July 6, 2018

Playing with a Full Deck

        Playing cards were probably invented as a result of the invention of wood block printing in China around the ninth century, and were one of the most common early uses of printing in Europe in the fifteenth century.  Early in my teaching career in times almost as ancient (well, about two dozen years ago), I decided to have my students corporately create and print a complete deck of cards.  There were 56 students in the sixth grade, so each student was in charge of one of the 52 in the deck, plus two jokers, a title card, and a design for the back.  Each one designed their card, carved a rubber block, and printed on unlined 4x6 index cards.  It turned out to be a great project and a lot of fun, except that each card had to be printed 57 times, and the back had to be printed 3,135 times!  I spent a lot of long, late afternoons finishing the printing, since the kids themselves couldn’t get that many done.  But in the end, every student received a complete deck of cards.
        As with so many block print projects, both simple graphic designs and complicated detailed designs were very successful.  There were a few kids who got their letters or numbers backwards, and a few designs that were just a little too messy to read well, but for the most part the kids’ work was great.  Here are a few of my favorites.
        Notice that the bicycle treads on the ace of diamonds write “ACE ACE” and that there are six hidden diamond-shaped eggs for the 6 of diamonds.  The ace of clubs, in case you can’t see it, is composed of golf clubs, and the clubs for the 10 are charming little graveyard ghosts, plus a tree.  The queen of clubs is yet another clever interpretation of the club shape.
        With the spades you can see again how creatively different kids interpreted the shape and came up with interesting designs, from the peacock tail of the ace and the spade-spots on the cow (notice that the grass of the cow’s field is composed of 10’s), to the elegant Egyptians with 9 white spades on the chair and 9 black spades in the rest of the design.  I love the skritchy lines of the jack.  I don’t know what he’s doing up there, but he does look like a bit of a rascal.
        The spider and its web seems cute as the 4 of hearts, but there’s a little darkness to the idea of ensnaring hearts, and the king of hearts, with its tattoo aesthetic, also seems not quite to be trusted!  On the other hand, making the Tin Woodman the ace of hearts seems especially perfect, and I just find the graphic design of the jack very pleasing.
        This was a very ambitious project with sixth graders, and I might have chickened out had I actually been more experienced and realized what I was getting myself into.  Nevertheless, I, and I think the whole class, were pretty proud of our accomplishment.  I have a new scheme for a group project for my printmaking classes in the next two weeks, but I’ll have to see how the classes go before I decide whether or not to introduce it.  If we do it, though, you’ll certainly be among the first to see the results!

[Pictures: Ace of diamonds, rubber block print by Susanne Kelly, 1994;
6 of diamonds, rubber block print by Melissa Cain, 1994;
Ace of clubs, rubber block print by David Thorpe, 1994;
10 of clubs, rubber block print by Margaret Cromwell, 1994;
Queen of clubs, rubber block print by Sarah Morrissey, 1994;
Ace of spades, rubber block print by Nikki Hafezizadeh, 1994;
2 of spades, rubber block print by Matt Murphy, 1994;
10 of spades, rubber block print by Emily O’Brien, 1994;
9 of spades, rubber block print by Emily Hazelwood, 1994;
Jack of spades, rubber block print by Nicole LeFrancois, 1994;
Ace of hearts, rubber block print by Sacia Fowler, 1994;
4 of hearts, rubber block print by Mary Fredrickson, 1994;
Jack of hearts, rubber block print by Molly Smith, 1994;
King of hearts, rubber block print by Chris Kinniburgh, 1994.]

July 3, 2018

Beerhorst's City

        Rick Beerhorst (USA) uses urban elements in many of his wood block prints.  I especially like his buildings, which are very simple, rough blocks.  The addition of ladders gives both visual interest with their diagonals and storytelling interest.  This piece is titled Building the City, but it doesn’t look like construction.  The ladders seem to go off in random directions, as if they’re less about building buildings and more about building experiences or adventures.

        I also like the urban setting of this Peaceable Kingdom.  The theme is one very dear to my heart (my version here) and I think we need the vision always before us with all sorts of people, in all sorts of
settings, now more than ever.  Beerhorst gives it interest with lots of modern details including a beautiful fire hydrant in the foreground, buildings and water tower in the background, and a barbed-wire-topped chain link fence which I imagine might be running along a train track or a highway that cuts through the city.  I also like the ball and jacks for the children to play with, and the friendly alertness of dove and snake.

[Pictures: Building the City, wood block print by Rick Beerhorst;
Peaceable Kingdom in the City, wood block print by Beerhorst (Images from StudioBeerhorst).]

June 29, 2018

Words of the Month - Babble

        If you like words, you should be Babbling.  The basic gist of this on-line word game is a grid of letters like Boggle (1).  You build words by going from tile to tile.  You can go in any direction, but the tiles must touch, and you cannot use the same tile more than once per word.  Unlike Boggle, in which you have three minutes to find as many words as you can, in Babble you have 24 hours to find every possible word (2) in the grid (but only words 4 letters and longer).  Points are scored more like Scrabble, because each letter has a point value, which you add up for the word.  Furthermore, 4-letter words are worth the total point value x1, 5-letter words are the point value x2, and so on.  The points are used to give clues to words more than as a scoring system, because players are really not competing against each other.  Everyone who finishes wins equally, and because, after all, it’s just a game, players set themselves all different goals and all different constraints.  Some people finish the grid every single day, some never bother to finish at all.  Some use all sorts of word lists and ask each other for clues for difficult words, while others refuse all aids.  There’s also a “clue” list (3) you can access that gives the first two letters and the point value of each word.  (My personal rules are that I will not use word lists and I will never ask for clues, but I will happily use clues that are given when other people have asked.  I will not go to the “clue” list until I have at least 80% of the words found, preferably 90% or more, and have run out of time.  I can’t stand not finishing a grid, so if it’s a long one or I have a busy day and don’t think I’ll be able to finish, I just don’t start at all that day.)
        So that’s the outline of the Babble game and I highly recommend it to all who enjoy word games, but I find that there are some interesting linguistic issues associated with it, too.  First of all, it uses a rather outdated dictionary called Enable, which has some interesting (and irritating) quirks.  For example, there are words that it simply doesn’t accept, from henge, to, ironically, internet.  Its selection of foreign words is erratic.  It accepts all kinds of world currencies, which are certainly unfamiliar words that players tend to complain about bitterly, but are perfectly legitimate because they are, after all, the words that speakers of English use when referring to currencies.  But Enable also includes titles from a variety of languages, including senor, sieur, monsieur, and even Portuguese senhor and Dutch vrouw, which don’t seem at all English to me… while it rather pointedly does not accept herr, frau, or any German words.  It accepts all manner of Scottish dialect words, but not, for example, Irish sidhe.  This just goes to show that putting together a dictionary is not as straightforward as many people assume, and is very much a matter of decisions about what to include or not.
        The second interesting point about Babble is the linguistic discussions that sometimes crop up in the the chat log (4).  The chat log is a special feature of the game, and the players give each other clues for difficult words, banter, share recipes, pour out their hearts to each other, offer endless sympathy and puns, and are, in short, a surprisingly close community.  People frequently complain about the eccentricities of the Enable dictionary, but another interesting discussion that comes up with some frequency concerns the “bad words” that Enable accepts.  These range from explicit slang and swear words to all manner of derogatory terms.  In a grid that contains such words, players will often remark that they “shouldn’t be allowed.”  The answer, of course, is that they are words.  No matter how much we wish they weren’t or that no one would ever use them, as long as people use them, they remain part of the English language.  So this comes down to the prescriptive vs descriptive dictionary debate.  Should the dictionary include only the words that someone decides people should use, or all the words that people do, in fact, use?  If we acted as if these words didn’t exist, would it help them go away?  It’s interesting to me to see speakers engage in issues like this.  A tendency that I find far less endearing - in fact, downright infuriating - is Babble players’ tendency to label words “stupid.”  For some players, any time they ask for a clue for a word that they are not personally familiar with, they complain, “That’s a stupid word.”  Usually these are perfectly good words, just used in specific fields or circumstances, and I always want to reply “It’s not the word that’s stupid; it’s you.”  But I don’t.  In all seriousness, I find it deeply disturbing that so many people (not all) automatically respond to the unfamiliar with dismissive insults instead of curiosity, rational thought, and a desire to learn.
        Finally, the Babble community has, over the years, come up with jargon of its own.  The game has been around for 14 years now (my thirteenth Babbleversary is coming up in August!) and over the years a variety of specialized Babble vocabulary has evolved.  Here are a few of the words coined and used in the Babble chat log:
babblet - noun, a word that appears quite commonly in the Babble grid, but almost never in ordinary conversation.  It’s a word that most of us know only because of Babble, such as anoa, naoi, and teiid.
firewords - exclamation, a variant of fireworks, which means you’ve completed the grid and deserve celebration.  Other variants include firebirds, fireflies, and fw.
fish - noun, an easy word that you feel really stupid for not having been able to find without help.  It derives from the phrase “Hit me with a fish.”
listless - adjective, it does not mean lacking energy or enthusiasm.  Rather, it is finding all the words without ever using the “clue” list of first two letters of each word, and it probably indicates that you actually had excess energy and enthusiasm for the grid!  To list is also used as a verb meaning to use the list.
monkey - verb, to type in “random” combinations of letters in the hope that something will turn out to be a real word.  This began as a reference to the idea that a room full of monkeys typing randomly would be just as likely to find all the words in the grid.  People will say “I just monkeyed a 6-letter word,” or “There’s been a lot of monkeying on this grid.”  Related idioms include such sayings as, “The monkeys are really working hard today,” and “I think my monkeys need more bananas!”
pull a peri - verb, to ask for a clue and then immediately find that word by yourself; named for Babbler Periwinkle, who is particularly prone to it.
        Here are a few more bits of Babble trivia: the largest grid on record included 744 words, while the shortest had only 10!  (Most are in the 90-250 word range).  There’s never been a word longer than 13 letters, and the word that has appeared in more grids than any other, about 14%, is rete (a babblet for me).
        When I first discovered Babble, I was home with two preschoolers all day and the Babble chat community was my lifeline to the world, a precious opportunity to converse with adults even when I couldn’t leave the house.  I still play most days, but in recent years I have chatted ever less and less, so that now I almost never comment, except very rarely to offer a clue if someone seems sufficiently desperate.  But if you do join the Babble community, feel free to say hello.  I’m Vicuna (5), known as Vi to my best Babble buddies back in the day.  You will be welcomed!

[Pictures: Babble screen;
Monkeying, engraving of a New World monkey from 1860 + Underwood (1923), rubber block print by AEGN, 2011.]

June 26, 2018

Driver's Ed

        This week my children are taking their driver’s ed classes, so I thought I’d share my series of block prints of vintage cars.  I’m not much of a fan of ordinary everyday cars on the roads, and I’d generally prefer not to drive if I can avoid it.  Nevertheless, I’m certainly grateful for the ability to drive, for the luxury of owning a car, and for the flexibility and opportunities that driving gives me.  In the past few years I’ve been in that chauffeur stage of life wherein much of my existence seems to revolve around taking children to and from their various activities which, between distance, timing, weather, equipment, and other logistical factors can be done by foot or bicycle far less often than I’d hoped.
        So, why does an artist with a less than rosy view of driving make a series of prints on cars?  Because while I don’t like the cars around me on the road or taking up all the spaces in the parking lot, I have always liked antique cars.  I’m not sure I can entirely explain why, but I think many of them are beautiful, and, (as is the case with the steampunk aesthetic), they simultaneously show off their practical workings and are crafted with an eye for art.  They're also interesting symbols of their historical eras.  I’ve enjoyed them since I was young, so I wanted to do a series celebrating that very early era of the automobile.
        My organizing principle was to choose a car from each decade from the 1890s through the 1930s.  (After that my enthusiasm wanes, and from the 1960s on I stop caring completely.)  As a Cleveland girl, I began with the Winton Motor Carriage Company, pioneers in American car manufacturing.  I’ve posted the 1898 Winton Phaeton in this blog elsewhere, so we’ll move straight on to the Ford Model T Touring from 1908, the first year that Ford began manufacturing cars by production line.  This is red because that’s what color the Touring style was; it was not until 1914 that all Model T’s were black.
        The Model T’s were of course famous for making cars affordable for the working classes, but that doesn’t mean the super-wealthy would be content with a car like that.  My 1914 Locomobile print is a Model 38 Berline, of which only one still remains.  It has no expense spared, including Tiffany lamps.  It’s also huge.  I complain bitterly about today’s SUVs, but this was much, much worse!
        For the 1920s I confess that what I initially wanted was a 1927 Daimler Double-Six as favored by Lord Peter Wimsey.  However, after long searching I never could find any photographs of the right model, so I eventually decided to represent another interesting facet of the early automobile industry instead.  The Milburn Light Electric was a popular car, especially marketed for women as being cleaner, quieter, and easier to use than a gasoline car.  Note that the driver sits in the back seat of this Winton model, with curtains at the windows!  My 1922 car, sadly, is one of the last of the electric cars for almost a century.  I’m thrilled that electric cars are finally coming back, far better than before.  And perhaps when self-driving cars take over the roads, the “drivers” will once again sit in the back seat with curtains at the windows.
        And finally, the 1935 Auburn 851 Speedster.  Another luxury car, this was not only a thing of beauty, but included in every vehicle was a plaque certifying that it had been driven at 100mph.  Its timing, however, was abysmal.  No amount of power or beauty could compensate for the fact that the speedster was just too expensive for buyers during the Great Depression.
        So there’s my paean to cars as my children take their first steps towards mastering these metal monsters.  Like any parent I’ll be terrified for them as they begin driving, but I’m also excited about a new world opening up for them.

[Pictures: 1908 Ford Model T Touring, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007;
1914 Locomobile Model 38 Berline, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007;
1922 Milburn Light Electric, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012;
1935 Auburn 851 Speedster, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007.]

June 22, 2018


        Jacek Yerka (Poland, b. 1952) is an artist who paints all kinds of cool fantasy/sci fi landscapes and creatures.  With a strong vibe of René Magritte, many of his landscapes include surreal elements of transformation, dislocation, reversal, and juxtaposition.  Some seem to include commentary on modern life, though many also seem to be simply imagination at play.
        This brontosaurus is clearly related to my aspidochelone, and all the other island creatures.  It’s a very unusual species of brontosaurus to have flippers instead of legs, but making it a dinosaur definitely adds a fun twist.  I like the lighthouse on the creature's head.  I had considered that it made sense to put a lighthouse on my aspidochelone’s head, but it didn’t look as good, so I put it on the front of the shell, but
certainly a head so very far away from the mainland should definitely have its own lighthouse.  Interesting details include the arches down the dinosaur’s tail, and all the little windows in the world of the ocean floor.
        Yerka works primarily in acrylic and pastel, but this pencil drawing works particularly well, evoking the sketches of a mad inventor.  It may be invented and constructed, but it nevertheless seems to be
alive.  This is a common theme with many of Yerka’s creatures: they are hybrids of biological elements and retro machinery.  This one seems to create a sort of musical dust.  A nice touch is that the tracks of the treads are staves, upon which the falling notes write music.
        I imagine that the crocodilian-car creature might almost be a sort of tsukumogami, since the car looks so old and abandoned.  Perhaps old cars left long enough grow legs and tails and become animate.  This particular creature must be a favorite of Yerka, since a very similar one appears in another painting, too.
        And finally, another wonderful town placed in a fantastical location.  Is that lava over which the city clings, or striated rock, or something else altogether: winding skeins of thought or imagination, perhaps.  The markers along the edge of the cliff imply that the cobbled land between sea and cliff’s edge makes a road to and from somewhere else, so the inhabitants are not as wholly isolated as they at first appear.
        Yerka’s images are definitely an encouragement to imagination.  Where is this?  What’s happening here?  What might happen next?  Who, what, when, where, why?  What if…?

[Pictures: Brontosaurus Civitas, painting by Jacek Yerka, 2014(?);
Self-propelled Boulevard Composer, pencil drawing by Yerka, 2007;
Stone and Brick, painting by Yerka, 2005;
Ultima Thule, painting by Yerka, 2008 (All images from Yerkaland.com).]

June 19, 2018

Eppink's 101 Techniques, - Part III

        The final section in Norman R. Eppink’s monumental 101 Prints: The History and Techniques of Printmaking is Children’s Processes.  This may possibly have been an afterthought in his mind, but I have to give him enormous credit for including it at all, as most Serious Artists hardly seem to consider that children’s art is art at all — or that adults using “Children’s Processes” are making real art, either.
        It’s interesting to see what print-making techniques Eppink relegates to children or considers appropriate for children, and a large percentage of them are relief processes.  Hand print, potato print, glue print, and rubbing all seem fair enough (although see Diana Pomeroy’s potato prints and Raubdruckerin’s found blocks for adult versions).  Paraffin print and clay print are presumably good for children because they don’t require the sharp tools of most relief printmaking techniques.  Here (above) is Eppink’s
clay print, but I’m not sure he makes full use of the most interesting aspect of a clay block, which in my opinion would be the ability to press all kinds of shapes and textures into it, rather than just drawing lines.
        The foil print is interesting because it looks to be printed intaglio, and I’d be curious how classroom-friendly that actually is.  Does he use ordinary aluminum foil, or does the technique require something a little sturdier?  Do you need a real press as for other intaglio techniques, or can this be done with hand pressing or a mini press?
        Perhaps most interesting are the processes that Eppink includes for both adults and children.  His collagraph is considered an adult technique, but “paper print,” which is simply a collagraph made with plain paper, is listed for children.  Eppink’s paper print (unlike his collagraph) is also printed relief, and I quite like it.  I may do some experiments using paper, since I’ve always used board and thicker materials, but it looks like this would make it easier to get the inking even, not to mention easier cutting and gluing.
        Eppink lists monotype for adults, but “transfer monotype” for children.  His transfer monotype looks like what was called a “trace monotype” at RISD, where it was done by an adult artist.  (It occurs to me to wonder how Eppink made 15 monotypes for his original limited edition book.  Comparing this with the version at the Art Institute of Chicago, it looks like he used the same title for each, but that they are separately drawn and therefore not really the same.)
        And finally, plaster relief print, which Eppink includes in both Relief Processes and Children’s Processes.  Unfortunately, I didn’t scan his adult version to compare with this one, which is print 100 and falls in the Children’s section.  Nevertheless, it goes to confirm a point that sometimes seems to cause people some confusion.  That is that there are some processes that are appropriate for adults only because they may be too difficult or dangerous for children (depending on the child’s age, of course), and there are processes that are safe for children but which adults would never choose to do because they aren’t as
versatile or interesting.  However - and this is the part some people don’t seem to understand - there are also art forms that are appropriate for children and yet still perfectly interesting for adults.  Just because children can make monotypes or collagraphs doesn’t mean that adults should be ashamed to make monotypes or collagraphs.  Just because children can carve rubber doesn’t mean that adults who carve rubber are childish.  (And yes, there’s a parallel here: just because children love fantasy doesn’t mean that adults who love fantasy are childish.)
        I can’t quite decide whether Eppink was contributing to stereotypes or helping to break them down by making a separate section of Children’s Processes, but I’m glad he included them rather than ignoring them, because they certainly add to the variety and richness of printmaking represented.

[Pictures: Garden, clay print (89) by Norman R. Eppink;
Twigs and Pebbles, foil print (98) by Eppink;
Umbrellas, paper print (91) by Eppink;
Tools and Machines, transfer monotype (96) by Eppink;
Nets, plaster relief print (100) by Eppink, all from 101 Prints: The History and Techniques of Printmaking, 1967.]

June 15, 2018

Eppink's 101 Techniques - Part II

        After Norman R. Eppink covers Relief Processes in his 101 Prints: The History and Techniques of Printmaking, he goes on to other printmaking techniques in which, on the whole, I have significantly less interest.  Nevertheless, several of his sample pieces still serve to shed interesting light on relief printmaking.  For example, when he engraves a pewter plate, he prints the plate both intaglio (ink is forced down into the crevices) and relief
(ink stays up on original surface) for comparison.  He also includes a relief printed version of his metal line engraving.  You can see in both of these how the intaglio print makes the more expected picture - black lines on a white background - while the relief printed version makes a sort of negative.  This is why intaglio took over from relief as the reproduction method of choice in printing.  It is, after all, a lot easier to reproduce the look of a drawing that way.  This is also why I prefer relief printmaking: it has its own unique look instead of being merely a method of reproducing another medium.
        Along with his other metal plate techniques, Eppink includes a dotted metal print, a technique that has always been printed in relief.  You can see my previous post about the technique here.  Why he put it where he did in his book, I don’t know, but I do like this one, with its interesting patterns and textures.
        Unlike the collagraphs I’ve done, Eppink’s collagraph is printed intaglio, which is how one of my favorite collagraph artists, Bonnie Murray, does hers.  This makes for a really interesting look, and this is one of my favorites of Eppink’s prints.  It looks very Venetian.  I’d experiment with this myself, except that
I’ve not yet figured out how to make or seal a collagraph so that it’s sturdy enough to withstand the wiping away of the surface ink that’s required for intaglio printing.  Maybe someday!
        As for Eppink’s continued march through printmaking techniques, I have little interest in Planographic Processes (which is lithography), and although I suppose one could argue that monotypes are planographic, Eppink categorizes his under Miscellaneous Processes.  I don’t much care about Stencil Processes (which include stencils and serigraphy, the fancy word for silkscreen).  And my prejudice is that Photography Processes aren’t printmaking at all but belong in a wholly different book!
        And that concludes Eppink’s review of “serious” printmaking… but tune in for the third and final installment, where things get wild and fun!

[Pictures: Man of the Cloth, engraving by Norman R. Eppink, printed in both intaglio and relief;
Fish Count, line engraving printed as metal relief by Eppink;
Trio, dotted metal print by Eppink;
Façade, collagraph by Eppink;
Pears in a Basket, monotype on glass by Eppink, all from 101 Prints: The History and Techniques of Printmaking, 1967.]

June 12, 2018

Eppink's 101 Techniques - Part I

        In 1967 Norman R. Eppink (USA) published his monumental work 101 Prints: The History and Techniques of Printmaking, which consisted of exactly that: 101 prints, each representing a different printmaking technique.  (In the limited 1967 edition, each of the representative prints was an original, and the book was printed by Eppink’s own press.  He then published a regular edition in 1971 with reproductions of the illustrations.)  The book is epic in scale and represents a tremendous undertaking on Eppink’s part to research so many different printmaking techniques and master them all at least sufficiently to produce a representative sample.  The only downside is that unfortunately I actually don’t like very many of his prints!  Still, it’s a cool enough project that I want to share a bunch with you - so many, in fact, that I’ll divide them over multiple posts.
        Eppink himself divides his 101 techniques into nine sections, which are Relief Processes; Intaglio Processes; Intaglio, Mixed Media Processes; Planographic Processes (lithographs); Stencil Processes (stencils, serigraph/silkscreen); Photographic Processes; Miscellaneous Processes (rubbings, monotypes, embossing); and Children’s Processes.  Of all those printmaking techniques, my interest is primarily only the very first section, Relief Processes.  In the following list of
relief processes that Eppink includes in his collection, I have linked to some of my own posts for comparison.  Eppink includes woodcut and wood engraving, linoleum cut, and then various multi-block, multi-color versions.  He also includes more obscure blocks including casein, gesso, plaster, lucite, plexiglas, rubber (inner tube rubber, not purpose-made rubber carving blocks, which hadn’t been invented yet), celluloid dissolved in acetone, and my favorite for sheer randomness: rabbit-skin glue mixed with molasses.  In other words, anything that can be made into a flat surface and carved can become a relief printing block.  I’m not entirely sure why these particular materials were chosen for inclusion, but I gather that each of them had at least one “serious” artist working in that medium.
        So I include for you today Eppink’s woodcut, wood engraving, linocut, and casein cut.  Casein, in case you don’t know, is a protein from milk that has a long history of use in paints and glues (and cheese, but even Eppink doesn’t seem to have considered making cheesecuts).  You can see that his casein cut is just a jumble of experimental mark-making, but what I don’t know is whether that’s about all a casein block is capable of, or whether Eppink just didn’t feel like doing anything else with it.  After all, he still had 92 more prints to go.  And finally, I’ve also included his 3-color linoleum block print, which is specifically three blocks, one for each color.
        Some of Eppink’s choices seem arbitrary: why does a 3-color print count as a separate technique from a 2-color print and a 4-color print?  Why include lucite and plexiglas as separate techniques when as far as I
understand it, they’re both just versions of the same acrylic plastic?  It certainly makes me wonder how I would break down the various possibilities if I were to undertake such a project.  But perhaps this blog is at least a partial answer to that question, even if it hasn’t been at all systematic.
        Up next, we’ll move into techniques that, despite being categorized by Eppink in sections other than Relief Processes, are still interesting.

[Pictures: Coast Line, woodcut by Norman R. Eppink;
Ruins, wood engraving by Eppink;
Aquarium, linoleum cut by Eppink;
Fragment, casein cut by Eppink;
Doors, three-color linoleum cut by Eppink, all from 101 Prints: The History and Techniques of Printmaking, 1967.]

June 8, 2018

Save the Merfolk

        Today is World Oceans Day, and we already got the celebration started with some Odd Fish a couple weeks ago, so today I have something even odder: merpeople.  The biology of merfolk has always been a bit of a puzzle.  How can a creature’s internal systems actually function if they’re half fish, half mammal, half cold-blooded, half warm-blooded, half water-breathing, half air-breathing?  But leaving such considerations aside for the moment, the important thing about merfolk is that they are intelligent beings who live in the world’s oceans and are entitled to some opinions about the state of the seas and how humans have been treating the water for the past few centuries.  Other intelligent sea creatures, such as dolphins and whales, of course, are also entitled to opinions, but presumably merfolk could actually tell us their opinions in clear and unambiguous speech.
        My first mermaid, combing her hair in the traditional manner, comes from “A Strange and Wonderful Relation of a Mermaid, that was seen and spoke with, on the Black Rock near Liverpool, by John Robinson Mariner, who was tossed on the Ocean for Six days and Nights; Together with the Conversation he had with her, and how he was preserved.”  From this account I learn something I did not know about mermaids: it is vital that you speak first.  As the account explains, “she appeared to him with a smiling Countenance and (by his Misfortune) she got the first word of him, so that he could not speak one Word, but was quite Dumb.”  Perhaps this is why we haven’t heard the merpeople’s opinions yet: we always get the first word.
         Next up, a really unusual mercouple.  They have large animal ears, for starters, and odd tufts on the undersides of their tails, but their strangest feature is the little web-footed legs.  These legs seem to add amphibian to the mammal-fish mix.  We know there must be many different species of merpeople, including an armless one here, and of course the double-tailed species made famous by Starbucks Coffee.  It may be that these legged merfolk are seen more often than we realize, if their legs are underwater when sailors usually spot them only from the waist up.
        Mermen get a lot less representation these days, so I’ve included a fifteenth century mergentleman who strikes me as looking rather scholarly.  I’d bet he could tell us a thing or two about plastic straws, helium balloons, oil spills, and the rest of the ocean trash.
        And finally a pair of mermaids wearing scales to the neck for modern notions of modesty.  A mother-daughter pair, perhaps?  Other than Andersen and Disney’s assurance that young merfolk go through a rebellious adolescent phase much like humans, we know very little about the life cycle of merpeople.  That’s all the more reason to take care of our oceans before we lose the chance to learn more about the wonderful creatures that live there.
        Okay, so maybe there aren’t mermaids living in the world’s oceans, so why have I picked them to celebrate World Ocean Day?  Well, the truth is that we have absolutely no idea how many more strange and incredible species remain undiscovered in the seas, but we know there are large, intelligent, beautiful creatures already in danger, and there are almost certainly creatures at least as wondrous as mermaids that we’ll never know about if we don’t ease up our abuse of the Earth.  So let’s Save the Mermaids and all their fellow sea creatures before it's too late.

[Pictures: Wonder of Wonders, wood block print from an 18th chapbook, recorded in Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century by John Ashton, 1882 (Image from Internet Archive);
Monstra Niliaca Parei, from Historiae animalium by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1570 edition (Images from University of Oklahoma);
Balena, wood block print from Ortus Sanitatis published by Jacob Meydenbach, 1491 (Image from Internet Archive);
Iemanjá, wood block print by José Francisco Borges, c 2003 (Indigo Arts Gallery).]

June 5, 2018

Tibetan Wood Block Prints

        Here are two nineteenth century Tibetan Buddhist broadsides printed from wood blocks.  The first is a complex scene, and so detailed it almost looks more like an engraving.  The tiny circles in the central light beam (if light beam it is) are the sort of thing that’s particularly fiddly to carve.  According to the description, this represents a wrathful manifestation of the bodhisattva Manjusri.  I don’t know anything about the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism, so I can look at this only as an image in its own right.  There are dragons in the clouds, shooting beams from their mouths, and an elephant and a lion among the attacking hordes.  Maybe it’s because I recently reread The Lord of the Rings, but the figures in the lower right, particularly, make me think of orcs.  To me it looks as if the heads of the spears transform into flowers as they enter the aura of the bodhisattva.  I have no idea whether this is what the artist intended to depict, but I love the idea!
        The second piece is somewhat simpler in style, just outlines, and arranged in a flatter, more schematic composition.  It represents Gautama Buddha under assault by the forces of ignorance.  I totally know how he feels.  The forces of ignorance are led by the demon Mara, whom I take to be the buffalo-horned monster.  Look at all those hands hemming the Buddha in with their clutching, busy demands, and the ranks of feet, their toes lined up like shark’s teeth.  The left feet (his left) stand upon a row of birds, and the right feet on a row of something that look to me like reptilian camels, but I’m guessing perhaps nagas?  The border of dragons and clouds is quite lovely.
        Wood block printing has, of course, been used for centuries all around the world for a wide variety of purposes.  I don’t know to what extent the anonymous artists who made these images thought of their own work as Art, and to what extent they thought of it more as graphic design, or even just recopying a standard iconography.  In any case, they are new to me, and I found it interesting to see one more different style of relief block printmaking.

[Pictures: Manjughos a, Tibetan Buddhist broadside, nineteenth century;
Gautama Buddha under assault by Mara, Tibetan Buddhist broadside, nineteenth century (Images from Yale University Beinecke Library).]

June 1, 2018

It's Not Fantasy. It's Preparation.

        On May 5, Maria Devlin McNair had a piece in the Boston Globe that you need to read.  It covers a whole slew of points that I’ve discussed in this blog before, including
        - The real-world inspiration that speculative fiction can provide, in this case, to the students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and became powerful advocates for gun control.  As Anna Crean, one of the students, said, “We’ve grown up with teenagers in dystopian eras that have fixed everything and become the heroes of their city. Then they put us into a dystopian era in real life and they don’t expect us to do anything?  We can make a difference because that’s what books and movies have told us since we were little.”
        - How “children’s literature” can be as deep and complex as “serious literature” and grapple with the most profound moral issues.  As fantasy author Philip Pullman said, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.”
        - How, indeed, the division between children’s and adult’s literature is somewhat artificial anyway.
        - How fantasy is not mere escapism.  It helps readers figure out possibilities of how they can live their actual lives in the actual world, and in particular
        - How the vision of Good is important for developing our own moral compasses.  As MG Prezioso of the Harvard Graduate School of Education said, “When you read those kinds of books. . . it’s inevitably inspiring because you see what can be. You are given this vision and trying to figure out different ways to make that vision a reality.”
        - How important it is that we are given a vision reminding us that the world is not inevitably doomed to remain as it is now.  As Denizcan James pointed out, students are seeing their world turn into “the entire plot of [Harry Potter] book 5 where the government refuses to do anything about a deadly threat so the teenagers have to rise up and fight back.”  And as teacher Jennifer Ansbach said of fantasy, “What, you thought it was fiction? It was preparation.”
        Go read the entire article here: How Children’s Literature Became Everybody’s Literature.

[Picture: Hogwarts Castle, wood block print by Brian Reedy of WoodcutEmporium.]

May 29, 2018

Words of the Month - The Incredible Shrinking Shrank

        I first noticed it in 1989 with the release of the Disney movie “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”  But that’s wrong, I objected to a heedless world.  It should be “Honey, I Shrank the Kids.”  Nevertheless, since then I’ve been witnessing the steady demise of the simple past tense of shrink.  What’s going on here?
        First of all, shrink is a good Old English verb, and its past tense forms have come down to us from the earliest forms of the language.  Shrunk is (or was) the past participle, as in “Honey, I have shrunk the kids.”  It’s also the form found in the adjective shrunkenShrank, as the simple past tense, doesn’t appear in any other forms, so perhaps that leaves it weaker, sounding stranger to the average ear.  When speaking one’s native language, one doesn’t look things up in grammar books, except possibly when writing an essay for school; one simply goes by ear.  If it sounds right, it’s right; if it sounds wrong, it’s wrong.  So the more you hear shrunk, the more that sounds right, and the less you hear shrank, the weirder it sounds.
        Words don’t live by themselves, however; they associate with each other, reinforcing what sounds right and wrong.  Other Old English verbs that form their past tenses to the same pattern as shrink include sink, stink, drink, sing, and spin.  So let’s see what’s been happening to them.
        “Honey, I sank the boat,” has been correct for the past thousand years, but I have begun to see (or hear) sunk creeping in as the simple past tense. (Actually, in the interests of full accuracy, “The boat sank” has been correct forever, but “I sank the boat” only since the mid thirteenth century, when sink came to be used transitively.)  In October 2017 the Boston Globe reported “A 65-foot boat loaded with diesel fuel sunk in Boston Harbor early Tuesday morning.”  Probably helping to confuse the issue is the fact that sunk is also an adjective so that you can get perfectly correct sentences like “The boat sunk in Boston Harbor has not been salvaged.”  Again, the ear can begin to think that “the boat sunk” sounds better than “the boat sank.”
        It’s my impression that as of 2018 sank is still stronger than shrank, but span is a past tense that seems to be farther along the road to extinction.  The correct grammar is (or was originally) “I span the wheel” or “I have spun the wheel,” but I wouldn’t use span unless I were at my most pedantic.  It sounds weird to me.  In Paul Zelinsky’s 1986 Caldecott Honor retelling of Rumplestiltskin, “the little man once again spun all the straw into gold.”  What sounds right to you?
        Sing - sang - sung, on the other hand, remains pretty strong.  Indeed, it wouldn’t even occur to me that anyone could possibly say something as wrong-sounding as “I sung the song,” except that a quick internet search reveals many many grammar sites earnestly explaining that the correct past tense is “I sang.”  Clearly people are wondering, no longer certain of their own ear-intuition.  The same situation seems to be true of drink, with enough confusion out there to warrant plenty of grammar advice.  Indeed, one site urges not only that “I drunk” is wrong, but that “I have drank” is also wrong.  How could one possibly be unable to hear how wrong those are?  Well, if you hear enough other confused people, you get confused, too.
        This particular class of strong verb forms seems gradually to be simplifying itself: losing its simple past tense form in favor of using the same form for both past tense and past participle.  But just to keep things exciting, sometimes the language complicates itself instead.  The past tense dove began as an 18th century error based on analogy with the past tense droveDrive - drove - driven is the original correct formation, but the original past tense of dive is dived.  Somewhere along the line, speakers (chiefly in the USA) began to think dove sounded better, and now that is the more common usage in the US, although dived is still more common in the UK.  The same thing happened to dig - digged, except that dug appeared in the sixteenth century and has now completely superseded the original past tense, leaving digged as the incorrect form.  It’s worth noting that the English language survived the change.  So give it a couple more centuries and for better or worse we’ll probably be seeing the same thing with the disappearance of shrank, sank, stank, and span.

[Pictures: Tom Thumb dancing on the queen’s hand, wood block print from an eighteenth-century chapbook, reproduced in Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century by John Ashton, 1882 (Image from Internet Archive);
Magres Serapion, wood block print from Ortus Sanitatis published by Jacob Meydenbach, 1491 (Image from Internet Archive).]

May 25, 2018

Odd Fish

        Let’s be honest, there are some seriously weird fish in the world’s waters, and anything you could possibly think up while trying to be all fantastical is probably tame compared with something that really exists.  That said, I came across a few fishy illustrations in some of the early natural history works, that leave me exclaiming, “What the heck?”
        So what do we have here?  First, a sea serpent with a  ribbon-like crest with which it is “booping” a bemused seal.  Despite the rather amusing look of the protuberance squishing down over the seal’s head like a turban, the sea serpent definitely has an evil look in its eye.  If I were the sea turtle, I wouldn’t be treading water and watching; I’d get away from there before I was booped next!
        The next monster has most excellent flippers, the head of a boar, three eyes on its side, and a pair of crescent horns at its shoulders.  Is it mammal or fish?  As far as I can make out the Latin of Gessner’s description (which is, admittedly, NOT very well) he seems to have found this monster in Olaus Magnus, and confesses that he’s dubious about the pig snout and the extra eyes.  But I’m not dubious at all - surely such things are swimming in northern waters even now?
        Our next odd fish has a human face - is it a sort of proto-mermaid?  And how about a fish with an armada of galleys on its flanks?  Are they camouflage for swimming among fleets?  Or are we seeing an x-ray view of all the ships this monster has swallowed?  Again with my attempts at Latin (with the questionable help of Google translate), is this a decorative artwork in which galleys have been carved on fish-leather?  Who knows.
But now a creature which doesn’t look much like a fish at all, except for the scales.  Is it perhaps a reptile, instead?  The bald head and human face remind me of a professional wrestler or something!
        Adorable pufferfish, perhaps?  Fish building a nest up in a tree?  Musical swimming recorder-fish?  All very odd, indeed.
        And then we end with a final What the…???  Twelve arms with clawed paws, a tail with a fishy fin, an eye and an ear at each point of the compass, and a vicious little tusked mouth to the west…  I can't tell you what it is, but I can tell you that this thing is big, and that it was sighted between Antibes and Nice, so you may want to avoid swimming there!  
        Wondrous and strange as these aquatic monsters are, it is equally wondrous and strange that many of them are genuine scientific attempts to depict real creatures of the world’s waters.  So let’s take another look at these terrifying oddities.  Our sea serpent with the aggressive plume?  Believe it or not, that’s meant to be a remora.  Think of it this way: a long skinny fish that has a sticky thing on the top of its head which it uses to grab onto large aquatic creatures such as sea turtles…  When you put it like that, this picture kind of starts to make sense.
        I can’t explain the pig-nosed, eye-spotted monster any more than Gessner could.  He calls it a sea hyena, but I don’t know what real animal that might correspond with.  The boat-marked fish is a tuna, but that still doesn’t explain the picture, so we’ll pass on to the proto-mermaid, which is actually a koi.  I certainly don’t think of koi as having human-like faces, but at any rate, they do have flatter faces and more of cheeks than most fish.  As for this scaly feline… sea lion, anyone?  The puffer-fish are not actually pufferfish, but rather sea stars.  The nest-building fish are trout, and the aquatic musical instruments?  Apparently they’re supposed to be some sort of sponge, but nothing in the description of the creatures explains why in the world they should be depicted like this.  Of course with fifteenth-century books you never know - maybe they just messed up, and this wasn’t the picture that was supposed to be printed here at all.
        The final mish-mash-monster remains a mystery.  I could maybe guess a starfish, with many arms with little grabby claws, but that certainly doesn’t explain what’s with the four elfin ears.  Who says it has to be an ordinary creature, anyway?

[Pictures: Remora, wood block print from De piscibus libri V by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1613;
De hyaena cetacea, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Conrad Gessner, 1604;
Cyprinis Rariset monstrosis, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Gessner, 1604;
Tuna, wood block print from De piscibus by Aldrovandi, 1613 (Images from AMS Historica);
De monstro leonino, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Gessner, 1604;
Stella, Tructa, and Sfungia , wood block prints from Ortus Sanitatis published by Jacob Meydenbach, 1491 (Images from Internet Archive);
Magnus et admirabilis bellua, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Gessner, 1604;
Little bonus fish, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Gessner, 1604 (Images from Internet Archive).]

May 22, 2018

Lino Prints by Harris

        Deborah Harris (USA) is a block print artist with a distinctive style that simplifies subjects, emphasizes graphic qualities, exaggerates distinctive elements, and makes wonderful use of the drama of black and white.  Harris does some interesting political pieces which I may share another day, but today I’m sharing a couple of my favorite of her lovely plants and animals because I need the joy.
        First up, a charming billy goat.  Notice how wonderfully hairy he is around the edges.  In places his hair blends right into the texture of the background, which is also quite full of hairy little lines.  I also really love the flowers in his background, as if he’s posed regally before damask hangings - or perhaps a lush meadow is equally regal.  I might be afraid to put a busily detailed foreground in front of a busily detailed background, but Harris makes it work beautifully.
        This snake is very dramatic indeed, popping off its own shadow, framed in a spotlight.  The shadow makes our eyes read this snake as active, head raised, instead of lying peacefully basking in the hot, white sunlight.  The saw-toothed edges add to the drama.
        Equally dramatic but with a very different effect is what I identify as lilies-of-the-valley.  They certainly aren’t botanically accurate, but Harris has exaggerated the distinctive forms of the plant.  This time the lighting is only in the center, with the edges disappearing into thin outlines around black on black.  Her little monogram makes an attractive part of the design, balanced by the small silhouetted crane, which looks like another sort of seal or symbol.
        And finally, some chrysanthemums with another background full of carved lines.  The background and the petals have the same sorts of lines, but Harris has given the composition enough pure black and pure white to make everything pop.
        I find Harris’s work interesting to study how she uses light and texture, but they’re also just really pleasing!

[Pictures: Billy Goat, linoleum block print by Deborah Harris;
Snake, linoleum block print by Harris, 2008;
untitled, block print by Harris;

Chrysanthemums, linoleum block print by Harris (Images from Deborah-Harris.com).]