January 21, 2022

Here's Something Cool: Make Your Own

         Sometimes I find fun stuff that is not exactly the subject of this blog, yet seems tangentially related - and certainly worth sharing.  Such posts are what the “cool thing” label in the sidebar represents.
        Today’s cool thing is two fun little ways to waste time on-line.  The first involves seventeenth-century copper engravings by Matthäus Merian (father of the famous Maria Sibylla Merian, about whom you can read a previous post).  Engravings that Merian made for works of natural history by Jan Jonston are cut up and recombined chimera-style by the Hybridizer, allowing you to create all manner of intriguing new beasties.  There is a delightfully wide variety of creatures including mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, and sea creatures.  There is also the added benefit that some of the animals are depicted a little oddly in the first place, making your made-up creatures even sillier.  Which one is your favorite?
        The second toy is the Historic Tale Construction Kit featuring elements from the Bayeux tapestry.  Combine and recombine all sorts of people and things in the iconic medieval embroidery style, and use them to tell your own stories or illustrate your own memes.  Its subjects are limited by the fact that the Bayeux tapestry itself is of limited subject matter, but with all the options for editing, the determined creator could no doubt depict just about anything.  What message do you think needs to be shared medieval-needlework-style?
        Allow me to encourage you to take a little break, let your imagination wander, and have some fun being as silly as you need to be to reclaim some sanity.

[Pictures: Assorted creations made on the Hybridizer and the Historic Tale Construction Kit.]

January 17, 2022

Equality and Justice

        Every year, the day that we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and message should be a reminder that we are still woefully far from equality and justice, but at the same time, we still hope for it, and work for it, and dream of it, and demand it.  Here are a few block prints holding up that theme.
        First is “The Dreamer” by Steve A. Prince (USA).  I don’t have a lot of information about this particular piece, but I think King’s weariness makes a good reminder from so many of the images that show him looking strong and indomitable.  He was both.  And we all can be both, too.  Prince often makes epically large woodcuts, but the scale of the gouge marks in this image implies that it’s pretty small.  Nevertheless, it’s beautifully detailed.
        I don’t love today’s second portrait of King nearly as much, but I figured I’d share it anyway, because maybe you find it especially evocative and inspirational!   By Mervin Jules (USA, 1912-1994) it was made in the mid-to-late 1960s.  (Relief block prints of King are not as common as screen prints.  After all, it was the 60s…)
        Finally, a linocut not of King but of an archetypal African American woman by Elizabeth Catlett (USA/Mexico, 1915-2012).  
The title of the piece is what makes it especially appropriate to feature today: My right is a future of equality with other Americans.
        I’ll also direct you to a couple of previous posts with relevant images you may find inspiring: Keep Dreaming, and Bryan’s Songs.  If each of us can just keep plugging away the best we can at this whole issue of equality, justice, and loving our neighbors, we’ll get there eventually.

[Pictures: The Dreamer, wood block print by Steve A. Prince (Image from Atlanta Printmakers Studio);

Martin Luther King Jr., woodcut by Mervin Jules, c 1936-8 (Image from Amon Carter Museum of American Art);

My right is a future of equality with other Americans, color linocut by Elizabeth Catlett, 1947/1989 (Image from National Museum of African American History and Culture).]

January 12, 2022

On Selecting an Excerpt to Read

         It’s happening again: events that had been scheduled and planned and eagerly awaited are being cancelled due to the new covid surge.  This is discouraging.  (Yes, of course it’s not as discouraging as hospitalizations and death are, but still, it is certainly a disappointment.)  Once again, however, we are trying to make do with on-line events, and I have two on-line author readings coming up in the next week.  I will duly plug them because you, too, probably have need of some fabulous on-line events in these days of staying at home as much as possible.  Today, however, I’ll also share a few thoughts about some of the considerations involved in selecting passages to read at author events.
        • The first and least-negotiable factor is the time frame.  Each event has its own requirements depending on its format and the number of authors.  I’ve participated in readings that had to be under 4 minutes, all the way up to readings where I have 20 minutes to share.  Both of my upcoming events are in the 7-8 minute range, which is roughly the equivalent of 4 pages from a book.
        • The second decision is which book to read from.  Sometimes this is determined by outside factors, such as the theme of the reading.  My event on January 18 has a New England theme, so I’m planning to read from the one of my books (The Extraordinary Book of Doors) that has scenes explicitly set in the Boston area.  Or, for example, when my bestiary was first released I featured it at all my readings because it was fresh and new.
        • So I’ve decided which book I want to share, and I know how long a scene I get to share, and now I have to decide which scene.  This is where it gets really knotty.
               1. You want to pick a scene that gives an accurate idea of what the book is like.  If your book is deep and tragic in tone, you probably don’t want to share the one scene that’s slapstick farce.  Likewise, you want to share a scene featuring someone the book is really about, rather than a scene that focusses on a minor character that the reader will never see much more of.  In other words, if someone goes on to read the rest of your book, they should feel that it was as your reading had represented it.
               2. You want to pick a scene that the audience can drop into without too much confusion.  It’s common to give a little intro to your reading, such as “In this scene Anneke the scullery maid has just discovered that her laundry basket is sentient, and now the two of them are hiding in a wardrobe and eavesdropping on a conversation between the evil Emperor Kolek and his chief advisor Rompollion.”  Then you can start dropping names and the audience (hopefully) will have enough orientation to get the hang of things.  However, there’s a limit to how much explanation you want to give, so it’s probably best to select a scene with only a few characters, and also one that doesn’t make too much reference to things that have happened earlier in the story.  This ends up meaning that the scene you choose will almost always have to be from the first half of a book, because by the time you’re in the second half there’s usually already too much water under the bridge.
               3. You want to pick a scene that stands on its own with at least a little bit of shape to it.  It should have its own beginning, middle, and stopping place.  Often it’s very effective if the stopping place is a dramatic mid-scene cliffhanger leaving the audience wanting more, but that doesn’t mean that you can just stop randomly whenever your allotted time runs out.  You need to pick an ending place with an eye to effect, whether that’s the cliffhanger or the startling revelation or the note of satisfying closure.
        • With all these considerations to juggle, it can actually be extremely difficult to pick the perfect scene for a reading, and for several of my books I have one excerpt that I think works the best… which makes it even harder when you add one more consideration: sometimes you have to pick a different scene because there may be audience overlap with a prior reading and you want to share something new and different every time.
        For the New England reading I thought I’d share one of those Boston-area scenes… But after having read through my options a couple of times, I’m not sure that any of those particular scenes works very well with all the other considerations I’ve laid out above.  Mostly they’re close to the end of the book and seem to require far too much background explanation.  So, what will I be reading at these two upcoming events?  I haven’t decided yet!  But I can confidently assert that, my own dithering aside, they will be really enjoyable events, and if you like sci fi and/or fantasy, you should definitely join us on zoom!
        Friday, January 14, 2022, 7:00pm (EST) - Broad Universe Not-Arisia Rapid Fire Reading:  This is the reading that is taking place on zoom because Arisia, the convention at which it was originally scheduled to take place in person, was cancelled.  So you won’t get chocolate thrown to the audience as often happens at Broad Universe Rapid Fire Readings, but you’ll still get to hear excerpts from all the amazing books.  
     Tuesday, January 18, 2022, 7:00pm (EST) - Strong Women-Strange Worlds and the Thayer Public Library of Braintree MA:  This is a special edition of our QuickReads, featuring New England authors of sci fi and fantasy.  

January 7, 2022

Snow Scenes

        Every year when we have a nice snowfall I write a post with a theme of snow scenes.  And I never run out of pieces to share, because block printmakers do seem to love snow scenes!  Perhaps it should not come as any surprise; after all, snow, like the most basic relief prints, reduces the world to black and white.
        First is a wood engraving, which allows lots of very fine detail, so that we see not only every snow-covered twig on every tree, but even the reflections of all those snowy twigs.  I like the sky of such fine little gouges that it reads grey, and the twigs show up beautifully against it.  I’ve featured lots of Herbert Pullinger’s work before, because I love it.  You can read a whole post about him here, and see another of his winter scenes here.
        Next up is a view by Utagawa Hiroshige, another artist who made lots of views of snowy scenes.  (You can see a previously posted one at the second link above.)  This piece is interesting because it has an extra technique added to the traditional block printing: the scattered snowflakes were printed through a stencil.  The print includes one verse of poetry by Taihaidô Nomimasu:

   The snow covers the signs warning against

   Breaking the cherry branches,

   And also breaks them itself.

Cherry trees are such an iconic and stereotypical symbol of spring that it’s fun to see them in a wintry scene.
        I conclude with a piece called “White Christmas,” because in my house we’re celebrating Christmas Part II tomorrow with family that couldn’t be with us on December 25.  This is another wood engraving, and I like the way the super-fine lines have been used to shade the sky, contrasted with the simplicity of the tiny buildings.  Cheffetz did a whole calendar of small prints, and there’s more information here, where I showed a few of his spring pieces.
        I will have to figure out when to get to the supermarket, but other than that, I’m looking forward to staying cozy in our snowy refuge.

[Pictures: Rittenhouse Town, wood engraving by Herbert Pullinger, c.1950 (Image from PAFA);

Evening snow at Asuka hill, color woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige, c.1837 (Image from The Fitzwilliam Museum);

White Christmas from “A New England Calendar,” wood engraving by Asa Cheffetz, 1934 (Image from Art Institute Chicago.)]

January 3, 2022

Brazilian Dragons

         José Francisco Borges (Brazil, b. 1935) is considered one of the foremost woodcut artists in Brazil, and he got his start making cover designs for cordel literature (about which you can read a previous post here).  His editions are not limited and vary widely because he continues to print popular images repeatedly, as well as modifying or recarving blocks over time.  He also prints blocks in both black and white and color.  He is a definitely a folk artist, despite having been embraced by the art world.  Perhaps because of his cordel roots, Borges gives all his work a banner across the bottom with the title and his name.
        His work depicts a wide variety of subject matter, but today I’m sharing a sampling of his fantastical creatures.  In addition to lots of depictions of the devil (my favorite title is “The Woman who Put the Devil in a Bottle”), and mermaids, Borges loves to depict dragons.  His dragons, however, are not generally very close to the typical modern western version I imagine.  Some are more humanoid, some are called “serpents,” and relatively few have wings.  All are bold and spiky and inclined to a certain lumpiness.
        I had trouble limiting myself when there were so many I liked, so I’ll just say a brief word about each of these.  The two block prints at the top show how Borges revisits designs.  My assumption is that the top version was first, and the second version is reversed because it was copied onto a wood block from the first (and simplified along the way.)  The top right dragon is especially delightful to me!
        Next up is a very unusual serpent.  It has only hind legs and no wings.  Although I always tend to be inclined toward black and white, in this piece it’s definitely the color that makes it pop.  I love the pattern on the snaky body.  Then the next dragon isn’t snaky or even very reptilian at all.  It almost seems more like a monstrous monkey with its upright posture and hairy texture.  But all the spikes and horns and that arrow-tipped nose ensure that it’s something fantastical.
        The next piece is in some ways the most classic dragon, especially when you look back a few hundred years to when legless dragons were more common.  I love its coils and spikes.  It’s followed by a monster with 7 unique heads, which puts the Lycian chimaera to shame.  Not only does this have goat and snake heads, but also lizard, chicken, bull, human, and maybe another goat.  Plus it’s got wings like leaves and a tail like a spatula!
        And then comes the lumpiest dragon of all, with more carefully carved scales than any of the others, spikes everywhere, and three stalks on its head that I would love to think are extra eyes (although I’m guessing Borges probably didn’t intend that).  I also give you a creature entitled “frog,” but clearly no ordinary, everyday frog!  And finally an interesting sun-faced monster.  Living in the northeast in January, I think of the sun as a benevolent and welcome creature, but in the Sertão region of Brazil where droughts are common and deadly, it is seen as a monster.
        What do you think of these dragons, serpents, and monsters?  I certainly wouldn’t want to meet any of them in real life, but in block print form they really cheer me up!

[Pictures: The Fight of the Dragons, two versions, wood block prints by José Francisco Borges, second version dated 2020 (Images from Pinterest and Cestarias Regio);

Fight Between the Jaguar and the Snake, wood block print by Borges, 2003 (Image from Arte Popular do Brasil);

The Dragon, wood block print by Borges, 2005 (Image from Indigo Arts Gallery);

The Serpent, wood block print by Borges, 2003 (Image from Arte Popular do Brasil);

Beast of 7 Heads, wood block print by Borges (Image from Mirabile);

The Dragon and the Monkey, wood block print by Borges, 1994 (Image from Indigo Arts Gallery);

The Frog, wood block print by Borges (Image from flickr Galeria de Gravura);

The Monster of the Sertão, wood block print by Borges (Image from Mariposa).]

December 29, 2021

Words of the Month - From the Cruet

         Some of our oldest, most basic foods can be found in salad dressing, including oil and vinegar.  So where do we get these words?  Their origins are more interesting than you might expect for such ordinary words.

oil - Once upon a time all oil was olive oil.  The word oil derives (by way of French, by way of Latin) from the Greek elaion meaning “olive tree.”  Not until after about 1300 did the (Middle) English word begin to expand its meaning to include other fatty or greasy liquids.

vinegar - Once upon a time all vinegar was wine vinegar.  You can see the wine right there in the word: vin-.  Our word equals “wine + sour” in Old French, ultimately from Latin (although the actual Latin word for vinegar is vinum acetum.)  Oddly, the -egar part of the word is the same as the word eager, which originally meant “strenuous, ardent, fierce,” because the Old French had picked up on the other connotations of the Latin word that meant “sharp, piercing, ardent, zealous” as well as “sour.”

- We’ve got more wine in the mustard, which derives (again by way of Old French) from Latin mustum meaning “new wine,” because the condiment was originally made by mixing the crushed seeds with wine.  From the condiment named after the wine, the word was applied to the seeds (late 13th c) and eventually to the plant (mid 14th c).  The color meaning came much later - mid 19th c.  On a fun side note, Dijon mustard is of course named for the city of Dijon in France, but that city’s name derives from the Latin name Divius, meaning “divine.”

salad - The salad itself was once upon a time vegetables seasoned with brine, and the word derives from Latin for “salted.”  The slaw that might be a particular type of salad comes from the same root, but by way of Dutch.

        So any time you dress a salad your words are seasoned with a long and flavorful linguistic history.  And if you’re eager for vinegar and think mustard divine, you’re right on target.

[Pictures: Antique Cruet, richly Mounted, engraving from advertisement for Mappin & Webb’s, 1895 (Image from ebay);

Cruet-Frame with an arabesque pattern, by Messrs. Elkington, shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851, engraving from The Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue: The Industry of All Nations (Image from Hathi Trust);

Six-Bottle Dinner Cruet,  engraving from advertisement for Mappin & Webb’s, 1892 (Image from ebay).]

December 24, 2021

Merry Christmas!

         Today I have four block prints showing a variety of depictions of Christmas scenes.  Up first is a classic renaissance Holy Family by Hans Sebald Beham (Germany, 1500-1550).  Joseph is hard to see, way down low behind Mary - I like to imagine that he’s playing peek-a-boo with Jesus, who is reaching out to him.  For a selection of earlier fifteenth and sixteenth century woodcuts of the nativity, you can see my previous post Nativity 1 in a series tracing depictions of the holy family in relief block prints through the ages.  (The more modern depictions are covered in Nativity 2 and Nativity 3, as well as two more I posted for Christmas 2018.)
        My next Christmas scene for you is set in Africa and I really enjoy the elephant adoring the infant!  This is by Azaria Mbatha (South Africa, b.1941) about whom you can learn more - and even see another episode from the Christmas story - at a previous post.  
Mbatha is known for imbuing his Biblical scenes with African culture and sensibilities, and I think it works really well.  Another of his characteristics is including multiple scenes in each piece, and in this case the four corners each include another scene.  The lower left looks like it may be the three wise men riding in on an elephant, and I’m guessing the lower right may represent the shepherds.    The upper corners look like scenes from the life of Jesus, preaching on the left, and his baptism on the right.
        With the third piece, by Mary Amelia Kretsinger (USA, 1915-2001), we get even more abstract.  Without the title “Christmas,” you probably wouldn’t associate this with Christmas at all, but Kretsinger has let us know that this isn’t just any ordinary star.  I’m actually not sure quite how she made this piece.  If she carved away between the black lines, how is the grain still showing?  So is it perhaps printed with two layers of black, one for the wood grain and then a second for the stronger outlines?  Plus there’s grey and brown presumably printed separately.  I like to think of the brown and black blocks in the lower left as representing the inn and stable, but given that there’s another black block in the upper right, they may not be intended to be anything but abstract shapes.
        And continuing with the star, here are the three wise men heading toward it in a Christmas card design by Herschel C. Logan (USA, 1901-1987).  (Logan made a whole annual series of Christmas card designs and perhaps next year I’ll do a whole post on them.)  I will leave you with Logan’s wish: to those who celebrate Christmas, may it be Very Merry indeed!

[Pictures: Holy Family under a Canopy, woodcut by Hans Sebald Beham, c 1530 (Image from Vassar College);

Nativity scene, linocut by Azaria Mbatha, second half 20th century (Image from MutualArt);

Christmas, color woodcut by Mary Amelia Kretsinger, 1974 (Image from Kansas State University);

Christmas card, color woodcut by Herschel C. Logan, 1925 (Image from Kansas State University).]

December 20, 2021

O Christmas Tree!

         The Christmas tree’s origins are a bit murky, with some historians connecting it with pagan tree worship and the Yule log, others with the eighth century St Boniface, while some trace its origins to the “tree of paradise” associated with medieval mystery plays performed on Christmas Eve.  The modern Christmas tree got its start with Martin Luther, who supposedly added candles to the decoration of the evergreen he brought into his home.  Later resistance to the Christmas tree tradition was strong in Catholic areas and was not because of its supposed pagan connections, but because of its Protestant roots.  (The Vatican did not erect a Christmas tree until 1982.)
        Queen Charlotte displayed a Christmas tree in England at a party in 1800, and Queen Victoria kept up the tradition, whereupon the upper middle classes avidly copied it in the mid-nineteenth century.  Hessian soldiers stationed in Canada set up trees in 1781, but it took a while to move beyond being an ethnic German tradition.  In the United States, the first image of a Christmas tree was published in 1863, but it was Godey’s Lady’s Book and its editor Sarah Josepha Hale that get credit for popularizing it.  An engraving of a fashionable Victorian family basking in the glow of their tree in 1850 was the first widely-circulated image of a “modern” Christmas tree in America, and within about 20-25 years the Christmas tree tradition had become common in the USA.
        There is some magic associated with Christmas trees.  I'm thinking of the scene in “The Nutcracker” ballet where the Christmas tree grows enormous, thus signalling the transition to a fantasy world.  Premiered in 1892, the ballet clearly reflects the late Victorian-era romanticism associated with the decorated tree.
        Anyway, I’ve gathered a few historical engravings of Christmas trees (and a couple of woodcuts).  Most of these trees are placed atop a table, which we still do in our house (although we use a very low side table.)  It’s much more practical - the presents can go underneath and the cat doesn’t get herself into trouble - and I don’t know why this tradition ever changed.  I guess just the usual assumption that bigger must be better.  On the other hand, the one woodcut from 1845 suggests an enormous shrubbery.  I would assume this one must be outdoors, except that the gentleman isn’t wearing a hat, so I don’t know.
        Of course, these prints don’t capture the wonderful colors of a Christmas tree (let alone the scent), but I do like the way some of them show the sparkle and glow, with white carved out all around the trees and their delicate branches.  I do love Christmas trees!

[Pictures: Christmas Eve, engraving, frontispiece from The Stranger’s Gift edited by Hermann Bokum, 1836 (Image from Internet Archive);

Christmas Tree, wood block print from Illustrated London News, Dec. 27, 1845 (Image from The Social Historian);

The Christmas Tree, engraving from Godey’s Lady’s Book, Dec. 1850 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

The Christmas Tree, wood engraving by Winslow Homer from Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 25, 1858 (Image from Boston Public Library);

F.A.O. Schwartz advertisement, wood block print, 1898 (Image from ebay).]

December 15, 2021

The Frozen Ocean

        Here’s a wintry poem, and an interesting bit of fantasy by Viola Meynall (UK, 1885-1965).  It’s not so much a story as a scenario, a very simple “What if?”  What makes it particularly interesting, though, is that it isn’t asking “What if the ocean froze over?”  Rather, it’s asking, “What if the Ocean chose to freeze?”  Indeed, it is actually freezing itself.

The sea would flow no longer,
It wearied after change,
It called its tides and breakers in,
From where they might range.

It sent an icy message
To every wave and rill;
They lagged, the paused, they stiffened,
They froze, and were still.

It summoned in its currents,
They reached not where they led;
It bound its foaming whirlpools.
“Not the old life,” it said,

“No fishes for the fisherman,
Not bold ships as before,
Not beating loud for ever
Upon the seashore,

“But cold white foxes stepping

Onto my hard proud breast,
And a bird coming sweetly
And building a nest.

“My icebergs shall be mountains,
My silent fields of snow
Unmarked shall join the land’s snowfields —
Where, no man shall know.”

        This ocean is personified - but not too personified.  It is given consciousness, will, and abilities such as communication, but it is definitely not human.  It seems not only tired of being in constant motion, but almost rebellious: no fish for you!  (I can certainly imagine the ocean having had enough of humans on it, although our poor oceans are warming up instead of freezing.)  Some of the images are really lovely, such as, “It summoned in its currents,” and “cold white foxes stepping onto my hard, proud breast.”  By the end Earth is really an alien planet, with its solid ice surface above liquid seas below, like some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  I certainly wouldn’t want to experience a cataclysm like the freezing of the ocean (would the foxes and birds survive, either?), but it makes a great poem!

[Pictures: Sea Ice, color woodblock print by Ina Timling (Image from Etsy shop TimlingPrints);

The Sinking of the Jeannette, wood engraving by G.T. Andrew after a design by M.J. Burns, 1884 (Image from Naval History and Heritage Command);

Arctic Fox and Slope Mountain, woodcut and linocut by Teal Francis, 2016 (Image from TealFrancis.com).]