May 31, 2019

Words of the Month - Body Language

        Few things are as familiar to us as our bodies - you know the human body like the back of your own hand; it’s as plain as the nose on your face.  So it’s not surprising that words for the parts of the human body get lots of use with extended meanings.  Today I’m looking at when words for body parts become verbs.  The most obvious verbs to start with are those that simply mean “to do with the body part that which the body part normally does.”  For example, you can
     eye someone suspiciously - eyes see
     elbow someone in the ribs - elbows poke
     mouth words silently or mouth off loudly - mouths speak
     face your companion (or the music, or the future) - faces turn frontwards
     muscle your way through a crowd - muscles exert force
     finger the keyboard, or the dress fabrics (or the sexual meaning) - fingers touch things

But some body parts get used in slightly less iconic ways when they turn into verbs, such as
     hand someone something - by putting it into their hands, rather than keeping it in your own
     shoulder a load - by carrying it on the shoulders
     knee a groin - by striking with the knee
     tongue notes on a wind instrument - by tapping with the tongue
     thumb a ride, or the pages of a book - by manipulating with the thumb, or by holding the thumb up in the hitchhiking symbol

Some body parts get used quite metaphorically when they become verbs, including
     toe a line - which could be literally placing the toes up to it but no farther, but usually is not literal
     stomach something unpalatable (or more commonly, be unable to stomach it) - which could be literally holding it in the stomach, but usually isn't literal
     head a company - by acting as the directive force
     nose around in someone’s affairs - as if by sniffing or leading with the nose
     finger a criminal - by metaphorically pointing them out

Some are an even further stretch.  Why should it be that
     necking uses arms and lips much more than the neck
     ribbing is teasing (though apparently derives from rib-tickling, so there is a connection)
     footing a bill has nothing obvious to do with feet at all

And finally there are those words which mean not using the body part but rather removing or destroying it…
     skin a knee - to remove the skin
     brain a victim - to smash the brains out

        These are the sorts of usages that are potentially particularly difficult in a non-native language.  You see the word finger used as a verb, and you guess it must mean something having to do with fingers… but what?  It could be touching, pointing, poking, pulling into protruding finger-shapes, wringing the hands, placing in very precise spots, beckoning… and that’s not even including the metaphorical or idiomatic possibilities.  So it turns out that while we know what our bodies can do, sometimes it isn’t so obvious what our body parts do when they become verbs.

[Pictures: Wood block prints from Orbis Sensualium Pictus by John Amos Comenius, 1777 English edition (Images from Google Books);
Wood block print from a Book of Hours, 1498/9 (Image from Bodleian Library).]

May 28, 2019

Here's Something Cool: Fairy Doors

        Ann Arbor, Michigan is known for its urban fairy population, as evidenced by their doors, which can be spotted all around the city.  The first public fairy door appeared outside a coffee and tea shop in 2005, followed by about twenty others.  Some have subsequently disappeared again when their host premises closed.  Doors have appeared in neighboring towns, as well.  I don’t know whether the fairy doors of Ann Arbor are responsible for starting the crafting fashion for fairy gardens, but I particularly like the unique nature of these doors.  Going to the craft shop and buying a selection of pre-made fairy miniatures is fun, but crafting doors that are personalized to their location is definitely much cooler.  Some of these quirks include doors that match the human-sized entryways beside them, as at the Red Shoes gift shop, and a fairy ATM outside the Bank of Ann Arbor.  (I assume a fairy ATM spits out leprechaun gold, rather than bills.)  Particularly fun are the doors with windows that allow a peek inside.
        The doors were started by Jonathan B. Wright, whose first installations were done in secret.  The mythology is that these urban fairies come and go on a whim, so that doors can appear and disappear without warning.  Lots of other people have now gotten involved, including homeowners, who often host suburban or woodland fairies who dwell in trees.  Some shops and public buildings have doors inside, as well.
        Ann Arbor is certainly not the only place with fairy doors, and probably not the first, but it is one of the areas that has most embraced this form of public art.  If I owned a shop - or even a house on a street with much walking traffic - I would love to do this.  In my youth one of my primary artsy-craftsy activities was making dollhouses and other miniatures, so obviously this would be right up my alley.  (Admittedly I’d have to put some thought into how to make something weather-proof for outdoor installation, but I’m sure I could manage it.)  What fun it would be to start the tradition in my town!
        To my dismay, it seems that the doors do get vandalized from time to time.  How depressing to think about how miserable someone has to be to look for satisfaction in destroying that which makes others happy.  Nevertheless, the fairies seem to be resilient, and I wish them the very best of luck!  I’m absolutely tickled by these charming little creations that reward observation and imagination.


[Pictures: Fairy door at Red Shoes Homegoods;
Vault door and ATM at Bank of Ann Arbor;
Door at The Michigan Theater;
Door at Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea;
Door and bookshelf house at Ann Arbor District Library;
Door at Kay Wilson Dentistry (Images from Wikimedia Commons and from urban fairies operations (web site of Jonathan B. Wright).)]

May 24, 2019

More Printmaking Books

        Today I’ll switch to pure printmaker mode, and speak to anyone who is interested in getting started with printmaking, or in developing some new techniques.  I’ve lately got my hands on a few relatively recent guides to printmaking, and thought I’d offer my reviews.

Print Workshop, Christine Schmidt, 2010 - Quite comprehensive in including a thorough discussion of materials, tools, and basics, it also includes a wide range of techniques of which relief printing is only one.  In fact, it’s really too broad for my tastes, becoming too diffuse with projects including embroidery, a mobile, image transfer of commercial photographs, and so on.  I’m also not crazy about books that include templates and instructions that encourage copying someone else’s project instead of coming up with your own — especially in a book with the subtitle “Truly Original Projects”! — although I acknowledge that many people need to get a few copied projects under their belts before they feel confident in branching out.  Schmidt does at least encourage readers to modify projects, and not to worry if their result is not just like the sample shown in the book.

Block Print, Andrea Lauren, 2016 - As the title implies, this focusses on block printing, thus including more detail and information within the narrower scope.  It does include some needless complications — why draw your design on paper, then trace onto tracing paper, and then transfer from tracing paper to block? why bother with “registering” a single block and a single sheet of paper? — but it also includes some interesting techniques such as using transparent acrylic and acetate sheets for different ways to register multiple colors.  I also like the “International Artists’ Gallery” section at the end.  This is a very nice intro, though possibly a little daunting for true beginners.

Block Print Magic, Emily Louise Howard, 2019 - An excellent introduction, including the usual descriptions of materials, plus explanations of several transfer methods, the basics of carving, printing, and so on.  There’s also a discussion of setting up a studio - which is lovely but far from necessary for a beginner.   I’d hate for anyone to think they can’t get started because they won’t have a studio like that!  Howard’s first project is quite similar to my “Not a Zentangle” project, which obviously implies that her approach to teaching is not too dissimilar from mine.  She includes a variety of projects that focus on various techniques using various numbers of blocks, and she even has a few projects at the end that involve collaging and finding uses for not-quite-perfect prints, which I may have to play with myself.  I also like the “Artist Spotlights” with examples of the work of a handful of printmakers, explaining their inspirations and methods of working.  I liked this guide a lot.

        One of the points I’m always harping on about is that relief block printing is a very easy art medium to jump into without a lot of money, or a lot of space, or a lot of time, or a lot of experience.  Although I teach classes and we have a blast, you don’t need to take a class.  If you want some introductory instruction, find a book at your local library, skim through it for the basics, and then dive right in.  Enjoy — and let me know how it goes!

[Pictures: Potato printing page from Christine Schmidt, 2010 (For more on potato printing, check out my previous post);
My favorite project from Andrea Lauren, 2016;
The Cabin with details from Emily Louise Howard, 2019.]

May 21, 2019

Persephone

        The Greek myth of Persephone (Roman Proserpina) is one that many people have found resonant, but in a surprisingly broad range of ways.  The story represents very different things to different people, and to different artists.  When I went looking for one or two relief block prints to post with my poem about the Persephone myth, I found so many I thought I’d take a closer look.
  Myths, like fairy tales, aren’t about individual people.  They’re about symbols, and symbols don’t have emotions, except when the emotion is the point of the myth.  Demeter’s grief at losing her daughter explains the barrenness of winter.  But how does Persephone feel?  Part of fantasy’s job is to explore these things.  There are many possible ways the bare bones of the myth could be fleshed out into a story of experience,  reflecting the complex realities of life as a human.  (Persephone and the other characters in this myth aren’t exactly humans, of course, but as the Classical gods are pretty much just superpowered humans, and as all stories that humans tell are, really, about ourselves, I let my statement stand.)
        So, was Persephone raped in our modern sense of the word?  Kidnapped and sexually assaulted, and forced, then, to marry her rapist?  Or was she thrilled at the adventure of running off with the tall dark and handsome Hades, escaping from the frankly smothering love of her powerful mother?  Did she grow to love Hades gradually, like Beauty and her Beast?  Did she, like me, find eternal summer boring and enjoy the rhythm of changing seasons, each with its own evocative beauties?  What about Hades; did he merely lust after the nubile maiden, or perhaps just want a trophy wife to sit on the throne by his side, or did he really love Persephone?  Was Persephone tricked into tasting those pomegranate seeds, or was it freely chosen, an acknowledgement that life with Hades was something she was willing to take on, or perhaps even wanted?
        Traditional depictions of “the Rape of Persephone” tend to emphasize the violence of the kidnapping, and the titillation of Persephone’s beauty, which highlights the somewhat disturbing fascination that artists (and/or their patrons) have with that unholy combination of sex and violence.  The first piece above, by Guiseppe Scolari around 1600, is of that type, although his version is unusual in failing to focus on Persephone’s nudity as most other artists seem to do.  Scolari seems to have had much more interest in the cleft from hell opening in the earth and venting infernal fumes.  That was probably a more interesting challenge than just another naked chick.
        In ancient Greece Persephone was always paired with Demeter as a goddess of spring, flowers, and fertility, or paired with Hades as the queen of the underworld.  These two pieces by Cynthia Cratsley reproduce the traditional iconography, and the scene with Hades is directly based on a votive tablet found at an altar dedicated to Persephone.
        Another popular theme for artists is Persephone as a lovely maiden gathering flowers.  Presumably this is simply because lovely maidens and pretty landscapes are always a sure bet in art, and calling it “Persephone” adds Culture by way of an excuse.  Sometimes this version of Persephone is shown looking pensive, as a reference to her coming sorrow.  I’ve included a sampling of these, in different styles and different printmaking techniques.
        Finally I get to some of the more unique interpretations.  I’ve included Georges Braque’s version because he’s famous and all, but really, I have absolutely no idea what we’re supposed to be looking at here!  And while we’re feeling cryptic, here’s another piece inspired by Persephone’s story, without being too literal.  The artist Steve Goodwin says this is about “the experience of being split between two worlds, pulled apart in two opposite direction, never fully dwelling in one place.”
        Mina Mond’s Persephone is also split between two worlds, Hades’s hands clutching after her as she rises from Hell into a world of sunshine… and growing pomegranates.
        Persephone’s beauty is always emphasized, and here is a beautiful dress for her, a verdant springtime tangle of plants and flowers and birds… and pomegranates.
        Demeter is beautiful, too, but Persephone’s beauty is that youthful, springtime loveliness that all fashionable women desire — and it can be yours with Le véritable corset Persephone, rendering the sveltest Parisiennes even svelter!
        So many things to so many people… What does the myth of Persephone mean to you?

[Pictures: Rape of Persephone, wood block print by Guiseppe Scolari, 1590-1607 (Image from The Met);
Demeter and Persephone, and Persephone and Hades Enthroned, linocuts by Cynthia Cratsley (Images from the artist’s Etsy shop CynthiaRaeCratsley);
Persephone, etching(?) by Roberto Rascovich from The Myth of Demeter and Persephone, c 1903 (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum);
Proserpina, woodcut by Eric Ravilious, 1928 (Image from MutualArt);
Persephone, paper relief by Lila Oliver Asher, before 1972 (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum);
Persephone, woodcut by Georges Braque, 1948 (Image from MutualArt);
Persephone, linocut print by Steve Goodwin (Image from the artists’s Etsy shop rememberinggreen);
Persephone, woodcut in three colors by Mina Mond (Image from the artist’s shop Mina Mond Prints/DUO DESORDRE);
Persephone, woodcut by Ouida Touchön (Image from the artist’s shop Ouida Touchön Portfolio);
Le Véritable Corset Persephone, advertisement from 1911 (Image from Mary Evans Picture Library).]

May 17, 2019

Persephone in Hades

        It’s time for another fantasy poem, and this time I’ll share one of my own.  This was written probably some time around 1990 although I don’t feel like taking the time to find an exact date for it.  At any rate, you no doubt know the myth of how Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and brought to the underworld to be his wife.  There she was tricked into eating pomegranate seeds, so that even after Zeus demanded her release, she was now required to spend some of each year with Hades.  As a myth it explains winter, when Earth is in mourning and nothing grows because Persephone is in the underworld.  But as a fantasy story it has so many other interesting places to go.  What would it be like to have experienced this story from within?  How might actual people have lived these events?  I say “lived,” but of course most of the witnesses were the dead, the Shades who inhabit Hades.  What would they think or feel to see a living goddess suddenly brought into their realm of the dead?

The Shades Watch Persephone’s Arrival in Hades

These listless plains were ignorant of screams,
til echoes dropped like wadded cotton shrouds
in Lethe's torpid water as she crossed.

He set her, sullen, on the carbon throne,
her brightness cut the passive haze like ice,
we stilled our barren wanderings to watch.

The rest of us had never screamed or shone.
No thought of life had moved since mute descent;
We paid our earthly coin impassively.

We watched her crack the pomegranate's hull,
to disinter the blood-red seeds and taste
(I hadn't thought of blood in all this time)
unwarned her sentence: burial alive.

Her vivid fingers take the first red bead,
we watch her vivid mouth - the silence is
a rustle of cracked leaves, a scratching breath -
inaudible, unvoiced, we murmur "Don't."

Three times we watch a seed to living lips,
three times there is no cry, no warning, "Death."
We are no longer human and forget what we once were.

Did misery invite our tacit hate?
Did Tantalus's shadow chain our grace?
Did hissing shame advise, "Don't get involved"?

We numbed our minds; no thought of ringing blood
can breathe us now.  Does conscience die with death?  
Not before this we forfeited our souls.

        By the way, I went looking for one or two relief block prints of Persephone to illustrate this post, and discovered so many that I’ll do a separate post so I can share more of them.  So, more on Persephone, coming soon…

[Picture: Persephone’s Choice, linocut with watercolor by Eloise Birnam-Wood (Image from her Etsy shop BirnamWoodPrints).]

May 14, 2019

Adult Printmaking Classes

        Another printmaking activity that finished up during the A-Z Challenge was an adult printmaking class that ran for four evening sessions.  Once again we had a mix of experience levels, so rather than having some sort of set curriculum that everyone must follow, I offer the participants a menu of relief printmaking projects they can try.  Some are a little more advanced than others, but in general there’s no reason not to give anything a try if it strikes your fancy.  It never hurts to experiment and see what happens.  I show examples, and explain the basic steps and techniques for a chosen project, and then stand by to answer questions or troubleshoot.
        I’ve posted about all the techniques before, so here’s the menu, with a few notes, and with links to more information.

• Not a Zentangle - previous post
        This is recommended as a first project for anyone who doesn’t have much prior printmaking experience.

• The Classic (one block, one ink, one color paper)
        Honestly, you can happily spend years exploring just this basic block print (indeed, I have), and most students work on classic blocks for most of the time.

• Notecards, bookplates, labels - previous post on bookplates

• Mix & Match blocks - previous post on student work (kids), and on a project of mine

• Foreground & Background - previous post on student work (kids), and on work by M.C. Escher

• Reduction Print - previous posts Part I, Part II, and another one

• Tile - previous post
        The previous post linked above deals specifically with very small square blocks, but adults often experiment with larger squares, often around 3 or 4 inches.

• Provincetown White-Line Print - Previous posts on history, on techniques, and on student work (kids)

• Monotype - previous post

        As usual, the artists did some wonderful work in the class, and while I didn’t take as many pictures as I would have liked, I’ve included a few samples.  (Also, I didn’t label these pictures soon enough and have lost track of who did 
some of them -- but if anyone wants to claim their work and have it properly attributed, just let me know!)


[Pictures: Boats, rubber block print by LL, 2019;
Jackalope, rubber block print by KB, 2019;
Pyramid, rubber block print by JP, 2019;
Carolina wren, rubber block print by MH(?), 2019.]

May 10, 2019

Life-Saving Relief Print

        Because this blog is devoted to the A-Z Challenge from Mid-March through the first post of May, no other topics get covered in that time, but now that the April A-Z is over it’s time to switch gears and go back and report on a few interesting things that are now about a month out of date.  I’ll start with a report on a school printmaking visit I did that introduced me to an amazing person and episode of history I had not been aware of.
        Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese vice consul in Lithuania in 1939-40, and went against his orders to give visas to as many people as he could who were fleeing the Nazi regime.  The details of all that he did are fascinating and inspiring - I encourage you to read the Wikipedia article.  Sugihara did everything he could to give out as many visas as possible, working up to 20 hours a day preparing papers, throwing stamped, signed papers from train windows into crowds of desperate refugees, and finally leaving the consulate seal itself behind when he was recalled to Japan, so that someone else could keep stamping forged papers.  He realized that his consular stamp literally had the power of life for people who would be killed if they couldn’t get away from the Nazis.  I like to talk big about how great printmaking is, and the power of art, but this particular relief printing block - the consulate seal - while of course never intended to be art, had a power much more immediate and stark than any mere picture.  Estimates are that Sugihara saved the lives of between 2,200 and 6,000 people (hard to pin down in part because multiple people in a family could travel under a single visa).
        So how does all this turn into a school art visit?  Well, an artist I know, Tova Speter, who specializes in community art projects, is doing an art installation at a local school, inspired by the story of Sugihara and his consulate seal.  Her idea was to have the eighth grade students make stamps representing some quality that they admired in Sugihara, then the stamps would be used to make a sort of mosaic, which is to be installed as a piece of art in the school.  (There is also to be an assembly at which the entire school community can stamp papers with the student designs.)  While Tova is something of a jack-of-all-trades, she recruited me to help with the printmaking part of the project, and we met with all the eighth grade students to help them carve their printing blocks.
        The down side was that the school was not able to give us enough time to do the stamp-making project optimally.  In order to be as efficient as possible, Tova had the kids start planning their designs ahead of time, and I cut 2 inch circles of rubber for everyone ahead of time, but even so, it was much more rushed than I would have liked, and a number of students weren’t able to finish.  Plus there were several students home sick on the day of carving.  I ended up finishing the carving for all of them.  (Normally as a teacher I make it a point never to do students’ artwork for them, even when they ask me to, but these were special circumstances: the students were never going to have another opportunity to complete their own carving, and it was deemed important that they nevertheless see their designs realized and made part of the final community project and installation.)  But the up side, of course, was some cool work by the kids!
        I’m not sure what stage the whole project has reached by this point, although I very much look forward to seeing pictures when the installation is complete.  In the meantime, though, I have been fascinated to think about the creativity with which Sugihara used his relief print to save so many people’s lives.

[Pictures: Visa issued by consul Sugihara, 1940 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Assorted stamps designed by eighth grade students at Maimonides School, 2019.]

May 7, 2019

A-Z Reflections

        I had a really good time with the A-Z Challenge this year.  I discovered more blogs, left and received more comments, and felt more like the comments constituted actual conversations rather than simply polite words dropped into the ether.  I attribute this at least in part to the fact that I spent an enormous amount of time going through all the other blogs - probably more time than I could really afford, to be honest.  But it was interesting, and I do hope to keep up with some of the amazing blogs I discovered.
        My theme was based on an alphabet book of fantasy creatures I’m doing, and largely overlapped with the Kickstarter campaign I launched to support the project.  The Kickstarter campaign ends in just 47 hours, by the way, so if you are curious and haven’t yet checked it out, scoot on over and see what I’m devising.  It’s almost 350% funded and I’ve been blown away by the positive response, of which the A-Z Challenge has been part.  Thank you!  (The project was also selected as a Kickstarter “Project We Love” and featured in a post by Lisa Ferland on Top 10 List of Books on Crowdfunding Platforms.  *smiles and blushes*)
        This past weekend I was showing at an Open Studios event and spent the weekend (when not talking with visitors) carving blocks for the last two creatures planned for the book.  So at some point I’ll get them finished and printed, and they’ll no doubt eventually be posted here for a mythical creature bonus.  Teaser - one is called the Grand Marhoot, and the other block includes three different Zhahmatonians: the kuklopawn, the alfidi, and the quatrukhana.  I hope you’re enticed!  Meanwhile, if you want an overview of the fantasy creatures featured throughout April (plus the extras, since half the letters actually have two), you can see them all on my web site here.
        Here are just a few of the blogs I visited most regularly this year (though by no means the only ones I enjoyed!):
Atherton’s Magic Vapour with Golden Age Mystery Tropes
Temenos (Deborah Weber) with Cabinet of Curiosities
The Slightly Eccentric Diary of Rob Z Tobor with... general goofiness? and ducks
Finding Eliza with African-American Genealogy and Slave Ancestry Research
The Multicolored Diary with Fruit Folktales
        As for next year, I certainly don’t have plans for any projects as grand and ambitious as this year, but I have started keeping a list of alphabet ideas, so I’m sure I’ll come up with something for the A-Z Challenge.  I look forward to seeing you all again — or, of course, you’re certainly welcome to visit any time of the year, not just in April!  Thanks to everyone who stopped by and said hello throughout the challenge, and special appreciation for my regular visitors.  You really made it enjoyable.
        Did you have a favorite creature this year?  Or a suggestion for what you’d like to see next year?

[Picture: AEGN at Needham Open Studios, carving the block for the Grand Marhoot, 2019 (Photo by G. Arrieta-Ruetenik).]