May 21, 2019

Persephone

        The Greek myth of Persephone (Roman Proserpina) is one that many people have found resonant, but in a surprisingly broad range of ways.  The story represents very different things to different people, and to different artists.  When I went looking for one or two relief block prints to post with my poem about the Persephone myth, I found so many I thought I’d take a closer look.
Myths, like fairy tales, aren’t about individual people.  They’re about symbols, and symbols don’t have emotions, except when the emotion is the point of the myth.  Demeter’s grief at losing her daughter explains the barrenness of winter.  But how does Persephone feel?  Part of fantasy’s job is to explore these things.  There are many possible ways the bare bones of the myth could be fleshed out into a story of experience,  reflecting the complex realities of life as a human.  (Persephone and the other characters in this myth aren’t exactly humans, of course, but as the Classical gods are pretty much just superpowered humans, and as all stories that humans tell are, really, about ourselves, I let my statement stand.)
        So, was Persephone raped in our modern sense of the word?  Kidnapped and sexually assaulted, and forced, then, to marry her rapist?  Or was she thrilled at the adventure of running off with the tall dark and handsome Hades, escaping from the frankly smothering love of her powerful mother?  Did she grow to love Hades gradually, like Beauty and her Beast?  Did she, like me, find eternal summer boring and enjoy the rhythm of changing seasons, each with its own evocative beauties?  What about Hades; did he merely lust after the nubile maiden, or perhaps just want a trophy wife to sit on the throne by his side, or did he really love Persephone?  Was Persephone tricked into tasting those pomegranate seeds, or was it freely chosen, an acknowledgement that life with Hades was something she was willing to take on, or perhaps even wanted?
        Traditional depictions of “the Rape of Persephone” tend to emphasize the violence of the kidnapping, and the titillation of Persephone’s beauty, which highlights the somewhat disturbing fascination that artists (and/or their patrons) have with that unholy combination of sex and violence.  The first piece above, by Guiseppe Scolari around 1600, is of that type, although his version is unusual in failing to focus on Persephone’s nudity as most other artists seem to do.  Scolari seems to have had much more interest in the cleft from hell opening in the earth and venting infernal fumes.  They were probably a more interesting challenge than just another naked chick.
        In ancient Greece Persephone was always paired with Demeter as a goddess of spring, flowers, and fertility, or paired with Hades as the queen of the underworld.  These two pieces by Cynthia Cratsley reproduce the traditional iconography, and the scene with Hades is directly based on a votive tablet found at an altar dedicated to Persephone.
        Another popular theme for artists is Persephone as a lovely maiden gathering flowers.  Presumably this is simply because lovely maidens and pretty landscapes are always a sure bet in art, and calling it “Persephone” adds Culture by way of an excuse.  Sometimes this version of Persephone is shown looking pensive, as a reference to her coming sorrow.  I’ve included a sampling of these, in different styles and different printmaking techniques.
        Finally I get to some of the more unique interpretations.  I’ve included Georges Braque’s version because he’s famous and all, but really, I have absolutely no idea what we’re supposed to be looking at here!  And while we’re feeling cryptic, here’s another piece inspired by Persephone’s story, without being too literal.  The artist Steve Goodwin says this is about “the experience of being split between two worlds, pulled apart in two opposite direction, never fully dwelling in one place.”
        Mina Mond’s Persephone is also split between two worlds, Hades’s hands clutching after her as she rises from Hell into a world of sunshine… and growing pomegranates.
        Persephone’s beauty is always emphasized, and here is a beautiful dress for her, a verdant springtime tangle of plants and flowers and birds… and pomegranates.
        Demeter is beautiful, too, but Persephone’s beauty is that youthful, springtime loveliness that all fashionable women desire — and it can be yours with Le véritable corset Persephone, rendering the sveltest Parisiennes even svelter!
        So many things to so many people… What does the myth of Persephone mean to you?

[Pictures: Rape of Persephone, wood block print by Guiseppe Scolari, 1590-1607 (Image from The Met);
Demeter and Persephone, and Persephone and Hades Enthroned, linocuts by Cynthia Cratsley (Images from the artist’s Etsy shop CynthiaRaeCratsley);
Persephone, etching(?) by Roberto Rascovich from The Myth of Demeter and Persephone, c 1903 (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum);
Proserpina, woodcut by Eric Ravilious, 1928 (Image from MutualArt);
Persephone, paper relief by Lila Oliver Asher, before 1972 (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum);
Persephone, woodcut by Georges Braque, 1948 (Image from MutualArt);
Persephone, linocut print by Steve Goodwin (Image from the artists’s Etsy shop rememberinggreen);
Persephone, woodcut in three colors by Mina Mond (Image from the artist’s shop Mina Mond Prints/DUO DESORDRE);
Persephone, woodcut by Ouida Touchön (Image from the artist’s shop Ouida Touchön Portfolio);
Le Véritable Corset Persephone, advertisement from 1911 (Image from Mary Evans Picture Library).]

May 17, 2019

Persephone in Hades

        It’s time for another fantasy poem, and this time I’ll share one of my own.  This was written probably some time around 1990 although I don’t feel like taking the time to find an exact date for it.  At any rate, you no doubt know the myth of how Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and brought to the underworld to be his wife.  There she was tricked into eating pomegranate seeds, so that even after Zeus demanded her release, she was now required to spend some of each year with Hades.  As a myth it explains winter, when Earth is in mourning and nothing grows because Persephone is in the underworld.  But as a fantasy story it has so many other interesting places to go.  What would it be like to have experienced this story from within?  How might actual people have lived these events?  I say “lived,” but of course most of the witnesses were the dead, the Shades who inhabit Hades.  What would they think or feel to see a living goddess suddenly brought into their realm of the dead?

The Shades Watch Persephone’s Arrival in Hades

These listless plains were ignorant of screams,
til echoes dropped like wadded cotton shrouds
in Lethe's torpid water as she crossed.

He set her, sullen, on the carbon throne,
her brightness cut the passive haze like ice,
we stilled our barren wanderings to watch.

The rest of us had never screamed or shone.
No thought of life had moved since mute descent;
We paid our earthly coin impassively.

We watched her crack the pomegranate's hull,
to disinter the blood-red seeds and taste
(I hadn't thought of blood in all this time)
unwarned her sentence: burial alive.

Her vivid fingers take the first red bead,
we watch her vivid mouth - the silence is
a rustle of cracked leaves, a scratching breath -
inaudible, unvoiced, we murmur "Don't."

Three times we watch a seed to living lips,
three times there is no cry, no warning, "Death."
We are no longer human and forget what we once were.

Did misery invite our tacit hate?
Did Tantalus's shadow chain our grace?
Did hissing shame advise, "Don't get involved"?

We numbed our minds; no thought of ringing blood
can breathe us now.  Does conscience die with death?  
Not before this we forfeited our souls.

        By the way, I went looking for one or two relief block prints of Persephone to illustrate this post, and discovered so many that I’ll do a separate post so I can share more of them.  So, more on Persephone, coming soon…

[Picture: Persephone’s Choice, linocut with watercolor by Eloise Birnam-Wood (Image from her Etsy shop BirnamWoodPrints).]

May 14, 2019

Adult Printmaking Classes

        Another printmaking activity that finished up during the A-Z Challenge was an adult printmaking class that ran for four evening sessions.  Once again we had a mix of experience levels, so rather than having some sort of set curriculum that everyone must follow, I offer the participants a menu of relief printmaking projects they can try.  Some are a little more advanced than others, but in general there’s no reason not to give anything a try if it strikes your fancy.  It never hurts to experiment and see what happens.  I show examples, and explain the basic steps and techniques for a chosen project, and then stand by to answer questions or troubleshoot.
        I’ve posted about all the techniques before, so here’s the menu, with a few notes, and with links to more information.

• Not a Zentangle - previous post
        This is recommended as a first project for anyone who doesn’t have much prior printmaking experience.

• The Classic (one block, one ink, one color paper)
        Honestly, you can happily spend years exploring just this basic block print (indeed, I have), and most students work on classic blocks for most of the time.

• Notecards, bookplates, labels - previous post on bookplates

• Mix & Match blocks - previous post on student work (kids), and on a project of mine

• Foreground & Background - previous post on student work (kids), and on work by M.C. Escher

• Reduction Print - previous posts Part I, Part II, and another one

• Tile - previous post
        The previous post linked above deals specifically with very small square blocks, but adults often experiment with larger squares, often around 3 or 4 inches.

• Provincetown White-Line Print - Previous posts on history, on techniques, and on student work (kids)

• Monotype - previous post

        As usual, the artists did some wonderful work in the class, and while I didn’t take as many pictures as I would have liked, I’ve included a few samples.  (Also, I didn’t label these pictures soon enough and have lost track of who did 
some of them -- but if anyone wants to claim their work and have it properly attributed, just let me know!)


[Pictures: Boats, rubber block print by LL, 2019;
Jackalope, rubber block print by KB, 2019;
Pyramid, rubber block print by JP, 2019;
Carolina wren, rubber block print by MH(?), 2019.]

May 10, 2019

Life-Saving Relief Print

        Because this blog is devoted to the A-Z Challenge from Mid-March through the first post of May, no other topics get covered in that time, but now that the April A-Z is over it’s time to switch gears and go back and report on a few interesting things that are now about a month out of date.  I’ll start with a report on a school printmaking visit I did that introduced me to an amazing person and episode of history I had not been aware of.
        Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese vice consul in Lithuania in 1939-40, and went against his orders to give visas to as many people as he could who were fleeing the Nazi regime.  The details of all that he did are fascinating and inspiring - I encourage you to read the Wikipedia article.  Sugihara did everything he could to give out as many visas as possible, working up to 20 hours a day preparing papers, throwing stamped, signed papers from train windows into crowds of desperate refugees, and finally leaving the consulate seal itself behind when he was recalled to Japan, so that someone else could keep stamping forged papers.  He realized that his consular stamp literally had the power of life for people who would be killed if they couldn’t get away from the Nazis.  I like to talk big about how great printmaking is, and the power of art, but this particular relief printing block - the consulate seal - while of course never intended to be art, had a power much more immediate and stark than any mere picture.  Estimates are that Sugihara saved the lives of between 2,200 and 6,000 people (hard to pin down in part because multiple people in a family could travel under a single visa).
        So how does all this turn into a school art visit?  Well, an artist I know, Tova Speter, who specializes in community art projects, is doing an art installation at a local school, inspired by the story of Sugihara and his consulate seal.  Her idea was to have the eighth grade students make stamps representing some quality that they admired in Sugihara, then the stamps would be used to make a sort of mosaic, which is to be installed as a piece of art in the school.  (There is also to be an assembly at which the entire school community can stamp papers with the student designs.)  While Tova is something of a jack-of-all-trades, she recruited me to help with the printmaking part of the project, and we met with all the eighth grade students to help them carve their printing blocks.
        The down side was that the school was not able to give us enough time to do the stamp-making project optimally.  In order to be as efficient as possible, Tova had the kids start planning their designs ahead of time, and I cut 2 inch circles of rubber for everyone ahead of time, but even so, it was much more rushed than I would have liked, and a number of students weren’t able to finish.  Plus there were several students home sick on the day of carving.  I ended up finishing the carving for all of them.  (Normally as a teacher I make it a point never to do students’ artwork for them, even when they ask me to, but these were special circumstances: the students were never going to have another opportunity to complete their own carving, and it was deemed important that they nevertheless see their designs realized and made part of the final community project and installation.)  But the up side, of course, was some cool work by the kids!
        I’m not sure what stage the whole project has reached by this point, although I very much look forward to seeing pictures when the installation is complete.  In the meantime, though, I have been fascinated to think about the creativity with which Sugihara used his relief print to save so many people’s lives.

[Pictures: Visa issued by consul Sugihara, 1940 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Assorted stamps designed by eighth grade students at Maimonides School, 2019.]

May 7, 2019

A-Z Reflections

        I had a really good time with the A-Z Challenge this year.  I discovered more blogs, left and received more comments, and felt more like the comments constituted actual conversations rather than simply polite words dropped into the ether.  I attribute this at least in part to the fact that I spent an enormous amount of time going through all the other blogs - probably more time than I could really afford, to be honest.  But it was interesting, and I do hope to keep up with some of the amazing blogs I discovered.
        My theme was based on an alphabet book of fantasy creatures I’m doing, and largely overlapped with the Kickstarter campaign I launched to support the project.  The Kickstarter campaign ends in just 47 hours, by the way, so if you are curious and haven’t yet checked it out, scoot on over and see what I’m devising.  It’s almost 350% funded and I’ve been blown away by the positive response, of which the A-Z Challenge has been part.  Thank you!  (The project was also selected as a Kickstarter “Project We Love” and featured in a post by Lisa Ferland on Top 10 List of Books on Crowdfunding Platforms.  *smiles and blushes*)
        This past weekend I was showing at an Open Studios event and spent the weekend (when not talking with visitors) carving blocks for the last two creatures planned for the book.  So at some point I’ll get them finished and printed, and they’ll no doubt eventually be posted here for a mythical creature bonus.  Teaser - one is called the Grand Marhoot, and the other block includes three different Zhahmatonians: the kuklopawn, the alfidi, and the quatrukhana.  I hope you’re enticed!  Meanwhile, if you want an overview of the fantasy creatures featured throughout April (plus the extras, since half the letters actually have two), you can see them all on my web site here.
        Here are just a few of the blogs I visited most regularly this year (though by no means the only ones I enjoyed!):
Atherton’s Magic Vapour with Golden Age Mystery Tropes
Temenos (Deborah Weber) with Cabinet of Curiosities
The Slightly Eccentric Diary of Rob Z Tobor with... general goofiness? and ducks
Finding Eliza with African-American Genealogy and Slave Ancestry Research
The Multicolored Diary with Fruit Folktales
        As for next year, I certainly don’t have plans for any projects as grand and ambitious as this year, but I have started keeping a list of alphabet ideas, so I’m sure I’ll come up with something for the A-Z Challenge.  I look forward to seeing you all again — or, of course, you’re certainly welcome to visit any time of the year, not just in April!  Thanks to everyone who stopped by and said hello throughout the challenge, and special appreciation for my regular visitors.  You really made it enjoyable.
        Did you have a favorite creature this year?  Or a suggestion for what you’d like to see next year?

[Picture: AEGN at Needham Open Studios, carving the block for the Grand Marhoot, 2019 (Photo by G. Arrieta-Ruetenik).]

April 30, 2019

Z is for Ziz

        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.  Please check out my Kickstarter Campaign to kick this project over the finish line!

        We’re ending the alphabet with a bang: the biggest creature in the skies!  No, it’s not a mere roc.  It’s even bigger…
        “The ziz is a bird so great that it can eclipse the sun, and standing in the deep ocean, the water reaches only to its ankles.  The ancient writer says: It once happened that travelers on a vessel noticed a bird. As he stood in the water, it merely covered his feet, and his head knocked against the sky. The onlookers thought the water could not have any depth at that point, and they prepared to take a bath there. A heavenly voice warned them: "Alight not here! Once a carpenter's axe slipped from his hand at this spot, and it took it seven years to touch bottom." The bird the travelers saw was none other than the Ziz.

        If it’s standing in the deep ocean, I can’t help but wonder what leviathan makes of its feet.  Does this mean leviathan is only the size of one of ziz’s toes, or are they more comparable in scale, with even deeper deepest ocean for leviathan to lurk in?  Behemoth, by the way, is the biggest land creature, although I haven’t included it in my bestiary.  It’s hard to imagine that any land creature could be as big as leviathan and ziz seem to be, so I think it must be a fair bit smaller.
        These head-to-head comparisons make me think of the age-old questions: Alien vs Predator?  Godzilla vs King Kong?  T-rex vs bantha?  Ninki Nanka vs dragon, troll vs isnashi, cherufe vs bunyip?  Certain animals in the medieval bestiaries were said to be deadly enemies of one another, including griffin and horse, basilisk and weasel, and dragon and ichneumon.  Of course not all monsters spend their time fighting cage matches, but it can be interesting to imagine what various mythical beings might make of each other.  Some fantasy creatures seem to fit into the same world logically, while others seem to be loners, wanting to keep their stories to themselves.  What creatures would you like to see appearing in a story together?

        We may be at Z, but there’s still  just a bit more alphabetic mythical creature goodness for you.  Click the link to read 


[Picture: Ziz Eclipse, rubber block print by AEGN, 2016.]

April 29, 2019

Words of the Month - Y is for Ypotryll

        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.  If this sounds interesting, please check out my Kickstarter Campaign for all the details.

        The ypotryll is a rare and goofy chimerical creature that seems to have begun and ended in European heraldry.  To me, its appeal is two-fold.  First, because of its rarity there aren’t many depictions of it, and the version most commonly seen gives it this wholly ridiculous and cheesy grin.  I just couldn’t help loving any monster with such a silly smile.  In my bestiary the moral I’ve drawn from the ypotryll is that “the imagination must never fear to be ridiculous.  A thousand absurd ideas are a necessary part of the process of populating the Realms of Imagination, so that truly silliness can be as valuable in its turn as the more practical ideas which it may help to inspire and evolve.”
        And secondly, its name is such a fabulous word.  So we’re once again having our Words of the Month a day early so that we can take a closer look at those funny-looking, good-for-hangman-and-spelling-bees English words that start with Y followed by a consonant.  There aren’t many.  

Yggdrasil - the “world tree’ of Norse mythology.  I mention it because it’s well-known in mythology/fantasy, and it’s a particularly satisfying mouthful of a word, but I really shouldn’t include it since it’s a proper noun.  So, setting aside other proper nouns, my dictionary has

yclept - “called,” as in “I am a blogger yclept Anne.”  Six centuries ago all kinds of verbs in English could take y- or ye- in their past participles, but why, when all the others are long gone, yclept has sort of managed to stick around as a self-consciously super-archaic form I cannot say. (While I’m on the topic of archaic forms, I can also mention that in the days before standardized spelling it was possible to see just about any word that begins with a vowel sound occasionally spelled with a y.  As we’ve seen before, yale, for example, is an alternate spelling of eale.  My favorite of these spellings just might be yse-yckel, meaning “icicle.”  For purposes of my list of English words beginning with Y, however, these just don’t cut it.)

ylang-ylang - “a perfume derived from a tropical flowering tree,” from Tagalog ilang-ilang.  I can’t tell you why the perfectly reasonable I from Tagalog got changed to a silly Y in English.  I surmise that it’s because we got the word by way of French, but I haven’t confirmed that.

ypsiliform - “shaped like the Greek letter upsilon.”  Again, this has a Y spelling because it’s derived from an archaic (and probably Old-French-derived) Y spelling of the Greek letter.  (Tangential fun fact: a near-synonym is arietiform meaning “shaped like a ram’s head” or, specifically, the astrological symbol for Aries.  When there are two fabulous words for something, how can you choose?  You just have to talk about Y-shaped things twice as often, I guess.)

ytterbium - a metallic rare-earth element (Yb), named for the Swedish town of Ytterby where it was found

yttria - “the oxide of yttrium.”  It’s also possible to make various other forms, such as the adjective yttric.

yttrium - another element (Y), also found near and named for Ytterby

yngling - a kind of sailboat designed in Norway in 1967, with a Norwegian name (meaning “youngster”)

Of course my dictionary doesn’t even include ypotryll, so it’s clearly not comprehensive!
The word ypotryll probably derives in part from Middle English ypotame from Old French, meaning “hippopotamus,” even though the hippo is one of the few animals that does not lend any body parts to the ypotryll.  Possibly it’s just the horse part (hippo- or ypo-) ultimately from the Greek, although the ypotryll doesn't include any horse genes, either.  What the -tryll is, no one seems to know.  Given that this beast appears to have been invented by some late medieval herald desperate for variety, it may simply be a completely random word that sounded good, just like the made-up names of creatures in modern fantasy.
        But the alphabet of mythical creatures doesn’t stop with ypotryll.  In fact, it’s suspiciously full of wild, hairy ape-men.  You have to click the link to read 

[Picture: Ypotryll in Springtime, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019.]

April 26, 2019

X is for Xana

        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.  Please check out my Kickstarter Campaign to kick this project over the finish line.

        From the end notes of the book: “The xana is a nymph or water spirit from the folklore of the Asturian region of northern Spain.  In addition to luring men with their beauty and their song, they frequently guard treasures, which they may occasionally offer to worthy travellers.  They are also known to leave their babies with human women as changelings.”

        So the xana is a pretty standard water nymph in most regards, similar to nymphs in legends all around Europe and most of the other continents, too.  Beautiful, watery young women that swim, sing, seduce, and lure men seem to be a fairly universal human preoccupation.  Of course I picked this particular variant merely because it begins with X.  (I know all my fellow A-Z bloggers will understand and sympathize with that!)  For my depiction, what occurred to me was that if humans are so curious about nymphs, chances are nymphs are equally curious about us.  Maybe they sing and lure people just to try to figure out what sort of creatures we are.
        Here’s the previous post about the making of this print.

        I really wanted to use xog for my X creature.  That’s a winged dog, which I thought would be tremendous fun to illustrate.  However, as the xog appears in a 2002 book by David Frampton (see it at the bottom of this post with lots more X-citing alphabet fun), I would have had to deal with copyright issues.  Ugh.  So I’m just sticking with stuff in the public domain.  But what are your favorite new fantasy creatures?  Pushmi pullyus? Orcs?  E.T.?  Nifflers or thestrals?  Godzilla or Mothra?

        Even for X, the alphabet of mythical animals doesn’t stop here.  Click the link to find more X beasts in 


[Picture: Freshwater Life, rubber block print by AEGN, 2016.]

April 25, 2019

W is for Wyvern

        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.  Please check out my Kickstarter Campaign to find out more.

        As mentioned before, I’m not trying to make an encyclopedia in which I merely accurately report the research on these myths and legends.  I’m trying to start with the research, but then imagine the next step.  If these creatures really existed, how might they actually behave?  How might people interact with them?

“The wyvern dwells primarily in Europe, and is frequently employed in heraldry, where it poses fiercely on coats of arms.  There it is thought to bring fortune in battle to those who bear its symbol, but what of the wyvern's own fortune?  Though wyverns have rampaged over the countryside and posed on coats of arms for centuries, it is not inevitable that they do so always and forever.  I myself in my travels once encountered on a rocky tor a restless wyvern who had left his shield to seek his own fortune, hoping to discover what new possibilities the world might hold for him.
        This wyvern teaches us the power of envisioning new possibilities, for it is easy to assume that the way things are is the only possible way for them to be, and difficult to break free of the assumption that the world cannot be changed or improved.  Let us be reminded by the adventuresome wyvern that we need not remain enslaved to things as they are, for the way things are is not inevitable, and we can, with imagination, seek for freedom in new ways of seeing and living in the world.”

        If you could pick any creature for your own personal symbol, what would you pick and why?

        The alphabet of mythical creatures doesn’t stop there.  You have to click the link to read 

[Picture: Freedom, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]