November 13, 2018

Cello Joy

        I had to take a cello in for minor repairs today, so I’ll make a virtue of it and share some cello relief block prints.  Most importantly the cello is beautiful to hear, but it’s beautiful to look at, too, so it’s easy to make lovely prints of such a lovely instrument.  First, my own, which I apparently haven’t posted before.  This is a portrait of a cello at rest, but only for a moment.  You don’t leave it propped on the chair like that unless you’re coming right back to play some more.
        Secondly, a design of the scrolls of a cello and a violin by Martha Briana.  This is a reduction print with lots of texture left in the various levels of inking.  There’s no denying that the scrolls of the entire violin family are very pleasing.


        And speaking of the entire family, this third piece is a four hundred year old wood block print of an early relative of the cello, from the book Syntagma Musicum by Michael Praetorius (Germany, 1571-1621).  Although it certainly looks a lot like a cello, it actually took a number of developments to get us from this instrument to the modern cello.  Perhaps the most evident difference in this image is that it has five strings!  It’s also got a lovely decorative tailpiece and endpin.
        Not until the final piece do we get to see someone playing.  Felix Vallotton (Switzerland/France, 1865-1925) has an amazing way of allowing all his shadowed areas to run together into vast areas of black.  I’m always suggesting to students (and myself) to consider that things show up best if they’re black on white or white on black, but here Vallotton has left his cello black on black with only minimal outlines.  I like how the lack of detail in most of the piece is
balanced by the detail of the small clock and decorative bureau handles.  I think the cellist looks like a proper intense Romantic, but his left hand’s fingers do look a little wobbly!
        Finally, if you still crave more relief block cello joy (and really, who wouldn’t?) you can revisit some previously-posted cello-themed pieces, notably these by Kunio Iizuka, Paul Beaver Arnold, Cyril Powers, and Ted Faiers.  Enjoy!

[Pictures: Cello, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009;
Violin and Cello Cuddle, reduction woodcut by Martha Briana (Image from Martha Briana’s web site);
Plate XXI from Syntagma Musicum by Michael Praetorius, 1618 (Image from International Music Score Library Project);
Le Violoncelle, woodcut by Felix Vallotton, 1896 (Image from the Van Gogh Museum).]

November 9, 2018

Moon-Griffin

        It’s fantasy poetry time, and here’s one by Vachel Lindsay (US, 1879-1931).  Lindsay was especially interested in poetry spoken and performed rather than read in silence off a still page, and this one is certainly written as if it records spoken, impromptu words.  Its subtitle is “What Grandpa told the Children.”
The moon?  It is a griffin’s egg,
Hatching tomorrow night.
And how the little boys will watch
With shouting and delight
To see him break the shell and stretch
And creep across the sky.
The boys will laugh.  The little girls,
I fear, may hide and cry.
Yet gentle will the griffin be,
Most decorous and fat,
And walk up to the milky way
And lap it like a cat.

        The gratuitous sexism jars me severely, but setting that aside as a product of its time, there are some really wonderful images in this piece.  I love the idea of the moon as some kind of mythical egg, but if I had thought of that myself, I wouldn’t have thought of a griffin, so that’s a bit of a twist in itself.  It’s also a griffin cub, really, and I picture the fat belly and overgrown paws of a puppy as it walks across the sky to lap up the spilled stars.  The last moon-griffin egg must have been laid yesterday, I guess, and won’t be ready to hatch until November 23.  Keep an eye out for it!

[Picture: Moon-griffin, photoshop design by AEGN from old, unidentified woodcuts.]

November 6, 2018

Working from Photographs (Part II)

        The most common way I use photographs is as research and reference, to check on the proportion of a head here, the shape of a leaf there, the curve of a shoulder, the pattern of a tile roof…  But sometimes I have a photograph that I want to turn directly into a block print, either because I really love the photograph, or because it is the direct inspiration for a block print idea.  My first point is that, unlike the photos I use just for reference, I use only my own photos for direct copying.  You can reread a previous post about Elizabeth Catlett’s use of a photo, where I discuss some of the issues involved in adapting someone else’s work.  What I want to discuss today are the aesthetic issues of transforming a photograph into a relief block print.
        Issue 1. In most cases I’m turning color into black and white.  So, black will probably be black, and white will probably be white, but what about all those other in-between colors?  Often their fate is determined not by their absolute value, but by how they compare to the colors around them.  A red flower against a yellow wall will be rendered as black, while the same red flower would be rendered as white if it were in front of a dark-leafed shrub.  Or take the case of the Eiffel Tower, where in fact the entire structure is painted the same color, but I’ve rendered some parts black and some parts white depending on their background, as suggested by my photograph.  The tricky part was the transition.
        Issue 2. I am not attempting photographic levels of detail in my block prints, so lots of a photograph’s details will need to be simplified.  The judgement is always which elements are essential and which are the bits that won’t be missed.  If there are ten of something, perhaps the image will be just as clear - or even clearer - with only six.  On the other hand, perhaps ten is an integral element, without which it just wouldn’t be right!  For my Boston Sand & Gravel Co., I’ve eliminated some of the structures in the foreground, and some of the words and signs.  Backgrounds especially can usually be simplified or even eliminated, and textures can often be simplified.  The ultimate goal is not to be faithful to the photo, but to make a good block print, which brings us to…
        Issue 3. I may be copying a photo, but that doesn’t mean I’m under any obligation to stick with elements I don’t want.  I get Artistic License to rearrange things, eliminate things, add things in, crop or expand, move things around or adjust their relative proportions, and so on.  Sometimes I leave everything pretty much just as the photo shows, as in the Stairway at the top, but other times I wield the artistic license and change things up.  In one of the pieces I carved during my last show, I worked from a photo I had taken back in 2000 in New York’s Chinatown.  You can see that my piece clearly copies the photo, but I did switch around some of the vegetables.  In the upper right I replaced some middling brown roots with pure black eggplants, and in the lower right I switched out some greens that were very similar to their neighbors for some nice dark spinach for greater variety.  I also changed a few prices, also for variety, and shifted the whole angle very slightly so that the vegetables showed their length a little more recognizably, instead of just their round ends.
        These Cormorants show some other types of editing from the original photo.  First, my piece is cropped in on just one area in the lower center of the photo.  I also cut some of the pilings right out, and moved others in from other parts of the photo.  And I added in two more cormorants lifted from other photos, because they weren’t present in this one.  Again, the goal is to make an appealing block print of cormorants, not to reproduce exactly a snapshot that in this case is not even a particularly good one. 
        So yes, I use photographs for many of my pieces, and find them very helpful indeed.  I also love taking photographs wherever I go, and you can revisit a previous post about how even if I never happen to use a photo directly for a block print, I think the practice helps keep the creative juices flowing.

[Pictures: Stairway in the Garden, wood block print by AEGN, 1998, photo by AEGN, 1995;
Eiffel Tower, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015, photo by AEGN, 2001;
February 15, 1999 - Boston Sand & Gravel, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999, photo by AEGN, 1999;
Market, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018, photo by AEGN, 2000;
Cormorants at the Old Pier, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011, photo by AEGN, 2001.]

November 3, 2018

Working from Photographs (Part I)

        At my last show someone asked me, “I hope you won’t be offended, but do you ever work from photographs?”  The idea that I might be offended by the suggestion is sort of a funny one.  I consider working with the aid of photographs to be essential research into my subject.  Yes, I know that there has been a certain snobbery that a true artist needs no such aids.  That must be related to the idea that Renaissance artists were somehow “cheating” if they used a camera obscura, as if bringing some ingenuity to bear on a problem is genius, but bringing all your ingenuity makes it too easy or something.  But I never went to art school and was never trained to be a “true artist” anyway, so I’m going to set any judgments aside and simply describe some of the ways in which I do use photographs.
        First of all, whenever I’m planning to make a print of a real plant or animal, I gather lots of reference photos that show my subject from the angle I’m thinking of depicting it, as well as lots of other angles.  For example, if I’m doing a cat I might have photos to help with the pose, and photos for inspiration with the fur pattern, and photos to help with the face, and maybe additional photos for a detail of a paw or some other specific element about which I’m not quite sure.  I use photos of my own whenever possible, and I do use sketches from life when my own cat cooperates, but I supplement with a variety of photos from the internet to add to the research.  In these cases I’m not copying any single photo, but I’m certainly using the photographs to teach me details of what my subject looks like in real life.  Otherwise, how could I possibly know the proportions, or the way the joints bend in a particular position, or any of the other details I crave for accuracy?  Block printing often simplifies elements, but that makes it all the more vital that I start with the way things really look so that I can decide what to modify.  In this picture of a woodpecker, for example, I had some photos of birds on my feeder, but found additional photos that showed the bits that were obscured in my photos, as well as pictures of tree trunks with interesting bark.
        Even when I’m making a fantasy scene, I collect photos to help.  After all, nothing is really entirely new; it’s always composed of elements or analogies with real things.  I collect photos of trees for the forest setting, or lions’ paws for the feet, or birds’ or bats’ wings, or flames, and so on.  When I’m depicting a mythical creature with a long history, I do lots of research into how it’s been portrayed before, so that I can find the right balance between making my version “accurate” to its roots, and yet not too boringly generic.  How could I possibly know whether I was doing something new, if I didn’t know what had been done before?  Again, the idea is not to copy any one photograph exactly, but rather to use the photographs as research.  In the picture of the hercinia, for example, I looked at photos of birds to help get the flight right (I believe I ended up using pictures of terns for the basic shape), and lots of pictures of old growth European forests to get ideas for trees, mushrooms, fallen branches, and so on.  (Those pictures were mostly of the Schwartzwald in Germany and Bialowieza National Park in Poland.)  If you were to go searching on the internet for photographs of those forests you could probably recognize a tree here and a branch there, but you would not find any scene exactly like the forest through which my hercinia, which is not exactly a tern, flies.
        So that’s one way of using photographs, but perhaps that’s not what people are thinking of when they say “working from photographs.”  Tune in next post to find out about when I do, in fact, copy a photograph directly.

[Pictures: Downy Woodpecker, rubber block print with watercolor by AEGN, 2006;
Feathers to Light the Way, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

October 31, 2018

Words of the Month - By Thomas Browne

        Thomas Browne (England, 1605-1682) was another of those incredible polymath thinkers at a time when individuals still strove to study everything.  A writer for whom science, mysticism, nature, philosophy, reason, melancholy, and humor were inextricably entwined, Browne needed lots and lots of words to work with, and when he didn’t have the word he wanted at hand, he made up his own.  His original lexicon and the popularity of his work meant that many of those words he coined have stuck with the language, making Browne the now-little-known originator of a whole host of well-known words.  The OED credits him with first usage of 775 words, and first usage of a specific meaning of 1596 words.  You can reread this post on word-coining for some brief caveats about the OED and attributions of words, but any way you figure it, Browne’s word-smithing is impressive.  Among the words for which Browne gets credit are:
analogous
ambidextrous
antediluvian
approximate (adj)
carnivorous
coexistence (also coexistancy, which obviously didn’t stick.  By the way, this was before the verb, making coexist a back-formation.)
coma
compensate (back-formed by Brown from the existing word compensation)
computer (meaning “a person who computes,” of course)
cylindrical
disruption
electricity (meaning “the property of substances that make static electricity through friction.”  Browne was not yet referring to the force itself.)
exhaustion
ferocious
hallucination
indigenous 
insecurity
literary
locomotion
medical (also medically)
migrant (adj.  Apparently migration was already in use, but migrate came later.)
prairie
precocious (precocity was just a few years earlier)
therapeutic
ulterior (meaning “coming later, future”)
veterinarian
        All but one of these words (prairie) first appeared in Browne’s most popular work, Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into Very many received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths, also known as Vulgar Errors, which was a pioneering work in popular science and scientific journalism.  If you begin reading at the preface of Pseudodoxia Epidemica, within the first 6 pages you find the words reminiscential, colourishing, radicated, paradoxologie, manuduction, dilucidate, ampliate, and desiderated, which makes it easy to see how Browne managed to give us so many words: throw around enough and some are bound to stick.
        I’ve only just discovered Browne, and am enjoying his rational takes on various mythical creatures, so you’ll probably be hearing more about him from me in the future.

[Picture: Title page of first edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646 (Image from Abe Books).]

October 28, 2018

Devil at Hallowe'en?

        This wonderful, strange little woodcut is thought to represent the Devil dressed as a bird catcher.  Perhaps the Devil decided to dress as a bird catcher for Hallowe’en in the year 1525?  Theologically it is presumably illustrating Satan’s stratagems for ensnaring souls, but setting that aside, I find this a wonderfully goofy image.  First of all, is that bird catcher get-up for real?  Did hunters really dress as a haystack with a bird decoy and thus successfully catch birds?  What kinds of birds?  In this case, clearly holy birds, as the Devil’s decoy has a halo.  Like most haystack costumes, it’s presumably more convincing if you crouch down and keep still, but with his horned head popping out the top and his clawed feet popping out the bottom, it’s pretty easy to see through the Devil’s disguise.  If he came trick-or-treating to your door, would you make him pick up a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup with his tongs, or would you give it to the bird?

[Picture: The devil as a bird catcher, wood block print perhaps designed by Hans Beham, from Beschwerung der alten Teüflischen Schlangen mit dem Götlichen wort, 1525 (Image from Penn Libraries).]

October 24, 2018

Childhood Is Not Simple

        I heard a pop song yesterday in which the lyrics celebrated the “simplicity” of childhood, and I was excessively irritated.  I hate songs like that!  The thing is, children don’t find their lives simple.  Condescending adults may think it’s not really a big deal to have an argument with your friend or family, or to have trouble understanding your homework, or even to be told (if you’re even younger) that you have to wait until you get home before you can have lunch.  But children’s difficulties are just as big a deal to children as adults’ problems are to adults.  If you want to wax nostalgic about how simple your life was as a child, that’s fine, but don’t expect any children to understand or agree.  Children experience all the same emotions as adults: grief, stubbornness, joy, rage, pride, hopelessness, love, irritability, aspiration…  Moreover, because time stretches longer for them, they are even less able than adults to see to the end of a crisis or understand that this, too, shall pass.  The younger a child is, the more difficulty she’ll have in modulating the intensity of her emotions, or knowing what to do with them, but that also shouldn’t be taken to mean that children themselves are simple.  Being human, they are creatures every bit as complex as adults, who have to be exceptionally creative and adaptable in coming up with strategies to deal with their complicated and often bewildering universe - which just so happens to be exactly the same universe that adults inhabit.  In short, every week in a child’s life may be full of drama, dragons, epic quests, victories, and defeats.
        So, why do I share this little dollop of pop psychology?  Simply to say that those people who romanticize the “simplicity” of childhood may be able to score hits writing sentimental pop songs for their fellow sentimental adults, but they absolutely should never attempt to write for children.  To write for children it is necessary to take children seriously, to acknowledge the reality and validity of the challenges they face, and to give them credit for being able to respond to challenges with courage, creativity, and resilience.  Sometimes it takes true heroism to hold it together until you get home for lunch.

[Picture: Children Playing, woodcut by Feliciano Peña, n.d. (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum).]

October 19, 2018

Art Show Checklist

        This weekend I’ll be at Roslindale Open Studios, so today is all about finishing preparations and packing up.  For most of my weekend shows I prefer to set up on Friday when possible, but Roslindale is not somewhere I want to drive at rush hour on a Friday, so for this one I don’t set up until early Saturday morning.  Moreover, it’s a far enough drive that having to rush back home for some forgotten item is at best a terrible, frantic, stressful inconvenience, and at worst simply impossible.  This makes it all the more important that I actually remember to pack everything I’ll need.  To that end, I have put together a checklist.  This one is personal to me, my work, and my display, and obviously each artist’s list will be a little different.  Nevertheless, I offer it in the hope that it may be of some help to anyone thinking about showing or showing for the first time or so.

Display Stuff                                                Other Stuff
- hanging racks                                            - block(s) to carve
- hardware                                                   - carving tools
- hooks                                                          - sample rubber
- binder clips                                               - stamp pad
- multitool                                                    - test paper
- long table                                                   - business cards
- medium table                                           - networking cards
- small table                                                 - cash box
- tablecloths                                                 - square reader
- print racks                                                 - change
- card rack                                                    - record-keeping notebook
- card display baskets                                - price list folder
- book rack                                                   - pens, pencil
- labels                                                          - tape
- signage                                                      - camera
- easels, stands                                            - cart
                                                                      - bags for purchases

Goods                                                            Last Minute Stuff
- framed work                                             - phone
- matted work                                             - lunch/snacks
- card/necklace/etc. box                            - water bottle
- holiday cards                                            - glasses
- books                                                         - sweater
- framed posters                                        - phone charge cord/battery  
- box of posters                                           - purse (which includes essentials such as
                                                                               chapstick, tylenol, pads, scissors,
                                                                               tape measure, etc.)

        The binder clips, by the way, are for hanging unframed signs, unframed prints, and similar stuff from my wire racks.  The stamp pad and test paper are for checking the progress of the block I’m carving, at the end of the day when I think I may be about done with it.  I never bother bringing lights, but many artists do, in which case they’d also need to remember extension cords and gaffer tape.  Some artists bring an entire toolbox.  I think I’ve only once been in a location that didn’t provide a chair, but some artists bring their own special stool or higher chair.  I’ve always found the other artists extremely generous with tools, tape, making change for a customer, and other necessities that apply to all of us, but of course it’s more convenient to remember your own - and nice to be the person who can be generous to someone else when needed.
        You’ll be substituting your own artwork for mine on this list, your own display system for mine, and so on.  But perhaps there might be something on my list you wouldn’t have thought of.  Certainly my list has been developed and refined over my 14 years of doing art shows, and I’ve learned the hard way how handy it is to have some of the less obvious items, and how easy it is to forget some of the smaller ones - or even large ones, if they happen to get shoved out of sight out of mind.  So I hope this checklist is helpful to some of you, and I hope it’s helpful to me this evening as I load the car!
        If you’re in this Bostonian neck of the woods this weekend, be sure to come by and introduce yourself at Roslindale House.  It’s always a wonderful show.

[Picture: ROS 2017, photo by a helpful neighboring artist, 2017.]

October 16, 2018

That's No Moon!

        A long time ago (about five hundred years) in a continent far far away (Europe) an Italian engineer produced a sketchbook of fantastic gadgets he claimed to have invented and was making available to rich and powerful patrons.  Among his distinctly medieval-style sketches are a wonderful variety of automatons, fountains, musical instruments, weapons, locks, special effects for stage plays and pageants, and… the Death Star.  I mean, just look at this!  What else could it possibly be?
        The engineer, Giovanni or Johannes de Fontana (Italy, c 1395- c1455), included among his vaunted inventions a mishmash of items that were physically impossible, as well as some that he could have actually built, and still others that might have been onto something plausible, but were probably ahead of the technology of the time.  It seems likely, therefore, that Fontana never actually built a
Death Star.  After all, we’d probably have heard about it if Venice had obliterated Milan instead of agreeing to the Peace of Lodi.  Plus, it looks like he’s got the firing pattern of its superlaser a little wrong.  Still, he clearly had the basic concept, and even included lots of star destroyers in the scene, too.  (I confess I don’t know what the thing at the bottom is, though.)


[Pictures: Death Star(?) illustration from Bellicorum instrumentorum liber by Johannes de Fontana, 1420 (Image from Public Domain Review);
Death Star, still from Star Wars, 1977.]



ANNOUNCEMENT for everyone in the Greater Boston Area... or maybe even all of New England!  This weekend is ROSLINDALE OPEN STUDIOS, a wonderful event and one of my biggest shows of the year.  There's always a great buzz and great art, so come on by!

October 12, 2018

Saito's Signals

        Saito Kiyoshi (Japan, 1907-1997) worked as a designer for a railway corporation before taking up printmaking.  Clearly it left him with an interest in the aesthetics of railways, and I really like these two woodblock prints depicting railway depots.  There are no trains here, just the skeleton of infrastructure without any movement or life.  There are tracks, girders, and signals: all manmade geometry.  The dark colors could be interpreted as baleful or ominous, but  for some reason they seem almost peaceful to me.  I guess it’s that everything is so strictly ordered, mathematical and under control .  I suppose they’re set at dusk, or just before dawn when no trains are running.
        I don’t know how many blocks went into each piece; I’m guessing three or maybe four if the red lights got their own separate block.  (The red and the skyline could have been done in a single block inked in two colors.)  The grey ink of the ground is rolled on lightly enough to show a lot of white speckles, which evokes gravel.  Against this gravelly grey, the solid black and red look particularly dramatic, and the shadowy skylines offer a fitting backdrop.



[Pictures: Signal (B), color woodblock print by Saito Kiyoshi, 1962 (Image from Our Sense of Place);
Signal (A), color woodblock print by Saito, 1962 (Image from invaluable).]

October 8, 2018

Here's Something Cool: Mechanical Nef

        This amazing renaissance creation definitely gets some sort of fantasy cred, despite being 100% historically for real.  On the hour the model galleon bursts into life, with three heralds and seven or eight prince electors parading past the emperor on the deck, while ten trumpets, a drum, and a timpani play music, and various sailors move among the ropes and ring bells in the crows nest.  It even trundles across the table and fires a cannon with a puff of smoke.  You can see a video showing the elaborate golden decor, the clockwork, and the  various movements, here.  (The narration is in French, but there’s not much narration anyway.  Mostly it’s just the ship doing its thing.)
         It’s credited to one Hans Schlottheim (Germany, 1544/1547-1625 or-6), who was originally a travelling watchmaker who went on to work in the courts of Bavaria, Prague, and Saxony.  He may have devised the clockwork, with additional goldsmiths and artisans helping with the decor.  This nef may have been in the collection of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, or perhaps the Elector of Saxony.  This particular nef is one of three similar ones, of which historian Lisa Jardine observes “The rich,… the aristocracy, everybody wanted to own a bit of technology - something with cogs and wheels and winding bits… It immediately fascinates everyone that you can wind something up and it goes without your touching it.  Clockwork is magic in the sixteenth century.”  And really, even knowing that it’s all mechanical, it’s hard not to think some wizardry must have been involved just to figure out how to put it all
together and make it work.  The clockwork was cutting edge, and so was the subject: this sort of ship was on the verge of conquering the Earth, the renaissance equivalent of the space shuttle.  Note, too, the wonderful pegasus and sea monsters wreathing the ship at the water line.  Marvelous stuff!
        Here’s another of Schlottheim’s automata, a belltower from about 1580.  And here is another video, showing the working of another of his galleons.  These magical clockwork toys were made as dinner table decorations that would most definitely have impressed the guests at banquets.  It certainly makes a centerpiece of flowers seem ordinary!  (Although flowers, too, have their magic, not to be underestimated.)

[Pictures: Nef of Charles Quint, by Hand Sclottheim, c 1580 (Image from Artsy);
Glockenturmautomat (Bell tower automata) by Schlottheim, c 1580 (Image from Kunst Historisches Museum Wien).]
Quotation from Jardine in A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor, 2010.

October 2, 2018

Woodcuts by Ibañez

        Here is a sampling of wood block prints by Josemaria Ibañez (Chile, b. 1975).  He has a range of styles, from relatively naturalistic to quite stylized and symbolic, but all his work has a bold, graphic quality.  I’m featuring a few of my favorites, of course.
        First up, an aerial view with lots of little details reminiscent of “Where’s Waldo” or something by Mitsumasa Anno.  There are people sunning in the plaza, and people visible in a couple of windows.  A woman appears to be dancing across a crosswalk.  Alas, these pictures are very small while the original is fairly large (50x80cm), so I can’t really enjoy the details as much as I would like, but it’s clearly a fun piece.
        Next, another one that frustrates me with my inability to see it larger.  This one is a pretty realistic view of Heidelberg, Germany, with proper perspective and all.  Nevertheless, the tree-covered
hills are patterned in an interesting, stylized way, and the use of both black and white outlines around some of the roofs and buildings is characteristic.  I find the black, untextured trees in the foreground especially effective.
        And then, for variety, a very simple, almost cartoonish piece, entitled “I Don’t Want to Be Late.”  I can certainly relate to the character vaulting along the treetops, bypassing all the cars and trucks.  Who hasn’t imagined that they could go faster than the traffic, flying along in leaps and bounds?



[Pictures: Mapocho Arereo (Aerial Mapocho), wood block print by Josemaria Ibañez;
Heidelberg, wood block print by Ibañez;
No Quiero Llegar Tarde (I Do Not Want to be Late), wood block print by Ibañez (All images from Josemaria Ibañez).]

September 28, 2018

Words of the Month - Doublets

        In its enthusiasm for other languages’ words, English sometimes adopts a foreign word multiple times over the centuries, ending up with multiple English words that come from the same root.  These words are a type of  doublets: words in the same language derived by different routes of transmission from the same source.  I covered some of these words in a previous post, and since then have collected some more examples to share with you.
        Usually these word pairs end up with different meanings, as for example…
        In the early fourteenth century we borrowed channel from French (which took it from Latin canalis).  It meant in French, as it was borrowed into English, “the bed of a flow of water.”  About a century later, we went back to French to borrow the same word again, this time in its more Latin form of canal, to refer to “tubular passages in the body”.  There is no reason we couldn’t have simply given the first word a second meaning with the growing science of anatomy, but presumably the scientists felt then, as they tend to do to this day, that to sound scientific, a word must sound Latinate.
        Another early fourteenth century word from French is reward (“to give something, especially as compensation”), which came specifically from an Old North French word.  In the mid-fourteenth century we borrowed again, from the then more current form of French, and got regard (“to consider”).  The French word from which we borrowed them both meant “to take notice of,” so you can see how they are related.
        Chase and catch are doublets, funny as that seems.  English borrowed them from variant forms of Old French cacier, “to hunt.”  Catching actually came first, borrowed in about 1200, while chasing was borrowed about a hundred years later.
        English borrowed the word freebooter from Dutch vrijbuiter in the 1560s, when buccaneers were common, especially in the West Indies, and piracy was pursued as both a viable career choice and foreign policy.  In the seventeenth century a book by Dutch freebooter John Oexmelin was popular enough to be translated into French and Spanish, and, in 1684, into English.  All these translations melded the Spanish version of the word (including an extra i) and the French version (including a gratuitous s), and gave us a new English word, filibuster.  (The verb for the legislative strategy doesn’t seem to have occurred before the end of the nineteenth century.)
        Also from Dutch, in the early fifteenth century, English borrowed bulwark, “a fortification or rampart.”  French borrowed the word, too, around the same time, but garbled it a little, as they had no w in their alphabet.  They also, apparently, tore down their bulwarks and laid out broad streets on the sites, but called these tree-lined promenades by their version of same word: boulevard.  English borrowed this French version, along with its new meaning, in 1769.
        In the late thirteenth century, English borrowed the Old French word cloque, as cloak, so called because it was bell-shaped (sort of).  A hundred years later, we borrowed the word again, but this time influenced by the Dutch version and giving us clock, which also, of course, had bells.  And in 1882 we borrowed the word again, only by this time the French form had altered in the intervening years, giving us cloche, a ball-jar (and by 1907 also a bell-shaped woman’s hat).
        Sometimes the word pairs are close synonyms, as…
        The word poor entered English in about 1200, from Old French, which had developed from the Latin root pauper.  And you can see where this is going.  English borrowed the Latin word directly in about 1510, where it was originally a legal term for someone who was not required to pay legal fees due to their impoverished state.  And that word had come into English in the early fifteenth century, from a related Old French word from the same Latin root.
        We really wouldn’t have needed more than one of those words, but when has English ever been satisfied with a single word when there are synonyms to be had?

        The thing to remember about these double-borrowings is that sometimes, as in the case of channel/canal, people deliberately choose another variant of a word we already have.  But often speakers are completely unaware of the relationship between two words with different meanings.  Of course knowing the relationship gains you nothing in terms of sense or usage, but it does gain you the satisfaction of knowing something nifty about the history of our language.

[Pictures: The freebooter Captain Jack Vincent, wood block print for the 1726 edition of History of the Most Notorious Pyrates by Charles Johnson (Image from Sea Thieves);
Florentine merchant in a cloak, wood block print from Habiti antichi et moderni by Cesae Vecelio, 1598 (Image from Biblioteca Casanatense);
Cloche hat styles, illustration from Sears Roebuck catalogue, 1924.]

September 25, 2018

Grabados en Madera

        In 1934 the work of seven of Costa Rica’s leading printmakers was collected in a portfolio  entitled Grabados en Madera (Woodcuts) by the Imprenta Nacional in San Jose.  I don’t know anything about the Costa Rican printmaking scene of the 1930s, so I have no idea whether these men were all working together, or were each doing their own thing, but certainly they all seem to share a very similar aesthetic.  Of course, it’s possible that the similarity reflects the publisher’s taste as much as anything, but it would not be unreasonable to assume that artists in a small area would be influencing each other, and would all be influenced by the same sorts of movements in the world.  Here are a few pieces from the collection.
        The first print here, by Manuel de la Cruz Gonzalez, is particularly appealing to me.  The man is wonderfully detailed, without really having any detail.  Somehow the few,
simple strokes manage to convey exactly the right set to the shoulders, leaning posture of the body, folds of the trousers, and planes of the face.  The black background and bold wheel are very dramatic, while the face is amazingly subtle.
        This church by Teodorico Quiros is particularly woody.  You can see the wood grain in the printing, and the slightly rough edges, and somehow the relatively thin lines of the border and background hills seem to accentuate that Quiros is carving on a flat plank.  I especially like the patterns on the steeple.
        Carlos Salazar Herrera did some prints with more detail than this one of people in the plaza, but I am always fascinated by how so much can be depicted with so little.  The people are very simplified, just white blobs and lines on a black background, but we have all we need to picture the scene.  I especially like the legs of the man standing on the right.  The person cross-legged beneath the tree in the background is a particularly impressive hieroglyphic, while the mule coming directly towards the viewer is also surprisingly successful.  (Surprising to me, anyway!  Salazar Herrera was probably perfectly confident about it.)
        This final scene of buildings, by Gilbert Laporte, is somewhat unusual for these prints, in having a white background.  It’s also got an interesting composition with so very much blank sky.  I especially like the details of the tower and dome, and the way the electric wires go right ahead and cut across the picture without embarrassment.

[Pictures: Afilador (Grinder), woodcut by Manuel de la Cruz Gonzalez, 1934;
Iglesia de Orosi (Church of Orosi), woodcut by Teodorico Quiros, 1934;
En La Plaza (In the Plaza), woodcut by Carlos Salazar Herrera, 1934;
Avenida Segunda (Second Avenue), woodcut by Gilbert Laporte, 1934
(All images from Annex Galleries).]

September 21, 2018

The Happy Little Elephant

        I’d like to share with you one of my early literary masterpieces, a short story entitled The Happy Little Elephant.  Here it is:
        Once upon a time there was a fuzzy little elephant, who had a gray trunk and tail and ears.  She was a Happy little elephant, she lived in the woods all by herself.  the end.

        I wrote and illustrated this epic in first grade (age 6), and must give major thanks to my mother for saving it so that I could have the data-driven benefit of this early sample of writing and illustration.  (Also so I could have the amusement.)  I’ve found that it’s helpful to share this story with third and fourth graders when I do classroom visits about writing.  I ask the children, “What is this story missing?”  It’s got setting: the forest.  It’s got character: the little elephant, about whom we actually learn quite a bit.  I could perhaps even argue that it’s got theme: the value of solitude.  But what it’s missing, as students can gleefully point out after a little reflection, is conflict.  Had I introduced a tropical storm, loneliness, hunger, poachers, or a lost left sock, I might have had the makings of a real-page-turner.  That is, if I’d managed to go on to a second page.  But without conflict, there is simply no plot.  To keep a plot going, you have to keep adding conflict.  No fictional elephant should ever be as content as mine until the final page.  (To be fair, my elephant isn’t content until the final page, either…)
        This probably reveals something about my own predilections: I suppose it’s true that to this day I love character and setting, but still don’t care for too much conflict!  But the lesson that any avid reader and developing writer soon learns is that a story can’t be about the perfect way things ought to be.  It can only be about getting there.  And that makes sense, because it so happens that our world is not yet perfect, but we can always be the kinds of characters in our own settings who work on getting there.

[Picture: Title page and illustration of The Happy Little Elephant by AEGN, 1976 or 7.]

September 18, 2018

What's New in the Studio - Philosophers

        Here is one of my newest pieces, based on Rembrandt’s The Philosopher in Contemplation, but with some twists of my own.  First of all, I’ve acknowledged that both the people in the room are philosophers instead of assuming that only the man is actually relevant.  But more importantly, I’m imagining these as the sort of “philosophers” who may be making the Philosophers Stone, and are undoubtedly studying alchemy, sorcery, magical creatures, and so on.  The man is putting the finishing touches on his clockwork robot, while the woman is tending to the dragon egg in the fire.  A couple of salamanders are sporting in the fire, too, and above it flitter pyrallises.  In the warmth of the hearth bask a small dragon and a large cat.  I’ve also included a griffin, a jinni, and some sort of little imp or brownie, who clearly also has a scholarly bent.  He has his own tiny doorway to the room, and of course it’s natural to wonder what might be behind the odd door behind the man’s chair.  The dragon lair, perhaps?  A tunnel to an underground grotto?  The laboratory?  A brick oven for making really large pizzas?
        My initial temptation was to fill the picture with lots more creatures, too.  The more the merrier, I figured.  But then I decided if it was just cluttered up it would lose the charm of being a more “plausible” scenario.  I mean, dragon, griffin, and jinni?… Fine.  But dragon, griffin, jinni, unicorn, niffler, tarasque, and chupacabra?… Let’s not be ridiculous!
        My primary challenge was to try to capture the wonderful light of Rembrandt’s original, at which I did not succeed so well as I had hoped.  Still, I think it’s a lot of fun, and makes a nice place to start some excellent imaginings.

[Picture: The Philosophers at Home, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]

September 14, 2018

Gearhart's Sky

        Here’s a pleasing wood block print by Frances Hammel Gearhart (USA, 1869-1958).  The RISD Museum, where I saw this piece, explains, “Frances Hammel Gearhart was first influenced by Japanese prints in about 1910, when she visited exhibitions in California that included the work of Hokusai…  She then began to teach herself to make woodblock prints, likely receiving some training from her sisters, who… had studied with artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow.  Dow promoted Japanese printmaking techniques and the use of water-based inks, and he encouraged his students to use these methods to record and interpret the American landscape.”  I like that Gearhart is at least somewhat self-taught.  Given that in Japan printmaking was taught by a long, strict, arduous apprenticeship with an emphasis on getting everything perfect according to tradition, it’s interesting that an artist like Gearhart could figure out for herself a technique that, while certainly not as technically perfect as a traditional Japanese print, is nevertheless very beautiful.  I also like the idea of adapting the Japanese style to capture the artist’s own native landscapes.  It looks to me like Gearhart used four blocks: sky, background, foreground inked with multiple colors, and black key block.  I especially love the sky, with its carved clouds and its painted texture.

[Picture: High Skies, polychrome woodblock print by Frances Hammel Gearhart, 1922 (Photo taken by AEGN at RISD Museum).]

September 11, 2018

Lucifer in Starlight

        This sonnet by George Meredith (UK, 1828-1909) is mythic.

On a starr’d night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screen’d,
Where sinners hugg’d their spectre of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he lean’d,
Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careen’d,
Now the black planet shadow’d Arctic snows.
Soaring through wider zones that prick’d his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reach’d a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he look’d, and sank.
Around the ancient track march’d, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.

        Meredith gives us an epic image of the dark angel so huge that he passes from Africa to the Arctic in a single line of verse, like a dark planet.  The image of Lucifer’s shadow sweeping across the globe is paired with the mention of sleeping sinners, so that I imagine unconscious people turning uneasily as he passes without knowing why.  The personification of Lucifer with scars that prick at the reminder of his past choices and defeat is pure mythology, akin to images of Greek or Norse gods, with human emotions at epic scale.  Another interesting image is “the stars, which are the brain of heaven.”  I’m not even sure exactly what it means, but it suggests all sorts of interesting possibilities.
        Yes, there is a certain theology embedded in this poem, but I don’t think Meredith was trying to propound theology.  As I said, I think this is about storytelling: a narrative that points at truths not by stating moral laws or philosophies but by illustrating a vignette that fires the imagination with its fantastical images.

[Picture: His steep flight in many an Aerie wheele, wood engraving by Gustave Doré for Paradise Lost (Book III), 1866 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

September 7, 2018

Elizabeth I

        Today is the birthday of Queen Elizabeth I of England (she would be 485 years old), born a princess who never expected to become queen, and who was lucky even to survive the tumultuous politics of her childhood and adolescence.  She undoubtedly enjoyed good luck throughout her life, but she was also intelligent, exceptionally well-educated, and shrewd enough to know the value of good publicity.  Those around her also knew the value of flattery, with the result that her long reign provided opportunities for her image to appear all over the place in the relatively cheap and easy form of wood block printing.
        The first example is a later portrait after her death, which I find pleasingly bold, but the others are all from books published during Elizabeth’s reign.  A guide to falconry features Elizabeth in its illustrations.  She is not named in the picture titles, but I think was intended to be recognizable to to all, not only with her features and dress, but her servants wearing the Tudor rose on their doublets.  Presumably Elizabeth’s presence in the book would have added cachet, implying that the author’s methods of falconry were those followed by the very highest in the land.  This is a very attractive woodcut, with the beautiful horse, lithe dogs, and a lovely landscape in the background.
        The author of The Compound of Alchymy was not so subtle.  His dedication to Elizabeth, including this nice little portrait of her enthroned in the initial letter E, is fully fulsome.  He lays it on thick… But despite claiming that his book contains “the right & perfect meanes to make the Philosophers Stone,” he clearly didn’t make any for Elizabeth, who died twelve years later.  I do like the portrait, though, with nice detail in its very small space, and charming curlicues.
        The alchemist Rabbards lavishly invokes God’s wondrous providence in making Elizabeth queen, but the publishers of A Booke of Christian Prayers go one better.  They put a full-page portrait of Elizabeth at prayer on the frontispiece where, apparently, a Catholic book of prayers would traditionally have had a picture of the Virgin Mary.  Elizabeth, following her father’s lead, was head of the church in England, and this book aimed to make that crystal clear.  (Actually, she was technically “Governor” since some bishops felt that a woman could
not be “Head.”)  Interesting details include the sword on the ground, along with another object I can’t make out.  I’m sure there’s symbolism there, but I don’t know what it is.  It’s a wonderfully detailed woodcut altogether, with shading almost as detailed as an engraving, and elaborate patterns decorating Elizabeth’s dress, the curtains, the back wall, and more.
        Elizabeth was not without her vanity, and I assume these portraits pleased her.  They please me, anyway!


[Pictures: Elizabetha Regina, woodcut by anonymous artist, 18th century (Image from The British Museum);
To flye at the Hearon, woodcut from The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking by George Turberville,   1575 (Image from The British Library);
Elizabeth enthroned, woodcut from dedication of The compound of alchymy, by Ripley and Rabbards, printed by Thomas Orwin, 1591 (Image from Beineke Library, Yale);
Elizabeth Regina at prayer, woodcut (possibly by Levina Teerlinc) from A Booke of Christian Prayers printed by Richard and John Daye, 1578 (Image from Booktryst).]