June 24, 2022

Who Is Catching Whom?

         Any time you hear a story, it’s wise to consider who is telling it.  “History is written by the victors” is the most obvious reminder, but every story has a particular perspective depending on the teller.  The idea of a sailor catching a mermaid for a wife may be an old favorite, but we always think of it from the same point of view: the human, not the merperson; the male, not the female.  And this perspective has the effect of making the human male the active protagonist while the mermaid becomes the passive prize to be won.  Consider all those selkie stories discussed in this prior post, in which the selkie is forced onto land when her sea skin is stolen by the human man.  Well, story spinner that I am, it is obvious to me that the mermaid, too, would have a point of view.  And feminist that I am, I’m all about relationships that are equitable and mutually satisfactory.  If a fisherman has caught a mermaid, this strikes me as pleasing and romantic only if the mermaid has equally caught the fisherman.
        (I will note that “The Little Mermaid” is told from the mermaid’s point of view with the mermaid as the protagonist, but still, it’s hardly a healthy, equal relationship.)
        (I will also note that you can enjoy some other block prints of merfolk here.)
        I remembered an interesting piece by Boris Artzybasheff that has neither top nor bottom, as it can be viewed equally either way.  (You can see that piece here.)  This idea struck me as perfect for my mermaid and her fisherman (or, of course, my fisherman and his mermaid).  I actually made a little sketch of the idea a number of years ago, but only came back to it last month when I was looking for ideas of blocks to carve during my spring shows.  I had fun on the pattern and texture of the fisherman’s sweater, but otherwise it’s a fairly simple piece: cheerful, friendly, a little cartoonish in style, and printed in a mix of bright watery colors just for fun.  I made the design balanced and symmetrical, and I labelled it with the title on one edge and the signature on the opposite so that both orientations are equal.
        The real complication comes when I go to mat, frame, and display.  As soon as the piece is hung on a wall, a decision has to be made.  Who is catching whom?  I’ve matted one of the edition, and put the label on the back oriented to the side, so as to determine neither a top nor a bottom.  But the framed piece has to have a top.  Which way up would you hang it?  Or would you switch it every once in a while and see whether anyone notices?  Or, of course, you could always get two (they’re not expensive - ha!) and hang one each way.  What story will you tell about this happy pair?

[Picture: Big Catch, rubber block print by AEGN, 2022.]

June 20, 2022


         I wasn’t able to find any block prints directly related to Juneteenth, so I’m celebrating instead with a couple of African-American printmakers whose work celebrates their identity and experience.  I’ve started with a piece by Elizabeth Catlett (USA/Mexico, 1915-2012).  I’ve featured her before, so you can revisit a couple of pieces here and here.  She’s done a lot of very moving work exploring the experiences of Black Americans during slavery and through the twentieth century.  Today, however, I’ve picked a piece that is more celebratory.  The silhouetted people don’t have obviously happy expressions, but their bright colors and the title of the piece “Magic People,” make me feel that it’s about resilience and survival and working together to stand up together.
        Next a beautiful piece by Deborah Grayson, an artist I know very little about.  In her statement she talks about exploring silence and what it reveals and protects about the inner lives of Black women.  I love the expression on this face, with the closed eyes looking inward and the hint of a smile at what she sees there.  As a white woman I can’t speak for what the experience of Juneteenth means for Black people in this country, but it seems to me that while it is a celebration of the end of slavery, it’s also an acknowledgement of the disgraceful injustices that were supposed to have ended much sooner (or, indeed, should never happened at all), and a reminder to keep envisioning a future that addresses and eliminates the injustices with which we’re still plagued.  Today’s first piece represents the celebration, and this second piece represents that dreaming of the future.
        The third piece is by Paul Peter Piech (USA/Wales, 1920-1996) who is not African-American, but whose piece seemed appropriate to represent that third element of Juneteenth: the acknowledgement of the wrongs that still need to be addressed.  (I’ve featured Piech before, so you can see more of his work here.)
        My own awareness of Juneteenth is relatively recent.  Do you have any stories or memories that make this holiday especially meaningful to you?

[Pictures: Magic People, linoleum cut by Elizabeth Catlett, 2002 (Image from Cleveland Museum of Art);

Innervisions 2 (Unfurling), relief block print by Deborah Grayson (Image from GraysonStudios.com);

Liberty, linoleum block print by Peter Paul Piech, 1971 (Image from V&A).]

June 15, 2022

Fantasy Botany

         This week I’ve finally been giving my garden some attention, so it seems a good time to share a bit of fantastical botany.  I have to start with the classics, which of course may or may not have been considered fantasy at the time.  The most famous is probably the mandrake, which is a a real plant, but had many fantastical properties attributed to it.  The root was said to be shaped like a person, and to shriek aloud when uprooted.  This scream could kill the hearer, but it was worth it to try to obtain the root because it could be used in love potions and flying ointments, as well as other magical brews.
        There’s a long history of fascination with plants that blur the line with animals, and I’ve featured a number in prior posts including: the vegetable lambs
        Alice encountered a garden of sentient flowers Through the Looking Glass, but really, they were so rude they were hardly worth knowing.  Consider instead how much fun illustrators have had with the nursery rhyme 
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells, and little maids all in a row.
One need not necessarily interpret this to mean that the bells, shells, and maids were actually growing in the garden as plants, but it’s so much fun to illustrate them that way that there are many illustrations turning contrary Mary’s garden into a small fantasy world.
        Another place to find fantastical plants is the Voynich manuscript.  I’ve written before about this mysterious cipher manuscript, which dates to the fifteenth century and includes illustrations of plants most of which are not quite identifiable, and many of which seem to be entirely made up.
        A strange book that may have been inspired at least in part by the Voynich manuscript is the Codex Seraphinianus, made by Italian artist Luigi Serafini between 1976-1978.  It is in the form of an encyclopedia of a strange world, full of surreal and fantastical illustrations, and it is written entirely in a meaningless script.  The first chapter is on plants.  The illustrations are 
bright, detailed, sometimes grotesque or disturbing, but often beautiful and delightfully quirky.  Because of the indecipherable text, it’s impossible to know what any of these plants are called, or exactly what properties may be attributed to them.
        The Land of Neverbelieve by Norman Messenger, on the other hand, is a similar sort of encyclopedia of an imaginary world, but it’s written in English, so you get to learn fun facts about the marvelous illustrations, such as knowing that the cross-section of the chocolate tree depicts its delicious peppermint center.  This book includes all manner of fantastical creatures and things, but is especially rich in marvelous trees.
        I’m not going into too much depth in this post because Fantasy Botany is on my list of possible future A to Z themes, so I need to save up.  On the other hand, that’s no reason not to give plants a little attention in the meantime.  So, how does my garden grow?  With golden tomatoes, and tasty herbs, and pretty rudbeckia scattered all over the place.  What would you like to grow in your fantasy garden?

[Pictures: Mandrake, wood block print from Ortus sanitatis by Johann Prüss, 1499 (Image from Internet Archive);

My Lady’s Garden, color wood block print by Walter Crane from The Baby’s Opera, printed by Edmund Evans, c 1877 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);

Mary, Mary, illustration (possibly by Howard Del?) from Mother Goose’s Melodies for her Little Goslings, 1881 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);

Two plants from Voynich Manuscript, c 1401-1599 (Image from Yale University Library);

Illustrations from Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini, 1981;

Illustration from The Land of Neverbelieve by Norman Messenger, 2012.]

June 10, 2022

Shining the Light through Block Prints

         I recently got a chance to look around Yale University’s beautiful Humanities Quadrangle building (formerly known as the Hall of Graduate Studies, built in 1932), and I suddenly recognized an old friend.  No, not one of my classmates at the reunion, but Jost Amman, the sixteenth century wood block artist and carver.  I’ve featured Amman’s self-portrait on this blog (as well as a number of his other pieces), and there he was on a stained glass window with the light coming through.  Further exploration revealed that many (if not all) of the windows were decorated with reproductions of wood block prints.  What fun to recognize some, and to meet new friends!
        The original wood block print from which this next window was adapted dates to 1493, and presumably was chosen because it depicts a theater, coming from a book of plays.  It’s a fantastic image with lots of great details, like the crowded audience and more people coming up the steps, and the elaborately decorated pillars and other architecture.  However, somewhere along the line someone decided to censor the label on the scroll above the ground floor - which was probably the right choice on a college campus, since the original block print says “Fornices,” revealing that the ground floor
 is a brothel.  Apparently a draftsman in the office of the building’s architect (James Gamble Rogers) picked for inclusion in the architecture the opening line of the 1921 popular 
novel Scaramouche, thinking it a bit of a prank to feature something so distinctly unscholarly.  Perhaps the artist of this window was following the same impulse!
        I was able to trace the ship back to a 1502 edition of a book of maritime law.  I like how the artist of the window has used a bit of license in changing the pattern in the sky, as well as completing the edges of the ship.
        The designers of the Yale buildings were presumably trying to represent a range of arts and sciences in their decor, and for the more modern steam engine they had to find a more recent image.  This window depicts a locomotive built in 1804 by Richard Trevithick.  It was the first locomotive to successfully run on rails, and was the grand kick-off of the age of trains.  This wood engraving of it comes from a book published in 1900.  Once again the stained glass artist has exercised artistry of his or her own in cropping the composition and adding a background glorifying the magnificent power of the steam engine.  This appeals to all my steampunk sensibilities.
        Finally, I include this Pegasus because I thought it made a wonderful motif on the window, however, I was unable to track down the original on which it was based.
        Ever since I was a child I have been a huge fan of Collegiate Gothic architecture (which should probably more accurately be called “collegiate Elizabethan,” but I’m not a historian of architecture, so I won’t quibble.)  And perhaps no one does it better than Yale!  The level of care that went into every detail of this building is spectacular.  You can also revisit a prior post featuring some of the stone creatures that decorate Yale buildings (including the griffin that decorates the heading of this very blog).
       I always like to say that making relief block prints is carving light into darkness, but how much more wonderful is that light when it’s really shining through in the form of windows!

[Pictures: Stained glass from Yale’s Humanities Quadrangle, 1932 (photos by AEGN, 2022);

Der Formschneider, wood block print by Jost Amman from Eygentliche Beschreibung aller Stände auff Erden, 1568 (Image from Yale University Library);

Theatrum, wood block print from Comoediae by Terence, 1493 (Image from National Gallery of Art);

Title Page, wood block print from Libre de consolat tractant dels fets maritims, 1502 (Image from Sotheby’s);

Trevithick’s Locomotive, wood engraving (by H.W. Benno?) from The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century by Edward W. Byrn, 1900 (Image from Internet Archive).]

June 6, 2022

Picasso Poster

         This poster is an interesting example of Picasso’s work in a very casual mode.  Picasso (Spain, 1881-1973) was hardly a stick-in-the-mud when it came to art, but it’s interesting to see what he made when he clearly wasn’t even trying very hard!  Picasso collaborated for many years with Hidalgo Arnéra, a printer, and one of the things they mostly produced was posters for bullfights and other local events.  This poster is for the annual ceramic festival of Vallauris, in 1956.  It’s got very basic carving, simple images, and Picasso even carved the 6 backwards.  Clearly he didn’t put a lot of effort into this one.  On the other hand, it was with Arnéra that Picasso developed his reduction print methods for printing multi-colored pieces with only one block (another way to keep it quick and cheap?)
        So, what’s going on here?  The carving is very basic, and (given the backwards 6) probably not even sketched out in advance.  It makes me wonder whether mushing together the double L in Vallauris was a design choice or a way to correct the spacing after starting in carving without a plan!  What is complicated, though, is the layering of colors.  It looks to me like the right and bottom sections of the paper were colored with blue, while the top, left and bottom sections of the paper were colored with yellow (making green across the bottom).  The center was left unprinted at first.  If the carved block was then printed over these colors in magenta, the yellow, white, blue, and green show through where the block was carved, while magenta over yellow makes red, magenta over blue makes purple, and magenta over green makes blackish.  The one thing I'm not sure of is how the words across the top got to be orange, so I'm probably missing some step.  
        To get to the most basic level about this piece, I’m really not at all excited about it as a work of art.  By all means see this prior post about one of Picasso’s prints that I am excited about!  But as one of the pieces demonstrating experiments with relief printing and the development of new ways for relief printmaking to be used, I find it fascinating.
        What do you think?

[Picture: Exposition Vallauris, linocut by Pablo Picasso, printed by Imprimetie Arnéra, 1956 (Image from AEGN, at the National Gallery of Scotland).]

June 1, 2022

Eisenman's People

         At the Yale Art Gallery last weekend, keeping my eyes open, as always, for relief block prints, I saw this piece by Nicole Eisenman.  The title of the piece seemed particularly fun: “Drippy Cloud Guy.”  However, a closer look reveals that the piece is officially Untitled, and a little research once I returned home revealed that most if not all of Eisenman’s prints are untitled.  Here are a few other things I learned.
        Nicole Eisenman (USA, b.1965) has received pretty much every possible big-name award including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur “genius award.”  She seems to have made a slew of prints, including wood block prints and a number of other printmaking techniques, in 2012.  (She is gender fluid and uses both she and they pronouns.)  I also discovered in the course of 
my quick research that, honestly, I am not much of a fan of most of her work.  I did, however, find these
 wood block prints that I wanted to share.
        To begin with the “drippy cloud guy,” I’m definitely tickled by the idea of lying on one’s back in the grass and drawing the raining clouds above.  Given Eisenman’s other work, I wouldn’t be surprised if this man is seeing the clouds as breasts and sketching accordingly, which probably Means Something.  Still, there’s a whimsy that appeals to me.
        The second piece definitely has whimsey, as a person and a bird give each other a peck (pun intended).  For some reason they both look quite surprised.  The skritches and 
scratches of texture add interest, especially combined with
 the color, which looks as if it’s probably painted in the background.
        The third person is quite intense, white eyes staring out of the red shadow.  The wood grain plays an important role, as does the gradation in the inking.
        And finally, another more whimsical person.  His eyes are pointing every-which-way like a cartoon, and although everything else is very simple, his ears have a beautifully detailed texture of fine arcs.  A colored background and variegated inking add a little dimensionality.  And most importantly, he has a friendly smile.

[Pictures: Untitled (Drippy Cloud Guy), woodcut by Nicole Eisenman, 2012 (Image taken by AEGN at Yale University Art Gallery);
Untitled, woodcut by Eisenman, 2012;
Untitled, woodcut by Eisenman, 2012 (Images from Koenig & Clinton);
Untitled (for Parkett 91), woodcut by Eisenman, 2012 (Image from Parkett).]

May 27, 2022

Portal Fantasy

         Here’s another post for #WyrdAndWonder, where the prompt is to celebrate the subgenre Portal Fantasy.
        When it comes right down to it, there are two options in fantasy: either there’s magic in the world, or there isn’t.  If the world of our characters includes magic, either it’s a secondary world (ie, a completely different world, such as Middle Earth or Berk or the Five Kingdoms or Khelathra-Ven) or it’s our world that happens to have magic which may or may not be known to the general public (such as the settings of Artemis Fowl, Sorcery & Cecilia, Mary Poppins, or lots of fairy tales and urban fantasy.)  But what if you cross the two possibilities (no-magic in our world with secondary worlds containing magic)?  What if we know that our world doesn’t have magic, and yet we want to tell a story about ordinary-world characters who find their way to magical worlds?  That’s portal fantasy.
        Probably the most iconic portal fantasy is that of C.S. Lewis, wherein our characters go through a portal in the back of a wardrobe and come out in the world of NarniaThe Phantom Tollbooth, too, includes a very clear, literal portal: drive through the cardboard tollbooth and come out in the magical Lands Beyond.  In The Secrets of Droon series by Tony Abbott (deservedly less famous) the portal is a stairway in the basement of one of the characters.  In Jane’s Adventures In and Out of the Book by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy the portal is, as the name suggests, a book.  A rabbit hole is Alice’s portal to Wonderland.
        If you take a slightly broader look, however, you can include more stories in this category.  Ordinary-world characters always require some sort of special event to transport them from, say, Kansas to Oz.  Famously a cyclone does the trick in L. Frank Baum’s first book, but it’s a storm at sea in another, and an earthquake in another.  In many a classic fairy tale the role of portal is played by the enchanted forest.  Leave the known path and you cross into a world where wicked witches and fairies have power, animals can speak, and curses, blessings, and transformations change all the rules.
        Harry Potter’s Wizarding World is somewhat superimposed upon the Muggle world and not wholly separate as in a true portal fantasy, but in J.K. Rowling’s books the Hogwarts Express often serves as a sort of portal, marking the point at which Harry transitions between the ordinary world and the world of magic.  The bottom line is that there always has to be some moment of transition or discovery where people just like us are suddenly confronted with a world of magic.
        As for myself, I like secondary world fantasy where I’m immersed in a place where magic is part of the fabric of people’s lives, and I like portal fantasy where people living without magic are suddenly transported into a whole ‘nother world.  And I like that other variant, too, where our world does happen to have magic or other fantastical elements.  They all appeal to slightly different ideas for me, and they can all be good!  Do you have a preference?  Or what’s your favorite portal fantasy?

[Pictures: Through the wardrobe, illustration by Marco Soma for The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (Image from Marco Soma illustrator);

Jane entering the book, illustration by Nicolas Hill for Jane’s Adventures In and Out of the Book by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, 1972;

The Cyclone, illustration by W.W. Denslow for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1900 (Image from Internet Archive);

Tree wolf image by chic2view on 123RF.com.]

May 23, 2022

Hard at Work

         I got a lot of carving done during my shows over the past two weekends, and I now have one block complete, five more ready for a test print and then tweaking, and one that’s probably about three quarters of the way finished.  That’s a lot of printing coming up -- but I won’t be able to get to it this week.  No, instead this week I am hard at work catching up with all the tasks that got postponed while I was hard at work on art shows.  Today I mowed the lawn and did laundry, took care of a whole list of emails, updated my web site and my mailing list, sent off my giveaways from last week’s Strong Women-Strange Worlds author reading, carried most of my boxes of art show stuff back down to the basement, and still need to finish applications for a couple of shows, etc etc…  Blah blah blah.  So today I have for you a couple of cool relief block prints of people working much harder than me.
        First is The Builders by Gustave Baumann (USA, 1881-1971).  I’ve shared some of his work in previous posts, so I don’t need to rehash his biography or discuss his ouevre.  Suffice it to say that this seems a little simpler than most of his work, although it’s still got three layers of ink plus the white paper.  I love the layering and how the black makes the foreground pop against the silhouetted construction in the background in the lower left.  The bold simplicity of the clouds and sky also makes a great contrast behind the more detailed men.
        The second piece is by Lill Tschudi (Switzerland, 1911-2004), about whom you can also refresh your memory in previous posts.  Her dynamic style features diagonals where Baumann’s composition is on the square, geometry where Baumann is more naturalistic, a bold blue sky where Bauman has only greys and browns…  But both artists are celebrating the hard work, daring, and drama of the men whose work takes them right up into the sky to make our modern world possible.
        I really enjoy both these pieces, with their differences and similarities, and they can serve to represent my work this week (and the fact that my work is really not too tough!) until I get caught up and can play with all my new blocks.

[Pictures: The Builders (From My Studio Window), color woodcut by Gustave Baumann, 1909 (Image from Art Institute Chicago);

Fixing the Wires, color linocut by Lill Tschudi, 1932 (Image from The British Museum).]

May 18, 2022

Books Within a Book

         This post is for one of the prompts from #WyrdAndWonder, May’s celebration of all things fantastic.  There are actually two books within The Extraordinary Book of Doors, the middle grade fantasy adventure I published in 2014.  I thought it would be fun to write a little bit about these books within the book, and the roles they play in the story.
        We’ll start with the obvious one: Extraordinaire livre portes, the Extraordinary Book of Doors itself: the fictional book (inspired by a real book) for which my real book is named.  This Extraordinary Book of Doors was created in 1549 by Sebastian Serlio, renaissance architect and wizard.  The book is basically a collection of wood block prints of doors, each of which functions (to one who has the key) as a portal to its real-life location.  In the outer book Tobal Salceda explains the history of the inner book thus, “The story really begins before the Books themselves, in the winter of 1525 when French King Francis I was captured by his bitter rival Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain.  Francis’s sister Marguerite Queen of Navarre set off bravely on horseback through the snowy forests, desperately riding twelve hours a day for days on end in order to meet a critical deadline in the negotiations for her brother’s release.  She barely made it, but she saved him.  After that Francis was on the lookout for an easier, less perilous way to ensure his escape should he ever be captured again.  It wasn’t until 1540 that he saw his opportunity.  He hired Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio to help design his new palace at Fontainebleau.  You see, Serlio was not just an architect but a wizard.  Francis and Marguerite commissioned him to construct a magical doorway at Fontainebleau that would be capable of transporting Francis back to his own palace from any other location.  This Serlio did.  However, Marguerite, who was a poet and a great lover of books, came up with a further idea.  Some time after the original doorway, she set Serlio to work making an extraordinary Book of doors, each page of which would contain a portal.  Serlio was to make two copies of the Book, one for Marguerite and one for her brother Francis.  While he was at it, he made one for himself, too.”
        Within the story, these three copies of the magical book of portals are the entire driving force.  Finding them is what sets the adventures in motion for our characters, makes the adventures possible, and motivates the antagonist, who wants to get his hands on the books for his own nefarious purposes.  So basically, these books within the book are what drive the entire plot.
        Meanwhile, there’s another book, or series of books within the book.  The Laundry Basket Chronicles are a fantasy trilogy that all three of the main protagonists enjoy.  Their ability to talk about these fictional books together is part of what draws the characters together, while their different reactions to the books is part of how we see their differences.  We don’t actually know a ton about these books, except that the three main characters in them are Anneke the clever, sensible scullery maid,  Morrik the more impetuous wizard’s apprentice, and Basket, the friendly flying laundry basket.  These inner books are purely incidental within the outer book, serving only as a mirror to help reflect how our heroes react to them.  Any incidents within the Laundry Basket Chronicles are related almost more as throw-away lines than any actual plot summary.  We know that the three characters outwit Morrik’s master and reverse his evil spell.  And I did write the following exchange about the Laundry Basket Chronicles in a draft of a sequel (which may never be completed, although you never know):
            Matias grinned.  “What can I say?  I’m a sucker for romance.  Like the part in the Laundry Basket Trilogy when Morrik and Anneke finally realize they’re in love.”  Matias fluttered his hand against his chest and batted his eyelashes as if he were blinking back tears.  “That’s my favorite part.”

            “You like that better than the big showdown with Baron Skellgrim in the first book?”

            “Okay, it’s my second favorite part.”

            “And what about when Laundry Basket gets its flying back from the Gloaming at the end of the second book.”

            “Yeah, that’s pretty triumphant.  So maybe the romance is my third favorite part.”

            “And nothing can compare to Anneke and Morrik’s escape through the catacombs with the orb.”

            “Aha!  That’s the point, isn’t it?  They would never have been able to do all that if they hadn’t realized they loved each other!  So maybe it’s my favorite part after all!”

        I must say I had a lot of fun throwing these references into my book, and they were enticing enough to my daughter, at least, that she begged me to write the actual Laundry Basket Chronicles.  I will state right now that I have no intention of doing so, although I suppose there’s always the chance that inspiration could strike.  As for the other book within the book, however, I did actually have to make some portion of Serlio’s Extraordinary Book of Doors in the form of the illustrations of 21 of the doors which appear in the outer book.  I regret to say, however, that without Serlio’s magic, my illustrations do not become portals.
        It should come as no surprise that writers tend to love books and that therefore writers tend to write books about books, and books about characters who love books.  I very much enjoyed making books such an integral part of my own story The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  (If you’re curious about this book, you can, of course, always go to Amazon and check the “Look Inside” feature for a bit of a preview, plus you can see my quick presentation on The Extraordinary Book of Doors for Strong Women-Strange Worlds’s “Speed-Date a Book” event, plus a reading of an excerpt, below.)

        What’s your favorite book within a book?

[Pictures: Title Page of the outer Extraordinary Book of Doors, in the style of the inner Extraordinaire livre portes, by AEGN, 2014;

Tree wolf image by chic2view on 123RF.com.]