February 24, 2017


        We’re going swimming this morning, so that’s a good enough reason to show you this curious sixteenth century wood block printed instruction manual about swimming.  The book itself, De Arte Natandi by Everard Digby, was the first English instruction manual on swimming and was very influential.  It includes a guide to different strokes and methods of floating as well as attention to matters of safety.  It also includes copious woodcut illustrations.       
        Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, I can’t find any record of the artist who illustrated Digby’s work.  But whoever he (or she, but probably he) was, he came up with a clever method of making the more than 40 illustrations all large and beautiful without having to go through all the trouble of carving more than 40 different scenes.  There are five different large blocks showing detailed landscapes of rivers, but each of these blocks was made with a rectangular hole in the middle.  Each of the different strokes or swimming techniques could then be carved on a small block and inserted into one of the landscape blocks for printing.  Some of the blocks fit in more smoothly than others, but I think it’s a very clever system.
        This first background block has some cows by the riverside, and a man who looks as if he’s about to fall into the water accidentally, but I’m most intrigued by the swimmer on his smaller separate block.  At first I thought he was holding two birds, but now I think it’s a hawk and something else, though what I can’t tell.  A lure, perhaps?  Whatever it is, is Digby
providing instruction for falconry while swimming?  It seems an odd and amusing choice.
        Here are two illustrations that use the same background so you can see how the artist could  make a variety of swimming poses fit into his framework.  I like the house in the background, and the man in the lower left getting undressed, or possibly putting his sock back on; I’m not sure which.  An Elizabethan gentleman had an awful lot of clothing to get off and on in order to go swimming.
        And one last scene, with the river going horizontally, a charming windmill on the hill, and a magnificent sunshine.  Although it’s unseasonably warm here today, we will not be swimming under New England’s February sun, but will be indoors.  And we’ll be playing with balls and pool noodles rather than hawks.  Still, no doubt we owe something to Everard Digby and his ingenious illustrator for their influence on the Art of Swimming.

[Pictures: Four wood block print illustrations from De arte natandi libri duo by Everard Digby, 1587 (Images from Wellcome Library).]

February 21, 2017

The Golden Key

        The Golden Key is a long short story by George MacDonald, first published in 1867.  I first encountered it at age 9 in a collection of four fairy tales by MacDonald, all strange and wonderful, allegorical and mysterious, mythical and beautiful.  The Golden Key tells the story of a boy called Mossy and a girl called Tangle, and how they spend a lifetime and longer searching for the land above the rainbow.  It clearly means something, but what it means is not easily pinned down.  You can’t map out the allegory and say “This stands for that, and this for that…” yet it is certainly a story about more than ordinary travels.  It is about light, holiness, suffering, and joy.  C.S. Lewis said of MacDonald’s writing that “the meaning, the suggestion, the radiance, is incarnate in the whole story.”
         As a nine-year-old I wasn’t analyzing the deeper meanings.  I was simply basking in the magic.  I enjoyed the kind, thoughtful characters travelling through wonderfully beautiful and mysterious settings, having adventures that certainly weren’t thrill-packed action sequences, but which really caught at my imagination.  The word that best describes MacDonald’s fairy tales is “numinous.”  The dictionary gives three definitions for numinous: spiritual or supernatural; surpassing understanding, mysterious; and arousing elevated feelings of virtue.  I didn’t know the word numinous at age nine, but even then I definitely felt that MacDonald’s stories exemplify all of these definitions.
        A new edition of The Golden Key has just been published, featuring copious illustrations by Ruth Sanderson.  As a story involving a magical rainbow, The Golden Key includes beautifully color-rich descriptions, and yet it’s also a story very much about light and shadow.  So maybe it’s appropriate that Sanderson’s illustrations are done on scratchboard, a medium that, like relief printmaking, is all about carving the light out of the dark.  This weekend at Boskone 54 I met Sanderson briefly, as her display in the art gallery was adjacent mine, and her display was primarily an exhibition of her illustrations for The Golden Key.  What a treat to be able to look up close at the originals of her detailed, meticulous, magical pictures!

[Pictures: The End of the Rainbow, scratchboard by Ruth Sanderson from The Golden Key by George MacDonald, 2016; 
Tangle descending from the Old Man of the Sea, scratchboard by Sanderson;
Aëranth and owlfish, scratchboard by Sanderson (All images from Golden Wood Studio.com.)]

February 17, 2017

Grashow's City Monster

        I’m off to another fantasy/sci-fi art show this afternoon, (Boskone 54) so this morning I’ll give you a very cool stand-alone fantasy block print.  This wood block print by James Grashow (USA, 1942-) really tickles me.  Maybe it’s got a serious message about cities devouring the countryside, but despite the monster’s obvious menace, I think it’s more fun than scary.  I love how the pointy rooflines make teeth and claws, the bridge of the nose (get it?), the clocktower eyes…  The carving is quite impressive, too, with all those tiny windows and details.  I can see a sci-fi movie with enormous special effects budget having a blast with this.  In such a movie there would be people running around screaming and shooting the monster, of course, but here I don’t see any people at all.  The only animals are the cows behind the barn, and they don’t seem troubled a bit by this monster, which must be clanking, and grinding, and making an enormous amount of horrible noise.  This is one of those pieces of art I wish I’d thought of!  I hope you get a kick out of it, too.

[Picture: Woodcut by James Grashow, c 2011 (Image from Stamford Advocate).]

February 14, 2017

Valentine's Block Prints

        In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ve collected a few Valentiney relief block prints for you.  The practice of sending Valentine’s cards didn’t really get started until after wood block printing had been replaced as the chosen method of mass production, so these three pieces are all modern.  But what hasn’t changed is the symbolism of hearts and roses and lovebirds.
        I have to confess I’m pretty low-key about this holiday (as indeed about most, when it really comes down to it).  But I like roses, I like birds, and I like love, so it’s good.   (I like chocolate, too, but chocolate generally doesn’t make such interesting relief block prints.)  These birds and flowers, on the other hand, have a lovely old-fashioned folksy look, with lots of interesting patterns and designs.  The first piece reminds me a bit of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, and the dusty rose color adds to the vintage appeal.  The second piece is warmer, brighter, and simpler.  These are happy birds and happy flowers.
        The final piece becomes almost abstract.  It’s still clearly recognizable as roses, but the shapes have been flattened and simplified into something bold and graphic.
        Although Valentine’s Day is usually billed as the holiday for smoochy romantic couples, don’t let that limit your view.  Why not instead celebrate Love for all?  And flowers and chocolate and block prints for all while we're at it!

[Pictures: Valentine’s Birds, lino cut print by Amanda Colville, 2013 (Image from Mangle Prints);
Flowers & Birds, rubber block print by Jessica D of PaperPlanesMudPies (Image from Etsy shop PaperPlanesMudPies);
Valentine Card, wood block print by John Beauduy, 2006 (Image from JohnBeauduy.com).]

February 10, 2017


If there were dreams to sell,
What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell;
Some a light sigh,
That shakes from Life’s fresh crown
Only a rose-leaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rang the bell,
What would you buy?

        Here’s a poem that recently struck me.  It actually has two verses.  In the second verse the poet answers the question, “A cottage lone and still…” but I’m not really interested in the poet's answer.  I like the question to stand unanswered, open-ended.  What does it take to buy a dream?  What are the costs, from a few sighs, to giving your life?  What does it mean to put an economic or monetary spin on dreams, and how does it change the way we think about them?  Normally we think we have our dreams for free, whether we like it or not, and it’s the accomplishment of those dreams that will have a cost.  So how does it change the way we think if we have to purchase or earn even the dreams themselves in the first place?  What is the cost of denying someone a dream?  What happens to a dream deferred?
        And what would you buy?

Dream-Pedlary by Thomas Lovell Beddoes (English, 1803-1849).  (Poem from Poems of the Fantastic and Macabre.)

[Picture: Histrio. Der Schalksnarr (The Peddling Jester), wood block print by Jost Amman from Panoplia omnium illiberalium mechanicarum, 1568 (Image from the British Museum).]

February 7, 2017

Beyond the Thorns

        I just finished printing this piece, which I had actually carved last summer, and first printed in the early fall or so.  I’d initially printed the thorn block with dark green and didn’t like it.  There wasn’t enough contrast for it to pop; it just looked like mush.  I was discouraged enough that I didn’t get around to trying again until now, with a deadline coming up in the form of Boskone Sci-fi and Fantasy Art Gallery in a week and a half.
        Actually, this piece’s history is even longer than that.  It goes all the way back to when I saw some of M.C. Escher’s pieces in which he had a grey background with black framing by another block.  That was back in 2015, and you can read my initial post here.  Ever since then I’d been mulling what I might do with the idea of background and foreground blocks.  But I still hadn’t got around to doing anything until I gave the assignment to my students this summer, and their work gave me the kick I needed.  (You can see what they came up with in this post.)
        I’ve mentioned before that “Sleeping Beauty” is one of my favorite fairy tales.  The part of the original German version that I like best is the descriptions of the mysterious sleep behind the mysterious hedge of thorns.  (You can read my poem about it in this post.)  I love the idea of the beautiful sleeping castle hidden away for a hundred years, but there all the time if one could only glimpse it.  So while my castle block is pretty straightforward, what I really had fun with was the thorn hedge block, just beginning to sprout buds and other signs of life, and open up as the hundred years come to an end.

[Picture: Beyond the Thorns, rubber block print from two blocks by AEGN, 2016-7.]

February 3, 2017

Year of the Rooster

        Happy Year of the Fire Rooster!  Actually, the animal of the year is a word that means either rooster or chicken, so they’re equally good symbols.  In honor of which, today I’ve collected a nice selection of relief block printed fowl.  I always enjoy seeing the different ways different artists choose to depict the same thing.  You can really see how each artist’s style and choices contribute to different pieces.
        I’ll start with my own, in which I was most interested in playing with patterns.  To me the interesting thing about chickens is the remarkable array of patterns in their feathers, and how they’re repeated and varied.  I was also fooling around with borders: the chicken’s border is an “egg and dart” design, which I thought terribly clever.  (Apparently I’m easily amused!)
        Jacques Hnizdovsky is the king of relief block printed patterns and he’s done many birds of all sorts with intricately geometric feathers.  But interestingly, his rooster is more about the the sweep of feathers than their design.  His rooster is quite simple and bold, and very sleek.  I'd even go with "regal."
        Hugh Ribbans was also clearly playing with pattern in his hen.  The various areas of feathers are quite stylized, with individual feathers outlined in some areas, and filler patterns in others.  I like how active this hen looks, head down and scurrying, unlike the more static creatures it’s so much easier to show.
        Thomas Bewick’s chickens are illustrating a fable, so they come with their whole story: barnyard, dunghill, jewel and all.  There are lots of little details, including the broken pipe on the dunghill, and the fences and outbuildings of the farm.  That makes a nice transition to my last fowl, which carries its farm inside it.  This is definitely a different, interesting take on the patterns that make up the feathers.  I like the way the grain looks feathery at the bottom and the sky morphs up into the tail, and the diagonals of the furrowed field are a little reminiscent of wing feathers.
        Chickens are one of the most common and popular creatures for artists, so there were certainly plenty more I could have chosen, but I tried not to get carried away.  At any rate, I hope these provide plenty of inspiration.

[Images: Chanticleer, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009;
Hen and Chicks, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009;
Cock, woodcut by Jacques Hnizdovsky, 1972;
Little Hen, linocut by Hugh Ribbans (Image from hughribbans.com);
The Cock and the Jewel, wood block print by Thomas Bewick from The Fables of AEsop, 1885 (Image from Internet Archive and University of California, Victorian Web);
Bantam Chicken, linocut by Kelly Shields (Image from her Etsy Shop RedFlowerLetterpress).]

January 31, 2017

Words of the Month - Of Doodads and Thingamajigs

A - whatchicalt, B - widget, C - dingus, D - jiggembob, 
E - doohickey, F - thingamerry, G - flumadiddles
        What do you call the object that you don’t know what to call?  There’s always been a need for such a word, the word that can refer to any specific thing, but never means anything in particular; the word that fills in when you don’t have the right word.  Interestingly, English doesn’t have a “real” word to fill this need.  All the words we use are slang, considered silly and informal, and subject to the abrupt changes and shifting fashions of slang usage.  You’d think it would be reasonable to have a proper word in good standing to indicate a forgotten or unknown word, but for whatever reason, we don’t seem to have one.  Instead we have…

whatchamacallit - Phrases along these lines are among our earliest recorded filler words, including what-calle-ye-hym from the late 15th century, and whatdicall’um and whatchicalt from the 16th century.  Our current variant dates to 1928.

jiggembob - The first half of the 17th century seems to have preferred coinages with -bob, including giggombob and kickumbob.

thingy - The arrival of thingum in the 1670s ushered in the 18th century’s favorite way to indicate ignorance, with such gems as thingamabob (1751), thingumtitoy, thingamerry, thingummytite, thingumadad, and thingummy (1796).  Some of these sound quite ridiculous to my ears, but several are still going strong.  One I’m most likely to use is the late arrival thingamajig (1824).

dingus - This American option (1876) apparently comes from Dutch.  This sent me to the on-line translation sites to find out what words other languages use.  Dutch did indeed translate “whatchamacallit” as dinges, French offered Quoi de neuf, and Hungarian gave me izé, but the vast majority of languages from German to Hindi to Russian to Vietnamese came back with “whatchmacallit.”  Of course, this is just as likely to be because of gaps in the on-line dictionaries as actual lexical gaps in the languages, but it does make me curious whether whatchamacallit is one of English’s greatest contributions to the vocabulary of the worlds’ peoples!

doohickey - The early years of the twentieth century seem to have favored doo- variants such as doodad (1905), doohickey (1914), and doodah (1928).  My thesaurus also lists doofunny, doojigger, and doowhacky (without dates).
        While these doodads were prevalent in the USA, British English went for ooj- words, including oojah (1917) and oojamaflop (WWII).  I encountered “oojah” in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Gaudy Night from 1935.

whoosiwhat - Here’s one I can’t find any references to, despite the fact that I’ve certainly both heard and used it.  Part of the problem may be the spelling.  Not being proper words, these terms tend not to have single set spellings.  I’ve also heard the variant whoosiwhatsis, as well as both whoosies and whatsits
        My thesaurus also lists flumadiddle, which I can’t recall having heard and can’t find a date for, but was presumably in use at some point.

gadget - It’s worth noting the subset of words that specifically refer to mechanical objects or parts of machinery for which no technical name comes to mind.  Gadget (1850-86) is from sailors’ slang and gizmo (1942) is from USA navy and marine slang.  Widget (c 1920) seems to be from the civilian world.

what’s-his-name - There are also words that specifically refer to a person whose name we don’t know or can’t recall.  These stretch from what’s-his-name (1690s) to what’s-his-face (1967).

A variety of whoosies and whatsits.
        In Ireland in the 1990s I knew a girl of maybe 5 or 6 years old who referred to anyone whose name she didn’t know as simply thing.  And that, of course, is the simplest word solution of all.  “Hey, thing, can you please hand me the thing from the thing?  No, the other thing; the one beside the little thing with the thing!”  Hmmm… maybe there’s a reason we have different words for different objects.

[Picture: Wood block print (p 189) from De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricola, 1556 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
On Skills of Blacksmiths, wood block print from Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1555 (Image from avrosys.nu).]

January 27, 2017

Mozart's Fantasy

        Today is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthday (1756-1791), in honor of which let’s have a look at his most famous fantasy opera, “Die Zauberflöte” or “The Magic Flute.”  In some ways it’s classic fairy tale: a prince is travelling to seek his fortune, he must rescue a princess, there’s a wicked mother/witch and a wise wizard, a monster serpent, love at first sight, magical gifts, transformations, trials to prove our heroes’ virtue, and happily ever after.  But there are also some wonderfully unusual twists on the fairy tale stereotypes.  We first meet our prince not slaying the monster serpent, but yelling (singing) “Help!” and fainting.  He has to be rescued by three women.  We first meet the wicked witch as a grieving mother begging the prince to rescue her kidnapped daughter.  Only later do we discover that the “kidnapper” is protecting the daughter from her own mother’s evil ways.  But though she may be a villain, the Queen of the Night has the
greatest, most spectacular arias and is arguably the star of the opera from a musical point of view.  One of the prince’s trials is a vow of silence, which is not an unusual motif in fairy tales but is certainly an interesting choice for an opera, and also musically interesting is the humming song when the comic sidekick has his mouth magically padlocked.  Altogether the opera is enormously fun: lots of fun and varied music, lots of humor, fun costumes and sets…  The prince and princess are really the least interesting characters compared with all the other supposedly secondary characters, and it’s clear that Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder pulled out all the stops to make this an enjoyable spectacle.
         So today I’ve got for you a few images of The Magic Flute.  There are many cool paintings and sketches of costume and stage design for different productions, but in keeping with my blog theme, I’ve stuck with black and white.  I couldn’t find any relief block prints, so I’ve got engravings and a paper-cut.  That’s my favorite, with the Queen of the Night enthroned in the full moon among the stars.  This is when she still seems benevolent, with her three henchwomen to the left, and Prince Tamino and sidekick Papageno to the right.  Another
version of the Queen of the Night is featured in this image that may show the costuming for the very first production of the opera in 1791 (although their clothing styles look early nineteenth century to me).  She’s not nearly so strange and over-the-top here as in many modern productions.  You can also see her daughter Pamina, and Sarastro, although alas not large enough to see very well.
        Papageno the bird-catcher is shown here with his wonderful feathered outfit and a nice crest of feathers, and his magic bells.  The description of the image says the other person is Prince Tamino, although I had guessed it was one of the Queen of the Night’s henchladies-in-waiting - oops.  In any case, if that’s the giant serpent beside them, it sure doesn’t look very monstrous to me!
        Finally, a stage setting from 1865, emphasizing the Egyptian vibe.  I love how Princess Pamina’s costume is so thoroughly Victorian despite its Egyptian details.  I take the others to be Sarastro, the Queen of the Night, and on the far right Monostatos, the most unsympathetic villain of the piece.
        Many people interpret Die Zauberflöte to be an allegory of the triumph of reason over superstition and ignorance, and goodness knows we could use some of that triumph nowadays.  Nevertheless, I don’t think the story needs to “mean” anything: it’s just a silly magical story told with some of the most incredible music ever written.

[Pictures: Königin der Nacht, scissors-cut by Lotte Reiniger, 1935? (Image from Stadtmuseum Tübingen);
Costume designs from Die Zauberflöte, 1791? (Image from One Delightful Day);
Papageno and Tamino, engraving by C.C. Glaßbach, 1792? (Image from viaLibri);
Act 3, tableau 5, La Flute enchantée, engraving, 1865 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]