June 14, 2021

Woman of Birds and Flowers

         It’s been quite a while since I properly shared a fantasy poem, so today I have a spring poem based on Welsh mythology.  It’s by Francis Edward Ledwidge (Ireland, 1887-1917).  As you can guess by his dates, he was killed during the First World War, and he is classified as one of the War Poets.  However, this poem comes from a book published in 1916 called Songs of the Fields, that is mostly pastoral.  It was published with the support of Ledwidge’s patron, fantasy writer Lord Dunsany.

     The Wife of Llew

And Gwydion said to Math, when it was Spring:

“Come now and let us make a wife for Llew.”

And so they broke broad boughs yet moist with dew,

And in a shadow made a magic ring:

They took the violet and the meadow-sweet

To form her pretty face, and for her feet

They built a mound of daisies on a wing,

And for her voice they made a linnet sing

In the wide poppy blowing for her mouth.

And over all they chanted twenty hours.

And Llew came singing from the azure south

And bore away his wife of birds and flowers.

        In the mythology about Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the young man has a curse placed on him that he shall never have a human wife.  His uncle and great-uncle make this flower wife for him, and name her Blodeuwedd, which means “flower-face.”  In the manner of mythologies, things don’t go well.  Blodeuwedd has an affair and plans with her lover to murder Lleu.  Delilah-like, she learns the special method for killing him, but he survives and is nursed back to health by Gwydion and Math.  Gwydion then turns Blodeuwedd into an owl and proclaims that she will be hated by all other birds.
        As a poem this captures some lovely images, especially the idea of having a linnet sing into the poppy to give the woman a voice in a mouth.  Ledwidge also embroiders on the details of the creation, adding more flowers and birds and details of how such a magical spell might work; the original merely briefly mentions flowers of oak, broom, and meadowsweet.  As a story it raises all sorts of interesting issues: the desire to create artificially the “perfect” woman to belong to a man, the prioritization of beauty in making the perfect wife, and what happens when the created being turns out to have a will of her own, and not to be satisfied with being taken for granted…
        I didn’t find many older illustrations of the mythology, and most of the newer ones come from modern paganism of various sorts, but I did find one relief block print, by John Petts (UK/Wales, 1914-1991), in which this flower woman looks quite villainous.  In the two modern illustrations here, the first gives her creepy eyes, but I like the idea of her being sort of surprised and confused upon being brought to life.  The second includes the owl as well as the flowers, which seems to be standard iconography these days, but is a little different in how it shows her transformations all at once, flowers to person to owl.
        My final illustration is not intended to be Blodeuwedd at all.  It’s the goddess Flora, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italy, 1526-1593) in his signature odd style.  I chose it because I thought we needed to see what a woman made of flowers might really look like, especially right at first before she settled into being a living person.

[Pictures: Blodeuwedd, wood engraving by John Petts, 1956 (Image from Campbell Fine Art);

Blodeuwedd Flower Maiden, watercolor and gouache by Elisabeth Alba (Image from her Etsy shop albaillustration);

Blodeuwedd, watercolor by Jenny Dolfen, 2016 (Image from Jenny Dolfen Goldseven);

Flora, oil on panel by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1589 (Image from Obelisk Art History Project).]

June 9, 2021

What's New (and Some Old) in the Studio

         A couple of weeks ago I shared a bunch of upcoming events, many of which feel as if they are suddenly exploding into life as covid restrictions are eased in my state, but today I wanted to share what’s been happening behind the scenes in the studio.  I’ll start by backing up even further to brush over this whole crazy past year.  For many of us introverts, the stay-at-home restrictions haven’t seemed so bad.  I was pretty much home all the time anyway, and all my art and writing is done at home, so being stuck at home doesn’t leave me feeling as isolated, stir-crazy, or depressed as it does some people.  That’s one regard in which I’ve been extremely lucky.
        But there is another part to all this that may not be so widely recognized, which is that plenty of time at home last year hasn’t necessarily been as good for artistic productivity as you might expect.  Under stress the brain diverts blood and energy toward the more basic fight-or-flight parts of the brain, and away from the parts that work on higher-order connections and creativity.  It is literally harder to be creative while stressed, so if you haven’t been feeling that spark recently, it’s not your fault.  And we can’t blame covid for all of this, either.  Our whole country (and perhaps the whole world) has been enduring chronic stress for quite some time, and for me this has meant that trying to write feels like wading through molasses while wearing a lead coat… Which is frustrating, and heartbreaking, and distressing.  (Again, if you’re feeling like your brain hasn’t been in top form this past year and more, it’s not your fault, and you’re not alone.)
         This is why I’m so delighted that I’m currently at work on a short story.  I can’t think of the last short story I’ve written, and this is sci fi, too, which is another departure for me.  Probably it’s really helpful to shake things up instead of continuing to struggle with the fantasy novel that I’m really psyched about, but which nevertheless feels like wading through that molasses.  Anyway, for this new story, imagine a human adopted by a mycorrhizal network.  I’ve had some beta feedback and I’m ready to get back to work on revision!  So exciting!
        I’m also working on another new writing project: a series of poems for each of the thirteen fairies who come to Sleeping Beauty’s christening.  I’ve been a little all-over-the-place about what I’m doing here, but at the moment each poem seems to be the explanation for the fairy’s particular gift.  Also, I’m fooling around with doing each one in a different form.  I’ve already got drafts of some blank verse, a limerick, a villanelle, and most of a sonnet.  Even if this series of poems never ends up going anywhere or being any good, it really feels good to be practicing those poetry muscles, and my arbitrary goal of working in many different forms is good exercise.
        While the writing has been a terrible slog in the past year, the block prints have not been hit so hard.  (Why?  I don’t know, but I suspect because they are more bite-sized.)  I am currently working on an idea that I’d been mulling for a while, which is Baba Yaga’s house on chicken legs.  I’ve made a little flock of Baba Yaga houses, and a little village full of Baba Yagas old and young.  The carving on this needs to be extremely detailed for the tiny people and the fancy decorations on the izba-style cottages, so I am not at all sure whether it’s coming out legibly.  I won’t know until I ink it up.  In the past few days I’ve been working on it only a tiny bit each day, but I will presumably get some solid carving done on Saturday while I’m sitting at my table during an art show for the first time in 18 months.
        Another new thing in my studio is a collection of tiny metal tubes.  I had two miniature metal thingies that I’d been using for “carving” little circles, but a couple of weeks ago I knocked over my toolbox, everything scattered all over the floor and radiator, and I never could find one of the little round bits.  After scouring the house for any old empty mechanical pencils or pens that might have comparable metal bits I could scavenge, it occurred to me that it might be worth just buying some simple metal tube beads.  And in my search for those I discovered little sets of assorted metal capillary tubes, and in a further search down that direction I discovered a packet of mixed small cut-offs from some metal manufacturer.  When my little package arrived I went through dozens and dozens of bits and pieces of various shapes, and selected an array of tubes of various miniature diameters that may work well for pressing circles into my rubber blocks.  There were even a couple of square and hexagon tubes that might have interesting possibilities.  So I look forward to having these to play with.
        What about you?  Are things reopening where you are?  And does the new season feel exciting and freeing, or are you weighted with dread?  How has your creative spark been faring recently?  Have you found any way to care for it?  Right now I am finally feeling cautiously optimistic about mine, and I hope you are feeling a lightening of spirit.

[Pictures: Out of Darkness, rubber block print by AEGN, 2021;

Carving a new block, AEGN, 2021;

Little tubes and experiments with “carving,” AEGN, 2021.]

June 4, 2021

Morgan's World

         I encountered the relief prints of Gwenda Morgan (UK, 1908-1991) during my 2020 A to Z Challenge on Nursery Rhymes, but it’s now time to feature some of her other work.  Morgan studied modern art, specializing in wood engraving and linocuts, embraced as a democratic art form.  She illustrated a number of books, and was inspired by the landscapes of south-eastern England where she lived most of her life.
        You can see that her work is clearly influenced by the time and place and artists with whom she was working in the 1930s and 40s, but also that she has some distinctive characteristics.  For example, her figures are usually quite tiny in their landscapes, and often simply silhouettes.  Other things are often silhouettes, as well, such as animals and trees, and she uses the solid blacks to make things stand out against more textured backgrounds.
        You can see another characteristic she sometimes employs in the first and last examples I have for you today.  That is a melding of multiple vignettes into a single epic view.  The first includes all sorts of details in a scheme that you could probably never see all in one vista, and certainly not with the level of detail Morgan gives us.  There is little perspective: the farthest objects are at the top of the page, but not significantly smaller than those in the foreground at the bottom.  Today’s final piece also shows multiple vignettes, but arranges them with a very interesting faceted effect.
        The second piece is a much more conventional composition for a landscape.  It's interesting for its finely engraved textures and patterns: every blade of grass, every roof tile…  I especially love the sharp detail in the reflection, observed by ducks and a cat.  The third piece is much less detailed, but I do love the little silhouetted adult and child, admiring the moon, with the thick black shadows all around them.
        I enjoy Morgan’s style, with its balance of blacks, whites, and patterns, and its affectionately stylized glimpses into tiny people and animals going about their lives.

[Pictures: From the Hills to the Sea, wood engraving by Gwenda Morgan, 1965 (Image from V&A);
East Dean, wood engraving by Morgan, 1947 (Image from V&A);
Moonlight, wood engraving by Morgan, 1970 (Image from National Galleries of Scotland);
By the River, wood engraving by Morgan, 1964 (Image from V&A).]

May 31, 2021

Words of the Month - From Sophomoric to Sophisticated

         In this season of graduations, students in high schools and colleges throughout the United States are gaining new names, from freshmen to sophomores, sophomores to juniors, juniors to seniors…  But where do these names come from?  Freshman is pretty straightforward: around the 1550’s the word freshman meant a new or inexperienced man in any field, and by the 1590s was being applied specifically to students in their first year of university.  Freshwoman is first seen in English in the 1620s, and nowadays there are also variants freshperson, frosh, and fresher.
        Junior and senior are also relatively easy to explain.  They are shortened forms of junior sophister and senior sophister, in which sophister was the Latin (from Greek) for “a wise or learned man, or a master of his craft.”  Sophister was dropped from the titles used for upperclassmen when the terms were transferred from Cambridge and Oxford to US universities, and the word, along with its twin sophist, has gained the definition “a specious or fallacious reasoner,” which does not reflect well on university students.
        That leaves sophomore, which is the knottier term.  It entered English more than a century later than the other three (after all, university programs were only three years and thus didn’t need a fourth term) and some attribute it to a derivation from sophumer, meaning “arguer.”  This was another variant of the Greek sophistēs root that gave us the junior and senior sophisters.  But many also derive the word from a combination of sophos and mōros, both “wise” and “foolish” (as in moron).  So the question is, was the word deliberately coined of these two parts to mean “wise fool,” or was the “wise fool” interpretation a folk etymology devised later?  And how much later might it have struck people with its appropriateness?  Some claim that the term existed in ancient Greek, others that it was invented out of Greek roots by those English university men.
        Of course the adjectival form, sophomoric, does not reflect so well on second-year students, implying immaturity and opinionated ignorance.  We gained that version around 1806.  However, that Greek root about wisdom gives us some other words, as well, such as philosopher (early 14th century), who is a “lover of wisdom.”  This word gained its positive connotation when the word sophist began to seem a bit conceited, and slipped toward its negative meaning.  We also have sophistication, which began in English in the early 15th century as “the use of sophistry; fallacious argument; adulteration,” but which moved in the opposite direction as sophist, reaching the positive sense of “worldly wisdom, refinement” by 1850.
        Not until the early 20th century did the four words for university students come to be applied to the four years of high school in the US.  Meanwhile, they have pretty well disappeared from British English.
        So, if you are a high school or college student, don’t forget to aim for the love of knowledge without being a moron or sophist.  And if you are graduating this year from high school senior to college freshmen, or from college senior to sophisticated adult, congratulations, and be wise!

[Pictures: Doctor in Theologia, copper engraving by C. Grignion after Huddesford, 1790 (Image from Sanders of Oxford);

Gentleman commoner and nobleman undress gowns, Student in Civil Law, Oxford, engravings by J.S. Agar after T. Ewins, 1814 (Image from International Museum of the Student);

Alma Mater, engraving by William Hogarth, c 1860 (Image from Mental Floss);

Female Graduate, engraving by Harold Copping, 1891 (Image from International Museum of the Student).]

May 26, 2021

Upcoming Events

         Okay, it’s probably time for another Upcoming Events post.  I know this content may not be intrinsically exciting, but I promise that it will point you toward lots of opportunities that are very exciting indeed.  There’s a lot of variety among these events, too, because we’ve got virtual options that are available to anyone anywhere in the known universe, and - for the first time in something like 15 months - there are also live and in-person options for people who happen to live in the greater Boston area.  So, here’s what I’ve got coming up…

        May 28-31 - Balticon 55 Sci Fi and Fantasy Convention, ON-LINE
This one is free and open to anyone, so if you enjoy sci fi/
fantasy this is a perfect opportunity to take part in a whole variety of activities.  As for me, I will be doing three readings: from the Otherworld series (Friday), Kate & Sam (Saturday), and The Extraordinary Book of Doors (Sunday).  I will be presenting my talk about The Fantastic Medieval Bestiary (Saturday).  I will have art on display in the art show, I'll be doing an art demo (Sunday), and I will be monitoring my “table” on two different on-line platforms: Discord and Gather.  And I will be participating in four panels about writing.  Wow!  INFO HERE

        June 4 - First Friday Quick Reads presented by Strong Women•Strange Worlds, ON-LINE
I am actually not one of the authors reading at this event, but it is the first in our shiny new series, presented by our shiny new organization.  I’ll be “back-of-house” running the slide show for the 6 featured authors.  The way our Quick Reads work is 6 authors reading from their own work for 8 minutes each, sharing a delightful sampling of diverse sci fi and fantasy.  It’s a great way to take a bite-sized lunch-break tour through worlds of wonder.  Preregistration is required (HERE), but the event is free.  It’s also only the first of an ongoing series.  Join us every First Friday (noon EDT) and Third Thursday (5pm EDT) for a fresh selection of authors and stories.  INFO HERE

        June 10 (rain date June 16) - Boston LitCrawl at Dial Restaurant, Cambridge
I will be one of four Broad Universe writers at this venue, each of us reading for 8 minutes.  (Two I know are terrific.  I don’t know the third and look forward to hearing what she’ll be sharing.)  This one is not free: $15 cover charge BUT it includes complimentary snacks (which are not, in my opinion “complimentary” if you had to pay $15… but on the other hand, if you consider $15 the cost of some most excellent author readings, then the snacks are indeed complimentary - and probably pretty tasty, too.)  I had been signed up to take part in Boston LitCrawl for the first time last year when everything got cancelled, so I’m really excited to be getting my chance at last.  INFO HERE

        June 12 (rain date June 19) - Flea Marché at the Needham Congregational Church, Needham
Normally I avoid taking part in outdoor art shows, but it’s been so long since I had a real art event with my table display, and people coming by, and actual talking and sharing (and hopefully selling) that I simply couldn’t resist!  So if you’re in the area, and you’re as eager as I am to get out and do something with live art, and people, and buzz, I hope to see you there.  INFO HERE

        June 11-July 4 - Group show “Looking Up” at Gallery Twist, Lexington
“An optimistic, upward-looking show of 200+ artworks by 50+ artists,” staged in Gallery Twist’s historic house right off historic Lexington Green.  The gallery will be open and is really a fun in-person experience.  (If you’re picturing galleries as stuffy or dry, you need to see Twist!)  However, they will also have the on-line 360° virtual tour, so that if you don’t happen to be able to get there in person, you can still see the show.  I will have 11 pieces in this show, which I’m really pleased about.  I certainly do seem to make a lot of work with that “optimistic, upward-looking” vibe!  INFO HERE

        Well, with all that going on, I do hope you’ll find something of interest!

May 21, 2021

Behold, It Is Good

         Here is my newest piece, which is inspired by the beauty of creation.  My favorite thing about the Biblical story of creation is how the Creator is so pleased with their work, and declares it good, good, and very good.  This resonates with me on several levels.  As someone who dwells within that creation, I am constantly smitten with how Good it is.  And as a creator, made in the image of the divine creator, I think it’s important to remember just how Good it is that we can bring forth wonderful things to share with each other.
        So this piece is my attempt to celebrate the light and the darkness, and the waters and the dry land, and the herbs and trees, and the waters bringing forth creatures, and the birds that fly above the earth, and all living creatures and creeping things and beasts of the earth, right up to people.  And behold, it is very good.
        In designing this piece, I started with the idea of the curl of a wave echoing the curl of a fern fiddlehead, which I have a Thing about, and I moved on from there.  The next idea was to have the butterflies and dragonflies transforming from the wave’s spray, which was inspired by this piece by Hokusai.  I had fun carving this with a pretty fine level of detail, trying to get variations in the water of the wave, well-detailed fern fronds, and interesting texture on the tree, for example.  A couple of other touches hidden in here: plankton-ish things in the water toward the top of the center of the wave, and Orion in the pattern of stars at the lower left.  Presumably I should have made the bright side of the moon toward the sun, but you know, that's artistic license.  The humans are the weakest part of the design, but then, perhaps that’s true of the real creation, too, right?
        I’m late for Earth Day with this, but of course this just goes to show that we should be celebrating every day - by taking care of this Good world of which we are a part.

[Picture: Behold, it is Good, rubber block print by AEGN, 2021;

Sketch and carving of Behold, it is Good, by AEGN, 2021.]

May 17, 2021

Guess that Medieval Beast 8

         This beast is one that, to be fair, is pretty darn bizarre and amazing in real life, so I’m not going to say that the medieval artists have made it stranger than it actually is.  After all, this illustration basically looks like a rainbow-colored horse, which is really not so crazy.  This picture comes from a bestiary from the mid-thirteenth century, and the illuminator has done a beautiful job of it, too.  We’re treated to borders and backgrounds, lots of colors including gold leaf, and even a bonus owl perched on the background tree.  But what is this creature?  I’ll give you a hint: it’s not a My Little Pony.  So, what do you think it is?

May 12, 2021

Divine Prints from India

         Today I have some block prints for you from India, and they have a wonderful variety of rich texture.  This first shows Krishna going across the river with a group of his devotees in a magnificent boat.  From the beautiful peacock-headed prow to the elephant head at the stern, the entire craft is gorgeously decorated.  The pavilion in which Rādhā sits has elaborate architecture surmounted by a lovely pennant, and all the clothes are richly decorated with patterns and textures.  Each of the fish below has a different pattern of scales, and large butterflies flutter all about.  This is a metal block print, which means that these patterns were probably created with punches rather than having to be individually carved.  (You can read an intro to metalcuts here.)  Metalcuts often have large areas of black with repeated patterns, which I really like.  It is somewhat unusual to have large white areas like the background in this piece.
        The second piece shows Shiva seated beneath a tree, while his wife Bhagabatī is shown twice, once in the doorway holding one son, and again outside the building holding the other son.  I find it particularly interesting that the building has a European neoclassical style, as opposed to the more Mughal-style roof of the boat’s pavilion in the first piece.  I don’t know enough to be able to hypothesize on what this says about the intended audience of this piece, in terms of the fashions favored by different groups in India in the early nineteenth century, but it surely says something!  Although this piece is listed as a woodcut, its style is so similar to the first, in the use of repeated punch patterns on the saris, and in the style of the women’s faces, that I can’t help but question that.
        The same goes for the third piece, where we’re back to Krishna and Rādhā surrounded by their companions, and more of the same large, beautiful butterflies.  The couple is being sprayed with something, and I would love to know whether it’s perfume, or whether they are being fumigated with pesticide!  There are a few other insects buzzing about, and some of the women seem distressed about something, so clearly something is going on.  I tried to find out when these spray pumps might have been invented, but I couldn’t find any sort of history about them at all, alas.  Anyway, all the detailed patterns on the fabrics and floor covering are magnificent, and required great skill and precision to create.  The artists of all these pieces are anonymous.
        The information about these pieces is quite sparse - there doesn’t seem to be anything about exactly when or where they were made, let alone the name of an artist.  Nevertheless, I find them very pleasing.  I would love to be able to make fine patterns like these, but unfortunately it’s a unique trait of metalcuts and just doesn’t work on either wood or rubber.  (Although it occurs to me that it might be worth experimenting with linoleum…  Hmmm…)

[Pictures: Krishna and the Gopis crossing the River Jumna, metal-cut print, India, early 19th century (Image from The British Museum);

Bhagabatī and Śiva, wood- or metal-cut print, Calcutta, late 19th century (Image from The British Museum);

Krishna and Rādhā, wood- or metal-cut print, India, 19th century (Image from The British Museum).]

May 7, 2021

Spring Grass

         It’s high time for some more block printing, so today I have two pieces that evoke the springtime growth that’s been busy here while I was busy with the A to Z Challenge through April.  First a piece by Kong Fanjia (China, b. 1957) in which he depicts the vastness of the northern Chinese landscape.  Although this piece actually uses multiple blocks and multiple colors of ink, it is quite monochromatic and might seem wintry if it weren’t for the lushness of the grass.  In fact, it is entitled “Vigorous Grass,” which I love.  Kong says, “I wish to depict this black earth with all my sincerity,” and I think I know how he feels.
        I’m pairing Kong’s vigorous grass with a river valley by Kitaoka Fumio (Japan, 1918-2007).  This piece, too, has relatively pale greens, without high contrast.  It looks like a misty morning.  Both pieces have small flowers picked out among the grass, and flat horizons, but Kitaoka’s smooth grass and gentle curves look much more still and serene than Kong’s long, tossing billows of grass.  You might think that there’s not a lot of interest in a big field with a bit of a river and a few small flowers.  But these two artists would prove you wrong.

[Pictures: Vigorous Grass, multi-block woodcut by Kong Fanjia, 1992 (Image from Ashmolean);
A River of the Wetland, color woodcut by Kitaoka Fumio, 1974 (Image from Art Gallery NSW).]