June 25, 2019

Sound from the East

        Here’s a wild and amazing wood block print by Dai Zhengsheng (China, b. 1954).  Given its title, A Distant Sound from the East, I feel sure it must have deep significance, or at least a background story for its imagery, but I don’t have any information about what that might be.  Dai says, “When I am creating artwork, the starting point and the goal of expression in my work is to elucidate and clarify traditional Chinese culture and the progression of original creative power in life, by means of using direct, condensed, pure and profound woodcut language.”  Which isn’t really very helpful.  You can see if you peer closely (don’t forget that you can click the image to see it at least a bit bigger) that there are figures in the facets of the various shapes: something like a cat at the lower left, somebody reading a book in the bottom middle, figures with staves on the sides of the large central block…  The whole thing evokes the view from an airplane, and the rays of light from glowing clouds, and some sort of superhuge robot like a prism with arms and legs.  The whole thing is quite large, about three feet square (90cm) and full of densely detailed carving over the entire surface.  It’s technically very impressive, as well as being visually fascinating.  I’d love to get a look at it in person.

[Picture: A Distant Sound from the East, woodcut by Dai Zhengsheng, 1998 (Image from Ashmolean Library).]

June 21, 2019

How to Be an Artist

Gratitude first, then curiosity spurred by wonder,
Gathering beauty until it overflows.
Precision spurs precision,
Detail detail, light light.
Polishing each facet of wonder,
Place the world in a small silver setting
And present it to itself.
Pause often to let the beauty flow clear.
Hush often to hear the silence fill up with silence.
Yet never stop, for the pausing is work,
The hushing is work,
The waiting is work –
As long as it fills and overflows again.

[Picture: Small Glass Bottles, rubber reduction print by AEGN, 2017.]
Poem by AEGN, 2017.

June 18, 2019

Baumann's Block Prints

        Gustave Baumann (German-born, USA 1881-1971) is a prolific, famous printmaker with a long and successful career.  He primarily worked in color linoleum and wood block prints with multiple blocks, and I did a previous post here on his process with a six-block six-color piece.  That piece gave us a great tour of his working method, but wasn’t a piece I really loved, so today I’ve got a few of his pieces that I do love.
        First, a wonderfully detailed view of a wonderfully detailed building.  The piece is entitled “Old Munich” and my first thought is that the color palette was chosen under the inspiration of sepia-toned photographs.  However, I’m probably being anachronistic with that, since in 1905 photography and sepia-toning would presumably have seemed fairly new.  At any rate, it’s a beautiful image, with a sort of wistful, autumnal look.
        This next one also captures light wonderfully, with a masterful dappling of shadow and the hot sunlit lawn beyond the cool shade of the tree.  The little birds are not very detailed, but the very imprecision of this scene somehow contributes to that sense of looking into strong sunlight, slightly dazzled.  I can’t even figure out how many different blocks and colors Baumann has used for this piece, because the layering of colors adds so much further subtlety.  (This piece is undated, but it has the same border of little yellow dots as the piece in my previous linked post, and is signed with a similar sort of chop, so I’m guessing this one is also from around 1924.)
        And finally, a piece that at first glance looks closer to my beloved single-color block prints… But when you start to look more closely you realize that it has at least three different colors of brown ink, and possibly four or five, depending on how some of the colors were achieved.  Once again, I love the way Baumann has depicted light and shadow.  Perhaps most notable, I find the cream-colored texture on the main arch to be a delightful surprise, and an interesting contrast from the solid areas and other textures in the piece.  Everything about this is gorgeous!

[Pictures: Old Munich, color linocut by Gustave Baumann, 1905;
Live Oak, Sando Park, color woodcut by Baumann, between 1901-1934, c 1924?;
Interior of a Stable, color linocut by Baumann, 1905 (Images from Art Institute of Chicago).]

June 14, 2019

Creature Collections: Encyclopedias

        My interest in compendia of magical beasts is nothing new, obviously  (click on “Creature Collections” in the sidebar for lots and lots of other books) but for the past year or two I’ve been trying especially hard to get my hands on as many comprehensive creature reference books as possible, in order to research subjects for my block prints and my bestiary.  Here are a few of the works I’ve consulted:

        The Mythical Creatures Bible, by Brenda Rosen, 2009 - Lavishly illustrated, full-color encyclopedia with creatures organized in categories, of which “Sacred Creatures” is a separate category, which I appreciate.  The variety of illustrations includes some from older sources and some apparently made for this book.  It does include some errors (such as “the real-life lizard called a Salamander,” and putting the elves of The Lord of the Rings among the “many famous fairies in literature”) which don’t inspire confidence.  It is, however, an appealing book to browse through.

        Dragons, Unicorns, and Other Magical Beasts, by Robin Palmer, 1966 - A dictionary of only about 66 animals with small illustrations, plus complete stories or poems about 12 of them from a variety of cultures.  Hardly a comprehensive reference work, but it is interesting to read about some of the creatures in their own contexts.

        A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts, by Richard Barber and Anne Riches, 1971 - A good small reference with a wide variety of creatures, including lots of local monsters of the British Isles, and some more modern beasts such as the gremlin and shmoo.  I especially appreciate that each entry includes its references in an extensive bibliography.  The bibliography is helpfully organized by time period.

        A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts, by Olento Salaperäinen, 2016 - Despite the title this is not a field guide, but it is a nice overview of lots of creatures, relatively heavy on humanoids, and arranged in categories (including “The Sacred & the Divine”).  Each of the entries includes side boxes that mention specific instances in literature from ancient myth to modern movies.  It does a great job of putting recent pop culture instances into context.  The illustrations aren’t particularly inspiring, but do at least have the benefit of including a nice diversity of people, when people are shown.

        Giants, Monsters, and Dragons, by Carol Rose, 2000 - Pretty much the keystone reference work on mythical beasts (it tends not to include the more humanoid creatures), this one has a lot going for it.  It covers a lot of beasts, each one given with its references; it has an excellent bibliography; and it includes a number of useful indexes.  It’s always one of the first places to look.  Because it’s such a popular source, it’s a little hard to cross-check - any errors in this book tend to be repeated by everyone else on the internet and in subsequent works (including, no doubt, my own).  Obviously I’d prefer to be able to trust all its information completely, but I think it’s pretty much impossible to cover this much ground without allowing a few errors to creep in, and I consider this encyclopedia an impressive and extremely useful resource.

        The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, by John & Caitlín Matthews, 2005 - This dictionary aims to include all sorts of magical beings, including not just what I think of as mythical creatures, but also gods, and famous named individuals of certain species, such as centaurs, for example.  It also has articles on the magical attributes of real animals such as elephants and dogs.  There are inset sections retelling specific stories about many of the creatures, and others discussing certain larger categories, such as “Celestial Creatures” and “Road Predators.”  I would have appreciated if it included references for each entry, as some of the other encyclopedias do.

        As I mentioned, I think it’s pretty hard to achieve simultaneously broad range and perfect accuracy of detail, and I’m sure all these works have at least a few inaccuracies, especially in their accounts of non-European mythologies.  I wish they were perfect, of course, and if there were a perfect source I would certainly wish to own a copy — but I confess that I find myself with a bit of a soft spot for the inaccuracies that result from the Game of Telephone that is mythology.  After all, myths and legends have always morphed and changed over time and place as people hear stories, misunderstand them, “improve” them, and tell them again, on down the line.  Despite our best efforts, why should we be any different?

[Pictures: Kraken by uncredited illustrator (?) from The Mythical Creatures Bible by Rosen, 2009;
Gremlin by Rosalind Dease from The Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts by Barber & Riches, 1971.]

June 11, 2019

Three Ways to Look at Churches of Rome

        Here are a few of the wood block illustrations from Andrea Palladio’s The Antiquities of Rome.  This was one of two volumes of guides that Palladio wrote in the mid-sixteenth century about the churches and other antiquities of Rome, and was part of his efforts to popularize classical architecture - something he did sufficiently well to be hailed as one of the most influential architects in the history of Western culture.  The illustrations are credited to Gieronimo Francino, but it’s not always clear what this means in a Renaissance book.  Does it mean he drew the sketches?  That he carved the wood blocks?  Or that he was the printer/publisher?  (See this post on the Nuremberg Chronicle for an overview of Renaissance wood block printmaking.)
        Looking at these illustrations, the first thing to keep in mind is that they were probably not conceived of as being art in their own right, but rather as being illustrations equivalent to those in a text book or guide book of some sort today.  Whoever carved the blocks was not taking advantage of the unique possibilities of relief printmaking, but was simply attempting to reproduce a line drawing.  That said, I do find them pleasing.  The first image is the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.  (This tower is still standing, but it has a facade new since Palladio's time.  He probably would have liked it.)  This is a workmanlike little print with attractive details of windows and column capitals, and the charm of not-quite-right perspective.
        For the church of San Pietro Montorio, our illustration shows the Tempietto, a small tomb in the courtyard built in the early sixteenth century to enormous acclaim.  I’ve included here the illustration of it from The Antiquities, as well as an illustration of it from Palladio’s earlier more acclaimed and scholarly work of architecture.  A comparison of the two indicates how much rougher and less detailed is the one from the guide.  Clearly Palladio had spared no expense in the four books of architecture that were to secure his reputation, while his guide to the antiquities of Rome was his downmarket work for, comparatively speaking, the masses.  Personally, I tend to prefer the less careful work, because it has a little more hand-made charm, although I admit that it would be less useful for architectural analysis.
        For a final style comparison, we’ll look at the church of Santa Maria Rotunda, better known as the Pantheon.  The Pantheon is a remarkable building, completed around 126 CE, one of the best-preserved of all ancient Roman buildings, with the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, and converted into a Christian church in 609 CE.  In this case, I find Gieronimo Francino’s illustration of the Pantheon to be a pleasing enough little block print, until you recall that, while a reasonably accurate depiction of the exterior, it portrays absolutely nothing of what
makes the Pantheon special.  This illustration gives no hint about the incredible interior space, or the light that has been considered divine for nearly two thousand years.  So I give here also my own block print depicting the Pantheon, to illustrate some of the differences in how artists have come to think about relief printmaking since Palladio and Francino’s time.  First of all, mine is attempting to be aesthetic rather than didactic.  Then, where Francino’s Pantheon is placed neatly in the middle of a frame, mine is cropped into a mere slice of a view (roughly the view from the doorway), and is asymmetrical.  Finally, Francino uses only black lines on white background, just like the drawing which he was reproducing, while I use some black on white, but other areas with white on black, and still other areas where the black and white are more equal.  Francino is trying to show walls and stones, while I am trying to show light.

[Pictures: La Chiesa de Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, wood block print by Gieronimo Francino from L’Antichita Di Roma by Andrea Paladio, 1588;
The Tempietto of La Chiesa di San Pietro Montorio, wood block print by Francino, 1588;
Tempietto, wood block print from Quattro Libri dell’Architettura by Palladio, 1570;
Pantheon, Tempio di Santa Maria Rotunda, wood block print by Francino, 1588 (Images from Yale Beinecke Library);
Pantheon, Rome, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

June 7, 2019


        The Land of Cockaigne is a mythical place in European legend.  It is a land of plenty where everyone lives in luxury and ease, but it’s not quite accurate to call it a utopia.  The thing that makes Cockaigne different compared with, say, Shangri-La or other pure paradises, is that Cockaigne is satirical, topsy-turvy, excessive, usually humorous, and always irreverent.  Its plenty is gluttony and its ease is sloth.  According to one 13th century French poem, “the houses were made of barley sugar and cakes, the streets were paved with pastry, and the shops supplied goods for nothing.”  In another 13th century song the rules of Cockaigne's priesthood include sleeping in and playing dice, and in Pieter Bruegel’s 1567 painting, a knight waits for a roasted pigeon to fly straight into his mouth.  In the story collected by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, “I saw a plough ploughing without horse or cow… sweet honey flowed like water… I saw two mice consecrating a bishop… Then a snail came running up and killed two furious lions.”
        Descriptions of Cockaigne appeared on the scene in monastic writings of the middle ages - after all, monasteries are where pretty much all writing was taking place.  In the 12th and 13th centuries a group of mostly young, university-educated clerics called Goliards were particularly known for their satirical poetry, criticizing many elements of church rule, as well as fantasizing about unlimited food, drink, and sex.  In a world that could be unrelentingly harsh for the poor in Europe, it’s not surprising that their fantasies should feature not only exaggerated luxury for humorous effect, but also criticism of the rich and powerful people who weren’t giving them much cause for affection.  However, it’s hard to know whether tales of Cockaigne were prevalent among peasants, because the only records we have are those of the literate minorities who could actually make records.
        In any case, it’s clear that Cockaigne was never believed to be a real place or even a mythical place representing philosophical, cultural or religious beliefs.  It is, quite simply, a vehicle for wish-fulfillment, humor, and satire, and I imagine the rebellious young clergy, and perhaps the peasants, too, enjoyed themselves mightily inventing ever more ridiculous flights of fancy that could be seen in Cockaigne.  Over the centuries, however, its vision of self-indulgent sloth, gluttony, and topsy-turvey social behavior morphed from a commentary on the difficulties of life to a commentary on the evils of excess.  Bruegel’s painting, for example, makes Cockaigne look rather ugly and disgusting, and a poem by Hans Sachs in 1530 says “He who’s worthless and has no will to learn, will be a big success in this realm… He who is wasteful, wild and stupid, crude and senseless at every occasion, he will be made into a prince.”  But the pure wish-fulfillment thread remains in popular culture and can be seen echoed in the American folk song “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (recorded in 1928  but written in 1895) where there are cigarette trees, rivers of booze, and bawdy sex.  This song also illustrates a final cultural adaptation of the Land of Cockaigne: its transformation from a very adult satire to an amusement for children.  Many versions of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” have been rewritten to be aimed at children.
        Like so many fantasy locations, the Land of Cockaigne tells us something about our human preoccupations.  We always use fantasy to illustrate our messages.  When life is unending hardship, we imagine a land where pastries grow on trees and we never have to work.  When we’re frustrated with society’s restrictions, we imagine a land where no one can tell us what we can’t do, and where the upper classes are made the butt of all the jokes.  When lives get a little less grueling - or perhaps when the powers that be begin to subvert the original rebellion - we imagine the cautionary tale of a land where no one does their work and everyone eats junk food all day.  And when we see ourselves as being serious, scientific types, we imagine that lands of humorous fantasy are fit only for children.  Being the Good Little Girl that I am, I would not actually enjoy the Land of Cockaigne, and I think it’s worth considering that the more instant gratification we get with our apps and our technology, the more depressed and alienated we seem to become…  But then, I don't need a Cockaigne because my life is pretty darn good right here, and I can certainly sympathize with the fantasies of the creative medieval satirists who invented and explored Cockaigne as a contrast to their own lives.

Further reading: Fourteenth-century poem
        Poem by Hans Sachs

[Picture: Das Schlauraffenlandt, wood block print by Erhard Schön for the poem by Hans Sachs, 1530;
Luilekkerland, oil on panel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1567 (Images from Wikimedia Commons);
Land of Cockaigne, woodcut by Nancy Haver (Image from Zea Mays Printmaking).]

June 4, 2019

En Plein Air

        Painting “en plein air” just means painting outdoors, but it’s a fancy art term because it’s French.  Before the mid-nineteenth century, both logistics and tradition required that art be made properly in a studio, but with the invention of pre-made paint in tubes for portability, and the new interest in capturing natural light and various time and weather conditions and optical effects, artists began taking their easels outdoors and working en plein air.  Most of the earlier plein air artists were using oil paints, but nowadays it’s probably even more popular with watercolors.  At any rate, it certainly doesn’t have much to do with block printing!
        Back in April, Needham Open Studios held our annual plein air painting event to help advertise and build excitement for our Open Studios weekend.  We collaborate with a local farm/garden center and usually have artists working in shifts through the day, about three at a time in various areas around Volante Farms.  It’s been an enjoyable event, and I usually take a shift sitting at the information table, since I’m not a painter.  This year, however, a little confusion and miscommunication meant that one of the artists I thought would be painting thought that she would be sitting at the table, so that left me in the role of plein air artist!
        It was not as beautiful a day as we’ve had some years - a little chilly, a little windy, and looking as if it might be inclined to sprinkle - so we all set up in the large greenhouses instead of outdoors.  (I guess that makes it plein-ish air, but it was certainly natural light, at least.)  Anyway, I chose as my subject a handsome pot of mixed succulents, and spent my plein air shift just sketching it.  I had to fall back on stodgy old tradition and return to my studio to transfer the sketch to rubber, carve, and print the block.  So no, it really isn’t a proper plein air piece, but I think it’s about as close as you can get with block printing!

[Picture: AEGN at work, photo by M. Grundy, 2019;
Succulents, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019.]

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).)]