December 31, 2010

Words of the Month - The Root of Happiness

        There's a folk tale from the Brothers Grimm called in English "Lucky Hans," or "Hans in Luck."  In case you don't know it, it tells of a young man on a journey home who, every time he becomes dissatisfied, makes a bargain with a passerby and feels himself very fortunate.  The joke is that the bargains always make him the loser in the view of any wise and worldly reader - he trades his seven years of wages for a horse, his horse for an old cow, the cow for a medium pig, and so on, until he has nothing left at all… at which point he jumps for joy at being relieved of all his burdens, and heads on home thinking he's the luckiest man alive.  There's plenty to think about with this story - how lucky is Hans, really?  One could argue either way - but there's an added dimension to the question in the original German.  The word for lucky, glücklig, is also the word for happy.  So you can also ask how happy is Hans?  He's always pleased with every bargain he makes, but he's never content enough to stick with what he's got. One could argue either way.
For good luck in the New Year - twelve rabbit's feet!
        When I learned the German vocabulary back in high school I thought it very strange and potentially confusing to have the same word mean both happy and lucky.  But then just recently the word happenstance caught my attention and it occurred to me that here in English, too, happiness shares a root with chance.  Think about it…

happy - from Middle English hap, which got it from Old Norse happ meaning luck or chance.  The word first meant fortunate.  (14th century)
happen - to take place or occur, but often more specifically to occur by chance, as in "I happened to run into an old friend at the supermarket." (14th century)
mishap - an unfortunate accident (14th century)
hapless - unlucky (16th century)
haphazard - by chance, random (16th century)
        The adverb in a pleased manner is happily, and the adverb meaning by chance is the now archaic haply, so despite the shared root, we don't have to wonder which meaning someone intends, (giving us an advantage over German).
        Suddenly the phrase "by some happy chance" sounds ridiculously redundant!

        Clearly our language developed under the belief that the root of happiness is chance, even if some might argue nowadays that we are all in control of our own happiness.  But either way, I wish you all a Happy New Year, both pleasant and full of good luck.

[Picture: Three Rabbits, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009.]

December 28, 2010

Keeping Awake


        We just returned from visiting D’s family for Christmas, so I didn't have my hobbies with me.  I couldn't carve or print blocks, and I couldn't really find much time or concentration to try to work on writing.  Nevertheless, in times like that I don’t have to stop thinking, and there are a couple of things I can do to keep the creativity from falling completely asleep.




        One thing I did is mull my latest story idea.  I bugged D by bouncing ideas off him when we were sitting around waiting for something.  I let my mind wander in the absence of my usual ways to keep busy, and I jotted down little scraps of idea – sounds simple and obvious, but I know that if I don’t write things down, I may not remember any of it by the time I really sit down to work on the story.  Besides, writing ideas down helps me clarify, sort, and follow up on wisps of thought.

        The other thing I was doing is a practice I learned about from an artist who spoke at MassArt, Claudine Bing.  She suggested a really fun way to brainstorm ideas for art.  Take a camera and snap pictures of anything that looks interesting, no matter how trivial, weird, fleeting, or unlike your usual style.  Anything that strikes your eye or catches your attention – click click click.  (Boy, do I love digital cameras!)  So that’s what I was doing, right along with the obligatory family vacation pictures.  When I look at these photos later I never know what might prove to be the inspiration behind a new piece.

         On Friday we went to the San Diego zoo with my nephew, hiking over the entire place, eager to see every single animal if we could.  I snapped pictures of all the animals I thought were especially cool, and all the animals T and P requested me to photograph, too.  And that reminded me that last time I was at the San Diego zoo about twelve years ago, I took a photo that eventually got turned into a block print.  So inspiration is all around, as long as you’re always open to it.

        Of course, it may be that not a single one of these snapshots will ever become the basis for a piece of art, and that’s fine, too.  After all, the idea isn’t that I need to be turning out the next big thing even while I’m on vacation.  The real value of having my camera at the ready is that it puts me in the mindset of paying attention to what I see, observing, appreciating, and being open to ideas.  It keeps the creativity awake.





[Pictures: photos by AEGN, 2010; (magnetic poem by AEGN);
Mhorr’s Gazelles, rubber block print by AEGN, 1998.]

December 25, 2010

Ellen Raskin & A Child's Christmas in Wales

        When I was twelve my parents gave me for Christmas a small, slim paperback copy of A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas.  They gave it to me because of my interest in poetry, but even though at the time I didn't give any particular thought to block printing, I still loved the way Ellen Raskin's simple, stylized woodcuts complemented Thomas's beautiful, evocative poetry.  I've never stopped loving either the poem or the illustrations.
        Ellen Raskin designed the edition as well as making the wood block illustrations, in 1954.  Yes, this is the same Ellen Raskin who would later become an acclaimed writer and eventually win the Newbery Medal for The Westing Game.  She was a graphic artist and illustrator first.
        What I find inspiring about the design of the New Directions edition of A Child's Christmas in Wales is its simplicity.  Raskin's illustrations are so small some of them are hardly more than glorified dingbats, and they're sprinkled throughout the text instead of standing, full-page, in their own importance.  They're not very detailed, they're rather rough… It might seem as if they would be at odds with the dense, smooth arcs of Thomas's soaring, polished phrases.  Yet instead the woodcuts work beautifully together with the words to evoke scenes glimpsed through the quirky lens of memory, at once vague and sharp, dream-like and specific, personal and universal.

        To all who celebrate Christmas, may yours be full of love and joy.

[Pictures: woodcuts by Ellen Raskin from A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, New Directions, 1954, 1959.]

December 21, 2010

Heroic Heroes

The Itsy Bitsy Spider - a truly epic heroic hero?
        I am old-fashioned and unfashionable enough to like my heroes heroic.  These days literary trendiness demands anti-heroes and conflicted protagonists.  Especially in comic-books and their attendant movies it seems that Disturbing Psychological Issues are a prerequisite.  Nice guys and gals need not apply.  But for me perhaps the number one factor determining whether or not I will enjoy a book (or movie) is whether I like and respect the hero.  (I use hero as a gender-neutral term here, by the way.)  That doesn’t mean a protagonist can never make mistakes, or can’t be dealing with a troubled past, or can’t struggle with difficult decisions.  It doesn’t mean our hero won’t waver or lose heart at times.  It doesn't mean our hero isn't human.  But ultimately what I want to read about is people who try to do what’s right, and who are heroes not because they are the strongest people around, or the most powerful, or have the coolest gadgets, or because they refuse to let any moral considerations get between them and what they want.  I want to read about people I can respect because they are thoughtful, brave, creative, and moral in the face of difficulty.  (And not too much angsty whining, either, please.)
        This is why I've never been a huge fan of Greek or Norse mythology, or Arthurian legend.  All those so-called gods and heroes are no better than they ought to be.  We're supposed to cheer for one set of characters who are doing all the same lying, cheating and murder as the other set of characters whom we're supposed to boo.  Some are better than others, of course, but how can you respect such a wrangling, petty bunch of gods, not to mention Zeus's serial rape habit?  How can you respect Merlin after the episode of Uther and Igraine?
For a more modern example take the Earthsea series by LeGuin.  They're all beautifully written, and The Tombs of Atuan is one of my all-time favorite books – but I did not like A Wizard of Earthsea at all upon first reading, and the primary reason was simply that I didn't like Ged.  Of course that was the whole arc of the story - how Ged made a terrible error and how he atoned for it and made it right – but in reading the book I had no patience for his poor choices.  All I wanted was to take him by the shoulders and shake him and say “Quit being so stupid and arrogant!”  He was an awful lot like the posturing, bragging boys I never liked in school.  I didn't like him, and thus I didn’t like the book.  (It didn’t help that at the time I was of an age to be looking for female heroes - but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.)  Luckily, by the time we meet Ged again in The Tombs of Atuan, he’s as heroic as I could wish.
        I know that some people dislike a protagonist who’s too goody-goody.  Indeed, if every reader shared my taste for heroic heroes, then characters like Heathcliff, Holden Caulfield, the Black Knight version of Batman, and The Punisher wouldn’t be so wildly popular, and nor would Arthurian legend have such enduring appeal.  I know I’ve always been that much-despised creature: a good little girl.. but is it really so unreasonable to look for stories about people I can like and respect?  Am I really the only person in the world who wants to read about good people trying to be good?  What about you?

[Picture: The Itsy Bitsy Spider, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006.]

December 17, 2010

What's New in the Studio

        I have a lot of hobbies - the block printing and the writing being the primary ones, but also this blog, of course, gardening, quilting, scrapbooks for the kids, reading, the word game Babble, and any number of other little projects.  Even with my commitment to insufficient housework I still find it impossible to pursue all those hobbies properly, so I tend to go in phases where one or another
predominates while others get pushed to the side for a while.  (And where on earth do people find the time to watch five hours of television each day, or whatever the national average is supposed to be???)  At any rate, recently I've been doing so many shows that block printing and related stuff has been taking precedence over everything else.


Here's the latest piece.
        This is another sort of experimental one.  I got the idea from a sketch I'd made in a journal a number of years ago, somewhere between Boston and South Dakota and a long way up.  Since I've been mildly obsessed with pattern and texture recently, as soon as I saw the sketch (while flipping through the journal looking for something else) I started thinking of carving it.  The result is this view down between clouds.


Weird ink effect - notice the places where it's come off.
        For some reason I had a really hard time getting clean impressions again.  I'm about two thirds of the way through an 8 ounce jar of Dick Blick water-based block printing ink, and I won't be buying any more of it.  It's too thick, I always have to thin it out slightly, and it's hard to get the consistency just right.  Whenever it gets too dry it sort of peels itself right off the block in a weird way.  I like to work really hard on the carving but I don't want to struggle with the inking and printing.


        This little sketch was going to be my next block if I had extra time to carve at my last show.  In the end the airplane view block took me long enough, so I'm not sure when I'll get around to this one.  It should be a nice, relaxing one, but at the moment I'm thinking I'd like to focus back on the writing for a while.  I have an almost-finished book that needs its final work, and then I'm eager to get started on something new.


        And finally, I want to include a picture of our Christmas tree, which we just set up and are feeling so pleased about.  I expect Martha Stewart will be wishing she'd thought of this!  The triangle surrounding the real miniature tree is my cheap display easel with its cross piece removed.  Though I say it myself, I think it would look splendid on the cover of some insanely hip home magazine!



[Pictures: Between the Clouds, rubber block print by AEGN, 2010;
carved Between the Clouds block;
strange ink effect;
mouse sketch by AEGN;
Tripod Christmas tree, 2010.]

December 14, 2010

Poetry is Everywhere (Part II)

        I was reading something recently where a critic was complaining about the poetry in fantasy novels.  He asserted that it was pretty much all bad and would be better left out.  Admittedly there is probably more poetry in fantasy than most other genres, and plenty of it is pretty bad, too, but I want to defend the role that poetry plays in world creation.  Poetry is everywhere.  A world without any poetry - no songs, no proverbs, no children's rhymes - would be a world without life.  In fantasy we're immersing ourselves in entirely new worlds, and that means every detail is a tool for getting to know a new place and culture.  Yes, really bad poetry can jar me out of the fantasy mood instead of pulling me deeper in, but real worlds are full of little snippets of weak poetry, so why should imaginary worlds not have their share of weak poetry, too?  And a poem that truly deepens the spirit of a novel can draw me in more viscerally than almost anything else.
        I've already sung my praises of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," so I'll say here how well the poem captures the spirit of Alice's world through the looking glass, where everything is an intriguing blend of ridiculous and familiar and strange.  I remember, too, how enchanted I was by Tolkien's
                Far over the misty mountains cold
                To dungeons deep and caverns old…
A poem like that will no doubt never be featured in New Yorker magazine or awarded any prizes by prestigious literary journals.  But when I was a child and first read "Far over the misty mountains," the longing in the poem seemed to echo my own longing for the mystery, wonder, and adventure that I found in fantasy.  It evoked everything that was magical and brought it deep inside my heart... In what way is that not good poetry?  (On the other hand, I didn't much like the "Chip the glasses and crack the plates!" song, but you can't expect to like everything in an entire world!)
        When I was a bit older LeGuin's interesting book Always Coming Home inspired me with the idea of the ordinary bits and pieces of imaginary cultures.  Always Coming Home is not a novel but an imagined anthropologist's collection of texts, including stories, songs, poems, children's rhymes, and descriptions of rituals, artifacts and traditions.  I've been collecting bits and pieces of my own imaginary cultures ever since, with a special emphasis on their rhymes, songs, and other poems.
        So yes, there's a lot of bad poetry in this world and a lot of bad poetry in the worlds of fantasy.  But poetry is everywhere, and who could ever believe in a world without it?

        It's foolhardy to offer any of my own poems here, since inevitably some people will think they stink, but I'm going to go out on a limb and conclude with two poems from my Otherworld series.  The idea is that they should each have a different flavor because they represent two different cultures - and that they should help draw a reader into another world.
        First is a poem in the book I'm working on now (titled Ruin of Ancient Powers.)  It's a lullaby from the Tungoldroleth, the elves of the northern mountains.
          All shall be well, for the high moon glows,
And all shall be well tonight.
Bright fire yet burns, sweet water yet flows,
And all shall be well tonight.
The dusk-winged bats dance under the stars
And all shall be well tonight,
While the worn day wraps the night to its scars,
And all shall be well tonight.
What tomorrow holds shall come in its time,
And all shall be well tonight,
Until out of its darkness the dawn shall climb,
Fresh from the healing night,
And all shall be well tonight.

        And for comparison, another lullaby, this one from the Sinbal tribespeople who live between the ocean and the great desert of the Dubaad Lands.  It appears in the second book of the series, Sleeping Legends Lie.
I am here.
God is with us.
He will hold you close as the river holds the minnow.
He will set you free as the earth frees the sparrow.
And while you wait
for the gifts of God,
I am here.

[Pictures: Nasturtium, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006;
Xenops!, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009.]

December 10, 2010

Poetry is Everywhere (Part I)

        It's funny that people often seem to think they don't know much poetry or that poetry is irrelevant to everyday life, because in fact poetry is everywhere.
   Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the
                   fiddle.
   The cow jumped over the moon…

        That's poetry.
   Roses are red, violets are blue…

   There was an old man with a beard...

   I before e, except after c.

        Even such sayings as A penny saved is a penny earned and A stitch in time saves nine are framed with the cadence of poetry.
        And then there are songs.
   Hark! The herald angels sing,
   "Glory to the newborn king!"...

          Do you ever feel like a plastic
                            bag
                  drifting through the wind
          Wanting to start again?
          Do you ever feel so paper thin, like a house of cards
          One blow from caving in?
   Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again,
   Because a vision softly creeping left its seeds while I was sleeping,
   And the vision that was planted in my brain still remains
   Within the sound of silence...
             Double your pleasure, double your fun,
             It's the right one, the Doublemint gum!

        Of course many of these jingles and popular songs aren't very good poems, but they still make use of the manipulations of language that turn words into poetry: rhythm, rhyme, metaphor, repetition, and so on.  For whatever reason, the human brain seems to be hardwired to respond to language like this.  I don't know whether people have studied why we like poetry so much, but I'd sure be interested in hearing some theories about it.
        Poetry is some of the first language we hear, in the form of nursery rhymes and lullabies, poetry is one of the firmest ways things stick in our heads in the form of mnemonic rhymes and advertising jingles, and poetry is in all the songs we listen to on the radio or sing in the shower.  Poetry is in the psalms and hymns at church, in the greeting cards we receive, in the jump-rope rhymes at the playground, and in many of the proverbs and clichés we repeat to each other.  Poetry is everywhere.  Think about all that poetry and consider whether you can really imagine a world that didn't have any.

       And speaking of imagining worlds, what about poetry in fantasy?  Tune in next time…

[Picture: Hey, Diddle Diddle! rubber block print by AEGN, 2001.]

December 7, 2010

Wanda Gág's Block Prints

        I've known Wanda Gág's book Millions of Cats (1928) since I was little, and can still remember the rhythmic refrain "Cats here, cats there, cats and kittens everywhere, Hundreds of cats, Thousands of cats, Millions and billions and trillions of cats."  (Gág did love cats!)  She won the Newbery Honor Award for this classic book.  It was some time later that I discovered that Gág was an artist beyond the illustrations of her books, particularly acclaimed for lithographs, but also with some relief prints.  Her images are often very dark, with such sweeping curves and looming shadows that her scenes of ordinary life become lyrical and almost dream-like.  I love them!
        Look how intricate the shadows are in this wood engraving, even though it's stylized.  I love the pattern of all the turned wood pieces in the spinning wheel.


        In this linoleum block print, called "Departure," Gág somehow manages to make the scene simultaneously sad and cozy.  And again, all those shadows!

        Here's one of her beautiful lithographs.  I'm sorry it's not a larger, more detailed image, but look how gentle and rich the gradations of grey are, when compared with the relief prints.  Lithography is just perfect for the soft snow and the soft twilight of this scene.
        And finally, another lithograph, but a bright scene, just so you can see that she didn't do only shadows!  But it still has all those curves and that dreamlike quality.


[Pictures: Spinning Wheel, wood engraving by Wanda Gág, 1925, (Minnesota Historical Society Collections);
Departure, linoleum block print by Wanda Gág, 1927, (The Old Print Shop);
Winter Twilight, zinc plate lithograph by Wanda Gág, 1927, (The Tweed Museum of Art);
Spring on the Hillside, lithograph by Wanda Gág, 1935.]

December 3, 2010

Negative Space

        "Negative space" is defined as the space around and between the subject(s) of an image.  It's the nothing around the something.  But "negative" space can be just as powerful and important as "positive" space.  Sometimes what isn't said is as important as what is.  Sometimes the space between is really the subject of a piece.
White (blank paper) negative space.
        When D and I were first married, his old used car failed its inspection for several problems, and we decided that rather than pour money into a rapidly failing wreck with over 127 thousand miles, we would invest in a new car.  That weekend we started car shopping, but because we were living in a small town, we had to drive an hour and a quarter to the nearest dealership that had the car we wanted to look at.  We reached the town around lunch time and stopped at a mall for a bite to eat before going to the dealership.  When we came back out to the parking lot after lunch, D's car would not start.  On Friday the car had been diagnosed with failure of any of its windows to roll down, problems with the emergency brake, and cracked brake hoses.  On Saturday the air conditioning had given out, and on Sunday it was dead in a parking lot.  We went back into the mall and called a cab (this being in those long-ago days before cell phones), which took us to the car dealership and abandoned us there.
In the classic illusion, which is the negative space?
        Did ever a car salesman have so easy a sale dropped in his lap?  If we didn't buy a car from him on the spot we had no way to leave that lot!  And yet the salesman, Mike, was so incredibly obnoxious that despite our being stranded without transportation 75 miles from home on a darkening Sunday evening, we quickly decided that there was no way we would be buying a car from this man, even if it meant we had to walk home.  Deep into his oblivious hard sell, however, Mike was already eagerly asking us about our trade-in vehicle.  What sort of maintenance issues did it have, he asked.  What sort of maintenance issues?  It was sitting dead in a mall parking lot at that very moment, as D, poker-faced, replied simply, "Well, it has cracked brake hoses."  Period.  Full stop.  And silence as Mike nods eagerly…
       Why do I tell that story here?  Because it's a story with negative space, a story in which what didn't get said was as important as what did.  Our comedy of errors went on, that Sunday, as we walked out of the car dealership, as it began to drizzle and then to rain, as every car rental place in the city was closed…  There was a point when we sat together on the floor in an aisle of a Blockbuster Video where we had taken refuge, and laughed until the tears came at the thought of the "cracked brake hoses."  We did get home eventually, of course, and live happily ever after, too, but the point here is that in both writing and visual art "negative" space isn't really an absence of something.  It's just a presence of a different sort.
The black of the leaves is the background for the flower, but
the leaves are defined by the white negative space around them.
        When carving a relief block you can think of it as carving away the negative space or as drawing with white.  You can think of the black as the positive or as the negative.  Often black and white are layered so that they are each other's negative spaces.  Sometimes it's clear that I'm depicting a single object and that everything else is negative space, but other times I think of the black and the white, the carved and the uncarved, as equal partners in a dance, interlocking pieces of the whole.   Like two clasped hands filling the spaces between each other, neither one negative space, so the ink and the paper of a block print can work together in partnership.

[Pictures: 1898 Winton Phaeton, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007;
"Goblet Illusion." Weisstein, Eric W. from MathWorld--A Wolfram Web Resource;
Jewelweed, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006.]