November 30, 2012

Words of the Month - Heifer Project

        As I've mentioned before, our family has a holiday tradition of supporting Heifer International by buying animals for all our relatives.  Of course the Heifer Project animals are all the sorts that can be used to improve people's lives by providing food, income, labor, and so on.  But I thought it made as good an excuse as any to give this month's Words of the Month an animal theme.  So here are some animals whose names in English have interesting stories.

otter - A water-creature, the otter's name goes all the way back to Old English, and comes from the same root as our word water.  You can also see (or perhaps you can better hear) the relationship with the Greek hydra.

bear - Literally meaning "brown one," this is a textbook illustration of a linguistic taboo at work.    Because hunters would not speak the names of certain animals (notably bears and wolves), the words for those beasts died out of their languages, replaced by euphemisms.  Most of the northern European languages have words for bear that were originally euphemistic, such as the Russian medved "honey-eater."   Apparently in rural areas of Finland it's still taboo to refer to bears directly.

ostrich - from Old French, from Latin, from Greek, ostrich meant "big sparrow"!

squirrel - The word ultimately derives from Greek skia "shadow" + oura "tail", thus a creature that can shade itself with its tail, an idea that pleases me greatly.  But before English acquired that name from French in the early fourteenth century, the Old English word for the critter was acweorna, which is related to acquire.  So the squirrel was the animal that acquires nuts.

kangaroo - You may have heard the story that when Captain Cook asked the natives in Australia what they called the jumping beast, they replied "I don't understand you," which phrase in their language Cook took to be the name of the creature.  This is a marvelous story and I'm very sorry to say that it's false.  The only misunderstanding was that the word gangurru in the Guugu Yimithirr language referred only to that specific species, while English has adopted it to apply to an entire group of species.

caterpillar - ultimately from Latin roots meaning "hairy cat."

turkey - We call this bird a turkey because it comes from Turkey.  Of course it doesn't, being a New World bird, but both African guinea fowl and later American turkeys were distributed through Europe primarily by way of North Africa and Turkey, and the two kinds of fowl were considered related, and shared the name of their perceived point of origin.  Funnily enough, however, the Turkish word for turkey is hindi "Indian," for the same reason the native people of the New World were called Indians.  The Hindi word for turkey is nasamajha.  I wish I knew the etymology of that!

heifer - I thought I really ought to include heifer as one of my words, seeing as it's my whole excuse for the theme, and all…  But the only interesting thing about the etymology of heifer is that, in a way, there's nothing to say about it.  That is, it's one of those handful of words that dates back to Old English, but seems to have no relatives in any other languages, so its ultimate origins are a mystery.  Its original sense is a mystery, too.  Theories include that its roots meant "high-stepper," that it came from words for "large bull," and that it originally meant "enclosure dweller."  But in any case, consider giving one this holiday season to help make the world a better place!  You can find information about Heifer International here.

[Pictures: Bear, wood block print with watercolor by Betsy Bowen, from Antler, Bear, Canoe: A Northwoods Alphabet, 1991;
Squirrels, multi-block color woodcut by Norbertine von Bresslern-Roth, c1925 (image from Josef Lebovic Gallery);
Cow, linoleum block print by Sharon Lorenz (image from her Etsy shop LorenzKraft).]

November 27, 2012

Five Figures in a Building

        Here's an oddity.  This woodcut by Erhard Schön was published in 1538 in a book about the principles of proportion.  Presumably this funny image was not intended to be Art in its own right, but was rather intended to assist others in the creation of the Real Art.  And yet I get such a kick out of it.  These five people - are they robots perhaps?  or constructed from cardboard boxes? - look so disgruntled with their lot.  Are they just waking up?  Or was there an earthquake that knocked them all over?  And what sort of room are they in, anyway, with two walls smooth and precise but one looking bumpy?  And with that rich molding and curved ceiling it must be a fairly elegant building, despite being unfurnished and windowless.
        As for the carving, it was clearly not done with the same precision or care that might be lavished on a proper piece.  You can see a number of places where the lines got cut away by mistake, especially along the bottom frame of the piece.  This is definitely a reproduction of a sketch, and intended to represent a sketch, rather than a finished piece.  After all, this might be the sort of framework an artist would draw to start a scene.  Myself, I always sketch "sausage people" rather than "cardboard box people" when I'm getting started on a picture, but I have to admit that these rectangular figures are a lot more fun in their own right than my sausage people.  I especially like their feet!

[Picture: Five figures in a building, woodcut by Erhard Schön in Underweissung der proportzion, 1538 (image from Universalmuseum Joanneum.)]

November 23, 2012

The Importance of Fantasy (I)

        Alison Gopnik, a leading researcher in the field of cognitive development, has been studying the importance of play for children.  Lest anyone doubt that fantasy is good for kids, here's what she has to say:
        Where does pretending come in? It relates to what philosophers call “counterfactual” thinking, like Einstein wondering what would happen if a train went at the speed of light.
        We found children who were better at pretending could reason better about counterfactuals—they were better at thinking about different possibilities. And thinking about possibilities plays a crucial role in the latest understanding about how children learn. The idea is that children at play are like pint-sized scientists testing theories. They imagine ways the world could work and predict the pattern of data that would follow if their theories were true, and then compare that pattern with the pattern they actually see. Even toddlers turn out to be smarter than we would have thought if we ask them the right questions in the right way.
        Play is under pressure right now, as parents and policymakers try to make preschools more like schools. But pretend play is not only important for kids; it’s a crucial part of what makes all humans so smart.

        You can read more about her studies at Smithsonian Magazine.
        And you'll notice that she referred to Albert Einstein, that icon of intelligence.  So here's what Einstein himself had to say on the matter:
        When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.

[Picture: Frontspiece by Florence Wyman Ivins, from This Singing World edited by Louis Untermeyer, 1935.]

November 20, 2012

Potato Prints

        Potato printing used to be a staple of the preschool classroom, but in the current generation it seems to have been replaced by pre-made foam and rubber stamps.  If the children aren't doing the carving anyway, that probably makes more sense, but the use of potatoes as a viable printing block has not been entirely forgotten.  The best champion of potato printing is probably Diana Pomeroy, who has done two gorgeous books illustrated with potatoes.  I love the way she arranges the repeated stamps in such a way that they don't look repetitious, as in this illustration of radishes.  She

also does some interesting mixes of intaglio and relief, where her incised lines carry ink of their own.  You can see this in the veins of the leaves.  These are no preschool potato prints.
        I thought I'd fool around a little with potatoes just to illustrate the process, and P helped me out.  (T preferred to keep reading her book - fantasy, of course.)  Really the method is basically the same as with any relief print, but potatoes do have a couple of advantages.  They're easy and inexpensive to obtain, and if you mess
up you can always get more to try again.  You can use shaped cookie cutters to give yourself a basic shape to work in, as I did with my hexagonal block (though this would be more useful with a more complicated shape.)  They're soft and easy to cut
with a knife, incise with a wooden skewer, or carve with lino cutters, as P is doing in the photo above.  And when you're all done, you can use anything that didn't get inked for mashed potatoes for dinner, as we did last night!
        After you've carved, you'll need to blot the potato surface dry before you ink.  I didn't feel like getting out the good ink and brayers for this, so we tried inking with a paintbrush.  This is more prone to uneven inking
and ink in the lines, but works very quickly and easily if you don't have a brayer or plate to roll ink on.  It might also have been interesting to try with an ink pad, but I think you'd have to devote that pad to potatoes only, because it would get starchy.
        A book with excellent instructions for a variety of potato printing projects is Potato Printing by Helen R. Haddad.  Potato Printing looks rather dated with its two-color printing instead of the glossy full-color photos we're used to nowadays, but it includes all kinds of great tips and techniques, arranged from the most basic to the more advanced.  (One Potato by Pomeroy also includes some very basic instructions at the end.)
        Potatoes are an excellent illustration of the principle that anything that can be carved can be used for relief printing.  And the more relief printing the merrier!

[Pictures: Radishes, potato prints by Diana Pomeroy from One Potato: A Counting Book of Potato Prints, 1996;
P carving; Using a knife; Carved potato blocks, photos by AEGN, 2012;
P inking; P printing; AEGN printing, photos by AEGN, 2012;
Fish and whale, potato prints by Helen R. Haddad from Potato Printing, 1981;
Potato print by AEGN; Potato print by PGN, 2012.]

November 16, 2012

History in Fantasy

        I could have titled this post another "What's new in the studio," because it's about the issue I'm struggling with in my current writing work in progress.  The problem is how much actual history to incorporate into the back-story of the fantasy plot.  It's not so much a matter of letting truth get in the way of a good story, though.  It's more a matter of how much explaining the truth gets in the way of narrating the story.  See, The Extraordinary Book of Doors is based on a real book by a real sixteenth century architect, whom I'm casting as a wizard.  I've done a tremendous amount of research on his milieu - his patrons, his colleagues, the buildings he worked on and the places he lived, and all kinds of fascinating historical interconnections to explain why he made his magical books.  But none of that is strictly relevant to the plot taking place in the present, and I can't imagine that my readers would actually care about it.
        Then there's the history of how these magical Books get into the hands of characters in the present.  So I did a tremendous amount of research on connections between real historical figures, and how books might actually have been passed down among them and ended up in the cities where I'm basing my story.  But none of that is strictly relevant to the plot taking place in the present, and I can't imagine that readers would care about it.
        And then there's the treasure hunt devised by Benjamin Franklin with clues hidden in the copy of the magical Book that was his.  I've done a tremendous amount of research into Franklin's life, and places he spent time, and buildings (and their doors) that were built in time for the Book's publishing in the sixteenth century, would have been familiar to Franklin in the eighteenth century, and are still standing now in the twenty-first century.  There are actually more of those than you might expect, and I'm finding out all sorts of fascinating things… but none of that is strictly relevant to the plot taking place in the present, and I can't imagine that readers would care about it.
        I've been thinking about Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, which is the kind of fun, roller-coaster adventure I'm aiming for, but which disintegrates into sheer idiocy if you actually engage your brain at any point in the reading.  I definitely don't want to treat my historical elements that way!  I'm thinking about Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost, which was critically acclaimed by practically everyone, but which just didn't work for me, in part because of some historical errors in his portrayal of Quakers, about which most readers wouldn't know or care particularly.  And then I'm thinking about Marie Rutkoski's Kronos Chronicles (first book The Cabinet of Wonders), which incorporate real historical figures, such as John Dee and Queen Elizabeth I, but happily make complete fiction of others, such as the Prince of Bohemia.  Rutkoski manages a blend of history and fantasy that works pretty well, in part because she is very clear about what she's doing - not pretending to total historical accuracy, but using just enough to give a flavor and atmosphere of real times and places; enough facts to engage the mind in fantastical "what if"s about history.
        So the issue is this: if I mention history, I can't have it inaccurate.  If I explain all the history, I bore my readers and slow down the story, which is meant to be a fun, exciting romp, not a deep, scholarly drama.  But if I don't mention any history, I lose half my plot and all the reason for the magical books' existence.   And I can't stand when stories are built on inaccuracies of fact and history so that as soon as you notice the error the whole edifice becomes unstable and you just can't suspend your disbelief about it any more.
        After several frustrating days earlier this week of wondering whether I could even salvage a story with such a contradiction between fact and fun, logic and adventure, I think I've found a path that traces the balance.  I'm writing a few introductory incidents that illustrate the historical background and then, having established the rationale for the state of affairs, I'll let the facts go, as the adventures pick up speed and the characters (and readers) no longer have the time or the inclination for research and scholarship along the way.  I'll assuage my tendencies toward historical scholarship by including at the end (as Rutkoski, Brian Selznick, and some other authors do) a note on what's a fact in the real world and what's made up for purposes of the story in my fantasy world.  So, that settled, now back to the writing!
        What do you think of the use of facts intermingled with fantasy?  How much of a stickler are you for accuracy, and in what instances do you not mind a little fudging?  Does it make a difference if the author acknowledges where she departs from factual truth?  What are your pet peeves, or what stories succeed in mixing history and fantasy most effectively and enjoyably?

[Pictures: Stately Door, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012;
Rustic Door I, woodcut by Sebastiano Serlio from Libro Estraordinario, 1566 edition (image from Open Library).]

November 13, 2012

The Beast

        In the classic fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast," the Beast is not very specifically described.  He's monstrous, he's scary, and he's a beast… but exactly what sort of beast isn't defined.  This means that illustrators get to use their imaginations freely, and it's quite interesting to see all the different ways they've imagined the Beast.  In fact, the range of Beasts is so marvelously broad that it betrays just how little free imagination illustrators get to use most of the time!  There are hundreds of versions of Beauty and the Beast, many of them gorgeous (a few of them atrocious), and I can't possibly represent them all here.  But I've chosen a sampling that shows some of
the wide diversity of Beasts, as well as, of course, giving preference to block prints whenever possible.
        I'll start with the earliest illustration I found, from an anonymous artist in 1813, showing the Beast as a pretty straightforward boar.  The boar version was popularized by Walter Crane in his 1874 edition, but Crane has made his boar much more anthropomorphic - bipedal and sporting extravagant sartorial splendor.
        Another popular animal for the Beast to resemble is a wolf.  Lancelot Speed made him wolfish in 1913 (in an illustration that I think looks a lot like Maurice Sendak's style!), while Gordon Browne gave his lupine Beast delightful bird feet, taking advantage of the fun fact that there's no reason the Beast has to look like any real creature.  That's why W. Heath Robinson can add horns to his very surreptitious-looking lion-like Beast, and Anne Anderson, breaking with the dominance of mammals, can make her Beast some sort of reptile-fish hybrid.

        Some of my favorite choices for sheer goofiness, however, are H.J. Ford's mammoth-based Beast from 1889, and
Eleanor Vere Boyle's walrus from 1875.  A walrus?  Really?  I mean, it's one thing to imagine an enchanted prince living in a palace in lion form, but a noble enchanted walrus?

        But not all Beasts are so clearly animals.  Some are more humanoid monsters, like this ogre-ish version from 1840 (clearly a cheaper woodcut production than some of the others!)  Among other
human-like monsters there's also Edmund Dulac's goblin from 1910, and my most recent version, by Barry Moser in 1992.  His deformed portrait is more disturbing than many of the rather lovable beasts portrayed by other artists, and may give a better sense of the horror Beauty felt on first being consigned to live with the monster.
        Those artists who shy away from scary parts in fairy tales have chosen such retchingly adorable Beasts that the story rather loses its point.  Where's the moral in a cute little girl's ability to see the good in a cute little teddy bear cub?  If you'd like to see the Beast as a darling lion, a huggable bear, or, worst of all, a cutesy chimpanzee, visit SurLaLune's excellent collection of illustrations.  (There are others there, too, including the Dulac Beast mentioned above.)
        Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite fairy tales, and although I haven't done any illustrations of it myself, I certainly empathize with the fun of having free rein to imagine the Beast without restraint.  I'm sure everyone has their own favorite versions, but the breadth and diversity of options is fun for all of us.

[Pictures: "The absence of Beauty lamented," engraving by unknown artist from Beauty and the Beast, or A Rough Outside with a Gentle Heart, 1813 (image from NYPL Digital Gallery);
"Beauty and the Beast," color wood block print by Walter Crane from Beauty and the Beast, 1874;
"The Beast and the Merchant," illustration by Lancelot Speed in Fairy Tale Plays, 1913 (image from Beauty and the Beast with illustrations selected and arranged by Cooper Edens, 1989);
"The merchant begging forgiveness for taking a rose," engraving by Gordon Browne from book by Laura E. Richards, 1886 (image from The Classic Fairy Tales by Iona and Peter Opie, 1974);
"The Beast," W. Heath Robinson from Old-Time Stories by Charles Perrault, translated by A.E. Johnson, 1921 (image from SurLaLune);
"Beauty and the Beast," illustration by Anne Anderson from Anne Anderson's Old, Old Fairy Tales, 1935 (image from SurLaLune);
H.J. Ford, from The Blue Fairy Book ed. by Andrew Lang, 1889 (image from SurLaLune);
"Beauty finds the Beast," illustration by Eleanor Vere Boyle from Beauty and the Beast: an Old Tale New-Told, 1875 (image from Beauty and the Beast, Edens, 1989);
"The Beast proposes," woodcut by unknown artist from The Popular Tales of Olden Time, c. 1840 (image from The Classic Fairy Tales by Opie, 1974);
"The Beast," wood engraving by Barry Moser from Beauty and the Beast by Nancy Willard, 1992.]

November 9, 2012

Going to the Dogs

        Last weekend I was at an Open Studios show, and that means I was carving.  The first day I brought four little dog blocks to work on.  I knew they were each going to be pretty quick to carve, but I hoped that with four of them I'd keep busy.  In fact, I was
finished carving in no time, and since I'd forgotten my little ink pad, I couldn't even ink them up for a rough look at what needed additional carving.  (So Saturday night I was up until midnight coming up with another block to carve on Sunday.  But that's another story.)  I did tweak my pups a bit on Sunday, and more on Monday when I was home.  I got a chance to print yesterday, and now here they are: four dogs.
        I tried to do four slightly different styles, as well as different breeds - greyhound, dachshund, lovable mutt, and lab.  I was hoping to capture some of the character of what makes each breed special, as well as just physical shape.  I wanted the greyhound to have alert elegance, the dachshund to be a complete donut, the lab to be friendly and responsive, and the mutt to be heart-meltingly scruffy.  But perhaps the lack of a canine muse in the house is evident, as I'm not sure any of these are as special as I had hoped.  I'll need to get some feedback from dog-lovers out there, I guess!
        Still, as a first foray into Dog Art, I think they're not bad, and we'll see whether I get any more doggish ideas now that I've given it a try.

[Pictures: Greyhound Greeting, Dachshund Donut, Lovable Mutt, Puppy Love, rubber block prints by AEGN, 2012.]

November 6, 2012

The Genie

I dwell
In a dark small cell
Turbulent against walls
Constricting smoke and flame,
Fire, essence, into a coal which glows
And gasps to spread, for the expanding green
Billowing flow of love and the upper air.

Taut in myself
Wound hard, contained in flesh,
Identified, bounded, traced - unknown
I am the blood that echoes in a shell
I roil, the surge of ocean wrapped in shore
I roll, a universe kept in a crystal jar,
I am the muted genie pressed within.

I burst
In seed and passion,
In the white of fire
The hoar of ice.  Unfetter me, I cry
And I am spent in tumult before night.
Move, Earth, charred and blackened on the sun
I rise and swell upon such destiny.

Within this verdigris
I twist in torment.
Out, out, or I am buried here,
Lest eons seal my burning into stone -
Quenched into marble, let my age not pass.
Yet pause, hand to the lamp, and know
The furious spirit you are letting go.

        This poem by Ann Stanford somehow seems evocative to me of votes enclosed in ballot-boxes awaiting counting.  Democracy has the power to work miracles, yet is a totally unpredictable force.  (Okay, I know the big-mouth pundits are going nuts in their 24-hour efforts to predict it, but still…)  Genies are known for their ability to accomplish anything, but also for their disturbing tendency to take out their frustrations on the very people who give them their freedom.  That seems suggestive to me.

        Perhaps it's a bit of a stretch to make a connection, but in any case you can simply enjoy the fantasy poem, and then (if you're a US citizen) get to the polls and make your voice count.  We can help influence what kind of genie we'll be.

[Pictures: The fisherman and the genie, illustration by H.J. Ford from The Arabian Nights Entertainments, 1898 (image from Ideas Made of Light);
Aladdin carried by a genie, illustration by Felix Octavius Carr Darley, 19th century (image from Wikimedia Commons);
Aladdin with the wonderful lamp, illustration by Milo Winter from The Arabian Nights Entertainments, 1914 (image from Project Gutenberg).]

November 2, 2012

Show Preparations

        The big storm left us unscathed, the costumes were finished in time for trick-or-treating, and now it's frantic last-minute preparation for the next big Open Studios show, this weekend.  Since that's the only thing I have on my mind right now, rather than fight it, I thought I'd share what it looks like around here on the day before an art show.
        Of course the preparation has been going on for the past two weeks, with matting and packaging prints, and drawing designs for something to carve tomorrow.  Last night I folded and packaged dozens (if not hundreds) of note cards while watching "Castle" with D.  But today things come down to the wire.  One big job is to make the final decision for which framed pieces I'll bring for display.  This show provides me with an 8x8 foot
expanse of pegboard on which I can hang my stuff.  However, my tables have to go in front of that, so I estimate more like 8x4 feet.  I mark my area out on the floor and start placing art to see what I can fit and how best to arrange it.  I always try to display whatever is new since this time last year, and then I use several factors to fill the rest of the space:

- I want a wide variety of subjects and styles
- I want to feature items I've never displayed at this venue before
- I want to draw attention to items that are the last of their edition
- I want to use stuff that's already framed so I don't have to do any excess work
        Once I know for sure what I'm bringing, I pack it all up in old flannel sheets and towels for transport, and put together labels for everything.  Next job is transferring my designs to rubber for carving (and making sure I pack the carving tools.)  This weekend's theme is Dogs.  I have four little pieces ready to carve - I only hope it will be enough to keep me busy.  Perhaps I should prepare something else just in case?  Yikes!
        Meanwhile I've been hauling things up from the basement and staging them to pack in the car early tomorrow morning.  (If I didn't have to drive kids somewhere this evening, I'd pack the car this afternoon.  But instead it will just have to clutter up the hallway all day.)  There are three tables (two for display and one to work at), print racks, card rack, matted prints, framed prints, books, cards, hanging hooks, extra cash for giving people change…  On and on.  So many things to remember.  I make myself lists, build stacks of things to be packed, go over things in my mind, hope I'm not forgetting anything vital.  Because I
won't set up until the day of the show, and because it's a fairly long drive to this show, if I forget something I simply have to do without.  Wait, did I remember the roll of tape?  What about the camera?  And so on…
        But it will all be worthwhile once the artists are all there together, and the people start coming by to see the art.  There's a buzz in the room, voices full of enthusiasm, people to greet, those dogs to carve… 

        If you happen to be in the area, please come by and join the fun at Roslindale Open Studios!

[Pictures: stacks of things to bring;
arranging frames on the floor;
dog designs on rubber blocks, photos by AEGN, 2012;
my display from last year, photo by AEGN, 2011.]