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.  I 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).]

September 4, 2018

The Book of Arnold

        We recently had the opportunity to see the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” which had funny moments, and dark moments, and an awful lot of obscene moments, and of course lots of entertaining song and dance…  But to my surprise it turned out to be largely about the power of story to improve the world, and that’s a message I’m always interested in exploring.  At the beginning, Elder Arnold Cunningham’s storytelling proclivities are not particularly productive, but eventually he begins to realize that his stories have the power to help people, to make them think about their experiences in new ways, to change their perspectives and their relationships, and to make their world better.  At that point, he’s no longer “lying;” he’s composing “fiction” (or perhaps “fan fic.”)  After all, most people don’t believe his stories literally; as one villager explains witheringly, “It’s a metaphor!”  Cunningham’s stories teach people, in a message LeGuin would approve, that the way things are is not inevitable.  His stories give role models for new modes of relationship, and offer the hope that creativity can be brought to bear even when all other hope seems lost.
        The stories that Cunningham tells, claiming them to be gospel, are utterly nutty mash-ups of the actual Book of Mormon with hobbits and Mordor, Darth Vader and the Death Star, the Starship Enterprise and many unfortunate frogs.  Significantly, though, they aren’t merely hilarious (or merely crude); they are made up out of a desperate desire to help desperate people, and to help those people make sense of and deal with their reality.  And that is, at its heart, one of the deepest purposes that fiction, and speculative fiction in particular, can have.
        “This book will change your life” could be true of many books.  For some people it’s The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, for others perhaps it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or The Lorax, or The Phantom Tollbooth.  Whatever it is, if you’re a reader, you remember that feeling: that awe and wonder as your mind blossoms into bright new light and the world is never quite the same again.  The musical The Book of Mormon claims that any story that can do that is enough gospel for anyone, and while I don’t agree that any and all fiction should be equated with divine revelation, I do agree that there is a valid point here.  Story has a power - sometimes even a divine power - to change lives and to change the world.  And that’s certainly worth singing and dancing about!

[Picture: Darth Vader and Death Star, linoleum block print by Peter Santa-Maria (Image from his Etsy shop ATTACKPETER).]

August 31, 2018

Words of the Month - The Sweet Smell of Odor Words

        Here’s something to consider: English famously has a huge vocabulary, extraordinarily rich in expressing fine shades and distinctions of meaning.  English has as many basic color words as almost any other language in the world, plus hundreds of additional words to describe the colors we see.  (Read all about it here.)  We have dozens of words to describe fine nuances of tastes, textures, sounds… But strangely, English has very few words that describe smells.  We have smelly, fragrant, stinking, aromatic, and malodorous, but those are telling us little more than degree of stinkiness and basic pleasantness vs unpleasantness.  Of words describing the quality or particular type of smell… not so much.
        Pungent is particularly penetrating; musky is like musk; sulfurous is like sulfur; but mostly we have to fall back on the same words we use for taste (fruity, spicy, sweet, acrid) and on simply naming the thing that the smell smells like (like cinnamon, like vanilla, like disinfectant, like wet dog, like new-mown grass).  This isn’t to say that we can’t describe or talk about smells.  Of course we find ways to express what we need to express, and of course perfumers have a huge vocabulary with which they describe aromas.  Nevertheless, there seems to be a qualitative difference in the sorts of words we use: metaphoric uses drawn from words for other senses, such as “bright with notes of cherry.”  Why?
        It may well be that in all sorts of languages humans find it easier to describe what they see than what they smell.  After all, our sense of sight is more dominant for us than our sense of smell.  As Kenneth Grahame notes in The Wind in the Willows, “We others who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s inter-communications with his surroundings… and have only the word 'smell’, for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling.”  But there are languages whose speakers do better than English.  Jessica Love cites a study about the language Jahai, spoken by a group of hunter-gatherers in Malaysia.  Speakers of Jahai were able to describe scents just as well - and just as consistently - as they were able to describe colors.  Speakers of English did better describing colors, but far worse on scents.  Why?
        We don’t really have an answer.  Different languages carve up the world into different words, and focus their linguistic attention on different areas (consider the “Eskimo words for snow” stereotype), so on the one hand, this is simply within the range of human linguistic variation.  On the other hand, surely this is an area ripe for English innovation.  We can start with snorky, brambish, and brunky, and move on from there.  We’ve got a lot of work to do!

[Picture: Calvin and Hobbes, comic by Bill Watterson, Feb. 13, 1995 (Image from GoComics).]
Why So Few English Words for Odors?, article by Jessica Love, 2014.

August 28, 2018

Students' Collagraphs

        This summer my classes produced some particularly pleasing collagraphs, and I’d like to share a few.  For a refresher on the definition and techniques of collagraph, check out this previous post.  I’ve given students a variety of materials to use over the years, ranging from classes in which anything goes, including dried leaves, and scraps of every imaginable textured material, to classes who used nothing but puff paint.  This year’s provided materials were basically puff paint, craft foam, and corrugated paper.  This first picture is a sampler I created to demonstrate the effects the different materials could have.
   1. printing styrofoam (the kind usually used by kids too young for carving tools)
   2. a foam sheet that came wrapped around some books I ordered
   3. corrugated paper
   4. textured mat board
   5. craft foam
   6. crumpled paper
   a. puff paint (atop the types of foam, and on the base board)
   b. pressing into the two types of foam with a pencil
        This first piece made particularly nice use of the puff paint on top of craft foam.  I like the effect of the white shadow around the raised paint, contrasting with the more clearly visible edges of the craft foam shapes.

        The artist of the second piece made the unusual choice of building the bird's outlines with narrow strips of craft foam, instead of drawing them with the puff paint.  The wing is a larger foam shape, but only its outlines show because two stripes of corrugated paper were glued on top.  Its charm is in its simplicity.
        And finally, a duck that uses the variety of materials especially well.  The wing is corrugated paper, and the reeds long strips of cardboard that got a little crumpled or bent.  The water is the packing foam, and the white speckles on the duck’s body are indented into the craft foam with a pencil point.  It printed so clearly in part because instead of gluing the wing on top of the body, this artist fit the shape of the wing into a space on the body like a puzzle piece.  That means that all the raised areas are raised to roughly the same level, thus getting inked more consistently and printing more uniformly.
        I think I’ve finally found the right balance of materials to give the kids some options to stretch their creativity, while ensuring that all the materials used are stable enough to make successfully printable blocks.

[Pictures: Collagraph material sampler, by AEGN, 2018;
Flower vase, collagraph by EK, 2018;
Bird, collagraph by K F-K, 2018;
Duck, collagraph by SA, 2018.]

August 23, 2018

Mythical Reptiles

        This week I saw several mythical creatures in the wild!  First of all, I saw a number of basilisks, and I provide for you a photograph I took, along with an official depiction.  The “official” depictions in this post all come from a 1514 book of poetry (first edition from 1476) that includes dozens of natural history woodcuts of animals.  You can see that the basilisk I saw was missing its wings, but it had a bonus set of legs to make up for it.  What are perfectly clear are the crest and the spiky claws.  I came quite close to this one, and luckily managed to remain unscathed by its poisonous presence.  And while, thank goodness, its gaze did not actually prove lethal, you can see that it certainly has a pretty intense glare.  (See here for a previous mention of the mythical vs scientific attributes of basilisks.)
        The cocodrillo I saw was also missing its wings, but perhaps that’s because it was only a young one, clearly much smaller than the creature in the illustration menacing a man.  In fact, though, it’s a little difficult to square this fabulous winged, two-legged, eared, leopard-like creature with the reptile I saw.  About the only things they really seem to have in common are webbed feet, a suggestion of spottiness, and suspiciously narrowed eyes.  Most people probably don’t think of crocodiles as mythical, but looking at this early depiction, there can really be no doubt.
        And finally, a viper… which is also apparently missing its wings.  It makes me begin to wonder whether all reptiles have wings and two legs.  I haven’t seen a picture of a winged, two-legged turtle, but surely it can’t be far behind.  Both depictions of vipers have long, coiled tails, but other than that it’s difficult to spot any resemblance here.  Clearly the
viper I saw must have been disguising its true nature, ready to pop out a pair of legs and unfurl its hidden wings  in the instant when it attacked.  And if so, then these are definitely mythical powers, worthy of any fantasy tale.
        One of the chief characteristics of mythical creatures is that they almost always live far away from wherever a writer happens to live, in exotic, seldom-explored lands.  Now that my family and I can actually hop on an airplane and travel to far-away lands, the mythical creatures will either have to move even farther away, or they’ll have to learn to disguise their wings, as these reptiles have all apparently managed to do.

[Pictures: Badalischo, wood block print from Lo illustro poeta Cecho Dascoli by d’Ascoli Cecco, 1514 (Image from Penn Libraries);
Basilisk lizard, photo by AEGN, 2018;
Cocodrillo, wood block print from Lo illustro poeta Cecho Dascoli by Cecco, 1514 (Image from Penn Libraries);
Young crocodile, photo by AEGN, 2018;
Vipera, wood block print from Lo illustro poeta Cecho Dascoli by Cecco, 1514 (Image from Penn Libraries);
Side-striped palm pit viper (Photo from WIkimedia Commons because I saw it at night and couldn’t get a photograph myself).]

August 15, 2018

The Life of a Book

        The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.
                - Quotation from Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Flight”  (excerpted by Maria Popova).

[Picture: Reading, mini block print by AEGN, 2017.]

August 8, 2018

Volume 100

        I’ve been keeping a journal since I was nine, and I recently embarked upon the 100th volume.  I always appreciate landmarks like this, however arbitrary they may be, and I see this as a perfect occasion for a little self-indulgent sharing of some of the art that I’ve put into my journal over the years.  To be clear, my journal has never been either an artist’s sketchbook nor the philosophical essays of a writer.  It’s really just an old-fashioned diary sort of thing: first I did this, then I did that, and meanwhile I was upset about this thing and excited about that one.  There are certainly occasional philosophical musings, poetical observations, and reports of inspirations and progress on various projects.  There are also, sprinkled throughout, illustrations, and I thought I’d share in this post some of my recurring types of drawings I’ve put in my journal’s first 99 volumes.
        I’ll start with the category that includes the first picture on the first page of Volume 1, which is sketches of the things I see around me.  Particularly when traveling, but also sometimes when I have a little extra time, I’ll sketch the scene before me.  I also often put in little floor plans and similar diagrams.  I suppose a related category is pictures of cats, since, at least for the past 22 years, a cat is quite often the thing before me when I’m sitting down with my journal to record the happenings of the day.
        Probably the most common type of drawing of all is borders.  Sometimes the border is an embellishment of the date at the top, or the margins at the sides, but most common of all is borders across the bottom of an entry.  When I have just a little room at the bottom of a page, which I deem not really enough to start the next day’s entry, and just a little extra time which I deem not really enough to start some other activity, I often fill it in with a little decor.  You can see that interlacing has been a favorite motif of mine since the 1980s.
        Sometimes the urge to decorate requires more than just a narrow strip, and over the years I have had the occasional whim to use my journal for larger, more detailed illustrations, most commonly pencil, pen, colored pencil, or watercolor, but also sometimes collage, crayon, or some other media.  (Of block printing, more later!)  Usually these pictures are my own inventions, but I do also sometimes copy pictures I enjoy, as Starry Night and the portrait of Richard III demonstrate.  The picture of my friend Stephanie came from a series in high school in which I copied my friends’ school pictures.
        One of the more distinctive ways I have sometimes decorated journal pages is what I like to think of as “Grail Diary style,” a sort of romantic imagining of antique notebooks of early explorers and adventurers.  On these pages the text contributes to the look of the thing, but I’ve blanked out all the personal text, so you can’t really see the full glory.  But I’ve filled in some of the blanked areas with extra pictures in similar style from other volumes.  I love this stuff!
        Then there are the sketches that illustrate incidents or thoughts that amused me.  They are presumably a bit of a window into the quirkier sides of my view of the world.  The samples I’ve included here show the range: a free-standing cartoon, a diagram of my daughter T’s delightful sartorial selection at age 6, an illustration of how I felt at 8 months pregnant with twins, and a rough attempt to sketch a stray state of mind.  As both an artist and writer, I find that some things are easier to explain with words, while others seem better described in pictures.
        Finally, on to the categories that could be deemed of interest in an artist’s notebook: sketches, notes, ideas for actual projects.  Most of my art projects in the first half of my life were all manner of crafts and media, with a particular emphasis on miniature objects suitable for miniature houses, and needlework of various kinds.  Here are the different patterns I knew how to make for knotted friendship bracelets back in high school, and a number of patchwork patterns.
        As for printmaking, possibly the first rubber blocks I ever made were the footprint stamps carved from pieces of eraser when I was in eighth grade.  The alligator block was made as a demonstration of the fabric printing project I taught as an eighth grade art elective, and the black and white pattern shown here is another One Inch square.  But I have also included among the various other sketches featured here today some of those that also ended up as block prints.  The view from the window in Vol. 15 and the view from the airplane in Vol. 36, the “catball” design of Vol. 41, and the sunflower of Vol. 39 each became the inspiration and basis of a relief block print.  So I reckon I get artist notebook points for that!

[Pictures: Drawings by AEGN, from 1979-2017.]

July 31, 2018

Words of the Month - Say What?

        You may have heard the story about the origins of the word kangaroo in English.  In 1770 Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks were exploring in northern Australia when they saw a kangaroo - becoming the first Europeans ever to see such a strange beast.  They asked a local what the creature was called, and the local, who knew no English, replied “I don’t understand you,” which sounded like “kangaroo,” and which the Englishmen took to be the name of the animal.  It’s pretty funny to think about such a misunderstanding giving rise to a word, and kangaroo isn’t even the only word with a story like this.
        According to a footnote to a 1519 letter from Hernán Cortés, the word Yucatán also really meant “I don’t understand what you’re saying” in the local Maya dialect, and was the reply to the question “What is this place?” or something along those lines.
        Indri is a word you may never have heard of in the first place.  It’s a large lemur from Madagascar, allegedly given its French name (which English borrowed) by naturalist Pierre Sonnerat.  His Malagasy guides, upon seeing the creature, said, “Look there!” in order to show Sonnerat, but he thought they were telling him the animal’s name.
        People love stories like this.  They’re funny, and they poke a little fun at the big-name explorers and scientists who are supposed to know so much.  They shed an amusing light on the difficulties of cross-cultural communication, and we can all relate to the misunderstandings and difficulties of learning new things or new languages.  There’s just one problem.  All of these stories are, much to my regret, probably false.
        Yucatán is the only one that still apparently has some etymologists who think it may be true, despite the explorers having translators with them.  The other less entertaining but more plausible etymology is the Nahuatl word Yocatlan, meaning “place of richness.”
        The story of indri’s origins as an error dates back to the late nineteenth century, although the word entered French in 1780 and English in 1839.  Around the same time there is a record of endrina, an alternate Malagasy name for the animal, which is now the accepted source of the European word.
        As for kangaroo, in 1898 an ethnologist pointed out that in the local aboriginal Guugu Yimidhirr language the word for one species of kangaroo, at least, is gang-oo-roo, but nobody seems to have paid any attention at the time.  Later linguists eventually discovered that he was right (they record the word as gaNurru), thus debunking the original anecdote, which was predicated on no English speakers actually knowing the local languages of Queensland.
        Obviously it’s always better to learn the truth about things, and it’s also nice to think that the Europeans and the native peoples they were encountering were clearly managing to communicate at least a little better than those anecdotes were giving them credit for.  Still, I’m a bit sorry to learn that the anecdotes weren’t true.  After all, they were so much more amusing than the boring old truth!

[Kangaroo, linocut by Gladys Osborne Reynell, 1923 (Image from Centre for Australian Art);
Indri Indri, wood engraving by Jenny Pery, c. 2015 (Image from Society of Wood Engravers).]

July 27, 2018

Mixed-Up Menagerie

        I’m pleased to share with you the new group printmaking project that I introduced with one of my classes this summer.  It is inspired by the version of “exquisite corpse” that appears in a number of novelty interactive books for children: each page features an animal, but the pages are cut into sections so that you can move the flaps and create creatures that combine heads, middles, and tails of any three animals.  In our version, each child created a block of a creature, and then printed enough impressions that I could put together a book for each student in the class (plus myself).  The kids had fun with it, and from a printmaking perspective it was great to give them a concrete reason to print multiples, since otherwise several of them were inclined to print only one impression of each block and then move on.
        First I made a template and gave each person a copy to guide their animal design.  The little horizontal lines show where the top and bottom edges of the body should be.  The one shown here is slightly modified from the version my class used, which made the animals a bit too fat.  No doubt next time I do the project I may have to tweak some more.  The kids did have some difficulty designing their creatures within the parameters of the template, and you do have to make sure they’re at least close before you let them proceed with carving.  The point of the template is so that when the different animals are mixed-and-matched, the parts will actually line up and fit together.
        I reminded the kids that their carving should include plenty of details and texture to help insure that each section of their animal is recognizable.  A scaly creature should look different from a hairy creature, and wool should look different from feathers…  This is something I’ll push even harder for next time, because it makes the hybrid chimeras look a lot more interesting, as well as helping to push the students’ carving skills to the next level.  I made an animal, too, both as a demonstration sample and to add one more creature to the mix.
        After the blocks were carved, I had the kids print on paper with a relatively large margin all around, in order to give me wiggle room to trim them down so that they would all end up uniform.  The kids had to print enough copies for all the books, but I actually ended up printing one or two supplementary impressions if some of them weren’t clean impressions or were too close to the edge of the paper or something.  Plus, of course, the kids could print additional if they wanted some that would not be cut up and bound into booklets.
        On my own time I trimmed all the prints so that they were a uniform size and lined up uniformly on the paper.  I measured not from bottoms of feet or tips of noses, but from the place where those guidelines from the template would fall: the top of the back just in front of front legs and just in front of back legs.  Next, I put together stacks of one of each creature, lined up the edges, and sliced each stack twice from the bottom of the page to within about half an inch from the top, along the same lines where the two vertical lines on the templates would have fallen.  (A rotary cutter and grid ruler are invaluable for all this measuring, trimming, and slicing.)  Then I put on a top and bottom cover of construction paper and stapled them together across the top.  I also glued on a cover label that gave a “table of contents” of each of the animals and who made it.  I had taken orders for what color cover each person wanted, and I made sure that each kid got a copy with a particularly fine impression of their own block.  (I had to make only 8 copies, so obviously all this would be a bigger job with a bigger class.)
        On the whole I think this was quite successful and I’ll definitely keep it in my collection of projects to do again.  As I said, I may have to tweak the template again after another round, and in the future I’ll work harder to make sure the kids’ designs are lined up better with the template, and that they put more detail into their designs.  But you can see how much fun these can be.

[Pictures: Unizale, from rubber block prints by NF, LA, and AEGN, 2018;
Exquisite corpse template (feel free to copy and use!) by AEGN;
Cheepizard, from rubber block prints by EK, CD, and LA;
Dogsharkeetah, from rubber block prints by KF-K, TQ, and EK, 2018.]

July 24, 2018


        Did you think the World Cup was the competition of the season?  Oh no; it’s happening right here in the Nydam household where two authors are in a thrill-packed race to the breathtaking finish.  Who will complete a draft first and claim the glory and the fabulous prize?
        Before school let out in the spring my daughter T challenged me to a writing duel: which of us can complete a first draft of a novel over the summer?  If she wins, we have to take the family to her favorite restaurant for dinner (a win for all of us!)  If I win?… Her original proposal was that if I win we have to take the family to her favorite restaurant for dinner.  She’s no fool.  I think we left it that if I win I get the glory and satisfaction of having a completed draft of the Work in Progress that has recently been in frustratingly little progress.  And maybe a family dinner somewhere of my choosing.
        As I alluded, I already had a Work in Progress (three, in fact) before the summer started.  So I had a big head start going into this contest.  On the other hand, we agreed that T could complete a much shorter work and still have it count.  Actually, I’d be more than happy to let her count a solidly-crafted short story for the win, but she’s determined that only a novel will do.  I tell her that this is like trying to run a marathon without ever having completed a 5k, but she will hear none of it.  So, school let out, the summer vacation began, “Ladies, start your computer engines,” and Game On!
        I wish I could tell you about the writing thrills that followed.  How I took the early lead by diving back into my story (I’ve chosen to concentrate on the one about a changeling), but T quickly came from behind with an exciting outline.  How my chapters rolled forth in mighty waves, while her emerging characters made a furious full-court press, and from there it was frenzied typing all the way down the straightaway, neck and neck, neither giving quarter in our feverish pace…  But alas, I’m afraid it’s been a snail’s pace flop.  T has come up with several ideas, only to discard them.  Her most recent was a murder mystery, but I think she may have abandoned that one, too, and the sad fact is that she's got an awful lot of summer work for school.  I had a few days of progress, but then it was interrupted by my two weeks of teaching, and there will be another three weeks gone in various travel over the remainder of the summer.  So if I really want to get any work done, I’d better knuckle down right now.
        In fact, it appears that neither of us will get anywhere close to a finished draft before school begins.  I guess sport fans were better off with the World Cup after all.

[Picture: The high stakes: sushi buffet!]

July 21, 2018

Dog Days

        I just completed my two weeks of printmaking classes for the summer, so of course I want to share some of the students’ work.  This year dogs were especially popular, and if you include other canines, as well, we had an enormous crop.  Several different projects are represented here, too, so let me introduce you to the pack.
        First we had dogs (and a fox) appear in simple one-block relief prints.  I say “simple,” but of course I’ve spent decades never tiring of the look of one-block prints.  The first one is a great example of how close cropping can add drama, and how effective just a little texture can be.  The details of the eye and around the nose make the piece more sophisticated.  On the other hand, the sleeping dog has no texture at all (and in fact this particular artist worked quite obsessively to eliminate all the little stray black marks within the
white).  She initially carved the eyes, but didn’t like the way they looked, so just carved them away, leaving it even simpler.  It works so well, though, because even though the lines and shapes are very plain, their accuracy is perfect.
        Two of our canines were done with the Background/Foreground project.  In both, the animal is not minutely detailed, but gains interest from its setting.  I imagine these creatures could be set on a variety of backgrounds, and indeed the wolf was used to make some
printed patterns on its own with multiple colors.
        The collagraph puppy is quite charming.  It’s made of corrugated paper for the vertical lines and puff paint for the outlines of the dog.  (This year’s collagraphs included some especially successful examples, so I may share more of them another time.  For that matter, I may have to share some of the other rubber block prints, as well.)
        So, seven young artists; five dogs, a wolf, and a fox; three different techniques or projects.    (There was even
one more dog, but it was done with a new project that I introduced this year and which I’ll definitely share in a future post.)  Despite the fact that so many of the artists were making dogs, there was actually a striking difference between the two classes.  The first week worked fast and didn’t do much tweaking and recarving or much experimenting with printing or making large editions.  They whipped through projects, trying out everything I offered them, and then eager to try out the next thing.  The second week, by contrast, worked slowly and meticulously.  They  carved, recarved, and recarved again, then they
printed, printed, and printed some more.  I had to beg them not to be such perfectionists in trying to get rid of every stray carving mark.  (I like a few carving marks here and there, but kids are often unconvinced by this, and a majority of this year’s week two kids were even more unconvinceable than most!)  They didn’t have enough time to try all the different projects, but the ones they did came out exceptionally well.  Kids in both weeks went home with bags full of marvelous work, and I made a few new little projects myself - even though I didn't make any dogs!

[Pictures: Dog (Bonny), rubber block print by DM, 2018;
Dog, rubber block print by SA, 2018;
Wolf, rubber block print by AL, 2018;
Sleeping Dog, rubber block print by TS, 2018;
Dog, collagraph by LA, 2018;
Dog catching a frisbee, rubber block print by K F-K, 2018;
Fox (Lily), rubber block print by AF, 2018.]

July 17, 2018

The Broomstick Train

        In 1891 Oliver Wendell Holmes published one of his long, colloquial, anecdotal poems, which was all about New England’s witches returning from Hell to their old stomping grounds.  The punch line of the tale is that, after wreaking conventional misfortunes upon the locals, they are set to pulling the new electric tram cars, which had been introduced to Boston in 1887, Lowell in 1889, and Worcester in 1891.  It’s too long a poem to include the whole thing, but here are some excerpts, and you can read the complete poem here.

The Broomstick Train, or The Return of the Witches
Look out! Look out, boys! Clear the track!
The witches are here! They’ve all come back!
They hanged them high, — No use! No use!
What cares a witch for a hangman’s noose?
They buried them deep, but they wouldn’t lie still,
For cats and witches are hard to kill;
They swore they shouldn’t and wouldn’t die, —
Books said they did, but they lie! they lie!
In Essex county there’s many a roof
Well known to him of the cloven hoof;
The small square windows are full in view
Which the midnight hags went sailing through,
On their well-trained broomsticks mounted high,
Seen like shadows against the sky;
Crossing the track of owls and bats,
Hugging before them their coal-black cats.
Now when the Boss of the Beldams found
That without his leave they were ramping round,
He called, — they could hear him twenty miles,
From Chelsea beach to the Misery Isles;
The deafest old granny knew his tone
Without the trick of the telephone.
“Come here, you witches! Come here!” says he, —
“At your games of old, without asking me!
I’ll give you a little job to do
That will keep you stirring, you godless crew!”
They came, of course, at their master’s call,
The witches, the broomsticks, the cats, and all;
He led the hags to a railway train
The horses were trying to drag in vain.
“Now, then,” says he, “you’ve had your fun,
And here are the cars you’ve got to run.
The driver may just unhitch his team,
We don’t want horses, we don’t want steam;
You may keep your old black cats to hug,
But the loaded train you’ve got to lug.”
As for the hag, you can’t see her.
But hark! you can hear her black cat’s purr,
And now and then, as a car goes by,
You may catch a gleam from her wicked eye.

Often you’ve looked on a rushing train,
But just what moved it was not so plain.
It couldn’t be those wires above,
For they could neither pull nor shove;
Where was the motor that made it go
You couldn’t guess, but now you know.
Remember my rhymes when you ride again
On the rattling rail by the broomstick train!

        Like much of Holmes’s poetry, this builds verisimilitude for its claims with the inclusion of lots of specific local details - a writing tip that anyone can take note of.  When your realistic details are really concrete and accurate, your fantastical details also gain the aura of plausibility.  This poem also illustrates Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Invisible electric currents or invisible witches?  It’s all the same to the ordinary person riding the tram, and presumably even more so to the people in the late nineteenth century who saw the same tramcars that used to be pulled by horses, now suddenly running without visible means.  The converted tramcars even retained the harnessing hardware for the horses at the front.
        This poem was enormously popular, and it appears from this transit poster that the trams were even referred to as broomstick trains - or at the very least that anyone seeing this poster would understand the reference.  I don’t know whether Oliver Wendell Holmes made it up, although I'm guessing he did, and if the term was in common use, it wasn’t the only one he coined.  As a bonus linguistic note, Holmes was a doctor and coined the word anaesthesia.

[Pictures: See how tall they’ve grown, illustration by Howard Pyle from The Broomstick Train with Its Companion Poems, 1892 (Image from;
By Broomstick Train, poster by Charles H. Woodbury, 1895 (Image from Digital Commonwealth).]

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.]