September 15, 2021

Flightless Birds

         We just had some block prints of birds printed in three dimensions so that they could soar (or at least dangle) in the air.  Today we have a selection of flightless birds.  Spanning more than 4 centuries and a range of styles, what these birds have in common is that they aren’t your typical fluttering flyers.
        We begin with the ostrich, and this wonderfully floofy example comes from the mid-sixteenth century, from Conrad Gesner’s Historia animalium.  I love how the feathers are a big pompom, going in every direction and with no indication of wings at all.  A fun detail for those interested in the science is that this ostrich appears to have external ears.  A fun detail for those interested in the printmaking is that the tail feathers are a little crushed down at their tips in order to fit them onto the wood block.
        The ostrich and the emu have traded in flight in favor of running.  The emu hails from Australia, as does this depiction of it.  Emus' feathers are not as fluffy as ostriches’ (which was probably lucky for them, as they didn’t get put on hats), but otherwise the two birds are everyone’s favorite example of convergent evolution.  My favorite thing about this piece by Gladys Reynell is the two little emu chicks scurrying along with their attractive stripes.
        The penguin, by contrast, has traded in flight in favor of swimming, and this piece by Rick Allen is a great evocation of the penguin’s streamlined athleticism when underwater.  I love the texture of the swoosh and the bubbles.
        As for the dodo and the kiwi, they traded in flight for having no predators, which was great, until the predators showed up.  We all know the sad fate of the dodo, but this linocut is not sad at all.  It’s a bright, cheerful, fun bird, with bright, cheerful, fun feathers in a variety of patterns and colors.  It looks like Richard Bawden used three blocks in making this print: the background, the leaves, and the bird.  The background and bird were then each inked with multiple colors on a single block.
        We end with one of my favorite artists depicting one of my favorite birds.  Jacques Hnizdovsky has perhaps made his kiwi a bit too tidy - Hnizdovsky does incredibly controlled, geometrically precise prints, while kiwis tend to be a bit like messy mops - but he has captured beautifully the kiwi’s benevolent expression 
and magnificent whiskers.
        Sure, we humans tend to idolize and long for flight, but as far as these birds are concerned, who needs it?



[Pictures: De Struthocamelo, wood block print from Historia animalium by Conrad Gesner, c 1555 (Image from Smithsonian Magazine);

Diving Penguin, wood engraving by Rick Allen (Image from Kenspeckle Letterpress);

Emu, linocut by Gladys Reynell, early 20th century (Image from Art Gallery New South Wales);

Dodo, linocut by Richard Bawden (Image from Bankside Gallery);

Kiwi, woodcut by Jacques Hnizdovsky, 1975 (Image from WorthPoint).]

September 10, 2021

The Sci Fi Adventures of Alexander the Great

         I know of Alexander the Great as a Macedonian king from the third century BCE, who spent his life on military campaigns, conquering enough people to amass one of the largest empires in history.  But apparently he was actually far more interesting than that.  Apparently he was involved in all manner of fantasy and science fiction exploits.  Alexander himself encouraged legends about his prowess, including the episode in Cilicia in which the sea itself drew back in respect and adoration of him.  After his death, ever more 
interesting episodes of his life were discovered and written in numerous versions of the Alexander Romance, which was wildly popular from the 3rd through 16th centuries CE, in the literature of Europe, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Persia, Ethiopia, and more.
        Among Alexander’s fantastical adventures are encounters with the usual giant wild men, beasts with 5 or 6 eyes and feet, headless men with their faces on their chests, dragons, three-horned beasts, a roc, and lobsters as big as ships.  He also discovered fish that cooked themselves in cold water, and birds that emitted fire when touched, among other wonders.  Pretty much everything he encountered, he battled, because that’s his thing.  However, he also participated in a couple of cool sci fi adventures that were very popular in the medieval era.
        After pursuing the giant lobster/crab, and discovering a number of magnificent pearls, Alexander decides to explore the depths of the ocean.  He has a large barrel made of glass, and in it he is lowered on chains to the ocean floor.  He takes with him an astrologer for guidance, lamps to see with, a cock to tell the time, and a cat to function (for some reason that no one can satisfactorily explain) as an air purifying device.  The bottom of the barrel has a hatch so that Alexander 
can collect any pearls or other 
treasures he might find on the sea bed.  In one version of the tale, the barrel is swallowed by a giant fish which then drags around the four ships at the tops of the chains until eventually it spits up the barrel on shore.  (In another version Alexander is shocked - shocked, I tell you! - to discover that big fish eat little fish, and thus the world is damned.  Never mind that he’s built his life on big men slaughtering little people.)  What makes this story sci fi, though, is that while the “scientific” solutions are utterly absurd, the author has, in fact, given some real though to what would be necessary for a deep-sea dive, including the idea that it would be dark, there would be no way to tell time, and the air in the barrel would need to be purified.
        In another adventure, Alexander decides to discover where the earth ends and the sky slopes down to meet the edge.  He orders his men to catch two (or in some versions, as many as 16!) griffins that were scavenging his army’s dead horses.  He makes a basket or structure large enough to ride in, yokes the griffins to it, and then holds meat on a long pole just out of the griffins’ reach above.  They fly up trying to catch the meat, which of course stays just beyond their reach, so they keep flying up and up, carrying Alexander in his basket with them.  He finds the upper air cold, and meets a winged man who tells him to return to earth, which is now so distant as to appear like a small disc encoiled by a snake, which is the ocean encircling the earth.  So Alexander points the meat-spear down toward the distant disc, and the griffins fly down after it, and he returns once again, exhausted but safe.
        Although simple diving bells were actually known in the ancient world, I never heard that griffin-powered flight had been attempted before Alexander.  As a man who just goes around battling everything he meets, he’s not of any interest to me, but as a man with an enquiring mind, a creative and adventuresome spirit, and the resources both mundane and magical to support his ideas, he becomes much more fun!


[Pictures: Alexander lowered into the sea, illumination of Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, fol.77v, c 1420 (Image from the British Library);

Isfandiyar Slays a Dragon, illumination of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, c 1530 (image from The Met); 

Alexander fighting with dragons, illumination from Roman de Alexandre, fol.21r, 1444-1445 (Image from the British Library);

Battle with a three-horned beast, illumination of Le Livre … Alixandre, fol.51v, c 1420 (Image from the British Library);

Alexander is Lowered into the Sea, illumination from a Khamsa of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, 1597-98 (Image from The Met); 

Alexander lowered into the sea, illumination from Romance of Alexander, before 1400 (Image from Bodleian Libraries);

Alexander being lowered into the sea, illumination from Roman de Alexandre, fol.20v, 1444-1445 (Image from the British Library);

Alexander carried aloft by griffins, illumination of Le Livre … Alixandre, p76v, c 1420 (Image from the British Library);

Alexander traveling in the air, relief from San Marco Basilica, Venice, probably 10th or 11th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Alexander being carried up by griffins, illumination from Roman de Alexandre, fol.20v, 1444-1445 (Image from the British Library).]

September 7, 2021

Farmer's Birds

         Here’s a fun and interesting use of relief printing!  Bridget Farmer (UK/Australia) makes little three-dimensional models of birds by printing on cut plywood.  Each bird has two pieces, and each piece has two sides, so the bird is depicted from all directions.  Most are printed in multiple colors.  They each have a loop on top so that they can be hung to dangle in the air.  Farmer uses linoleum blocks to carve her designs with simplicity but accuracy.  She captures textures, patterns, and colors without losing the look of carving.  For example, I like the marks of carving on the belly of the third bird.
        Farmer primarily does etchings, in a very loose, sketchy style, but always Australian birds.  It’s always interesting to me when someone concentrates so deeply on a single subject.  I love birds — but I love everything else, as well!  It’s also interesting to see how her depiction of a bird is changed depending on her medium, so I’ve included one of her etchings for comparison.  But of course I like her relief-printed bird “mobiles” best.
        This technique got me thinking that I might be able to adapt the idea for my classes.  I’m always looking for new projects, and especially projects with a collaborative element so that kids print multiples to share with each other.  Butterfly designs could be made in a single piece instead of two, folded to give dimensionality, and made into mobiles including all the students’ different designs…  Well, I’ll certainly share it here if I ever do something like that with one of my classes, but in the meantime, I do like Farmer’s birds!


[Pictures: Welcome Swallow, lino printing on plywood by Bridget Farmer;

Striated Pardalote, lino printing on plywood by Farmer, and dry point etching by Farmer;

Superb Fairy Wren, lino printing on plywood by Farmer (All images from Bridget Farmer Printmaker).]

September 1, 2021

Baba Yaga Village

         Baba Yaga is a fascinating magical figure from Slavic mythology.  The easiest description is to say that she’s a witch, and that certainly gets you into the right ballpark, but she has some interesting and unusual features.  Her appearance is witchy enough: an old crone, hideously ugly and ferocious-looking, bony-legged and with a long nose.  Often she is a cannibal or otherwise murderous, and she is the villain of plenty of folktales.  On the other hand, sometimes she functions more as a wise woman or prophetess, offering assistance and advice to questing heroes.  Sometimes she’s ambiguous, or both helpful and harmful in the same story.  In some folktales there are actually three Baba Yagas, sisters, each of whom is more knowledgeable - and fiercer - than the last.
        My favorite thing about Baba Yaga is her wonderfully distinctive house, which is perched atop a pair of chicken legs!  She often has an unusual vehicle, too: a mortar and pestle in which she can fly around, thumping the ground as she goes.  For some time I had wanted to do a block print of the chicken-footed house, which is just such a fun idea.  There were a couple of directions this went in my mind.  First, if there were multiple Baba Yagas, then perhaps their family included not only sisters, but generations.  Perhaps there might be a village of Baba Yagas, grandmothers and granddaughters.  So now I had three Old Baba Yagas, three young Baba Yagas-to-be, and three chicken-legged houses.  These houses, although clearly small, would be more like “cottages” than “huts,” well cared-for and clearly magical.  In designing these I researched the izba, a traditional Slavic wooden cottage, which often has wonderful carved and painted decoration.  I had a lot of fun making the different designs of my three Baba Yaga houses.
        I placed this tiny village in the midst of a dark forest, as befits Baba Yaga’s association with wild nature, and added the deer as a further symbol of their connection with wildlife.  I also gave them plenty of chickens, though.  And finally, I put a firebird above the little village, because magical folks need to stick together.
        The level of delicate carving needed to depict all these fine details was a challenge, and I had to push myself.  On the whole, I’m quite pleased with how it came out.  I also really like how the sky sets off the tops of the trees.  So, no, this does not illustrate any particular fairy tale, and I make no claims of “authenticity.”  Rather, it is my riff on those elements of the Baba Yaga mythology that most appealed to me and sparked my imagination.
        How would you like a house on chicken legs?  It sounds very useful, but I can’t help suspecting that if my house walked around I would have continuous motion sickness!


[It Takes a Flock, rubber block print by AEGN, 2021.]

August 27, 2021

Words of the Month - Everyday Words Are Misused Every Day

         Okay, this post might be more of a pet peeve than a scholarly article, but I am noticing an every-increasing inability among writers of English to understand when certain words are compounds, and when they remain separate.  Perhaps the most common and obtrusive of all is seen in posters and advertisements like the ones shown here.  In both these cases, Every Day should be written as two separate words, otherwise the motivational poster is actually urging you to present yourself as ordinary.

        Every day he wore his everyday suit.

        If you want to stand out, try these standout promotion ideas.

        Please sign up on the signup sheet.

        Make up your face with the best makeup.

        I just can’t catch up, so I’m always playing catch-up.

        He runs on and on, but the worst is that without punctuation, it’s all one big run-on sentence.

        It's fine to show off your skills, but don't be a show-off.

        I’d let the water out, but I can’t find an outlet.

        The rain still hasn’t let up.  It’s been raining for days without letup.

        Is it better to drop the ball or toss it up?  I don’t know; it’s really a toss-up.

        Any way you want to do it is fine, unless you’re just going to refuse to do it anyway.

        If you look at these examples, you can see a pattern.  Nouns with an adjective become adjectives or adverbs when they are compounds.  Any way is a noun but anyway is an adverb.  (Every day is usually used as an adverbial phrase, but it retains its noun.  It refers to frequency because it tells on what days something happens: every day.  Once smushed together into everyday, on the other hand, it is an adjective describing the ordinary quality of a thing or activity.)  Meanwhile, verbs with a preposition become nouns or adjectives when they are compounds.  Some of these compounds seem to be only a noun (letup, toss-up), and possibly some are used only as adjectives (although I can’t think of any off the top of my head), but many can be either: she’s a standout musician or that musician is a real standout; put on your makeup or don’t miss the makeup session for the missed class, or let's examine the make-up of the compound).
        So why does this matter?  Well, it probably doesn’t.  People seem to have no difficulty understanding each other, even when they use the incorrect forms of these words.  Moreover, language changes, and before much longer these forms may not even be “incorrect.”  This will not destroy civilization.  However, I enjoy noting the distinction because it sheds light on the English’s language’s versatility: how people can fool around with words and their function.  The spelling conventions that show some words written separately while others are written as compounds makes it clear how phrases got smushed together into single words so that they could be applied in new ways.  So I continue to be pedantic in my spelling, and I continue to be mildly irritated when I see these distinctions misunderstood or ignored.  As for the rest of you, write them any way you want.  Even if you do it wrong, people will understand you anyway.


[Pictures: Motivational poster found on Amazon;

Advertisement for Nora Dental Associates (and to make matters, worse, while pushing "every day" together, they've broken "coffee-stained" apart.  Sigh.]

August 23, 2021

Wood Blocks by Balán

         Américo Abraham Balán (Ukraine/Argentina, 1915-1986) worked in a broad diversity of media, from painting to writing, from set design to caricature.  Of course it’s his wood block prints that I have for you today.  His images seem to carry heavy symbolism, although I don’t know of what!  Some seem downright surrealist, as the last piece shown here.  But in other cases it’s simply the odd juxtapositions of people, or their distorted positions or expressions that seem like they must have some deep significance.
        In the first piece here, the crowd of human figures fit into the space in all directions, some crouched or distorted in order to fit, while others are cropped and show only in part.  Some look more like abstract sculptures than people.  Why are these people arranged is this way?  I don’t know, but it’s definitely an interesting choice for composition.
        These two men share a few interesting features.  First, their faces look as if they’re carved from blocks of wood.  They are carved into wood, of course, but I mean that the block prints look like portraits of wooden sculptures rather than portraits of living humans.  Secondly, the anatomy is extremely stylized, with odd and awkward proportions and positions.  Thirdly, they share with many of Balán’s pieces the characteristic of going right up to the edges of the block, and even being cropped and constrained by the block’s dimensions.  This is another unusual and interesting choice for composition.
        The fourth piece shares with the third another characteristic.  While all of Balán’s pieces have very roughly carved out backgrounds, these two include seemingly random chunks of the backgrounds that simply aren’t carved out at all.  I am curious about how much this was a deliberately planned choice and how much this is the result of Balán being spontaneous and expressionistic with his carving.  This is my favorite of today’s pieces, with the enormous man leaning over to pet the tiny dog.  This man, like some of the women in the first piece above, has a huge crouched body with disproportionately tiny head and feet.  They look as if they would burst right out of their blocks if they tried to stand up straight.
        I haven’t been able to find much information about the individual pieces.  Many seem to be untitled, and most are posted on the internet without dates or any other specifics.  They all seem to be from the mid-twentieth century, and more than that I can’t say.  
On the whole I don’t love these - they’re a little too distorted for my taste - but they are definitely interesting, and I do enjoy that they’re a little unusual.  Do you like them?


[Pictures: Untitled, wood block print by Américo Abraham Balán, 1964;

3 wood block prints of men by Balán, unknown date;

Untitled, wood block print by Balán, 1964;

alarm clock woman, wood block print by Balán, unknown date;

(Images from RISD and Taringa).]

August 18, 2021

Singing on the Moon

         Today’s poem comes from Ted Hughes (UK, 1930-1998), one of the most famous, lauded, and controversial poets of the twentieth century.  In addition to all his critically-acclaimed and serious work about nature red in tooth and claw, however, he wrote quite a bit for children, including a whole series of poems inspired by the moon.


Singing on the moon seems precarious.

Hum the slightest air

And some moon-monster sails up and perches to stare.

These monsters are moonily various.


If you sing in your bath

Risks are one of these monster entities

Will come crash through the wall and with dusty eyes

Perch on the taps to stare, as if in wrath.


The tenor who practices on a volcano side

Sees eyes rising over the crater rim

To fix their incredulity on him—

There is no place on the moon where a singer can hide


And not raise some such being face to face.

But do not be alarmed — their seeming fury

Comes from their passion for music being so fiery.

So if you just sing from your heart, and stay in your place,


At your song’s end the monster will cry out madly

And fling down money, probably far more than you can spend,

And kiss your shoe with his horrific front-end,

Then shudder away with cries of rapture diminishing sadly.


        This poem illustrates the odd fact that even though it rhymes, its lack of rhythm obscures the rhymes so that it sounds like plain free verse.  I don’t like that!  However, I do very much like the idea of moon-monsters so passionate about music that you can’t sing a note without having them appear.  This would be a fun one to illustrate, with its moonily various monsters, all enraptured by song.  (The book in which the poem was originally published was illustrated by Leonard Baskin, but I can’t find an illustration of this particular poem.)
        Apparently in space someone can hear you sing.  What would you sing to the moon-monsters?


[Pictures: Two illustrations by uncredited artists from The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells, 1901 (Image from Library of Congress);

Lunar Animals, illustration for the New York Sun article on the Great Moon Hoax, by Benjamin Henry Day, 1835 (Image from Library of Congress).]

August 13, 2021

Manual of Landscape Painting

         Jiezi yuan hua zhuan, Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, is a manual for traditional landscape painting published in China in 1679.  It had five parts, covering general principles, trees, hills and stones, people and houses, and selected examples of great works.  Okay, so why am I telling you about a painting manual when this is a blog about printmaking?  Well, because the book itself was printed, of course, and is an early example of color printing in China.  
        Like most early wood block prints from both Asia and Europe, printmaking is being used here as a method of reproducing another medium, rather than as a medium in its own right.  The washes of transparent ink are printed so as to look as if they were painted on with a brush, and the varying widths of the black lines are also imitating the effect of brushwork.  However, despite my muttered prejudices about not taking advantage of the unique and beautiful characteristics of relief printing, this is a lovely little piece.  The rocks are dramatic, yet shaded in soothing tones, the little buildings give scale, but don’t detract from the sense of nature, and the trees show a pleasing variety of trunks and leaves.
        Would you like to be able to paint trees like this yourself?  Simply study part two of this handy painting manual, and you will soon master the necessary skills.  Here’s a page from that second section, with several different representative styles of leaves and branches.  This is a much later edition, and this page, at least, doesn’t have the polychrome inking of the lavish painting reproduction.Since I can’t read the instructions that go along with the illustrations, I don’t know what the authors are saying about how to make these happy little trees, but I do like the different patterns, as well as the suggestion of scale in the three clumps of trees on the right: different levels of detail for differences in distance.  I’m sure I could do worse than to study this myself, next time I need some inspiration for a block print including elements of landscape.


[Pictures: A page from the Jie Zi Yuan, polychrome woodblock print of the original painting by Qing Ji, 1679 (Image from The Met Museum);

Pages of leaves and trees from Mustard Seed Garden, woodblock printed book, 1782 (Image from Brooklyn Museum).]

August 9, 2021

Wooden Trolls

         Here’s another cool thing I recently learned about from a friend.  These are huge wooden sculptures of trolls by Thomas Dambo (Denmark, b. 1979).  Made entirely of scrap and reclaimed wood, and built by teams of volunteers along with Dambo, the sculptures are placed so that they interact with their environments, as this one holding onto the tree trunk.  The sculptures are given names and little back stories, and often come in sets that go together in a theme.  The group I heard about from my friend is “The Guardians of the Seeds,” and consists of six trolls each representing a part of a tree.  Here is Roskva, who stands for the tree trunks.  These are at the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden.
        Sometimes the trolls are hidden away so that people have to search for them or come upon them unexpectedly, while other times they’re placed in more public areas.  Either way, people are encouraged to interact with them, from walking around to climbing on them.  You can see how this fierce troll is built so that people simply can’t resist the photo opportunity of being seized.  Unlike this one, though, the majority of Dambo’s trolls are friendly.  Another example holds a swing for children in a city in Denmark.  Although Dambo has built sculptures all over the world, not surprisingly the most trolls are in Dambo’s native Denmark.
          These trolls are basically humanoid, but occasionally have tails or other monstrous features.  They are often furred with shingles, or given crazy hair and beards with natural twigs and branches.  Their faces are wonderfully expressive, with faceted features built up out of 
hundreds of planes of wood.  Their hands and feet, too, are carefully built up like elaborate boxes complete with soles and finger- and toenails.  Like the stereotypical idea of trolls in English literature, they are often squat, with big noses, dragging arms, and big hands and feet — but not always.  Some of Dambo’s trolls are more gracefully-limbed or pert-nosed instead.  I really like this fishing troll, who has long legs, and ears more like an animal.  Still, I confess to a general preference for the more “traditional” trolls.
        Of course, how traditional is a troll made of wood, anyway?  Although they are denizens of forests, they are generally held to be creatures of stone rather than wood.  But Dambo has recast his trolls with a distinctly tree-hugging message!  With their recycled construction, they’re reminding us that we can salvage and reuse what we already have, rather than continually using up new resources.  With their placements in nature, they draw attention to the trees and parks around them.  And with their names and back-stories they often have an explicit environmental message, as well.  Some of Dambo’s trolls are quite angry at humans for their environmental destruction.  Still, I like the ones that are more willing to extend a hand to us humans, such as these two.  The first holds out cupped hands into which people can climb, and the second stretches out his arm to make a bridge over a little stream.
        I’m sorry I won’t be going up to Maine to see some of these trolls in person, but perhaps someday I will encounter one in the wild!


[Pictures: Roskva (Guardians of the Seeds), recycled wood sculpture by Thomas Dambo, 2021 (Image from Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens)

Snorra of Suwannee, sculpture by Dambo, 2015 (Image from Thomas Dambo);

Troels the Troll, sculpture by Dambo, 2015 (Image from Thomas Dambo);

Runde Rie (Den Kæmpestore Troldefolkefest), sculpture by Dambo, c. 2020;

Bjarka Cirkelsten (Den Kæmpestore Troldefolkefest), sculpture by Dambo, c. 2020 (Images from Thomas Dambo);

Teddy Friendly (The Six Forgotten Giants), sculpture by Dambo, 2016 (Image from Thomas Dambo).]