January 18, 2019

Writing the Future

        Later this afternoon I will be at the Arisia convention, on a panel with four other writers to talk about “Stories to Change the World.”  As any regular reader of this blog knows, this is a topic I get pretty excited about, so I thought I’d slip in one more post before the panel.  This is to direct you to an article by Walidah Imarisha.  Imarisha says “When I tell people I am a prison abolitionist and that I believe in ending all prisons, they often look at me like I rode in on a unicorn sliding down a rainbow.”  That’s understandable, because a world without prisons would be very different from the world we know, and it’s a little hard to get our heads around what that might actually mean.  And that’s exactly Imarisha’s point and mine: speculative fiction is one of the best tools we have for helping us get our heads around ways of being that are different from the ways we currently know.  Imarisha can write stories depicting a world without prisons, showing me what she envisions that might look like, and then I can start to imagine it, too.
        Of course, if Imarisha writes a story in which a prison-less society is a great thing, someone else can write a story depicting all the worst case scenarios of why they imagine this would be a terrible idea.  Neither of these stories would be a True and Accurate Prophecy of what would happen, but that isn’t the point.  Imarisha’s coeditor adrienne maree brown “calls science fiction ‘an exploring ground,’ a laboratory to try new tactics, strategies, and visions without real-world costs.”  The point is simply to break us out of the myth of “realism” to see that other possibilities are possible.  Once we start to imagine what might happen if we made different choices, and what a world could look like if we took other paths, then we are better able to decide which world we want, and what the steps might be that could move us toward it… and what steps we may want to avoid.
        Read Imarisha’s article, Rewriting the Future, and then look to the right of this post in the list of Labels in the sidebar, and click on the Label “Arisia’19: Stories to Change the World” for a selection of other posts that explore this aspect of speculative fiction.

[Picture: Der Gefangene (The Prisoner), woodcut by Christian Rohlfs, 1918 (Image from moma).]

January 15, 2019

Two By Marcks

        What a fun block print this is, by Gerhard Marcks (Germany, 1889-1981).  I just love the simplicity of it: the necks are just lines, the heads are almost hieroglyphic, and the background is such an interesting contrast of very simple geometric pattern.  Four of the ostriches are male, which is a natural for a black and white block print, with one speckled female for variety.  (I’m also appreciating ostriches right now because the block I just designed to be carved next weekend includes an ostrich-inspired alien creature - or struthioform, to coin(?) a fancier word to describe it.)
        Here’s another piece by Marcks with a very different vibe, although you can certainly see a commonality in the extensive use of simple striping.  Instead of being humorous, this is dramatic and quite serious.  One interesting detail is that you can see a bit of wood grain on the under edges of the cloud, which contributes to the shading.  I wonder whether this was a happy accident, or whether Marcks deliberately created the effect, perhaps by sanding the grain slightly in those places, or by inking more lightly there.
        I really like both these pieces, and their different moods.

[Pictures: Laufende Strau├če (Running Ostriches), woodcut by Gerhard Marcks, 1956 (Image from Galerie Nierendorf);
Einsame Pappel (Lone Poplar), woodcut by Marcks, 1960 (Image from Luther College).

January 12, 2019

They Run Again

Beyond the black and naked wood
In frosty gold has set the sun,
And dusk glides forth in cobweb hood...
Sister, tonight the werewolves run!

With white teeth gleaming and eyes aflame
The werewolves gather upon the howe!
Country churl and village dame,
They have forgotten the wheel and plow.

They have forgotten the speech of men;
Their throats are dry with a dreadful thirst;
And woe to the traveler in the glen
Who meets tonight with that band accurst!

Now from the hollows creeps the dark;
The moon like a yellow owl takes flight;
Good people on their house-doors mark
A cross, and hug their hearths in fright.

Sister, listen! . . . The King-Wolf howls!
The pack is running! . . . Drink down the brew,
Don the unearthly, shaggy cowls, —
We must be running too!

        This poem, from 1939, is by Leah Bodine Drake (USA, 1904-1964), who made a name for herself specializing in macabre poetry, winning awards and lots of publication in the mid twentieth century.  I don’t normally get very excited about werewolves, but Drake does some interesting things here.  For one thing, the last verse implies that turning to a wolf is a choice, not an involuntary transformation.  For another, I like the way she simultaneously depicts the werewolves as the horrible, terrifying monsters they are, yet also gives a view of what they feel like from the inside.  As for the specifics of her language, she’s a little freer with exclamation marks than I would be, but I very much like some of her phrases, especially “their throats are dry with a dreadful thirst” and “the moon like a yellow owl takes flight.”

[Picture: Detail from W is for Wolf, wood block print with multiple blocks by C.B. Falls, from ABC Book, 1923.]

January 9, 2019

Boskone Mini-Interview

        This is the first year that I’ll be a program participant at the Boskone science fiction and fantasy convention after being in the art show for the past three years.  I’m not yet allowed to publicize what panels and workshops I’ll be doing because the program is still in draft state, but I will say that I’ve been assigned to stuff that touches on lots of my favorite subjects, and I’m really excited!  I’m also excited to be featured in a mini-interview on the Boskone Blog, along with some amazing authors.  You can read the piece here, and then be sure to go back to see all the other mini-interviews in the series.
        Boskone is held in mid-February, so I actually have the Arisia convention (Jan. 18-21) to worry about first.  I’ve been matting and framing madly for the art show, and for the panels I’ll be on I’m trying something new: I’ve added the panel titles as Labels on the sidebar to the right, and then tagged a variety of my former posts that include relevant content.  I’m hoping this will make it easy for audience members at the panels to access details I might mention, or just to see a little more about how I approach these topics.  (I’ll be doing the same for Boskone, but not until the program is officially released.)  Check out the Labels and see!
        And finally, since I don’t have any pictures of myself on panels or anything else relevant to illustrate this post, I’ve illustrated it with something irrelevant: my recent Jubjub bird.    I hope that I will remain cool, calm, and collected as I prepare for these two big events while simultaneously entering the busiest season of work organizing Needham Open Studios, and will not instead find myself in a perpetual passion like the Jubjub bird.

[Beware the Jubjub Bird!, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]

January 4, 2019

Two Worlds

        On Wednesday I hung a show at the Newton Free Library, which will be up for the month of January.  Whenever I do solo shows I think of a theme to guide me in selecting which work to hang.  I enjoy working with a theme because it gets me to display a different cross-section of my work from what I usually show at sales.  In this case, I was slightly constrained by the library’s requirement that all work be made within the past three years.  Therefore, a few of the possible ideas I had for themes were out, because they would have included older work.  So I decided to stick with something relatively simple: my dual focus on the real world and the world of imagination.  Here’s the blurb…
        This show highlights the magic of two worlds: our own real world, and the infinite realms of the imagination.  The everyday world is full of wonderful things that are often unnoticed or unappreciated, while the world of the imagination allows us to let go of preconceptions and open our minds to all kinds of wonderful possibilities.  From the magic of a milkweed seed lifting with the wind to the magic of the mythical hercinia with its glowing feathers to light the way, there is cause for celebration everywhere.  We all need to remember to take the time to notice the beauty in our world and to let it inspire us to imagine worlds more beautiful still.
        I have 35 pieces on display, which is great, and they fill the Main Hall that enters the library, so it’s nice to think that lots of people of all ages will have the opportunity to see them.  (For info on the Newton Library show, here’s their web site.)  However, because I will also be showing a lot of work at the Arisia Art Show in January, and because there’s a fair amount of overlap of pieces due to the “imaginary world” part of the Newton Library theme, I have to do a boatload of extra framing.  I expect to have over 50 pieces at Arisia, which means that in the month of January I’ll have almost 90 pieces framed at once.  Yowza!

[Picture: Two Worlds, Newton Free Library Main Hall, stitched photo by AEGN, 2019.]

January 1, 2019

Happy New Year!

         Here’s a wood engraving by Thomas Bewick showing Father Time with all his traditional attributes: long white beard to show his age, scanty drapes the better to look Classical, wings because Time flies, a scythe because he’s conflated with the Grim Reaper, and an hourglass for the passage of time.  As an allegorical figure, Father Time has been around for centuries, but as a symbol for the year he’s now replaced by Baby New Year.  So, may your new year be full of joy, kindness, surprises, sufficiency, wonder, and love.

[Picture: There’s No Tomorrow, wood engraving by Thomas Bewick from Select Fables, before 1784 (Image from Internet Archive).]

December 28, 2018

Words of the Month - Presupposition Triggers

        In linguistics, a presupposition is something that a particular utterance implies or takes for granted as true.  For example, the classic “When did you stop beating your wife” presupposes that you have beaten your wife at some point.  “Would you like more tea?” presupposes that you have had some tea already.  The word more is a presupposition trigger, and that quality of the word is played with by Lewis Carrol in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
        “Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
        “I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
        “You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “It’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
        Another category of presupposition triggers is factives, which presuppose the truth of the phrase they apply to.  Examples include regret and realize.  It doesn’t matter whether “I regret going to the party” or “I don’t regret going to the party,” regret triggers the presupposition that I did, in fact, go to the party.
        The party, by the way, is a definite, which is its own presupposition trigger, because it assumes the truth that there was, in fact, a party for me to have gone to.  Another example of a definite is when I say that “My brother is coming to visit,” which presupposes that I have a brother.
        Implicative verbs presuppose a necessary precondition for the phrase they apply to.  Some examples are verbs of success or failure, such as, “I have never yet managed to juggle four balls at once.”  Manage presupposes that I have, in fact, tried to juggle four balls at once.  Change-of-state verbs are similar in presupposing that an earlier state existed before it changed.  That’s the famous “When did you stop beating your wife” or “Pandora opened the box,” which triggers the presupposition that the box was closed before her curiosity got the better of her.
        Okay, so this is kind of interesting, but so what?  The strange thing is that people accept the presuppositions they hear, but rarely remember where the knowledge came from.  Some time later you will have it in your head that I have a brother, but you are much less likely to remember how you know it.  Did I tell you?  Did someone else tell you?  Have you actually met him once, perhaps?  The vast majority of the time this works well for communication; it helps us impart information efficiently and interpret speech without excess confusion.  When people converse they follow the rules in good faith, happily triggering and accepting presuppositions that are, in fact, true.  But presuppositions can also be manipulated.  Carroll manipulated our presuppositions for humor, while shady lawyers can manipulate the jury’s presuppositions for dishonest purposes, and politicians and push-pollsters routinely manipulate presuppositions in order to spread lies while claiming that they never actually lied.  This is distressingly effective because of our brains’ oh-so-efficient presupposition shortcuts in absorbing information.
        There is one more place this mental characteristic can be manipulated, but for less nefarious purposes.  This is how writers of mysteries can lead us subtly astray without breaking the rules of Whodunnit Fair Play, thus setting us up to be surprised and delighted by the eventual denouement.  If false information is slipped to us in the form of characters’ presuppositions, we are extremely likely to accept it as true, but then also willing, when the real solution is eventually explained, to accept that we were tricked fair and square.  As a writer I’ve used these techniques all along, but it’s interesting to see it dissected and understand why it works.

[Pictures: A Mad Tea Party, illustration by John Tenniel, wood engraving by Thomas Dalziel from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865;
Nothing Could Be Better, illustration by Sidney Paget from The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1893.]

December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas!

        Here are a pair of block printed nativity scenes, pretty well spanning the history of block printed nativity scenes.  First is a wood or metal cut from a 1506 book of hours.  The borders at the bottom certainly look more like metal cuts with their background patterns of little white dots on black, but the borders wouldn’t be printed by the same block as the main picture anyway.  The picture looks more like a woodcut, except for the white-spotted black background of the star, so I don’t know.  I think the star is rather clever, incorporated on the architecture so that it can be shining over the Holy Family even while the entire scene is framed in elaborate Gothic architecture.  This particular scene is actually not Christmas night but the arrival of the Three Kings, and I like the way Jospeh has removed his hat and is looking humbly at the kings, while the first king has removed his crown and is humbly adoring the infant.

        Rick Beerhorst’s modern nativity has in common with the sixteenth century one that in both cases the Holy Family are dressed in contemporary clothes rather than attempting to depict the scene in an historical context.  For me, the modern setting, complete with bare lightbulb, serves as a reminder of the humanity of a poor family far from home, doing the best they can to care for their newborn - a story that is happening all over the world right now, every day.  It’s pretty clear that Jesus’s experiences influenced his teachings that we are to welcome the stranger, care for the poor and the lost, and celebrate children.  In honor of Christmas, let’s all try to do a little better at that this year!

[Picture: Three Kings, wood or metal cut print from a Book of Hours printed by Anthoine Verard, 1506 (Image from Les Enluminures);
Untitled nativity, wood block print by Rick Beerhorst (Image from Studio Beerhorst).]

December 20, 2018

Progress Achieved

        …And here are my last two blocks from the flurry of mythical creatures I began carving during the flurry of holiday sales.
        First, the yale/eale, a sort of antelope-like beast whose horns can swivel independently to be pointed wherever the yale deems best.   I framed it in a decorative doorway, since decorative doorways seem to be the yale’s native habitat, as they are primarily heraldic in nature.  The multiple colors were achieved by printing reductively, carving and printing first the gold layer, then carving further and printing again with black.  You can see the earlier stage here.
        Second, the pterippus/Pegasus.  (Pegasus is the most famous individual, whose name should not properly be the general term for all winged horses, but commonly is.  As for pterippus, the “proper” word for a winged horse in general, I suspect that it is a
modern coining, although I cannot find data to prove or disprove this.)  The multiple colors here were made by arranging multiple inks on the plate and rolling the block with an ombre mix of ink.  That’s what made it so dang difficult to print: to keep the colors arranged in order and not mix all the ink into one uniform mush, you can roll it out in one orientation only, horizontally and never vertically.  Normally you roll both horizontally and vertically in order to spread the ink more smoothly and evenly, and make sure every part of the block gets evenly inked.  Not being able to do that just means that the block is more likely to be inked unevenly and therefore not print well.  Moreover, my block was seven inches tall and my brayers are about 5.75 inches across, so I couldn’t ink with one swoosh.  I had to use two brayers and ink the bottom of the block with one and the top with the other, thus giving yet another opportunity for inking not to come out perfectly.  In the end I must have tried more than 40 times in order to get an edition of 12 with which I was satisfied.  (Earlier attempts mentioned here.)  I could have just given up and printed it a solid color, of course, but I really liked the look of the ombre suggesting moving from the earth up into the sky.  I hope you like it, too!

[Pictures: Yale, reduction print by AEGN, 2018;
First Flight, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]