March 16, 2018

A to Z Theme Reveal

        I’m going to take part in the April A to Z Blog Challenge once again, and today is the official grand Theme Reveal.  Since last year’s theme was block printing, this year's is writing.  Specifically, I’m going to be self-centered and feature a character from one of my own books for each letter of the alphabet.  My plan, to keep things short and sweet, is not to do a lot of analysis, but simply to illustrate each character with a short excerpt in which they’re introduced, described, or reveal aspects of their personality.  As you’ll discover, if you aren’t already familiar with my work, most of what I write is at least somewhat fantastical, and much of it is for children of a range of ages.  But those genre distinctions may or may not be evident in the excerpts I share.  It isn’t about the plot or the setting, although of course elements of those will be intertwined; it’s all about the characters.  Some are heroes, some are villains, some are just innocent bystanders.  Some of the characters are the main protagonists of my stories, while others are the main protagonists only of their own stories, and are quite minor characters in my books.  I hope that they will all seem equally worthy of attention.
        Of course, that begs the question inherent in sharing my own work: why should anyone care at all?  It’s an excellent question, and one that I don’t have a good answer for, since I still, after nearly eight years of blogging, can’t really understand why all us bloggers, tweeters, instagrammers, etc. seem to believe that everyone else in the universe should care what we have to say!  I’m no best-selling household name, and none of my books has ever been made into a blockbuster movie.  Not one!  But the alphabet challenge offers an interesting way to force a selection of characters that might not otherwise be obvious, to test the premise that every character should be interesting.  So I invite you to meet 26 of my characters, and see whether any of them catch your attention, make you curious about their stories, or just tickle your imagination.  I hope you’ll find them an entertaining bunch.
        Despite doing the big Theme Reveal now, none of the actual A-Z posts start until April, so we still have a couple of weeks of our usual programming until then.  In the meantime, if you’re interested in what other A-Z Challenge bloggers will be sharing come April, you can check out links to all their Theme Revelations here.  (Note: I’ll attach the link on March 19.)

March 13, 2018

Another Snow Day!

        Another winter storm and another chance to share some wintry relief block prints.  This first one, by Wharton Esherick (U.S.A., 1887-1970), is really a holiday card entitled “December Snows.”  Well, around here we can’t be sure of a white Christmas and most of our snow tends to come January or later, so this is certainly looking more like the current scene outside my window than December.  The trees are loaded down and everything is indistinct with falling flakes.  I love the texture of this piece, with the dots of the snowflakes and the scratches and lines going every which way for the movement of blowing, falling, swirling snow.  Esherick has managed to convey so much with such a deceptively simple piece.
        The storm continues with a piece by Hasui Kawase (Japan, 1883-1957), who was famous for his views of Japan.  I find the rich blue of the canal a bit implausible, but it certainly gives the print a touch of color.  There’s no one to be seen, but the golden light in the windows implies people hunkered down, cozy inside as we are today.  Again, I like the sweep of flakes.  This time instead of lines to indicate movement, it’s masterfully done with streaks composed of larger, denser  white gouges.
        Hasui’s color woodblock print is made in the Japanese method, while this one by Paul Leschhorn (Alsace, 1876-1951) is done in the European style of one color per block.  This view is far more serene than what I’m seeing now, although perhaps this is what the world will look like tomorrow.  Certainly Leschhorn has captured the weight of the snow coating every branch and twig.  I love how this piece uses multiple shades and hues of grey to evoke a scene and feeling that would have been impossible for black and white.
        The first three artists are all roughly contemporaries of one another, but for a little historical perspective, I also have a piece by an anonymous artist depicting the Great Snow of 1717.  Back to back to back storms in February and March left five feet of snow and drifts as high as 25 feet throughout New England.  Entire single-story houses were covered, which this little image doesn’t do justice to with snow only up to the man’s thighs.  Thank goodness we’re not dealing with that, but I nevertheless feel that Whittier describes a blizzard wonderfully: “The whited air hides the hills and woods, the river and the heaven, and veils the farmhouse…the housemates sit… enclosed, in a tumultuous privacy of storm.”  Actually, it isn’t so blustery for us right at the moment, and at some point we’ll go out and start shovelling, but for now it’s nice to be enclosed in white.

[Pictures: Christmas Snows, woodcut by Wharton Esherick, 1923 (Image from Wharton Esherick Museum);
Twenty Views of Tokyo: Ochanomizu, color wood block print by Kawase Hasui, 1926 (Image from Scholten Japanese Art);
Wood block print by Paul Leschhorn (Image from Modern Printmakers);
Great Snow in 1717, woodcut or engraving by anonymous artist in The History and Antiquities of New England by John Warner Barber, 1856 (Image from Internet Archive).]

March 9, 2018

The Power of Women

        March and Women’s History Month seems an appropriate time to feature the “Power of Women” theme, which was very popular in late medieval and Renaissance art.  With my twenty-first century feminist sensibilities, I think of the Power of Women as being surely a good thing, but it was definitely more worrisome for Renaissance viewers.  Subjects were generally legendary historical women who took on roles of men or reversed roles of women, and while some of these women were considered to be virtuous and heroic, most were exemplars of how destructive it is when women wield power.  The message was that even the most heroic of men can be manipulated and brought low by the cunning and seductive wiles of a strong woman.  The stories served to reinforce the patriarchal social system by illustrating the terrible consequences, and in some cases the ridiculousness that surely would ensue whenever women took on the roles and power of men.  Subjects included Eve tempting Adam, Delilah betraying Samson, Salome having John beheaded, Jael killing Sisera, Judith killing Holofernes, Phyllis riding Aristotle, and other such scenes from history and classical literature, plus, for comic relief, genre images of hen-pecked husbands.  On the one hand, the whole theme clearly betrayed a fear of strong women and a vilification of women’s sexuality, but on the other hand, some of the subjects, such as Jael and Judith, are held up as virtuous heroines.
        The illustrations of these Power of Women stories were often fairly standardized so that they were easily recognizable.  I guess that means less scope for the artists to get creative, but there are still some amazing wood block prints among them.  The Power of Women was an especially popular theme for prints, and such prints seem to have been displayed in both public buildings and private homes (despite often having distinctly erotic undertones).  Lucas van Leydan (Netherlands, 1494-1533) is famous for having made two woodcut series on the Power of Women, as well as exploring some of the Power of Women stories in separate pieces.  So today I have for you a few of his masterful illustrations on the theme.
        First up is the most amusing: Phyllis riding Aristotle.  The story goes that Aristotle taught Phyllis’s husband or lover (Alexander the Great) that in order to concentrate on philosophy, he should forego relations with women.  In revenge, Phyllis seduced Aristotle and convinced him to let her ride him like a horse.  This is a story with which artists have had a lot of fun, and the images vary widely depending on whether the emphasis is on the humiliation, or the eroticism, or the humor.  I could probably do a whole post on different versions… but not today.  Van Leyden’s is relatively straightforward and neutral in tone, but very attractively and clearly composed - not too busy, but with plenty of interesting detail.  I love Phyllis’s
wild, luxuriant hair, and the lovely folds of her dress and Aristotle’s robes - not too easy to crawl in.  It was the disheveled hair, by the way, that helped Phyllis seduce the old philosopher.
        Next up, Salome presenting the head of John the Baptist to Herod and Herodias.  This is not a picture I would want on the wall of my house, but one interesting thing about the composition is that the scene visible out the window is John about to be beheaded.  Obviously these two elements of the picture couldn’t be happening all at once, so it’s an interesting way to get an extra story element into the scene.  Too bad Van Leyden didn’t manage to get Salome’s dance in there somewhere, too.  I do like her posture, and the tassels on the canopy are quite elegant, as well.
        Finally, here’s Delilah giving Samson a surreptitious haircut as he sleeps with his head on her lap.  Out of sight around the edge of the bluff lurk the Philistine co-conspirators, waiting to seize the warrior, who should never have allowed a woman power over him.  I love Delilah’s scissors, and the details of the landscape.  I like that Samson’s spiked club makes him look more like an ogre than a hero, and how Delilah’s sleeves pushed back make her look more like someone getting down to work in a practical way, rather than a mere seductress.
        There’s no doubt that the idea of powerful women was cautioned against in the Renaissance trope of the Power of Women, and unfortunately it’s also true that there are still plenty of people today who vilify strong women.  But at least these woodcuts allowed some exploration of the possibility of women choosing to exert their influence, and the possibility that a woman might be able to defeat even the strongest warrior or the most respected philosopher.  Even today it’s important that in art, books, movies, television, and all media we continue to explore the different ways humans can find and use their power… and make sure we start showing more positive examples of powerful women, and more healthy relations between the sexes.

[Pictures: Phyllis Riding Aristotle, woodcut by Lucas van Leyden, 16th c. (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Herod and Herodias from The Small Power of Women Series, woodcut by van Leyden, c. 1517 (Image from The British Museum);
Samson and Delilah from The Small Power of Women Series, woodcut by van Leyden, c. 1517 (Image from The British Museum).]

March 6, 2018

Creature Collections: The More the Merrier

        It’s been a long time since I’ve posted any creature collection reviews, mostly because it’s been a long time since my kids were particularly interested in them.  But I still like them, and as I’ve been researching possible creatures to complete my mythical alphabet, I’ve been looking at several recently.  Here are a few stragglers that P, T, and I had all looked at several years ago, as well as a few that I’ve been consulting in the past month.

        Magnificent Magical Beasts, by Simon Holland - Gorgeously illustrated by eight artists in lavish full-page spreads, this book features 17 of the most famous mythical creatures, along with notes about multiple variations of each, including variants from different parts of the world.  Included are quotations from historical sources, fun facts, and summaries of legends.  This doesn’t have enough creatures or information to count as a full-fledged reference book, but it is an especially attractive introduction to mythical creatures with enough scholarly heft to feel satisfying.
        Dragons and Serpents, by Gerrie McCall and Lisa Regan - We especially liked the format of this one.  Each two-page spread features one creature, sometimes a species, and sometimes a particular individual.  One page has a large picture highlighting certain features of the beast, while the other side includes a map, a summary of the legend concerning the creature, and additional details and notes of interest.  I really enjoyed the selection, which included monsters from ancient legend and modern literature, and from a wide array of cultures.  Unfortunately, I definitely disliked the full-page pictures of the creatures, most of which looked bizarrely distorted, apparently in an effort to use foreshortening to give an impression of 3-D action.  Better illustrations might have launched this book into the top tier.
        Mythologies: Dragons, by John Malam - The collage format combines tidbits of information, illustrations and photographs culled from various sources, maps,  and somewhat uninspiring original illustrations.  Information pages are interspersed with "Once upon a time" pages that retell dragon legends from Europe, the Middle East, the far East, and India.  T especially liked these stories.  P also gave this book a thumb up.
        Dragons (Mysterious Encounters series), by Kelli Brucken - This is possibly the most interesting of a number of superficially very similar books in similar series.  It includes some more diverse and interesting dragon tales, not just the same as all the others.  Perhaps most unusual is a chapter on modern dragon sightings.
An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings, by Rob Hodgson and Aidan Onn -
One creature for each letter, illustrated with big, bold mixed-media spreads, some of which are quite charming, but most of which would not satisfy my childhood craving for “accurate” detail.  The creatures represent a smattering from diverse parts of the world and a few interesting surprises.  Each is described in a single paragraph that adds a bit of personal twist and humor to the traditional mythology, such as suggesting that you share your packed lunch with the minotaur or ice cream with a yeti.  Not substantive, but cute.

[Pictures: Cover of Magnificent Magical Beasts, but I can’t tell you which of the eight artists did this piece because I already had to return the book to the library, 2016;
Yetis, mixed media by Rob Hodgson from An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings, 2017.]

March 2, 2018

Name That Art

        I recently read a book by Ruth Bernard Yeazell called Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names.  It’s the sort of thing I never really thought about, just assuming, as I think most people probably do, that an artist paints a picture, gives it a title, and off it goes into the world.  As it turns out, this is a quite recent phenomenon, and not entirely straightforward even now.  Through most of western art history, paintings didn’t even have titles, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as it became more expected that they would (mostly for sale and show catalogues), it was the dealers and other middlemen who most often bestowed a name upon a painting.  This is certainly interesting, but of course the book is explicitly about paintings, since that’s the high-profile, important art, so where does printmaking come into this?  Well, as it turns out, it was often the publishers of the prints (intaglio engravings and etchings) that reproduced and disseminated paintings who gave the paintings their names.  Most paintings don’t include any words, so it was the printmakers who put text with image and then spread it out to the public.  When reproducing Old Master paintings, whose artists had not titled their works and were no longer available to have an opinion on the matter, it was often printers who decided on a name they thought would help sell their reproductions, and slapped it on.  It was certainly printers who popularized titles.
        One of Yeazell’s examples is “The Paternal Admonition,” a c.1654 painting by Gerard ter Borch that became quite famous through its 1765 print reproduction by Jean Georges Willes.  It was Willes who chose the title, but we can’t know whether that’s how he interpreted the painting, or whether the choice was purely in the interests of marketing.  In any case, however, art historians today think it likely that the painting was not intended by ter Borch to depict a familial scene of parents and daughter, but rather a madam, a prostitute, and a john.  The Rijksmuseum, where the painting resides, now calls it “Gallant Conversation, Known as ‘The Paternal Admonition.’”  The printmaker’s title is still too famous to simply ignore.
        Another example is Rembrandt’s beloved “Philosopher in Contemplation” of 1632, which has been enormously famous and popular, and inspired many a writer to wax philosophical himself on Rembrandt’s genius in capturing what it is to be a contemplator of sublime thoughts.  Of course, it turns out that the title was attached to the painting and popularized by Louis Surugue, the printmaker who reproduced it in 1754.  Art historians don’t know what Rembrandt really intended the subject of his painting to be, although almost certainly not a philosopher.  (One possibility is Tobit from the Old Testament.)  Still, nowadays a painting must have a title, and so this one remains a “Philosopher in Contemplation,” thus continuing to influence how we all view and interpret the piece.
        As an artist who considers the titling of my own work part of my job, and one of my tools for conveying my creative vision, I’m a little horrified at the idea of artwork getting hijacked and wrenched so far astray from the artist’s intention.  On the other hand, I never knew printmakers could wield such art world power!

[Pictures: Le philosophe en contemplation, etching by Louis Surugue after painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1754 (Image from The British Museum);
L’instruction paternelle, etching and engraving by Jean Georges Wille after a painting by Gerard ter Borch, 1765 (Image from The British Museum).]

February 27, 2018

Words of the Month - Prose Promotion

        Slang comprises the second-class words that live in ordinary, everyday conversations, but aren’t usually permitted past the velvet rope into the more respectable regions of serious speech and writing.  Slang words come and go, often appearing mysteriously, hanging around for a while, and then fading away unmourned.  Most slang has a high turnover rate, but some continues for centuries in a perpetual state of not-quite standard usage.  Here are a few examples:

beat it - used by Shakespeare with the meaning “go away,” the phrase has lasted over 400 years without either disappearing into the oblivion of so last year or becoming elevated to a standard usage.  It would sound equally plausible that it was coined in 1860, or 1920, or by Michael Jackson in 1982.
bones - from the late 14th century meaning “dice,” and from 1887 meaning “surgeon,” both these informal usages have stuck around in a perpetual state of slangdom.
duds - meaning “clothing” dates back to the 1560s, from a word meaning “cloak.”  It’s still listed as “Informal” in the 1991 Random House Webster’s.

        Some lucky slang words, however, do manage to bootstrap their way into polite society and become accepted, in time, as words in good standing, appropriate for even the most scholarly prose.  Here are a few of those successful lexical social climbers:

phone - telephone was first used of our modern device in 1876, shortened by 1884.  It was still labelled as “Colloq.” in Webster’s New International Dictionary of 1919 .  Now that we use primarily mobile phones, cell phones, iphones, and other devices that don’t include tele- in their names, it has become less a mere abbreviation and more a word in its own right.
bus - omnibus entered English in 1829, already abbreviated from French voiture omnibus meaning “carriage for all.”  By 1832 we see the colloquial abbreviation bus.  It was still defined as “short for Omnibus” in Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary in 1908, and listed as “Colloq.” in 1919.
        You can see the theme here: technical words are coined with their complicated Latinate derivations and then instantly subjected to the grinding down of everyday speech.  It’s hard to pin down when these slang abbreviations become truly accepted.  Phone and TV are still understood to be short forms of longer words that are also still current, but bus really is just the standard word for the vehicle.

fan - 188o’s, short for fanatic, originating with baseball.  Newspaper articles through the 1880s usually wrote the word in quotation marks, indicating that it was still new and non-standard.  Neither The Century Dictionary, published ten years later, nor Chambers’s ten years after that, so much as mentioned it, and Webster’s New International of 1919 included it labelled “Slang.”  By now, however, I think very few people are aware that it was ever a non-standard word.
mob - 1680’s, short for mobile or mobility, from Latin mobile vulgus meaning “fickle common people”.  In 1710 Jonathan Swift complained, “I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of mobb and banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers.”  By The Century Dictionary of 1889-91 it was treated as standard.
banter - 1670s, see above.  Swift said it came from London street slang.
zoo - c.1847, short for Zoological Gardens.  The Century Dictionary (1889-91) said of the word zoo, “From a mere vulgarism, this corruption has passed into wide colloquial use.”  The disapproval was clear.  It was still “Colloq.” in 1919.

blimp - 1916, of obscure origin, but certainly began as slang.  It was still not included in Webster’s New International Dictionary of 1919.
hot dog - c.1890  In 1900 it was considered college slang, and it was not in the regular dictionaries as of 1919.
jazz - as music, 1913, probably from Creole patois jass “strenuous activity” especially sex.  Presumably the word became respectable when the music became respectable.

        It would be easier to trace this if I could access mid-twentieth-century dictionaries on-line, but copyright keeps them from being digitized.  Still, it’s interesting to see how most slang disappears, but some persists, and some sheds its slang associations and goes standard.

[Pictures: Ex Libris Václav Grégr, wood engraving by Pavel Simon, mid-20th century (Image from Robin Prints);
London A-Z, color wood block print by Tobias Till, 2011-12;
London Zoo, color wood block print by Till, 2011-12 (Images from Tobias Till web site);
Miles Davis, resingrave engraving by Eric Hoffman, 2011 (Image from Spofford Press).]

The Century Dictionary of 1889-91 (on Internet Archive)
Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of 1908 (on Project Gutenberg)
Webster’s New International Collegiate Dictionary of 1919 (on Hathi Trust)

February 23, 2018

Burroughs and Other Beautiful Women

        Today I want to share a small sampling of work by Margaret Taylor Burroughs (U.S.A., 1915-2010), who serves to celebrate Black History Month in February and look forward to Women’s History Month in March.  I’m starting with this great Black Venus, who is surfing fishback like the funny sixteenth-century piece I featured last summer.  She certainly looks all Venus: beautiful, impassively snooty, totally in command of her situation as she pulls up out of the shimmering ocean light surrounded by cupids, like a movie star pulling up in a limo surrounded by paparazzi.  It was a powerful message to show a dark-skinned goddess of beauty.
        Burroughs has depicted another powerful black woman in Mother Africa - Mother of All Humanity, but her title shows one of the important points about Burroughs’s work.  While she celebrated her own background and her own people, she was not confined to a narrow view of people.  She said, “I wish my art to speak not
only for my people - but for all humanity,” and “The color of skin is a minor difference among men which has been stretched beyond its importance.”  One of the things I like about block printing is that black and white have equal importance and are necessary for each other’s impact, so that whether a person in a block print is depicted as black or white can be more about the needs of composition and aesthetics than any human construct of race.  Burroughs, however, made a number of lovely images of black and white people interacting together in simple coexistence and companionship.  She also did some pieces in which people’s faces are half black and half white, something else that looks really good in block printing, which Burroughs could use to explore the message that humanity includes all skin colors and individuals include diverse backgrounds.
        Today I was trying to focus on some of Burroughs’s beautiful women, and while I began with two mythic figures, most of her people are ordinary.  This last piece is a lovely example of a completely ordinary and completely beautiful mother and child.  The carving is quite simple, with lots of use of outlines, and even double outlines around many areas.  There’s also some use of tiny stippled marks for highlighting, a technique used with much more precision and detail in Mother Africa.  This mother is sweet and loving, with eyes only for her daughter, but the girl stares solemnly, even challengingly, out at the viewer.  This is a girl who will be strong.

[Black Venus, block print by Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs, 1957 (Image from 1stdibs);
Mother Africa - Mother of All Humanity, block print by Burroughs, 1968(?) (Image from Art Goddess);
Mother & Child, linocut by Burroughs, 1997 (Image from Paramour Fine Arts).]

February 20, 2018

Winter Olympics

        It’s winter Olympics time, and that means block prints (because doesn’t everything mean block prints?)  Here are a selection of prints depicting various winter sports, and you can see that there’s a definite strain of art and a few particular artists who obviously really have fun depicting the action and trying to capture the dynamism and excitement of sports.  There are also a few oddities here, just to add to the diversity.
        I’m starting with a great ski race by Lill Tschudi (Switzerland, 1911-2004), who wanted to be a printmaker from the time she was a child!  She is famous for her machine-age prints of dynamism, and she uses lots of broad, swooping shapes and smooth, curving lines. 
Also by Tschudi is this funny piece depicting an ice-skater spinning.  To me this skater looks more comic than graceful, crunched down into a tubby little shape as his wild twirling lines escape all over the page like a sprung watch spring.  This piece is definitely about depicting the action itself as much or more than the person doing the action.
        The other really famous printmaker of the same era and style is Cyril Power (U.K., 1872-1951), whose three skaters are smoother and more graceful than Tschudi’s twirler.  I suppose there’s no such Olympic sport as synchronized skating with teams of three, but I’ve chosen these to represent figure skating.  (Maybe it’s really just one skater?)  Their outstretched curves and the lines emanating around them all serve to evoke the power as well as the elegance of figure skating.
        The speed skaters are by Paul Cledan (U.K), a contemporary printmaker who lists Tschudi and Power among his influences.  Not that you would need him to say it, since it’s quite clear at first glance!  Like them he’s used simplified shapes in blocks of color to evoke
his moving athletes, and like them he’s got swoops and swirls making the motion visible.  I’ve included three of his pieces in today’s collection, since he has such a nice representation of winter sports.  (He has more, as well, but I do try to keep myself from going overboard.)  His hockey players depict yet another ice skating sport, with yet another vibe: this time the chaos of players converging on the puck, sticks swiping, shoulders down, ice sliced…
        And finally, getting off the skates and onto the bobsled track, you can see how the sled is stretched out behind like a blur or flash.  There’s something about this piece reminiscent of a graphic novel, with its heightened colors, dramatic point of view, and that comet trail of action like what you’d see behind Superman or the Flash.
        An older depiction of a bobsled looks less smooth and more bone-rattling to me.  It also reminds me of the villainous motorcyclists in A-ha’s “Take on Me” video!
        These artists all clearly exalt the athletes with their speed and power, so here’s a different take in an affectionately satirical print depicting one of the odder of winter Olympic sports: curling.  Ray Gloeckler (U.S., b.1928) has been a curler himself, so he knows whereof he carves.  His curler is neither graceful not swift, crouching over his stone in ridiculous concentration.
        And finally, another of the winter Olympics’s odd sports, the biathalon - or at least its predecessor.  If you’ve ever wondered why there's a seemingly random combination of skiing and target shooting, its origins are, of course, in hunting.  This print from Olaus Magnus’s History of the Nordic Peoples depicts Laplanders hunting with bows and skis.  This is, quite simply, a sixteenth-century biathalon.
        The 2018 Olympics will be over soon, but with the magic of art, the athletes race and twirl and clash and swoosh and curl on forever.

[Pictures: Slalom, linocut by Lill Tschudi, 1938 (Image from Masters Gallery Vancouver);
Eislauf (Ice Skating), color linocut by Tschudi;
Skaters, print from three blocks by Cyril Power, 1932 (Image from Pallant House Gallery);
Speed Skaters, lino multi-block print by Paul Cledan;
Ice Hockey, lino multi-block print by Cledan;
Bobsleigh, lino multi-block print by Cledan (Images from Bourneside Gallery);
Olympia Bob Run, linocut?, mid-20th century?, but I can’t track down any details;
Curl, wood block print by Ray Gloeckler (Image from Wisconsin Visual Art Achievement Awards);
On Hunting Tours of the Lapps, wood block print from Book 4, Chapter 12 of Historia de Gentibus Septrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1555 (Image from avrosys).]

February 16, 2018

Alphabet Transformations

        Here’s a series of doodles I set myself back in Dec. 2000 - Jan. 2001.  I drew one a day in my journal.  I’m not sure whether I got the idea from somewhere else or made it up myself, but the idea, obviously, is to transform each letter of the alphabet, in three intermediary steps, into an object that begins with that letter.  I had a lot of fun with it.  It was interesting to select a target object that had some sort of 
logical connection with the shape of the letter.  It was interesting to figure out the best view of it to take advantage of that connection.  It was interesting to figure out the intermediate steps, and of course it was fun to do all the drawing itself.
        I enjoyed it so much that later I assigned it to students who had finished their work early during a unit on Surrealism when we had talked about transformations.  Each student did only one or two letters as she had extra time, but eventually we ended up with a complete alphabet (plus lots of duplicates of the more exciting letters.)  I displayed the letters all around the top of the classroom.
        There’s really no need for deep analysis here - I was amused doing these doodles, and I thought you might be amused to see them.  (Remember that you can click on the pictures to see them bigger.)

        I’m off this afternoon to hang my art at the Boskone Art Show of the New England Science Fiction Association.  When that’s over I’ll be getting to work on preparations for teaching my printmaking classes in March.  (There are still spaces left.  If you’re interested in doing lots of fun rubber block printing, check it out here at Needham Community Education.)

        And finally, Happy Lunar New Year of the Dog!

[Pictures: Alphabet transformations, 26 sets of drawings by AEGN, 2000-2001.]

February 13, 2018

Valentine's Chapbooks

        Chapbooks were one of the primary sources of printed material and “literature" for the common people in England during the eighteenth century.  They were small pamphlets, usually 16 or 24 pages, with poems, ballads, stories, satires, or “instructive” material, often illustrated with wood block prints.  They ranged from nice little books well printed to crude pirated editions, and the block prints illustrating them had a similar range of quality and even a range of relevance.  In honor of Valentine’s Day I have selected a few of these woodcuts of a romantic nature.
        First up, an illustration of “the Pleasant History of fair Rosamond… Daughter to the Lord Arundel whose love was obtained by the Valour of Tommy Pots: who conquered the Lord Phenix, and wounded him, and after obtained her to be his wife.  Being very delightful to read.”  It’s a classic tale of the triumph of true love for a commoner, and is rather nice because in the end everyone acquiesces quite happily and helpfully to the marriage of Rosamond and Tommy.  Although it would be a mistake to assume that a woodcut accompanying a chapbook necessarily corresponds closely with the story, I propose that this is the point when Rosamond and Tommy meet in secret to declare their love.  I like the sun peeping up over the
hill, and all the gratuitous variety of birds.  Rosamond’s expression is rather nice, showing hope and trepidation, although Tommy looks a little glazed.
        The next piece is quite crude, making even Tommy’s glazed expression look sensitive.  Nevertheless, I like the spotted puppy, and I’m amused by the cupid.  This woodcut accompanied the tale of Ned’s courtship and subsequent remorse upon marrying a chamber-maid.  It isn’t exactly a romantic story, but take the woodcut on its own Valentine merits.
        And finally, a much more accomplished woodcut, with nicely depicted horses and plenty of good detail on the figures.  I don’t know what this story was about, but what could be a better Valentine toast than these riders’ cry of “For Love!  For Life!”

[Pictures: Tommy Potts or Cupid’s Triumph, Being the Pleasant and Delightful History of Fair Rosamond, c1675;
Ned and a chambermaid from A York Dialogue, both reproduced in Chap-Books of the Eighteenth Century, by John Ashton, 1882 (Images from Internet Archive);
For Love, For Life, wood block print from A Poste with a Packet of Mad Leters by Nicholas Breton, 1660 (Image from Yale University Library).]

February 9, 2018

Inclusivity vs Appropriation

        As I have previously mentioned, I’ve been working on a bestiary project.  For about ten years I’ve been slowly and unsteadily working my way towards making a block print of a mythical creature for every letter of the alphabet, and just in the past couple of years I’ve been dreaming of using those creatures in a bestiary with stories and writings to go with them.  I feel that it’s really important to include creatures from the legends of people all around the world, for a number of reasons.  1. I want to introduce some creatures that are lesser-known to English readers, as well as some of the universally-beloved classics.  2. I want to acknowledge some of the huge diversity of fantasy in our world.  3. I want to celebrate the fact that all cultures everywhere have wonderful stories that fire the imagination.
        On the other hand, there is a strain of thought I sometimes encounter, that demands that no writer or artist ever touch any mythology that doesn’t originate with the culture of their own ancestry.  And that would mean that as a person of primarily northern European ancestry, I am not to use anything other than northern European mythology.  To do otherwise would make me guilty of appropriation of other peoples’ cultures.
        Okay, so that’s a relatively extreme statement of sensitivity to appropriation.  Most people do not object to the mention of other cultures’ mythical creatures as long as it’s scrupulously researched, clearly attributed, and respectfully represented.  But that’s the thing - this bestiary project of mine is not a scholarly dictionary of legends of the world.  I do, in fact, want to use these creatures to tell my own stories.  In making my block prints, I always think about what I can bring to the depiction, and how I can shed some new light on an idea.  After all, if I’m just going to carefully and accurately copy what someone else has already done, what’s the point in my doing it at all?  In writing my stories, I want to be free to let my imagination loose and to tell the stories that these creatures suggest to me - stories that aren’t exactly the same stories that have been told before, or what’s the point in my doing it at all?  To be quite blunt about it, I do, in fact, want to make my own version of each of these creatures.  And that’s surely appropriation.  So, to feature only northern European creatures is Eurocentric and implies that European legends are the only ones worth celebrating and exploring, while to feature non-European creatures is privilege and appropriation.  Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.  What’s an artist to do?  What do you think?
        It is always my intention in my art and writing to bring people joy.  In my small way I want to prompt people to think, move them to smile, and inspire them to celebrate the ways in which people (all people!) can be wonderful, and the ways in which we can strive to make our often imperfect world more wonderful.  It is never my intention for anything I create to make anyone feel unvalued or disrespected or taken advantage of.  I can’t believe, however, that the solution to that danger is to ignore all cultures but my own.  So I continue to make block prints and tell stories about non-European creatures quite simply because I am inspired by them.  My desire to make stories and pictures comes out of my delight in the mythologies of all peoples, and my firm conviction that imagination belongs to everyone and is one of the things that can help bring us together instead of dividing us.  But I am nevertheless mindful that not everyone may see it that way, and that I risk angering someone who has seen their culture misappropriated too many times.  And so I ask again, what’s an artist to do?  What do you think?

[Baku Dreams, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

February 6, 2018

Unidentified Monsters

        In all my celebrations of mythical creatures, I always seem to write about the known species with set names and descriptions, but they’re not the only denizens of the imagination.  What about all the weird, unique, anomalous, unidentified critters out there?  Today I have a few to share.
        This first illustration comes from an 1899 translation of Lucian of Samosata’s True History, and it appears under the line “inhospitable folk with strange forms.”  Inhospitable monsters they may be, but they’re really quite charming in their own strange way.  There’s the reverse mermaid, the fierce fellow with lobster claws, the dachshund of the centaur world, and my favorite, the bloke with the head of either a monkfish or a space alien.  He really looks more sheepish than scary.  This is not a block print, but the white on black and the frieze-like composition give it a classic woodcut look.  If these monsters were given species names they could be right at home among the more commonly known mermaids and centaurs.
        This second group of strange creatures comes from a dream of Daniel’s in the Bible.  The King James version describes them as the first being “like a lion, and had eagle’s wings,” the second is “like to a bear” (not so interesting), but the third is “like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast also had four heads.”  It’s interesting that Hans Holbein has chosen to give it two bird legs instead of four leopard legs as I would have interpreted it.  I would think this would be the stuff that a Bible illustrator would really enjoy: the parts that are a little more open to creativity and artistic interpretation.  And the fourth monster is even more so, being described merely as “dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth… and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns.”  Holbein’s cloven fore-hoofs, shaggy shoulders, human ears, tusks, and pointy upper lip are all his own invention.  Perhaps being mere allegorical dream-beasts, these monsters don’t belong to mythical species, but wouldn’t it be fun if they did?

[Pictures: Illustration by A. Payne Garnett from Lucian’s Wonderland by St J. Basil Wynne Willson, 1899 (Image from Internet Archive);
Daniel’s vision of the four beasts (Daniel 7), wood block print by Hans Holbein, 15th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

February 2, 2018

Woodcuts by Campbell

        In honor of February being Black History Month, here’s a bit of black history in wood block prints.  These illustrations were done by E. Simms Campbell (USA, 1906-1971), the first black cartoonist published in mainstream national magazines.  I can’t find any of the brief biographies on-line mentioning anything about his non-cartoon art, but these woodcuts are graphic and powerful.  They show African American men and women in a wide range of experiences, from the elegantly dressed couple ready for a night on the town, to the more casual-looking banjo musician, to the men laboring so hard, perhaps on the railroad.  The dynamic style and superimposition of various picture elements make it hard for me to interpret exactly what’s going on, but Campbell’s people command these woodcuts, shoulders strong and heads held high.

        Actually, although these sure look like woodcuts, and although they are listed as such by Yale’s rare book library, which ought to know, they are called “drawings” on the title page of the book they illustrate.  I don’t know what’s up with that, except just to guess that some ignorant editor didn’t give it any thought.  Anyway, they are illustrations from a book of poetry by Sterling Brown, a professor at Howard University who studied the black culture and folklore of the Southern US.  Most of his poetry is written in dialect, attempting to show the power and rhythm of black speech, and I think these pieces have a great power and rhythm to go with that.

[Pictures: Untitled illustration of people at play, woodcut by E. Simms Campbell from Southern Road by Sterling Brown, 1932;
Untitled illustration of people at work, woodcut by Campbell from Southern Road, 1932 (Images from Yale University Library).]

January 30, 2018

Words of the Month - Dr. Murray, Oxford

        James Augustus Henry Murray (UK, 1837-1915) was born 181 years ago on February 7, in honor of which I’m going to use this month’s “Words of the Month” slot to talk not about specific words, but about one of the most influential people in our modern, scholarly understanding of English words.  Murray was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, which also has an anniversary in February, as the very first section, with words A-Ant, was published on February 1, 1884.  A poor Scottish boy who dropped out of school at age 14 because his family couldn’t afford it, Murray was soon teaching others and by 21 had been made headmaster of the same kind of school he’d been unable to attend as a student.  He taught himself well over a dozen languages, as well as botany, geology, and archaeology, and he gave a 14-year-old Alexander Graham Bell his first lesson on electricity.  Murray earned himself a BA degree at the age of 36, and a year later he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University, thus making him “Dr. Murray.”  He was not just a prodigy of learning, but a prodigy of working, as well.  He regularly worked 80 or 90 hours a week on the OED, and kept up this pace into his 7os.  But he had a life, too, including a wife and family of 11 children, a church community, and a number of other Oxford societies.  (Fun fact: his children earned pocket money sorting quotation slips in Murray’s office, one son went on to be a major contributor of quotations, and three daughters became official members of the OED staff.)  With all that, Murray certainly makes me feel stupid and lazy!
        Okay, but we’re not here to discuss his hard work.  Lots of people in this world work incredibly hard.  We’re here to talk about Murray’s impact on the English language, through his editorial choices on the OED.  He personally edited more of the first edition of the OED than anyone else - about half of the dictionary - and he also set most of the practices and policies that defined the rest.
        Murray set the policy that the different senses of a word should be placed in the chronological order in which they had entered the language, as demonstrated by the citations on file, except when it seemed more logical that a later-attested sense must really have been earlier.  This was reasonable, since Murray knew the collected quotations couldn’t possibly be comprehensive and earlier uses might well be missing from the record, but it also means that for the third edition the OED is now reassessing some of those assumptions - and is also choosing to stick strictly with the chronology of their citations this time around.
        Murray began the prejudice toward literary sources and “print” which placed more weight, for example, on Shakespeare than on a personal letter from an earlier writer.
        Murray set the tone of the OED with the Victorian prudery which kept “bad words” out of the OED until 1972.
        Murray was conservative in adopting new words, especially slang, but he even held back on scientific words before he felt they were sufficiently commonly used throughout the language.  For example, the word radium, coined in 1899, was denied entry into the OED in 1902.
        Murray worked hard to eliminate ghost words from the OED, evidence again of his scrupulous scholarship.
        Murray wrote of “exotic” words such as khaki that “it would have been easy to double their number, if every such word occurring in English books, or current in the English colonies and dependencies, had been admitted; our constant effort has been to keep down, rather than to exaggerate, this part of ‘the white man’s burden.’”  Khaki, by the way, was admitted readily enough in 1901, though it was marked as “alien or not fully naturalized.”  It took WWI to truly integrate the word into English.
        Yet it was also Murray who put out the call to the entire English-reading world to send in citations.  It was Murray who chose to include “alien or not fully naturalized” words, rather than leave them out altogether.  It was Murray who so excited the English public about this dictionary project that when newspapers published the story of the Oxford University Press harassing Murray and second editor Henry Bradley to keep costs down and hurry up, public opinion supported the editors in taking their time and doing it right.  The university changed their tune.  Murray became such a celebrity, and involved so many people in the work of collecting citations (about 2,000 people sending in about 5 million quotations - that’s crowdsourcing) that he had a postbox installed outside his house, and anything addressed simply to “Dr Murray, Oxford,” would reach him.  This as much as anything else illustrates the success of the man who was born without his two middle names - he had added them himself as a young man when he first moved to a larger town and needed to differentiate himself from the other James Murrays there.
        It was also Murray who formed the relationship with one of the greatest single contributors to the OED, Dr William Chester Minor, who, Murray eventually discovered, was a criminally insane inmate of Broadmoor Asylum.  February also marks the anniversary of the murder for which Minor was incarcerated, which of course gave him plenty of time to read and develop his highly organized system of citations which was of so much use to the OED.  The relationship between Murray and Minor was the subject of a 1998 book, and was due to come out as a movie, “The Professor and the Madman,” some time this year.  (To quibble, Murray was a teacher and recipient of a doctorate degree, but never a professor.)  Murray will be played by Mel Gibson, which is a little hard to imagine, but apparently the movie is now mired in controversy and legal issues, so who knows when, if ever, it will reach theaters.
        Finally, a few words in which Murray had a direct hand:
nonce word - a word coined to serve an immediate specific communication need.  It may eventually become an established word (at which point it is no longer a nonce word), or it may simply be a one-shot deal.  Murray coined this word himself.
anamorphose - to represent by anamorphosis, a distorted projection or perspective in art.  This is hardly a common word, and Murray used as an OED citation for it an article written by himself in the magazine of the school where he taught.  It must have been a bit of an in-joke between himself and the dozens of colleagues and former students who eventually helped with the OED in various ways.
connexion and rime - Murray was avidly interested in spelling reform and while he would never change the spellings as they appeared in quotations, he did allow himself these two spelling variants of connection and rhyme in the definitions, etymologies, etc. which he himself wrote for the OED.  Eventually he relaxed his views, but not until the 1990s did the OED revisit those spelling decisions, and connexion, at least, has become quite common in British English.

        So, Happy Birthday, Dr Murray.  I would like to end this blog post as Murray ended the section on D at 11pm on November 24, 1896, with the most excellent, and yes, exotic, word dziggetai.  (It’s a Mongolian equine.)  He then added “Here endeth D” and, in Greek, “To God alone be the glory.”

[Pictures: Murray riding a sand-monster on the beach in Wales (Image from Oxford University Press Archives);
Denholm, The Birth Place of Dr. John Leyden [and Dr. James Murray], from a drawing by Murray, 1858 (Image from Oxford Dictionaries blog);
Dziggetai, wood engraving from Nouveau dictionaire encyclopédique universel illustré, 1885-1891 (Image from Old Book Illustrations).]

January 26, 2018

Ursula LeGuin Says It Right

        Ursula K. LeGuin (1929-2018) died on Tuesday, and I have long admired her as a masterful maker of worlds, a soaringly beautiful writer, and a fierce intellect of probing questions and uncompromising logic.  While I definitely don’t agree with her on every statement she’s ever made, she undoubtedly had a way of declaring many of the ideas I’ve been working with, and of expressing them better than I do, too.  So in tribute to one who never failed to write as if her gift for writing was the tool she had for making the world a better place, let me just give you some of LeGuin’s own words.

        To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.  Fantasy and science fiction in their very conception offer alternatives to the reader’s present, actual world. Young people in general welcome this kind of story because in their vigor and eagerness for experience they welcome alternatives, possibilities, change. Having come to fear even the imagination of true change, many adults refuse all imaginative literature, priding themselves on seeing nothing beyond what they already know, or think they know.
The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.

[Picture: Prólogo, woodcut by Erasto Cortés Juárez, 1955 (Image from Colección Blaisten).]
(Quotations from the essay “A War Without End” in The Wave in the Mind, 2004.)

January 23, 2018

Laurence's Towns

        I recently discovered some work by Anita Laurence (Australia), and I just love her linoleum block prints of cities.  These are not cities that I know well myself, so I can’t look at them with an eye to picking out familiar landmarks or recognizing beloved quirks, but I still find them absolutely charming.  You can see that they all share a very similar style, with the buildings arranged in tiers going up the paper.  Some have horizontal rows, while others have  a zigzag layout.  Three have a body of water across the bottom; two are backed by mountains; they all have a variety of architecture and a variety of textures.
        The first piece, Cork, Ireland, is the one of these cities I have visited, but I’m pretty sure you can’t get a view like this.  In other words, this is schematic rather than landscapey; it’s a conceptual portrait of the city rather than a photographic view.  I love
the balance between stylization and detail, not only just in the buildings but also in the trees and background textures of earth, water, and hills.  I like the simplification of the solid black buildings in the background.
        Most stylized of all is Wangaratta, Australia, with a sky full of pattern, a river full of fish, and neatly geometric trees.  Except for the fish, I see no people or animals in any of these pieces, but they still seem busily active.  I like the lampposts with the carved lines around them, and the variety of textures on all the buildings.  This whole piece is just so much fun!
        The next piece is listed as being in Ireland, I assume Cork again with the Shandon bell tower in the upper left.  That would explain the two rows of river.  This piece seems more serious and monumental, with its dark sky and dramatic clouds, more sober lines, and more realistic trees.
        And finally, Mount Stuart, Australia, with a lot more landscape interwoven with its buildings.  Here Laurence has made a wider variety of patterns for trees and shrubs, and textures of grass and ground.  It certainly looks more like it could be an actual view, but I don’t know whether it is.  I like how the hills fade to black against the sky.
        These pieces please me so much.  I love finding all their little details, and I love their overall impression of busyness.  I shared something with a similar concept in Rudolph’s Winnipeg Neighborhood years ago, so obviously these stylized collections of buildings are something that appeals to me.   It really makes me want to depict my town this way, although reflection leads me to the unfortunate conclusion that neither my town nor my own printmaking style would be very conducive to it.  So for now I’ll just continue to enjoy the work of others.

[Pictures: Corcaigh, linocut by Anita Laurence, 2009;
Wangajazzaratta, linocut by Laurence;
Holy Trinity, linocut by Laurence, c 2009;
Mt. Stuart, linocut by Laurence, c 2009-2016 (All images from]