stone representing some creature that really does look just like it, round eyes, round tummy, proboscis and all.  I'm tempted to put such a creature in a story some time.  The way it’s sitting makes me think it must be the size and temperament of a panda, mild-mannered but elusive, and out there still, somewhere in the dense, unexplored rainforests of New Guinea.  You never know - surely it’s possible!

[Pictures: Ambum Stone, sculpture by anonymous artist, c 1500BCE (Image from National Gallery Australia);
Beau, short-beaked echidna puggle (Image from Taronga Zoo via ZooBorns);
Palorchestid, drawing by artist whose name I can’t make out (Image from Nova).]

November 4, 2014

Doré's Wood Engravings

        Gustave Doré (France, 1832-1883) was a famous and prolific illustrator, working primarily in wood engraving.  His illustrations are very detailed, with tons and tons of tiny lines making every gradation of grey.  They're also very dramatic, with much emphasis on beams of light and dark, brooding shadows.  He was commissioned for illustrations of all sorts of major works of his day, from caricatures to the Bible, and including Milton, Dante, Poe, Cervantes, fairy tales, and more.  As you can imagine, with these commissions he ended up with a lot of work that can be considered fantastical.  I’ve featured a number of his pieces before in this blog here and there, including Little Red Riding Hood, Poe’s Raven, Sleeping Beauty, and the Leviathan just last week.  So today I have two more pieces for you that I find particularly intriguing to look at.
        Both of these pieces have an emphasis on architecture so that when I look at them I don’t think much about the characters in whatever story they’re illustrating.  Instead my mind is free to wander through these magical places making up my own stories.  Despite the similarities between the pieces - the architectural theme, the towering buildings, the small figures moving diagonally toward 
the upper left - they depict completely different scenes.  The first is dark, mysterious, possibly downright sinister, with its crooked, haphazard, top-heavy maze of buildings, tiny windows, dark alleys, pointed roofs…  The second is straight and ordered, well-lit and geometrical, like a great temple or government.  It’s also pretty elaborately decorated, with not an inch left unadorned with angels as well as geometric designs.
        The carving is pretty amazing, and I’m appreciating it all the more as I’ve been working on my leviathan design this weekend and struggling to capture fine detail and mysterious lighting.  (Admittedly, a rubber block print is never going to have the level of detail of a wood engraving, but that doesn’t detract from Doré’s skill.)  I need to go back and add more lines to my block, and these pieces are quite inspirational.

[Pictures: Wood engraving by Gustave Doré, 1855, from Les Contes drolatiques by Honoré de Balzac;
Wood engraving by Doré, 1877, from Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto.]

October 31, 2014

Words of the Month - Scary Good

        Happy Hallowe’en!  Today’s a good day to stop and think a moment about the tendency of words for scariness to migrate meaning.  This is very obvious in slang, from Michael Jackson’s bad to New England’s wicked.  But we have some proper, respectable words with scary origins, too.  Consider
        terrific -  The literal meaning from the Latin roots is, quite simply and obviously, “causing terror.”  Nowadays that scary meaning has become pretty much archaic.  The current usage is “extreme or intense,” and most usually “extremely good.”  Think about a sentence you might hear this evening: You’re a terrific zombie!  This means “Your zombie costume looks really good,” rather than “Your zombie costume is genuinely terrifying.”
        tremendous - The original meaning was “scary,” from the Latin for “trembling.”  Now it means “big in a good way, or good in a big way.”
        So why do words change meaning this way?  In the case of bad and wicked, it’s sudden and deliberate with intent to mark the speaker’s particular linguistic affiliations, while in the case of terrific and tremendous the new meanings were acquired gradually and among the 
(somewhat) more mainstream.  But both sets of words have an impetus that they share.  Speakers are always looking for words with more oomph.  Saying “I’m hungry” seems so inadequate, and even “I’m really hungry” isn’t much better.  You crave emphasis, you crave words that will get an emotional response.  How about “I’m awfully hungry?”  dreadfully hungry, frightfully, terribly hungry…  So far, so good.  You’ve chosen words that express the extreme scariness of your famishment.  And then people say they’re awfully tired, and they’re working awfully hard, and they stayed up awfully late, and it’s awfully cold - all situations where awful, dreadful, frightful, and terrible are exaggerations, but at least they make sense.  Then after a while someone says they ran awfully fast, and the cake was awfully big, and the book was awfully complicated - an ever broader application, so that the meanings are beginning to shift from scariness to general emphasis.  And eventually people find themselves saying that the music was awfully good, the assistance was awfully kind, and kittens are awfully cute.  Now our scary adverbs are simply synonymous with very or extremely, and have no particular negative connotation at all, let alone any implication of terror.  And when speakers end up using these intensifiers more often in good situations than bad, the transformation is complete and terrific means “excellent.”  In the case of terrific, the word entered English as “causing terror” in the mid seventeenth century.  The first recorded case of its use as an intensifier was 1809, and the “excellent” meaning is recorded in colloquial use in 1888.  Not until the 1930s or 40s did the colloquial usage take over as the primary meaning.
        When a word shifts meaning from negative to positive it’s called amelioration.  But the real question is not “How could a word change meaning like that?” but “Why do some words do it while others don’t?”  I mentioned awfully, and of course that’s based on awful meaning “extremely bad.”  But compare that with awesome, meaning “extremely good.”  They both derive from awe, which, in the fourteenth century meant “fright, dread.”  Because of its use in translations of the Bible, however, it came to mean “dread mixed with veneration” or “fear in a good way.”  Awful is the original adjectival form from when awe was purely scary.  Awesome was the later form derived once awe had positive connotations.  Perhaps it’s not so surprising that it should lose its scariness and become purely good.  So let’s take another example.  Why is terrific great while terrible is, well, terrible?  I have no idea!  But I hope you have a terrific Hallowe’en and not a terrible one.
        (And don’t forget to come visit me at Roslindale Open Studios this weekend if you’re local.)

[Pictures: Jack-o-lanterns designed and carved by PGN (monster), 
AEGN (Gubble the troll), 
TPN (three bats), 2014.]

October 28, 2014


        This weekend I’ll be at Roslindale Open Studios (come see me - as well as loads of other local artists - if you’re in the greater Boston area!)  That means that, along with matting, framing, packaging note cards, and other preparations, I am also working on designs for blocks to carve while I’m there.  Right now I’m working on a design for a leviathan.  The leviathan is one of those mythical creatures that doesn’t have a widely agreed-upon look.  Indeed, through the centuries artists have portrayed it in wildly divergent ways, from fishy to whiskered to draconic, as you can see in these assorted samples.  Here are some of leviathan’s important characteristics as described in the Bible: mighty fins, graceful form, mouth ringed with fearsome teeth, scaled on the back like rows of shields sealed together and on the 
underside like jagged potsherds, smoking nostrils, snorting flashes of light and shining rays from its eyes, making the depths churn like a boiling cauldron.  And of course it’s big big big - big enough to eat other monsters that are hundreds of feet long.
        My general concept for depicting the leviathan came from this image of St Brendan by Robert Gibbings.  I liked the idea of the boat at the top and the depth of the ocean below, but I was thinking of a much bigger ship, a much deeper ocean, and the idea that the tiny humans at the surface are utterly oblivious of the immensity of life in that unexplored, alien world below.  I wanted to make all the sea creatures to scale, including tiny whales, for comparison with my enormous leviathan.
        I started with the boat, for which I envisioned a steam-powered paddlewheel ocean liner, a crazy hybrid technology that ruled the waves for just a short time between the age of sail and the age of modern boat engines.  My inspiration was the SS Great Eastern designed and built by the remarkable Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1858.  (Its original name, by the way, was SS Leviathan!)  But I actually ended up going with something more like the Great Western, an earlier, smaller - and much more reliable and successful - ship that plied the Atlantic from 1838 to 1846.  I needed a boat that wasn’t so big as to make whales too tiny in comparison to carve.  I imagine that my fictional ship is about 300 ft in length, 
somewhat between Great Eastern and Great Western (though closer to the smaller).
        As for leviathan himself, what general form to go with?  People have suggested all sorts of creatures as the real life basis for the legend of the leviathan, including crocodiles, whales, pythons, mososaurs, or even an underwater volcano.  I was thinking something in the mososaur or plesiosaur line, but with a bit of ugly eel and deep-sea creature about the face, and photoluminescence to explain the flashes of light.  After all, this must be a 
creature of the absolute deepest chasms of the ocean, or we’d hardly have missed seeing it more often.  I drew and redrew him many times, having an especially hard time with the fins, but I’m fairly satisfied with his general look now.  Here’s what I’ve got so far.  I still need to finish populating my ocean and making some decisions about the scheme of black and white and how I’ll do the water.  (Not to mention carving and printing the thing, of course.)  You will, naturally, be presented with the results of all this in due course.

[Pictures: Destruction of Leviathan, wood engraving by Gustave Doré, 1865 (Images from Wikimedia Commons except where otherwise noted);
This is Leviathan, illumination from France, 1277-86 (Image from Tony Harrison);
detail of Leviathan, illumination from Byzantine manuscript Book of Job, (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Codex Gr 749), c. 850;
detail of Leviathan, drawing from Hortus Deliciarum, German Manuscript c. 1170 (Image from Oberlin);
detail of Leviathan, illumination from Byzantine manuscript Book of Job (Greek Patriarchal Library, Codex Taphou 5), c. 1300;
detail from Behemoth and Leviathan, engraving by William Blake, 1823;
Ere the Leviathan can swim a League, illustration by Arthur Rackham from A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, 1908 (Image from Internet Archive);
Leviathan sketch by AEGN, 2014.]