May 4, 2016

What's New in the Studio

        This new piece is an architectural detail of the Philip Simmons house in Newport, RI (not to be confused with a Philip Simmons house in Charleston, SC).  This isn’t one of the crazy huge mansions along Bellevue Avenue.  It’s a private house that we passed while walking in the center of town a year or so ago, and I took a photograph of the dormer window and the beautiful detailing under the eaves.  So that’s what I carved this weekend.


[Picture: Newport Dormer, rubber block print by AEGN, 2016.]

April 29, 2016

Words of the Month - Shut the Door!

        A speech act, called a performative, is when simply to speak the words is to perform the action.  For example, if you say “I apologize” that is the apology.  It isn’t a report of something that happened elsewhere at another time; it isn’t merely a discussion of whether you might do something.  A performative cannot be false.  In other words, once you say “I apologize,” you have actually ipso facto apologized, even though you or the apologizee can always claim that you weren’t really sorry.  Some performatives are strong enough to have official or legal status, such as “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” or “I sentence you to life without parole,” but only when spoken in the official circumstances, by someone with the official authority.  Other examples of performatives are “I swear,” “I deny,” and “I resign.”  Only the speaker can perform the speech act, only by speaking is it performed, and once it’s spoken it cannot be unperformed (although in some cases it can be reversed or superseded).  If a sentence works with “hereby” inserted, it’s probably a performative.  “I hereby pledge my loyalty,” but not *”I hereby knit a sock.”
        Commands are a common kind of speech act.  They don’t usually include the labelling verb (I order you to shut the door) but it’s still true that to say the command “Shut the door” is to make the command.  This is all very well, but what’s really interesting is how frequently we perform indirect speech acts, and how wide a variety of ways we find do it.  So, you want Reggie to shut the door.  Here are some possible things to say/do, in rough order of increasing indirectness:
        Reggie, I hereby command you to shut the door!
        Will you please shut the door?
        I’d be grateful if you’d shut the door.
        Don’t you think the door should be shut?
        Shall we keep out the draft?
        Who left the door open?
        Now, Reggie, what have you forgotten to do?
        Aren’t you cold?
        You could even say nothing, but huddle, shiver, and look martyred.
        Often, indirect requests are deemed to be more polite than direct orders, but you can read personality and relationship into the varying strategies above: bossiness, smarminess, passive aggression…  I get a kick out of the ones that are not at all saying what the words seem to be saying.  Those in the form of questions are not really requests for information, nor indeed true questions at all.  And yet they are very seldom misunderstood, except willfully.
        In my youth my mother would often use the construction, Would you like to shut the door?  To which I would reply, usually cheerfully enough, but sometimes more obnoxiously, “No, but I will anyway.”  (This never failed to irritate my father.)  To this day I ask my own children simply to shut the door, please.  Although actually, in our house it’s not leaving doors open that’s the issue, but leaving lights turned on, and in my more frustrated moments I have been known to say to the guilty child, T, what’s wrong with this picture?  Which is a marvelously indirect speech act, and as such my children really should appreciate it more, for its linguistic beauty.
        There’s just one more cute twist to this particular phrase: sometimes Shut the door! isn’t a speech act at all.  It’s simply an exclamation of astonishment, synonymous with “No way!”  No doors are involved, and no special action is performed by the use of those particular words.  It’s yet more evidence of the wonderful complexity of human language as a reflection of the wonderful complexity of human interaction.

[Picture: Closing Doors, reduction linocut by Lori Biwer Stewart (Image from L.B. Stewart Printmaker).]

PS.  If you're in the greater Boston area, come see me at Needham Open Studios this weekend.  I'll be offering demonstrations and an opportunity to carve your own mini block.  Details here!

April 26, 2016

Mythical P

        Today I offer a selection of mythical P creatures, and it just so happens that I’m making split pea soup for dinner tonight, even though I completely forgot that it’s Tuesday and I was supposed to post something.  Conspiracy theorists, make of that what you will.  In any case, I think the theme of most of these P’s is flight - although I’m not actually thinking about it too hard, what with the forgetting about having to post something and all.

pixie - small, mischievous humanoid spirits, who are native to the moorland areas in the southwest of the UK, and often dwell in barrows, ring forts, and other archaeological sites.  They are extremely playful and love to dance and wrestle.  They are traditionally enemies of the fairies.  (Cornish)

pooka - Etymologically related to that knavish sprite call’d Puck, pooka are shape shifters who can be humanoid, or may have characteristics of animals, either ears and tail, or the entire appearance, especially horses, goats, cats, dogs, or rabbits.  They are usually dark in color.  Like the pixies, pooka are generally mischievous but not malevolent.  (Irish)

piasa - This mysterious creature was depicted as a large mural on a cliff overlooking the Mississippi River.  At the time it was first seen by Europeans it was somewhat dragonoid, but at some point in the eighteenth or nineteenth century it acquired wings and became known as a bird.  We know nothing about the habits of this creature, which is now extinct, its cliff having been quarried away for limestone.  The only record we have of its legend was published by a professor in about 1836 and was probably simply made up by him.  (probably Cahokian)

poltergeist - a ghost that makes physical disturbances, such as moving objects, making noises, and hurting people.  A poltergeist may haunt a person or a location.  According to Walt Kelly’s pup dog, poltergeists make up the principal type of spontaneous material manifestation.  (Sorry; in-joke for fans of Pogo.)  (nearly universal)

pterippus - a winged horse.  The most famous pterippus is, of course, Pegasus.  Indeed, Pegasus is the only one in classical mythology.  But it would be such a waste to have only one of such a cool and useful beast, so isn’t it nice to know there’s a word for a whole species of them?  (ancient Greek)

pyrallis or pyrausta - a dragonish insect with four legs and transparent wings.  It is born of fire, specifically the fire of the copper-smelting furnaces of Cyprus, and it cannot survive except in the fire.  (Cyprian)

phoenix - a bird that is reborn from the ashes of its own death (or, according to some theories, the ashes of its predecessor).  A phoenix can live for as long as 1,400 years in each of its cycles of life, and is associated with the sun.  They may vary in size from eagle to ostrich, and their coloring may also vary, but is always magnificent.  (ancient Greek and Roman)

[Pictures: Le Cheval, wood block print by Raoul Dufy, 1911, from Le Bestiaire ou Cortége d’Orphée by Guillaume Apollinaire (1918 edition);
Piasa Bird, woodblock print by Brian Reedy (Image from his Etsy shop WoodcutEmporium);
Phoenix, wood block print from Bestiarius by Magister Joseph Berreurius, 1524 (Image from A Fantastic Bestiary by Ernst and Johanna Lehner, 1969).]

April 22, 2016

Millenium Ark

        Today seems like a good day to share a very cool wood block print done jointly by 26 artists in the Society of Wood Engravers.  Each of the 2x2 inch squares within this image was done by a different artist, representing different animals (only some are two by two, but they all come 2x2), plus Noah, and the additional animals in the pediment.  Together they make a wonderful celebration of animal life.  I think the ark reference is particularly poignant for Earth Day: both the idea of saving life on earth from environmental disaster, as well as the idea of Earth itself being our life-giving ark in the ocean of the universe.
        I would have loved to be involved in a project like this, where each piece is done on its own, but joined together they make something new and more powerful.  I like so many of the animals, and I like the top section very much, too.  I’m just sorry that I can’t find a bigger image so that you can see more detail.  The Society Of Wood Engravers had a larger image posted, but they have since taken it down, and this is unfortunately the best I can now find.
        Happy Earth Day!

[Picture: The Millennium Ark, collection of wood engravings by 26 artists in the Society of Wood Engravers: Moiseev, Tout, Hayward, English, van Niekerk, Brett, Skargon, Dividson, Todd, Phips, McGregor, Wormell, Lindsley, Stephens, Hughes, Pebworth, Kershaw, Westergard, Jones, Jope, Forster, Scullard, Lawrence, Jaidinger, Brochway, Paynter, 2000 (Image from the Victoria and Albert Museum).]

April 19, 2016

Mythical O

        Ogres and onis and orcs, o my!  

ogre - a humanoid monster that is large, hideous, and eats humans, especially babies.  The word ogre comes from French, but beyond that there are many different theories for its etymology.  Does it come from the Etruscan god Orcus, from the biblical giant Og, from the French for Hungarian?  You probably already know that a female ogre is an ogress, but did you know that their offspring is an ogree?  (Universal)

orc - This humanoid’s name is derived from one of the possible roots that may have given us ogre, by way of Old English, and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien.  (Tolkien apparently later decided he preferred the spelling ork, but not until it was too late.)  Orcs are a corrupted mockery of the noble elves, hideous, deformed, brutish, and evil.  Initially Tolkien imagined them as goblins, inspired in part by George MacDonald’s goblins, but as he studied Middle Earth further he discovered that some, at least, are considerably more powerful and less comical.  Since Tolkien, a number of other species of orc have been discovered, such as the green-skinned “noble savages” of “World of Warcraft.”  (European)

Orthrus - We’ve all heard of the three-headed dog Cerberus, but did you know he had a two-headed brother named Orthrus?  Orthrus was also a guard dog, and I can just imagine the sibling rivalry that went on in that family.  He was slain by Hercules, which is presumably why you never see two-headed guard dogs any more.  (ancient Greek)

oni - a humanoid spirit that is something like an ogre or demon, usually huge, hideous, and
horned.  Their skin is most often blue or red, and sometimes they have unusual numbers of fierce eyes or clawed fingers.  They often wear a tigerskin loincloth and carry an iron club.  They can be kept at bay by monkey statues and/or holly, which is nice to know, since we have a big holly shrub right at the corner of our house, and I have a small wooden monkey on a bookshelf.  Apparently in Japanese tag, “it” is called the “oni.”  (Japanese)

oozlum bird - This species is rare in part because once it begins a left turn, it continues to fly in ever tighter and tighter circles until it eventually flies right up itself.  Oozlum birds also sometimes fly backwards, in order to admire their own plumage.  First described in the mid-nineteenth century, it is a relatively recent discovery.  (Australian/British)

Ophiotaurus - This creature is front half bull, back half serpent.  Ovid asserts that whoever burns its entrails will get the power to defeat the gods.  (Apparently the Ophiotaurus appears in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, which I have not read, but T has.)  It would be a sad thing indeed to have everyone more interested in burning your entrails than getting to know you, but the fact is that Ovid didn’t have much to say about the Ophiotaurus’s quite-possibly-charming personality.  (ancient Greek/Roman)

        And some other O creatures that have been previously mentioned…
ouphe - imp or goblin  (English)

ouroboros - a serpent with its tail in its mouth, representing eternity  (European)

Oilliphéist - a serpentine dragonoid banished from Ireland by St Patrick  (Irish)

[Pictures: Antonio is not afraid of the Ogre, illustration by H.J. Ford from The Grey Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang, 1900 (Image from MonsterBrains);
Detail from Throwing Beans, wood block print by Kawanabe Kumajiro, 1890 (Image from the Smithsonian Institution);
Ophiotaurus, mosaic floor from a building in York, England, c 44-410 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Emblem with ouroboros (and bonus Triton) representing immortality won through literary pursuits, wood block print from Emblemata by Andrea Alciato, 1621 edition (Image from Glasgow University).]

April 15, 2016

Faiers's Music

        Ted Faiers (1908-1985) was born in England, grew up in Canada, and spent his adult life in the United States.  His work was heavily influenced by the prevailing artistic styles of the day: regionalist landscapes in the forties, modernism in the fifties, pop art/cartoon style in the sixties…  He did lots of paintings, but also lots of woodcuts, and a theme that seems to have spanned his various styles is music.  Today I’ve gathered a few of his black and white woodcuts depicting musicians.
        Faiers did a lot of work that I find quite ugly, and then a handful of other pieces that I like very much but which aren’t included here because they aren’t music-themed.  The selection of work I wanted to share was already getting to be more than enough.  So, here we have a variety of musicians, all from just two years, but almost 15 years apart.  Up first is a clarinetist with a lot of interesting geometric pattern going on.  The grid of dots on his trousers is so regular it looks like the shape was cut out of patterned paper rather than trying to reproduce the contours of three-dimensional fabric.  The stripes on the floor could be considered representational, and even the designs on the walls could be some sort of acoustic tiles or something, but the overall effect is of a semi-abstract backdrop for the musician.  I like his eyes and nose and hands particularly.
        Next are some classical musicians, all in their tuxedos.  It looks like a portrait of the same baritone with the conductor and by himself, with his full, wavy hair.  Like the clarinetist, he has some very stylized patterns and shapes behind him, whereas the violinist has no background except a
sort of horizon line, and no patterns at all, except the pages of music.  For him everything is solid black and white.  I like his violin very much, and his hands are surprisingly delicate and expressive when compared with the roughness of his face.
        These two more abstract pieces are from an earlier phase of Faiers’s career.  The simplified, flattened shapes of the instruments are perfectly recognizable, but I can’t help thinking that the pianist on the right is actually a dog!  The backgrounds are blocks of flat, solid black or white, except for the marks of carving.  I like how the carving marks on the cello are distinctly different from the carving marks on the violinist.
        And finally my favorite: this quirky man playing a single string to an inexplicable but charming squirrel.  He’s got all sorts of detail in his setting, from the curtains at the window, to the pattern on the rug, and the claw feet of his chair.  The man and the squirrel are both utterly engrossed in the effort of playing the music.  The shape of the man’s mouth almost suggests to me the tip of the tongue caught between the teeth in concentration.  I’d be very curious to hear what the music actually sounds like.








[Pictures: Jazz Man, woodcut by Ted Faiers, 1976;
First Violin, woodcut by Faiers, 1976;
Pianissimo, woodcut by Faiers, 1976;
Baritone, woodcut by Faiers, 1976;
Two Musicians, woodcut by Faiers, 1952;
Piano Duet, woodcut by Faiers, 1952;
Doing His Thing on a Single String, woodcut by Faiers, 1976
(Images from Ted Faiers.com).]

April 12, 2016

Mythical N

        I’ll reiterate that my selections of mythical creatures aren’t intended to be comprehensive - how would that even be possible?  Still, one thing I find especially interesting about the mythical creatures of N is how many of them are aquatic.  I wonder why that should be when these creatures come from lots of different languages over four continents.  N must be an intrinsically watery letter.

nymph - minor female nature deity, usually associated with a particular location or element of nature.  Nymphs are always young, beautiful, and fond of frolicking about while scantily clad, making them an ever-popular subject for artists.  There are hundreds of different kinds, as illustrated by the fact that there are not only nymphs of trees (dryads), but nymphs of each different species of tree.  (I wrote about an oak tree nymph in Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom.)  Some famous aquatic nymphs include the Nereids of the Mediterranean Sea, and naiads of fresh water.  (Greek and Roman)

nixie aka neck - These names cover a variety of water spirits, from Scandinavian shapeshifters to German river mermaids, to northern French mermaids of fresh water, especially springs.  The word is etymologically related to knucker, although nixies are definitely not dragonoids.  (Germanic, especially Scandinavian)
Nessie - The Loch Ness Monster is a mysterious cryptid often thought to be something along the lines of a plesiosaur.  There wasn’t much loch monster lore until 1933, when the mysterious beast was seen crossing a road toward the loch.  There may have been a few sightings prior to that, including St Columba’s encounter with a water monster in the River Ness in the sixth century, but the evidence suggests that Nessie is a fairly young monster.  (Scottish)

ningyo - a fish-like creature with the face of a monkey and a voice like a lark or a flute.  One woman who unknowingly ate the flesh of a ningyo lived to be 800 years old, but in general fishermen throw back any that they catch for fear of storms and other misfortunes.  (Japanese)

Nariphon girls - These maidens grow on the Nariphon tree, attached to the tree branches by a stem on their heads.  They were created to distract lustful forest men from attacking women (specifically Indra’s wife Vessantara) who went into the forest to gather fruit.  The Nariphon girls look exactly like humans except that they have no bones, and have some magical powers.  (Thai)

Namazu - a giant catfish who lives in the mud under Japan.  His occasional thrashing causes earthquakes.  The Japanese Earthquake Early Warning logo features a highly stylized catfish in his honor.  (Japanese)

númhyalikyu - an enormous halibut with a back that looks like rippled sand so that it can be mistaken for an island aspidochelone-wise.  It has a valuable magical crystal embedded in its seal-like head, and makes a deep, reverberating humming sound.  It brings storms, and when it swims near the surface causes treacherous shallows.  (Pacific Northwest Kwakwaka’wakw)

niffler - a fluffy, black, long-snouted burrowing creature that loves anything glittery.  Nifflers are gentle, but can cause terrible destruction by their uncontrollable habit of madly digging anything and anywhere in their search for shiny objects.  (British wizarding world)

nyamatsané - a mysterious creature that appears in a folk tale collected by Andrew Lang.  The nyamatsanés are never explained or defined, but I discover from the story that they love their grandmother, eat pebbles, can jump very far and run very fast, and hate humans and dogs.  Eating the liver of a nyamatsané causes insatiable thirst.  (Basotho)


[Pictures: Saturs and Nymphs on Naxos, woodcut by Sarah Young (Image from Sarah Young’s web site);
The miller sees the nixy of the mill-pond, illustration by H.J. Ford from The Yellow Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang, 1894;
Ningyo, wood block print from Konjaku Hyakki Shui by Toriyama Sekien, c 1781 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Namazu causing the Great Ansei Eathquake of Edo, detail of a wood block print 1855 (Image from Pink Tentacle);
The Nyamatsanés Return Home, illustration by H.J. Ford from The Pink Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang, 1897 (Image from Google Books);
Earthquake Early Warning system logo featuring Namazu.]

April 8, 2016

Scheherazade, The First Night

        April is National Poetry Month (besides which, every month is a good month for poetry), so here’s a poem I wrote years ago - decades ago! - about Scheherazade.

Give wings to my tongue; my words must rise like flame,
Shine with the blinding light of fire, and weave
Themselves in purling mysteries like smoke.
Necessity is courage; I must be brave.

His filigree of wealth and power, gold
With fresh young pearls; batik,
Brocades, and hangings rich and red
Adorn my sultan's cruelty of fear.

Fear takes my sister for another rose
Cut to adorn his palace in her death.
My tales are tokens of our life prolonged;
Am I light-tongued enough to steal his love?

Love can be treacherous, but vanity
Consumes betrayal and grows.  Where threats and pleas
Swell selfishness with confidence in might,
I'll lure it from itself with wandering wit.

Wit is a woman's weapon, like a veil,
Embroidered thick to hide the face behind.
Show him your eyes before he sees your lips
And he'll believe there's something you can give.

Give wings to my tongue; my words must rise like flame,
Shine with the blinding light of fire, and weave
Themselves in purling mystery, like smoke.
Necessity is courage; I will be brave.

[Picture: The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade, wood engraving by Fritz Eichenberg for Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, 1944 (Image from Brier Hill Gallery).]
Poem: Scheherazade, The First Night by AEGN, previously published in Mobius, The Poetry Magazine, Vol 10 Nr 1, 1996.

April 5, 2016

Scheherazade Retold

        I’ve always loved Scheherazade, the brave, smart, wise hero who saves her sister (and her kingdom) by telling stories.  As someone who has always wanted to tell stories with the power to move people’s hearts, I find Scheherazade a fascinating, inspiring figure.  But there is a flaw in the traditional tale: at the end of it all she’s still stuck with a monster.  The Sultan Shahriar repents of his monstrous, murderous vow, it’s true, and I do like a good redemption, but somehow it’s still a little difficult to forgive him.  It’s a problem that any modern reteller of the tale needs to deal with in one way or another.  Scheherazade has been a major influence around the world for three centuries, and I’ve recently read two new reinterpretations of her story, plus one from a while ago.  I found all of them excellent.
        Warning, issues of the endings will be discussed, so beware of spoilers!

Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher, 1998 - This is a sideways retelling of the 1001 Nights: the main character is Marjan, a 12 year old girl who is recruited by Shahrazad to help her collect more stories to tell.  True to the original, it really is the stories alone that are keeping Shahrazad alive one night at a time, and after nearly a thousand nights she’s beginning to run out… and how can she find more stories to tell, stuck in the sultan’s harem?  So Marjan becomes her secret agent, with additional danger provided by the sultan’s villainous mother, who wants to sabotage Shahrazad.  I read this years ago, so my memory for the details is sketchy, but I think it sticks fairly closely to the original in both the sultan’s reasons for serial wife-murder and his state at the end: reformed, which is good, but never really held accountable for his crimes, which is problematic.  I do remember Marjan trying to fathom how Shahrazad could possibly have come to love the monster, and Shahrazad admitting that she’s unable to explain it - she just does.

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh, 2015 - This is a distinctly YA take on the legend, carefully pressing all the requisite YA buttons, but I still thought it was very good.  In this version, 16 year old Shahrzad’s best friend has already been one of the sultan’s victims, and she volunteers to be the next wife with a plan for revenge.  After the first few nights, the storytelling isn’t a particularly big deal, and what keeps Shahrzad alive is more the fact that the sultan admires her chutzpah.  He’s falling in love with her, and to her dismay she’s falling in love with him, too, complicated further by the fact that she’s already got a serious boyfriend at home - who’s decided it’s his job to launch a war against the sultan.  We discover that the sultan is killing all those wives as the result of a curse, not out of his own choice.  He’s a good man and a good ruler, and although he hates the murder, it’s the only way to save his entire kingdom from destruction.  Thus, if we can just break the curse, we can have a husband who’s much more forgivable.  This book is the first of a series, so it ends rather unendishly.  In fact, the end would be unacceptable if it weren’t for an epilogue that brings a very small amount of closure and hints at further directions.  The sequel will go beyond the traditional plot into wholly new territory.

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston, 2015 - The unnamed hero of this version is not the vizier’s daughter of the original, but the daughter of a caravan master who’s lived her whole life in the desert far from the city.  This background provides her with all sorts of strength and wisdom that serve her well.  When she reaches the sultan’s palace she hardly tells any stories at all, but manages to stay alive, again, by intriguing the sultan.  Actually, it isn’t really the sultan, but a demon who has possessed him, who kills all the one-night wives by sucking their life-force.  Our Scheherazade somehow seems to have the ability to take power back from the demon, thus surviving what has killed all the others.  However, the place of storytelling is taken by thread: spinning and embroidering with threads instead of words.  What I particularly enjoyed about Johnston’s story was the exploration of different ways of wielding power, different ways of praying, different ways of hallowing gods, and particularly the differences between men’s ways and women’s ways.  Unlike so many books for children/teens, there are good mothers here (previous post here) - good families altogether, in fact.  And in the end, with the demon cast out, we need have no qualms at all about embarking on a marriage with the real sultan.  I confess that the climactic battle seemed rather brief and abrupt, but since what I enjoyed about this book was the character-building and descriptions of the world, I didn’t mind too much that the action sequences were given short shrift.

        Three versions, three different ways to imagine the character of Scheherazade and the character of the sultan, and three different desert worlds.  I would recommend any of them, or all three.

[Picture: Illustration based on the idea of the Arabian Nights, digital by Laura Barrett (Image from LauraBarrett.co.uk).]