September 16, 2014

Beating the Wrecking Ball

        Here’s a nice small wood block print that pleases me.  I like the way the traditional ornate church is superimposed over the plain grey skyscrapers.  This piece caught my eye today because next week I’ll be attending a wedding in Boston’s Trinity Church, which is famous for its pairing with the modern glass Hancock Tower next door.  Sometimes these pairings of old and new detract from the beauty of both buildings, but sometimes they work well, each accentuating the style of the other.  I think they work well together in this block print, where the grey geometric background enhances and frames the Gothic Revival steeples.  (Though the pairing didn't work well in real life, as you can see in the photo below.)  I have very little information about the print, and still less about the artist, but I assume this was done with two blocks: the grey skyscrapers, and the black church, each with their framing edge.  I’m sorry not to be able to find anything about the artist other than the name “Salter”, or to be able to look up any other work done by him or her.
        On looking for more information, I did find this additional block print of the same church, but with even less information: none at all, to be precise.  No idea when it was made or by whom.  But I don’t find it nearly as interesting, in any case.
        As for the church itself, it was built on Fifth Avenue in New York City from 1869-72, was large, expensive, and highly fashionable, and lasted less than a century before being demolished in 1949 or ’52 to make way for a very unremarkable office building.  This photograph shows much the same view as Salter’s wood block print, if it were cropped.  Given the dates, the block print might have been made to commemorate the building 
before demolition, as the congregation was already in trouble and closing its doors.  Whether that was the artist’s intention or not, I’m glad this print was made in time.

[Pictures: Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas 5th Ave, woodcut by Salter, 1947 (Image from St. Nicholas Center);
unknown block print by unknown artist of unknown date (Image from Andrew Cusack);
Old Church Saved from Sale, photograph by Sam Goldstein 1946 (Image from St Nicholas Center).]

September 12, 2014

Taboo, Or Not Taboo?

        Definitely taboo, but of a special kind.  Actually, I just wanted to use that title, but today’s post is really about geasa, a particular sort of taboo in Irish mythology.  A geis is a personal restriction, idiosyncratic, and often laid on a person as a curse or a gift.  And for my purposes, one of the interesting aspects of a geis is its magical properties.  Although he’s obviously not Irish, think of Samson, forbidden to cut his hair.  If his hair is cut, he loses all his strength: a curse.  Yet as long as he doesn’t cut his hair, he has magically enhanced strength: a blessing.
        Another aspect of geasa (that’s the plural) that make them good fantasy fodder is that they often take the form of a riddle that must be solved.  Think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who is told that “no man of woman born shall harm” him.  Of course, this being mythology, we know someone will find a way to break the spell, and the trick turns out to be that Macduff, delivered by Caesarean section, qualifies for the job.  Consider, too, the Witch-king of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings.  It is prophesied that “not by the hand of man will he fall,” which makes him feel all self-confident and secure… until he finds himself faced in battle by a woman and a hobbit.  Now, these prophesy-type geasa are a little different because they don’t lay any requirements on their subject; there’s nothing in particular that Macbeth must do or not do to preserve his geis (other than avoid shieldmaidens, hobbits, and anyone delivered by c-section - which is not so easy these days!).  Nevertheless, Celtic folklore seems to count them.
        An example of a geis that is both prophecy and riddle is the Welsh hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes’s destiny to die neither “during the day nor night, not indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked…” etc.  As with Samson, his wife induces him to show a way to fulfill those conditions so that she can betray him.  However, what I find interesting about this example is how closely it parallels the traditional eastern European folk tales such as “The Peasant’s Wise Daughter.”  (See “Clever Katya” for another nice example.)  “Neither riding nor walking” is astride or dragged, or with one foot on some non-riding animal; “not clothed and not naked” is wrapped in a fishing net; and so on.  In those “clever peasant girl” tales the riddle is solved not to weaken and kill a hero, but in order to impress and demand justice from a more powerful figure (often the tsar himself.)  I much prefer to see cleverness applied to positive ends!
        In the “clever peasant girl” stories, the riddle is given by the powerful man, and the woman gains power by solving it, whereas in Irish mythology geasa are often laid upon men by women, which is presumably the way for women to wield power.  It’s also often the device that leads to a hero’s downfall.  Because we know the rules of the hero’s geis, we can see his downfall coming, as in Greek tragedy.  The hero is led inexorably into breaking his geis, whereupon we can watch the relentless doom stoop ever closer until the inevitable end.  Not my kind of story, to be honest.  But here’s a representative example: CĂșchulainn has one geis never to eat dog meat, and another geis that he must eat any food offered him by a woman.  Needless to say, the day comes when a woman offers him dog meat and the hero is ineluctably doomed.
        What I don’t know is what it takes to lay a geis on someone.  Surely not just anyone can say just anything.  It must require something special to make it real and binding.  At any rate, while I tend not to be much interested in stories with inexorable fate, this seems like an idea with lots of interesting possible applications.

[Pictures: Macbeth encountering the witches, woodcut from Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1577 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
CĂș Chulainn’s Death, by Walter C. Mills, 1921 (Image from paddybrown).]

September 9, 2014

New in the Studio: Warbler Reduction

        Way back in May we had a banner year for warbler migration, and among our handsomest visitors were the magnolia warblers.  I was quite smitten with them and immediately began picturing a reduction block print to capture that dramatic black and yellow.  But it hasn’t been until now, when it’s time for the fall migration to take the warblers back again, that I’ve gotten around to making my vision real.
        As I’ve explained before, a reduction block print is one in which the same block is carved and printed multiple successive times on the same sheets of paper.  In this case, there were only two carvings and two inkings, first yellow, then black.  You can see each color separately here, although in fact the black never was printed separately, except the once, just so I could show you the  second state of the carved block.  As is always the case in a reduction print, you can see that the black includes nothing that yellow hadn’t covered, because I couldn’t put back any rubber that had already been carved away at the yellow-inking stage.
        I also enjoyed carving the leaves, experimenting with a different way of combining the three colors (yellow, black, and white) on each one.  I looked at a lot of autumn maple leaves to get ideas for patterns of dark and light, and I fooled around with various textures.  Fun!
        Registration (which means getting the multiple inkings to line up on top of each other correctly) is always my biggest challenge, and I was delighted to discover that when one of your colors is bright, light yellow, the registration is somewhat more forgiving.  A little yellow showing at the edge of the black just doesn’t look offensive the way an unaligned edge of some darker color might.  But beyond that, I had built myself a new registration frame and it worked pretty well, so I did better at lining up my printing anyway.  In fact, this was the least frustrating reduction print I’ve ever done.
        I was delighted with the magnolia warblers back in May, and I’m pretty delighted with this one, too!

[Pictures: Magnolia Warbler, rubber block reduction print by AEGN, 2014;
Magnolia Warbler state 1, and carving state 2, by AEGN, 2014.]

September 5, 2014

Warning: Steampunkification in Progress

        My 12-year-old son P and I have finally plunged into the steampunk creation frenzy we’ve been mulling for so long.  Steampunk creation is greatly aided by a magpie habit of collecting nifty objects, and I’m lucky to come from a long line of pack rats.  Our sources of material were four.  1. I’ve been collecting bits and pieces for years, and we’ve been raiding the attic and basement.  2. My parents have been cleaning out their house of nearly 50 years, and they set aside a box for us full of wonderful tidbits: broken watches, electronics dating back to the bakelite era, random hardware and housewares… 3. P, T, and I went to the local thrift store and picked up a few inspiring treasures there, including some brass candlesticks and an eggbeater.  4. And finally we did invest in a few retail purchases, including spools of copper wire in two gauges, a few assorted jewelry findings, and two pairs of ordinary, inexpensive welding goggles.  Thus prepared, we set to work.
  P’s primary project is an energy ray gun, (which verges a little more toward atomicpunk, I suppose, but we aren’t picky).  Its base is the base of a fishing reel.  Its ray generator is a cathode ray tube out of some old television.  Other components include a hanger cut up for 
wire, the springs out of several defunct ballpoint pens, the top of a former wristwatch, and much glue.  At its lower settings, the ray gun can energize things positively, but by the time you set it into the red zone I’m afraid it’s lethal.
        I also helped P (aka Professor Nathaniel Tarlington) make a holster so that he can wear the ray gun around.  His second project is, of course, goggles.  These arrived only yesterday, so he hasn’t gotten very far modding them yet.  He’s cut apart the visor so that each eyepiece can be raised or lowered separately, and we devised chains to hold the eyepieces up.  He’s also begun painting selected areas copper.  He’s got many further plans percolating.
        My main project is a steampunk violin.  I’ve had this old non-functioning trashpicked violin in my attic for years (possibly decades) because it was way too cool a thing not to keep.  And now finally it’s receiving its revival.  (It doesn’t make music, unfortunately, because that would just be way more than I can handle, but it looks pretty darn cool, I must say!)  I’ve given it a very excellent old pressure gauge, a bit of clockwork interior from a defunct alarm clock, a bridge of gears, and five strings.  One of my favorite touches was replacing the knob of one tuning peg with a lightbulb.  I’ve substituted for bow hair (which was missing anyway) a coiled wire, and 
decorated the rest of the bow with generous lashings of wire and gears.  I’m also making a strap for the violin so that I can carry it, and this is being decorated, too.  So far I’ve used old watch cases to make a Tuner & Bach’s Psychoacoustic Sonic Frequency Gauge (Pat. Pend.) and some other Clockworky Thing.  I plan to make a third item, but haven’t decided what yet.
        I’ve also started a pair of the requisite goggles, which will decorate my pith helmet as I go exploring around the alternate-Victorian world with my mechaniola.  “Why a pith helmet and a violin?” you ask?  Because my steampunk character is a bard.  It’s the same philosophy as the bard Svarnil from my high fantasy Otherworld Series - studying history and archaeology, learning the truth, and telling the stories that keep the truth alive and pass it on to each new generation - but this time steampunk style!
        The thing about steampunk is that at its roots, it isn’t just about the cool look.  It also tries to capture some spirit of the time when technology was still hand crafted with an eye for elaborate beauty as well as function, and when the potential of progress seemed limitless.  The steampunk spirit also emphasizes reusing, recycling, making things to last instead of built-in obsolescence and disposability, and mastering our technology instead of letting it master us.  But here in our house we’re just having a lot of fun making really cool things mostly out of a lot of old junk.
        I’ll post back later when our projects are completed, which will be in time for Hallowe’en.

[Pictures: P’s ray gun;
P’s goggles and my goggles, incomplete;
Mechaniola and detail of strap, photos by AEGN, 2014.]

September 2, 2014

Going With the Grain

        As I mentioned not long ago, one of the things I like about Susan Blair’s Billy Goats Gruff is her use of woodgrain, and here’s another print by another artist that uses woodgrain beautifully.  In this one by Barbara Whipple (U.S. 1921-1989), the woodgrain pattern is just a background, not part of the object depicted, yet I think it really contributes to the picture more than just a simple background.  I don’t know whether Whipple carefully planned how the branches of her tree and the knots and swirls of the wooden plank would match up, or whether it was just serendipity that put them together so well.  I really like the way the tallest spindliest branch is against a thinner area of woodgrain, and how the thickest area is behind the trunk.  Knots fall behind knotted areas of the tree, and the thick area of grain to the upper right almost reminds me of a sort of phantom limb, where a thicker main branch has broken off.
        I’ve always wanted to experiment with woodgrain in my prints, but it isn’t that simple.  An ordinary plank won’t print its grain - you need to use a severely weathered piece, which is unlikely to be flat enough to print well, or you need to use a fine wire brush to artificially weather a flat, new plank, eroding away the softer areas and leaving behind the harder grain.  Someday I may get around to trying this out myself, but for now I’ll just have to stick with enjoying what other artists have done.
        And speaking of what other artists have done, here are a few pieces I’ve featured in the past that include nice woodgrain texture:
     The Fulton Fish Market by Antonio Frasconi
     Astatic by Josef Albers
     Life Rock, Bear Rock, God's Finger by Merlyn Chesterman

[Picture: Bristlecone on the Blue, two-color woodcut by Barbara Whipple, c. 1983 (Image from Annex Galleries).]

August 29, 2014

Words of the Month - Coloring Between the Lines

        Psycholinguist Jessica Love describes a 2007 study of how our words for colors affect our perception of colors.  Remember last month’s Words of the Month in which I wrote about “basic color terms” and how English has 11?  The largest number of basic color terms any human language boasts is 12, and Russian is one of those color-enhanced languages.  In Russian there are separate words for light blue and darker blue, which are perceived as being different colors, just as pink and red are for speakers of English.  So what?  Well, in the study Love describes, Russian speakers proved quicker than English speakers at differentiating light from darker blue.  Because their language was telling them (subconsciously) that these were two different colors, their brains were quicker at putting them in different categories.  English speakers, on the other hand, could differentiate red and pink quickly, but were slower at the two blues, which their language told them are mere variants of a single color.  (That this was indeed a linguistic effect, even though the test participants were going too quickly to be thinking about the words, was shown by the fact that when they were given a linguistic task to do at the same time as the color test (reciting strings of number words), the Russians lost their speed advantage.)  So while it’s true that language doesn’t imprison our thoughts, preventing us from considering any concepts outside those for which our language gives us words, this study suggests that the words we have certainly do have some influence over the way we perceive the world.
        I know that in my mind there really is something intrinsically different about pink and red, even though, as an artist, I’m fully aware that you make pink by mixing white with red, just as you make light blue by mixing white with blue.  Who could ever perceive pink as merely light red?  Absurd!  (I remember as a child finding the crayon labelled “light red,” and being quite baffled.)  And presumably native Russian speakers feel the same about light and dark blue, which I see as clearly being different values of a single color.  It looks like my brain has accepted English’s color definitions wholly.  But on the other hand, we have no shortage of words for different colors on the borders of blue, such as turquoise, aqua, teal, lavender, and yet despite having distinct words, we view these colors as mere variants of blue, or green, or purple. As in last month’s post, not all color words qualify as “basic color terms.”  Nor can we all agree on whether turquoise is really blue or really green.  I’ve had many a conversation over the categorization of a shirt, for example.  Not only do English speakers think turquoise is a subcategory, but we can’t even say for sure what it’s a subcategory of!  But why do these language differences exist?  Why does one language count as basic what another language dismisses as mere subcategory?  This suddenly begins to seem a little chicken-or-eggish: do speakers of some languages perceive colors in accordance with their language’s distinctions, or do the languages of some speakers name their colors in accordance with their speakers’ distinctions?

[Pictures: “Lively silhouette” fabric design by Jane Sassaman in two colorways (except that I fooled with the colors a bit on photoshop to heighten the red and blue.)]
See Jessica Love’s blog post on The American Scholar.

August 26, 2014

My Billy Goats Gruff

        Today I’m going to break down the various choices I made in my own illustration of the classic Norwegian folk tale The Three Billy Goats Gruff.  (If you’re not familiar with the story, or need a refresher in the details, you can read the original English translation here.  There are, of course, many variants, but this is the basis.)
        So, first of all, I was not illustrating a book, so I wanted to do a single image rather than a series of pictures of the various stages of the story.  And if I get only one image in which to convey the story, what goes into that image?  Probably the most obvious choice would be to pick one iconic moment from the plot, possibly either the set-up scene or the climax.  However, I like trying to design a single image in which you can read all the important elements, even if they don’t all appear at once in the chronology of the story.  So I knew I wanted to include in my design all three goats, the bridge, and the troll under it.
        Now for the details.  First, the entire motivation for the story is that the goats needed to cross the bridge to get to the grass on the other side, so I wanted to include that piece of the story.  I made one side of the bridge rocky and barren, and the other lush and deliciously grazeable.  Next, I figured that any troll living under a bridge should be at least semi-aquatic, so I gave him scales rather than the long hair you usually see on trolls.  (His appearance was influenced by some depictions of Japanese oni, just because I liked the look.)  I also gave him a gnawed bone, and put the skull of a former victim among the rocks, just to raise the stakes.
        A note here on black and white.  As I always tell kids when I’m explaining block print design, “Black shows only against white, and white shows only against black.”  I wanted the area under the bridge to be dark, and that meant the troll needed to be white.  (You can, of course, use outlines, but I think it looks better with more of a balance of black and white.)  And therefore, if the sky above the bridge is to be bright, the goats must be black.
        As for the Gruffs themselves, I wanted to show in my picture a hint of how each of them interacted with the troll.  The smallest goat is quite fearful and nervous, not sure whether he’s actually going to make it across until he reaches the other side safely.  The second goat holds his head up boldly, but steals a sidelong glance at the frightening troll below.  As for the biggest billy-goat Gruff, he’s already got his big horns lowered aggressively.
        That violent end to the story has been softened somewhat in many of the modern retellings, and that’s probably a good thing, since this isn’t one of those myths about confronting the depths of evil and darkness that life may hold.  Like many short folk tales, this is more of a fable, intended to illustrate a relatively simple point, not to be analyzed excessively.  It’s about the folly of greed, the ability of guile to conquer strength, and the danger of being a bully.  My favorite thing about the story, though, is the repetetive rhythm of the telling.  Trip trap, trip trap…  Who’s that tripping over my bridge?  In the version by Mary Finch  (illustrated by Roberta Arenson very differently with bold, technicolor collage) 
there's a great song:
     I’m a troll from a deep dark hole,
     My belly’s getting thinner,
     I need to eat - and goat’s a treat -
     So I’ll have you for my dinner!
When P and T were about four years old I would sing this in my deepest voice to a tune something like “Jack and Jill” or "Polly Wolly Doodly," and we all enjoyed it.  The kids even used it as the occasional request for a snack, lending just a bit of empathy for the troll, without detracting from our rooting for the goats, who of course were hungry, too.

[Pictures: The Three Billy Goats Gruff, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007;
Cover of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, collage by Roberta Arenson, 2007.]
Quotation from The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Mary Finch, 2007, Barefoot Books.

August 22, 2014

Three Billy Goats Blair

        Susan Blair used wood block prints to illustrate her retelling of the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff in 1963.  The style of woodcut illustrations in the 60s seems to have been to look much more like carved wood.  (For example, check out the work of Helen Siegl and Ann Grifalconi.)  Nowadays most of the books illustrated with block prints seem to use a lot more hand coloring and mixed media such that the wood-carviness is less obvious.
        At any rate, Blair has done some very clever things with woodcut here.  First and foremost, I love the way she’s used the wood grain in the backgrounds.  You can see it most clearly in the first example, where a knot in the wood makes the sun in the sky, and the patterns of the grain make wonderful beams of 
morning light.  Blair’s use of separate blocks is interesting, too.  With the exception of the green and black, most of her blocks don’t cover the same ground.  Alignment isn’t an issue because the blocks don’t have to line up precisely on top of one another.  They fit into each other’s empty spaces with some white around the edges, or some acceptable overlap.
        I have to say that the troll looks rather adorable, but that’s probably a good choice.  The troll is supposed to illustrate greed and stupidity more than pure, chilling evil.  I’m also amused by the fact that Blair’s made the bridge sag under the weight of the largest billy-goat.  Compare the bridge in the two pictures shown here.  The poor troll’s getting squeezed under that bridge, and he looks rather frightened before ever he threatens to eat the biggest goat!
        The limited color scheme (three colors plus black and white) is practically unheard of in today’s picture books, but while Blair’s work certainly fits into the style of its time, I think that it doesn’t come across as unappealingly dated.  I like that it isn’t pretty or cutesy, but gives some rough strength to a story that isn’t particularly pretty or cute, either.  There are some other very nice versions of this classic Norwegian tale available, but I’d love to see children exposed to these wood block print illustrations instead of some of the triter, more cartoony versions.
        Tune in next time to see my illustration of this story, and compare the choices I’ve made in depicting the goats Gruff.

[Pictures: Three woodcuts by Susan Blair, from The Three Billy-Goats Gruff, 1963, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.]

August 19, 2014

The Man-Moth

        Today I present the first two verses of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop (US, 1911-1979).  Although those who like to divide literature into genres would never consider Bishop a fantasy poet, she definitely has a wonderfully wandering imagination that pulls magical flights of speculation out of ordinary settings.  In this case, the poem was actually inspired by a typo Bishop saw in a newspaper.  The article meant to mention a mammoth, but wrote “manmoth” instead, which led to the following odd but beautiful fantasy.

                Here, above,
cracks in the buildings are filled with battered moonlight.
The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.
It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on,
and he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon.
He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties,
feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold,
of a temperature impossible to record in thermometers.

                But when the Man-Moth
pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface,
the moon looks rather different to him. He emerges
from an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks
and nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings.
He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky,
proving the sky quite useless for protection.
He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb.

        (You can read the rest of the poem at the Poetry Foundation.)

Poem from North & South, 1946.
[Picture:  The Death’s Head Moth gives the Signal for the Silkworm’s funeral procession to begin, engraving by J.J. Grandville, first half 19th c (Image from Imagekind);
Detail from Essay de papilloneries humaines, etching by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin, 1756-60 (Image from the British Museum).]