June 28, 2011

Words of the Month - Devil at the Ballet

        What does a devil have in common with ballet?  Allow me to explain…
        As you probably know, languages such as French, Italian and Spanish are all descended from a single parent language: Latin.  English (though it borrows vocabulary from everywhere) shares a parent language with German, Dutch, and Yiddish, among others.  But what about Latin and the Germanic parent language?  Well, they're both descended from an even older parent language, a grandparent language, as it were.  In fact, almost all the languages of Europe, plus the Balto-Slavic languages and many languages of southern Asia, can all be traced back to a single great-great-great-grandparent language, which linguists call Proto-Indo-European.  This language was spoken before 3000 BCE and never written, so everything about it has to be deduced by comparisons of related words in all its descendent languages.  (In a nice fantasy connection, one of the philologists whose work helped scholars figure out a lot of these connections was Jakob Grimm, of fairy tale fame.)
        I offer this introduction because today's Words of the Month are some of our English words that all ultimately derive from a single Proto-Indo-European root.  The root is written GWELh-1, the notation linguists use to get down all the information they've deduced about the original word, without making a claim that this was the actual word itself as spoken by people five thousand years ago.  What the word meant was "to throw."  Out of Proto-Indo-European developed Greek, and today's Words developed into English from a few different ancient Greek words that had all derived from the Proto-Indo-European GWELh-1 word.  The first of these Greek words is ballein, meaning to throw, which has given us
     problem - something that is thrown before us (You can recognize the pro- prefix and the b-l of the Greek root)
     symbol - something that throws together an object and a meaning (sym + bol)

        The same Proto-Indo-European root also developed in another direction in Greek: diabolos meant "to slander," literally to utterly throw across someone's character.  (dia + bol)  And from that English got
     diabolic and thence devil - from a [mis]translation of the Hebrew Bible's "Satan" as "the slanderer."

        Yet another ancient Greek word that traces its origins to the same Proto-Indo-European root is ballízein, to dance - presumably to throw your body about.  And that gives us
     ball - at which Cinderella danced until midnight
     ballet - (by way of French and Italian) in which the story of, say, "Sleeping Beauty" is told through dance
     ballad - (by way of Portuguese) which was originally a dancing song

        So there you have it.  Not only are "devil" and "ballet" linguistic cousins, but so are the other Words of the Month, unrelated as they sound.  Pretty cool, eh!

[Picture: Witches and devils dancing in a circle, woodcut by Romeyn de Hooghe(?), 1720.  I wish I could give more information about this, but I can't track down any details.  I found the image here.]

June 24, 2011

What's New in the Studio

        Here's the block I finished carving on Sunday and printed on Monday.  It shows an antique Underwood No. 3 typewriter I found at our town dump's "re-use-it shed" where people leave their trash that they think someone else might want.  Alas, it is not in working order, nor in particularly good shape at all, but I adopted it because I thought it was beautiful as an object.  It would look really cool on a bookshelf in a library (not that I have any large enough empty spots on any of my bookshelves, let alone a "library."  But I can fantasize, can't I?)  I did a little research and found on the internet instructions for finding the serial number.  On another website I found a listing of all the serial numbers for Underwood typewriters and the year of their production.  (Isn't the internet wonderful?!?)  By which means I have discovered that my typewriter was made in 1923.
        I began carving this block at the ill-fated outdoor art show nearly two weeks ago, but obviously didn't get very far on it at that time.  The hardest part in both the design and the carving stages was figuring out which tiny little details to leave out, and to try to make sure that the ones I left in made some sort of engineering sense.  I'm not sure I did very well at the latter part of that challenge, since it was hard for me to tell exactly what little levers went where, and which springs connected to which screws, and why, and whether they were vital for the working of the knob over on the other side…  Certainly no one would be able to reconstruct a working typewriter from my image!  On the other hand, that wasn't really the point.  I just wanted to capture the beauty and romance of this wonderful machine.  Perhaps the most important part was the letters and numbers on the keys, and I didn't do as clear and smooth a job on them as I would have liked.  I'm particularly displeased with the 8, 0, & and $.  I obviously wasn't doing very well on the really small curves, and I didn't even attempt the minuscule words on the "SHIFT KEY" and "BACK SPACE" keys.  (Also, a little artistic license: on the typewriter the Underwood name appears on the back plate, which is under the paper, and on the front bar, which is too far angled to show.  So in my design I put it on the side instead.)  Altogether, despite my failings on some details, I think it's a fun piece.
        I mention the romance of the typewriter, and I should assert in no uncertain terms that I am deeply, deeply grateful to be able to do my writing on a computer.  Oh how I love writing on the computer!  That said, however, I do have very fond memories of playing with typewriters when I was a child, and feeling like the typed page made everything I wrote seem "real."  We had an old manual typewriter in the house (and later an electric one) and my brothers and I would have to take turns using it for our projects.  Over the years I typed up many a small book.  When I was in third or fourth grade, for example, I wrote several slim collections of truly terrible poems about fairies, inspired by Cicely Mary Barker.  I carefully pecked out the poems on the typewriter and stapled them into tiny volumes, and was so pleased with them!
        And that brings me to the other project I finished this week.  This one is really my son P's project, but T and I both helped.  P had been writing an epic story
entitled The Adventures of Space Squirrel Fluff.  He worked on it so hard, and for such a long time (over a year), that I promised him that when he finished I would have it printed up like a real book, an option that wasn't even within the realm of dreams when I was P's age.  But admittedly, I'm sure I never worked on any project this major when I was his age, either.  P typed the whole thing on the computer (having way too much fun with fonts, something else those old typewriters couldn't provide!) and enlisted his sister T to do the illustrations.  When they had finished everything, my role in the project was to correct spelling and punctuation, scan and photoshop the illustrations, format the entire document for "publishing," and upload it to lulu.com for printing.  I can hardly wait to see the masterpiece!
        So for me this image of the antique typewriter is not just a pretty picture.  It evokes a heady blend of fascinating history, fun steampunk chic, beautiful industrial design, memories of typing "official" documents for many a game of detective, and all my childhood dreams of writing books.

[Pictures: Underwood (1923), rubber block print by AEGN, 2011;
Fluff doing research, pencil on paper by T Nydam, 2011.]

June 21, 2011

Happy Birthday to "Black and White"

Sound the trumpets for One Year of Blogging!
        Forgive me for being self-indulgent, here, but I have to take a moment to note that I have now been blogging for one year.  Sometimes I look forward and try to imagine whether or not I'll still be doing this in another year, or two, or ten… Undoubtedly I'll stop some time!  But for now I'm still having fun coming up with interesting art and fiction topics, researching them, writing my little mini-essays, and reading any comments with which you're kind enough to respond.
        I said I was being self-indulgent in this post, but of course the very nature of blogging is basically self-indulgent.  Before I began this project, I was rather anti-blog, and in some ways I still am, because I don't believe that my every thought is important enough to share with the rest of the world.  I'm somewhat disturbed by the fact that so many people seem to believe that their every personal detail does belong in the face of the public.  (As a bit of an introvert, I'm not sure how I feel about putting my personal thoughts out onto the world stage where, despite the fact that not too many people ever do actually see them, millions of people could.)  On the other hand, I love that people from all around the world who would never have any other contact with each other can now share ideas about the things that excite them.  So I continue to think of this blog as a conversation (admittedly terribly one-sided!) with like-minded people (and possibly a few proverbial dogs) out there in the ether.  What I like about blogging is the idea of reaching out and trying to make a few connections.
        That's really what the fiction-writing is all about, too, when it comes right down to it.  It's about taking something deeply personal and putting it out into the world for others to see, in the hope of making a connection.  In both writing and art there's the possibility of spinning a thread from deep inside the creator, out into the world, and back into another heart on the other end.  That's why I do what I do.
        
[Picture: Trumpet, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009.]

June 17, 2011

Some Favorite Fairy Tales

        When I was in fourth and fifth grade I would read pretty much nothing except fairy tales.  I ran my way through every anthology I could get my hands on, from the Ruth Manning Sanders books organized around themes such as Cats and Creatures or Sorcerers and Spells, to the many books collecting tales from particular countries, to the color-titled anthologies by Andrew Lang, who began with The Blue Fairy Book and eventually had to stretch to such obscure colors as Olive and Lilac…
        I admit that I'm not entirely able to say why I was so obsessed with fairy tales, given how strange and unsatisfactory so many of them are as stories, how inclined to sexism and stereotypes, how rife with horrific violence, how short on characterization or even logical plot.  One factor that got me started may simply have been that for my fourth grade year I was living in a city with a very small public library and there probably wasn't a very good selection of other options.  But even after I returned to the excellent library of my native Cleveland Heights, I still continued to haunt the 398 section of the stacks.  It's certainly safe to say that my reading of fairy tales, however unsatisfactory they sometimes are, fueled and was fueled by all those things I love about fantasy to this day.
        Whatever my reasons for my voracious appetite for the traditional fairy tales, there was a point in my youth when I had read them about as comprehensively as any scholar in the field of folklore.  That was a long time ago, and I will no longer claim that I remember them all, much less that I have any particular expertise in the types and tropes into which scholars like to categorize the tales.  But nevertheless, I thought I would list a few of my favorite fairy tales.
        As I began to compile my list, it grew longer and longer, until I began knocking stories back off.  I considered knocking off the famous ones and keeping the lesser known, but as you can see, in the end I mostly stuck with iconic tales.  That's because my idea was to point out some of what it is that I find so compelling about these crazy stories.  (I've also linked each one to a site where you can read it on-line.  How cool is that!)

In the Brothers Grimm version, Sleeping Beauty's name
is Briar Rose.  Rose names are popular in fairy tales.
        Sleeping Beauty (Grimm, based on Perrault)  I like the "rules" of magic followed by the fairies, and I like the mysterious atmosphere of the sleeping castle, with sleep falling over even the flies on the wall and the fire on the hearth.  This one has been used as the basis for an astonishing number of adaptations and variations, from modern horror to the most saccharine of romances.  It's got all kinds of interesting "bits" that can be pulled out and manipulated and reused.

        Snow White and Rose Red (Grimm)  I like that the two sisters are kind not just to the enchanted prince but also to the wicked dwarf, and I like the humor of the dwarf's ingratitude.  I also like that the mother is, for once, not wicked!

        Beauty and the Beast (French)  I like that Beauty is brave and honorable, and that the beast has a heart of gold.  I like that it's a much longer and more complete story than most, with lots of interesting details.  By the way, I also like the Disney version very much.  It's definitely my favorite of the Disney fairy tale movies.

        The Singing Springing Lark (Grimm)  This begins a lot like Beauty and the Beast, and ends with the wife having to go rescue her husband in distress.  Adventures ensue.  (There's a really nice version called The Lady and the Lion in my post on Fantasy Picture Books of Note.)

        Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (The Thousand and One Nights)  I like that most of the conflicts are not face to face, but instead each side makes a move in the dark, waiting to see what the response will be before planning the next move.  I like that it's Morgana who saves the day through her cleverness and her action.

        Jorinde and Joringel (Grimm)  I like this for the rich, evocative descriptive passages and the beautiful, strange, dreamlike quality of the entire thing.

        The Twelve Dancing Princesses (Grimm)  I like the idea of an enticing but dangerous fey kingdom entered through a secret passage.  I like the ordinary man figuring out a solution to the problem.  (If it is a problem!  In some versions the princesses seem perfectly happy with the set-up and don't want it to end.  In others there are definitely overtones of unwanted enchantment.)  I particularly like the versions in which an actual relationship grows between the hero and one of the princesses (it makes a nice change when it's the eldest), so that the eventual marriage seems right, not a mere payment for services rendered to the king.  And in versions with illustrations, I always liked the plethora of princess gowns to admire.  I remember picking out which of the princesses I would be.

        In addition I should add a couple more fairy tales that, as far as I can remember, I either didn't know or didn't care about as a kid, but which I like now.

        Hans in Luck (Grimm)  See more about it in my post on The Root of Happiness.

        The Gentle People (Argentinian)  I adapted this into a traditional Minarian folk tale in my book Vision Revealed.  (I found the story in Tales Alive, by Susan Milord.)

[Pictures:  Magical Symbol, rubber block print by AEGN, 2008 (commissioned for a not-yet-published fantasy novel by a friend of mine);
     Sweet Briar, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997.]

June 14, 2011

Who Is An Artist?

        There have been a couple of recent disappointments….  I had an outdoor show on Saturday that got rained on.  We were doing all right as long as it was just drizzling.  We had a nice big tent that four of us were sharing, and there were a fair number of folks around…  But then the downpour came and the visitors dissolved away.  We'd have stuck around in the hope that the rain would ease up (as indeed it eventually did), but alas, the tent began to leak!  For a while we tried moving our displays to get out from under the drips, but it was too much.  My loyal family arrived at noon because the original plan was for them to picnic on the green with me at my show… but instead they helped me pack up.  They all helped disassemble the big tent, and then we went across the street to eat indoors at the bagel shop.
        In other news of disappointments in the art world, I recently submitted work to two juried shows and failed to be accepted for either.  I don't usually bother submitting to juried shows because I long ago discovered that my work doesn't appeal to judges.  That's why I decided to skip the Art Establishment and just put my art out for people, many of whom do seem to like it.  But these two shows looked to be right up my alley: one on picture book illustrations and one on stuff with an industrial vibe.  But the judges still didn't care for my submissions.  Whether that's because my work is quite simply not sufficiently high quality compared with the other submissions, or whether it's a matter of Art Establishment taste, I cannot say.  (I do know that I was dubious about my chances of appealing to the judge who ran a high-end contemporary gallery specializing in photography, sculpture, and oils… but I don't want to pull out the sour grapes on this.  I'm really not into the claim of being an Unappreciated Genius.)  Anyway, D used the old "nothing ventured, nothing gained" argument, so I ventured, and I nothing gained.  All this leads me to consider once again the question, "Who is an artist?"
        My favorite answer to that question is very simple: An artist is someone who makes art.  That's what I always told my students, and that's what I tell myself.  But there are plenty of people who will make sure you understand that merely making stuff isn't enough.  Sometimes it's hard to feel like an artist without some sort of Seal of Approval.  Did you get a degree from an art school?  Is your work carried in a prestigious gallery?  Do you show in lots of juried shows?  Do you win prizes?  Those are all Seals of Approval.  They go on your resumé to prove to the world - and to yourself - that you are a Real Artist.  I don't know whether they're satisfying, since I don't have any of those Seals of Approval on my resumé, but my guess is that no matter how much approval you get, most of us always feel like we ought to have more.
        I'm sure D's right that it's good to go out and try to be a little ambitious every once in a while, but I also know that I'm awfully susceptible to the mindset of always looking for more confirmation - so rather than get caught up in it, I try to step away from the game and not play at all...  Just make my art, show it, and be grateful that so many people are willing to share it with me.

[Picture:  April Showers, rubber block print with watercolor detail, by AEGN, 2011. (or, in this case, June showers…Sigh.)]

June 10, 2011

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

        No, it isn't a recipe.  It's a denizen of medieval bestiaries.  This is one of those quirky mythical creatures I want to use in one of my stories some day, but haven't yet found a place for.  There are various versions of the account of the vegetable lamb through the Middle Ages, but if you blend them together you get something like this:
        The seed of the plant looks like a melon seed, and when you plant it it grows a melon out of which hatches a small lamb.  The lamb is almost just like a real sheep, with legs and ears and very fine, soft wool.  There are just a few small differences.  One, it has tufts of wool instead of horns.  Two, its blood tastes like nectar (and according to one version, its meat tastes like crab).  And three, it remains attached to its plant by an umbilical stem.  Because it's permanently tethered to the ground, it can graze only on what it can reach from its roots.  When it's eaten everything within reach, it starves and the plant dies.  The lamb will also die if its umbilical stem is broken.  Then people (or wolves) can eat it with great delight.  What I was not able to figure out is whether it's fair game for vegetarians.  I had thought at least one of those medieval sources might mention whether or not you were allowed to eat vegetable lamb on meat-free days, but I didn't see that information anywhere, unless the crab-flavored meat was the clue.
        The legend probably began as early as the fifth century, and gained wide credence with the publication of the travel accounts of Friar Odoric (largely genuine, c. 1350) and Sir John Mandeville (largely fictitious, c. 1360).  All these legends placed the vegetable lambs in the general neighborhood of Tartary and Persia.  In the mid sixteenth century the creature/plant was still discussed as too creditably reported for there to be any doubt as to its existence.  As late as 1683 a German scholar named Englebert Kämpfer went to Persia to find the vegetable lamb.  Alas, he finally concluded that it was a mere myth.
        There are two plants associated with the vegetable lamb.  The first is cotton, the idea being that when Europeans first heard of a plant that grows wool, they envisioned the vegetable lamb.  (The German word for cotton, Baumwolle, literally means "tree wool."  The English word "cotton" itself comes from Arabic qutn.)  The other plant is a tree fern native to parts of southeast Asia.  It has a thick, wooly rhizome, which you can just about see as the body of a lamb, if it were flipped over and the stems of the fronds were its legs.  The scientific name of the fern is Cibotium barometz, of which the "barometz" is another common name for the vegetable lamb.  (Other spellings are borometz and borametz.  All these variants apparently derive from the Tartar word for lamb, (although I couldn't confirm that.)  Yet another name for the thing, by the way, is the Scythian lamb.)
        This is one of those charming inventions for which the world is richer.  If I ever encounter a vegetable lamb, I think I'll keep it growing in a big pot on wheels.  That way I could move it around the yard so that it wouldn't eat any one place bare and then starve.

[Pictures: woodcut from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, c 1360;
engraving by W.G. Smith (?) from Svenska Familj-Journalen, 1879.
(Thank you, Wikimedia Commons and users loscius and Jonkerz.)]

June 7, 2011

Jacques Hnizdovsky's Block Prints




       I first encountered the work of Jacques Hnizdovsky on the cover of a blank journal in the clearance bin at a bookstore.  I always buy the cheapest remainder journals I can find, so I've lived with some pretty atrocious-looking covers over the years, but the instant I saw this one it was unconditional love.  Hnizdovsky's style is unlike anyone else's, and it's full of affection for his subjects.  How could you resist the solemn, silly dignity of this wonderful ibex?
        Hnizdovsky (1915-1985) was born in the Ukraine and came to the US in 1949.  Eventually relief block printing became his primary medium, and plants and animals his primary subjects.  (He also did lots of designs for bookplates, a topic I plan to feature at some point.)  Apparently he started with plants and animals because they made cheaper, more readily available models than humans, but before long he was exploring plant and animal subjects by choice, not necessity.
        Hnizdovsky's designs are distinctly stylized, and his patterns are often refined to the point of mathematical regularity.  He brings order to every object.  Yet at the same time his details are always accurately observed and perfectly carved.  The sunflower below is a bit of an extreme example and not my favorite of his pieces, but I think it illustrates well both his mathematical bent and the skill of his carving.  (Don't forget to click on the pictures to get a better view of the details.)
        His official web site has a really nice, detailed description of his technique here.  Apparently he planned out every line before carving, leaving nothing to the spontaneous chances of carving.  That explains why even the most detailed and complex patterns in his pieces always look so perfectly controlled.  I love everything
about this pelican, from its expression to the regularity of its feathers to its wonderful webbed feet.
        I say that I first encountered Hnizdovsky's work on that journal cover, but in fact I found out later that I'd seen his work before without knowing it.  When I was at Yale I loved the image of Harkness Tower that was often used on publications.  But it was only later, when I became interested in Hnizdovsky and began to research more of his work, that I discovered that he was the artist of that beautiful woodcut.
        Check out all the additional images on the official Hnizdovsky web site, and I think you'll very quickly understand (if you don't already) why he's one of my all-time favorite artists.
[Pictures: Ibex, linocut by Jacques Hnizdovsky, 1972;
Zebrina Pendula, woodcut by J. Hnizdovsky, 1968;
Opsunflower, linocut by J. Hnizdovsky, 1965;
Pelican, woodcut by J. Hnizdovsky, 1966
Harkness Tower, woodcut by J. Hnizdovsky, 1977
Bronx Express, woodcut by J. Hnizdovsky, 1960.]

June 3, 2011

Styrofoam Relief Printing Project

        Yesterday afternoon I did an author visit at a local library.  This included reading from Amazing, Beguiling, Curious, talking about the animals with the children, showing some of my carved blocks and explaining the relief printing process, and then leading a printing project.  For the baby brothers and sisters we provided some commercially made rubber stamps of animals to play with, but for the others I had prepared for styrofoam relief printing.
        1.  The first necessary material is the styrofoam "blocks."  I always collect clean styrofoam trays and lids of carry-out boxes, and other pieces of flat, untextured styrofoam.  (Presumably you could go out and buy a package of styrofoam plates if necessary, but I like to reuse/upcycle whenever possible.)  So the first step of preparation ahead of time was to cut these assorted bits and pieces into nice, even rectangles.  Three by five or 4x6 inches would be the best size for this project, but I cut mine smaller, in the neighborhood of 2.5x3.5, for reasons I'll explain in a bit.  Next I cut a mat board backing for each piece of styrofoam, using all the little leftover bits of mat board I always save.  (But any cardboard would work, of course.)  I used double-sided tape to stick the stiff mat board backing to each piece of styrofoam.  This gives the styrofoam extra stiffness and stability, which keeps it from cracking and makes it easier to print.
        2.  Next is the "carving" tool.  The whole advantage of styrofoam printing is that it doesn't require sharp carving tools, making it suitable for very young children.  I've found that the best tool is a very dull pencil with a smoothly rounded point.  (Either graphite or colored pencils are fine.  Ball-point pens work well, too.)  The library had an ample supply of dull pencils (!) and my loyal assistants P and T, who helped me set up before the program, went through the library's bin of pencils and selected nice smooth ones for me.
        3.  Ink.  Like any blocks, these print best with decent ink rolled thinly with a brayer.  However, because there wasn't going to be time for normal ink to dry before the kids walked away with their masterpieces, we used stamp pads instead.  The library provided the stamp pads for us, and that's why I cut the styrofoam blocks so small: I didn't know what size ink pads we'd have to work with.  As it happened, the pads were nice and big… but not very high quality, so that was the weakest part of the project: the children had a hard time getting their little blocks evenly and thoroughly inked.

        That said, most of the children there seemed to have a good time with the project.  Several kids made a second stamp, too.  We had a couple of very nice sharks, a bird that was later renamed an armadillo, an owl, a fish, and a few abstract designs from the younger kids (plus whatever others I'm forgetting).
        It's very hard to clear out large areas of solid white with the styrofoam, but on the other hand, the medium works pretty well for textures: dots and spots, little lines for fur and scales, grass, stripes, etc.  (You can also experiment with pressing other objects into the styrofoam and seeing what you get, although we didn't do that at the library.)
        Another nice benefit of the fact that this project can be done so cheaply with materials that are often already to hand, is that when the kids are having too much fun to want to stop, you can always tell them and their parents that they can do more themselves at home.

[Pictures: Jaguar, styrofoam block print by T Nydam, 2011;
Dragon, styrofoam block print by P Nydam, 2011.]