December 6, 2023

Block Prints by Battiss

         Walter Whall Battiss (South Africa, 1906-1982) had an interest in various indigenous African art forms including rock art, San painting, and Ndebele beadwork.  You can see some of this influence in his relief block prints.  I am most intrigued by this first one, entitled Cattle Metamorphosed into Plants, because I wonder about the story behind it.  The cattle look somewhat similar in style to those in linocuts by Picasso, with whom Battiss was friends.  Picasso, too, combined bulls and plants in a fantastical way, which I featured in Picasso’s Garden.
        Next here are a couple of pieces with other animals: horses and moths.  They are not “realistic,” and they clearly demonstrate an interest in what artists today love to call “mark making.”  The moths in particular don’t look particularly planned.  Battiss includes his initals in many of his blocks, but always backwards.  This means he’s carving them so they look frontwards on the block, and thus print backwards on the paper.  That implies that Battiss either carves without planning, or draws any designs directly onto the block, rather than transferring from sketches on paper.  (There aren’t great ways to transfer onto either linoleum or wood, so my current method of doing all my work on paper first and then getting a nice, clean, clear reversed transfer is a benefit of using rubber.)
        Two pieces with boys show the influence of rock art, with the stylized naked bodies functioning almost as glyphs of people.  The first shows boys picking wild fruits from a thorny bush - one I would not want to go into without protection!  The second shows a boy with pets: a nice, normal cat, but also some lizards and an unusual-looking bird.  I don’t know whether it’s intended to be a specific bird or species, or whether Battiss is just representing “bird” in a more hieroglyphic way.
        Finally, a woodcut with two layers, which could be either reduction or separate blocks.  Two people carrying things on their heads are behind four rocks, at least two of which seem to have rock art on them.  Although most of Battiss’s work is undated, these definitely seem to be in that 
early mid-century style, and you can definitely see Battiss’s connections with Picasso and others working under the influence of African styles.

[Pictures: Cattle Metamorphosed into Plants, linocut by Walter Whall Battiss;

Horses, woodcut by Battiss, 1943;

Moths, linocut by Battiss;

Boys Picking Wild Fruit, linocut by Battiss;

Boy with Pets, linocut by Battiss;

Four White Rocks, colour woodcut by Battiss (All images from MutualArt).]

December 1, 2023

No. 2 Pencilion

         Another shortish post today, as my busy weekend is almost upon me!  To find out why I’m so busy, see the previous post.  As for today, I’ll just share my most recent piece, the No. 2 Pencilion.  This block actually began from a couple of the numerous October drawing prompts with which the Internet abounds.  For October 11, the Peachtober prompt was PENCIL, and the SCBWI Artober prompt was BEAST.  Putting the two together, I came up with this king of pencil beasts.  I transferred the sketch to rubber, but then waited to carve until Roslindale Open Studios on October 21-22.  After that I didn’t get around to finishing up and printing until after my next show at the beginning of November.  However, when I finally printed I decided to try two things.  First, I printed with plain black ink, but to make it a little more fun, I found some old (but acid-free) lined notebook filler paper left over from my kids.  After an edition of those, I carved out the erasers of the ears, and recarved the line the lion is drawing.  (I should have carved it that thin and careful in the first place!  Oh, well.)  And I printed a second edition in pencil yellow, and put in the details painted with eraser pink and drawn with pencil graphite.  I did try printing these on the lined paper, as well, but the yellow isn’t opaque enough to cover the lines and they proved too distracting.  So, plain paper for these.
        By the way, do you know why pencils are so commonly yellow?  Apparently Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth pencil company was the first to paint their pencils yellow, and they did it to suggest Chinese royalty, since Chinese graphite was the highest quality graphite.  They won a Grand Prix for pencils in 1900 (having first introduced the yellow in 1889), after which everyone wanted to copy them.  As for the eraser on the end of the pencil, that was invented in 1858 by Hymen Lipman - but in 1875 the US Supreme Court ruled that it wasn’t an inventive enough invention to hold a patent, so all the manufacturers could do it, making those erasers ubiquitous, as well.  It was the Faber Company that first made the pink erasers with the metal ferrule so familiar today.
        Here’s some bonus belated Words of the Month action: 1. A pencil was originally a small, fine paintbrush, and comes from Latin for “little tail.”  2. The graphite in a pencil is called lead because when graphite was first discovered in England in the early sixteenth century it was sometimes called “black lead”.   So technically pencils have never had actual lead.  The word graphite wasn’t coined until 1789, from Greek graphein meaning “to write” — and yet we still call it lead more than 200 years later, so don’t expect us to stop talking about dialing phones any time soon.   3. The abbreviation for “number” is “No” because it comes from Latin “numero” instead of from English.
        As for the meaning of Number 2 in reference to pencil lead, there’s not actually a common standard, although the higher the number the harder the lead, and the harder the lead the lighter the color and sharper the point.  Many companies (and especially those outside the US) instead or in addition use the abbreviation HB for the grade of pencil right in the middle between hardness and blackness - although there’s some disagreement about the actual origins of the letters H and B.  An HB pencil should be equivalent to a No. 2.  For any child who grew up in the US in the past 50 years, number 2 pencils are famous primarily for being those required for filling in the answer dots on scantron tests.
        To be honest, these days I pretty much always use mechanical pencils because I love that there’s always a decent point.  Nevertheless, I continue to have a soft spot for the look of a traditional yellow wooden pencil.

[Pictures: No. 2 Pencilion and No. 2 Yellow Pencilion, rubber block prints with pencil details by AEGN, 2023.]

November 27, 2023

Too Busy - Delirium

         It’s the last blog post of the month, and that means it’s time for Words of the Month!  Or at least, it would be, if I actually had time for anything.  This coming weekend is super busy with not one but two major events, involving SO MANY moving pieces I have to organize and take care of.  So in my current state of (hopefully temporary) disordered mind, I offer you a single fun word of the month: delirium.  Entering English towards the end of the sixteenth century, delirium is from Latin “madness.”  Its Latin origin, however, is a metaphor.  It literally means “off or away from the furrow.”  You can imagine someone plowing their field into nice, straight, ordered furrows, back and forth… and then 
suddenly, nyeeeeooowww, they go swerving off in some random direction, through the previously sowed rows, over the wildflowers at the edge of the field, down into the ditch, up into the next farmer’s field, zig-zagging all over the place…  Delirium.
        And what is the cause of my current delirium?  On Saturday, December 2 I will be participating in the Strong Women-Strange Worlds Holiday Extravaganza.  As one of the organizers I’ll be working pretty much all day for this 8 hour festival of fun, mostly behind the scenes.  Over 45 authors of sci fi, fantasy, and horror are involved in a parade of readings, games, and literary frolics, and I encourage you to join us.  It’s free, it’s on-line, and you can drop in and out all day as your schedule allows.  Preregister HERE!  And if you want to see me, 
I’ll be playing “Bluff the Audience” at noon (US/Canada Eastern time) in which 5 authors have written fake endings to excerpts from each others’ work, and the audience gets to guess which endings are real.  It should be a hoot!  (Info on the full event schedule is here.)
        Despite being busy all day Saturday, I hope to be able to find a few hours to load my car, because on Sunday, December 3 I will be participating in the Celebrate Newton Holiday Craft Fair.  There will be live music by a variety of Newton ensembles for a festive atmosphere, and more than 50 artists and crafters showing a variety of work suitable for gift shopping.  (More info here.)  It’s my last in-person show of the year, but if you can’t make it, don’t worry - you can always contact me directly if you need 
to procure that perfect block print or book.
        While I’m running through the promotions, I’ll mention one more show at which my work will be represented in 2023: the annual “Illumination” show at Gallery Twist in Lexington.  It’s always beautiful, and this year the opening reception will be on Saturday, December 2.  I, alas, will not be there, what with the delirium of other events, but I do encourage anyone in the area to check it out as it’s always delightful.
        Now, wish me luck to make it through!

November 22, 2023

Autumnal Block Prints

         It’s time for another collection of autumnal relief block prints, and as usual, views of autumn have to emphasize color.  First up is a piece by one of my favorites, Herschel C. Logan.  It’s quite small and simple, but includes three colors: dark brown, beige, and orange.  Typical of Logan’s work, its focus is on a rural homestead, but no people in sight.  (You can revisit more work by Logan here.)
        The next piece is by an artist who’s new to me, and it’s much more complex.  Nick Wroblewski works in the Japanese woodblock style, and often includes animals in his landscapes.  This one has wonderful details in the foreground, but is also wonderfully less detailed in the background, with its warm, muted autumn colors.  The beavers are delightful, but so are the 
details of the sticks and bark, and the gnawing-marks on the felled trunk.
        Also in the Japanese style, here’s a piece by Kawase Hasui (an artist you can search in the sidebar to see a few more pieces.)  The title is “Late Autumn in Ichikawa,” and I think it does somehow manage to capture that feeling of incoming winter chill in the air, despite the warm colors of the dried grasses.  Again, the grasses in the foreground show every blade, but then fade to a blur and the silhouettes of trees in the background.  (I definitely need to work on that transition from foreground to background in my own work!)
        As a contrast from these relatively predictable landscapes, here’s an unusual view by William Hays.  This one is a reduction linoleum block print with 6 colors.  It’s very impressive, and I’d love to be able to see it in person and get a sense for the ink on the 
paper.  On the computer screen it’s almost too good, because it reads more like a photograph with the “posterize” filter than like a hand carved block print.  It certainly does invite you to jump in the leaf pile, though!
        Finally, I had to include this wood block print by Kari Percival, because what is this season without pies?  This fun piece celebrates the sharing of good food and company.  (And see my prior post on Percival here.)
        I’m certainly very grateful for my own home and family, as well as for the land I’m lucky enough to live on, sharing it with its 
beautiful trees and animals.

[Pictures: Autumn, color woodcut by Herschel C. Logan, 1924 (Image from Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art);

Sturdy Branches, Leafy Tops, woodcut by Nick Wroblewski (Image from;

Late Autumn in Ichikawa, color woodblock print by Kawase Hasui, 1930 (Image from The Clark Museum);

Equinox, linocut print by William Hays (Image from artful home);

Pies, wood block print by Kari Percival (Image from]

November 17, 2023

A Jumble of Jabberwocks

          Lewis Carroll’s famous poem Jabberwocky, a classic of nonsense fantasy, has been wildly popular since its publication in 1871.  (If you’re not familiar with it, you can read the whole poem in two of the pictures below, or more easily in my original post about it here.)  Since its publication, there have been many illustrations of the jabberwock and the other creatures featured in the poem.  By far the most iconic is the 
version by John Tenniel, the first picture shown here.  Indeed, it remains my favorite to this day.  But Carroll doesn’t actually say much about exactly what these creatures look like
, and that means that other illustrators can come up with completely different versions.  Paired with Tenniel’s illustration is a tile by William De Morgan, who was commissioned by Dodgson (aka Carroll) to make tiles with creatures related to his works.  That means that Tenniel’s and De Morgan’s jabberwocks, different as they are, were both Lewis Carroll-approved.
        So, we know the jabberwock has jaws that bite, claws that catch, and eyes of flame.  We know it’s manxome, and that it whiffles and burbles… And that’s really all we know.  So there’s no contradiction if  Kevin Hawkes depicts the jabberwock rather like a pig, while Christopher Myers connects the poem with the Mesoamerican ball game and depicts the jabberwock like a monstrous basketball player.
        Joel Stewart can follow Tenniel’s lead in giving the jabberwock a few items of gent’s clothing, while adding a checkerboard grin and long, stripy tail.  And Eric Copeland can imagine something more like a feathered dragon.  No wrong answers here, as long as we all have those grabby claws!  Scary or whimsical?  Similar to a real creature, or completely wacky?  It’s all fair.
        Some illustrators have also shown us some of the other creatures mentioned in the poem.  Tenniel depicted the toves, borogoves, and raths of the first verse, which you can see 
here.  But he never showed the jubjub bird or bandersnatch, which perhaps left the door open a little wider for the illustrators who followed.  P
eter Newell makes his magnificent jabberwock a little reminiscent of a naked mole-rat, while his bandersnatch looks somewhat baboon-inspired, and the jubjub bird is simply a bit odd.
        Charles Santore gives each of these charismatic megafauna a full double-page spread.  His jabberwock is clearly a dragon, and his jubjub bird would indeed be something to beware, but his bandersnatch is the most original, resembling a tiger-warthog cross with a spiked tail 
        For a few more versions of the Jubjub bird you can revisit my posts on Mythical J, and be sure to see my own depiction at J is for Jubjub Bird.  (I’ve never done the jabberwock because I’m completely satisfied that Tenniel got it right.)
        I conclude with one last artist, Mark V. Marshall, who worked at Doulton Pottery.  I’ve included his jabberwock sculpture for completion, although it doesn’t particularly excite me, but I find his rath absolutely delightful.  I’m assuming it’s some kind of little pitcher.  All we know about the raths from the poem is that they’re mome.  Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that raths are a sort of green pig, which has clearly inspired Marshall.
        What’s your vision of the jabberwock?  Does it wear clothes?  Is it a dragon or a mole-rat or a basketball player?  Or do you have some completely new ideas of your own?

[Pictures: Jabberwock, pen and ink (copied as wood engravings for printing), by Sir John Tenniel, 1871;
Jabberwock, tile by William De Morgan, 1882 (Image from Wiener Museum of Decorative Arts);

Jabberwock (and Jubjub bird?), illustration by Kevin Hawkes from Imagine That! Poems of Never-Was selected by Prelutsky, 1998;

Jabberwock, illustration by Christopher Myers from Jabberwocky, 2007;

Jabberwock, illustration by Joel Stewart from Jabberwocky, 2003;

Jabberwocky, illustration by Eric Copeland from Poetry for Young People: Lewis Carroll, ed. E. Mendelson, 2000;

Jabberwock, Jubjub bird, and Bandersnatch, illustrations by Peter Newell from Through the Looking-Glass, 1902 (Images from Internet Archive);

Jabberwock, Jubjub bird, and Bandersnatch, illustrations by Charles Santore from Jabberwocky, 2020;

Jabberwock and rath, Doulton pottery by Mark V. Marshall, c. 1886 (Images from Wiener Museum of Decorative Arts).]

November 13, 2023

The Wonders of Cotton

         At my last show just over a week ago, a friend (a student who took one of my classes several years ago) came by and brought me a gift!  She volunteers at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, where the library was de-acquisitioning materials.  When she saw in the pile a small booklet illustrated with relief block prints, she snagged it for me!  So today I’m sharing a few of the beautiful block prints from Cotton is Environmentally Friendly: Crane is Cotton.
        This 1990 production is a lavish advertising piece for Crane paper, and the text gives a history of Crane & Co., a description of the paper-making process from planting cotton to 
trimming sheets, and effusive claims of environmental virtue.  I’m not here to assess the accuracy of any of that, but simply to enjoy the seven large relief block prints (plus one small) that illustrate the booklet.  They are by Stephen Alcorn, whose name I was delighted to recognize, as I featured some of his work in this blog once before.  Check out that post on Alcorn’s Birds (and Frog).
        As for Alcorn's illustrations of cotton, my favorites are the pair of the sower in spring and the finished field in the fall.  Decidedly not a modern cotton-growing operation, but such beautiful pieces!  The exuberant sun, the swirling tree, the rhythmic patterns of the field… These make my heart sing.
        There is also a series of the growth of cotton, from seedling to wispy seed fibers.  This is number 2 of 4, with the cotton flowers as well as the beginnings of puffy bolls.
        The whole set of prints is bracketed by day and night views of Earth, presumably to emphasize the environmental values of Crane & Co.  This is the day, and again I just love the sunshine with its patterns turning the heavens into a huge mandala over the curve of Earth, with her clouds and currents.
        Although the medium is not specified beyond “relief block prints,” with such smoothness combined with the level of very fine lines in these designs, I’m guessing they were done in lino, or possibly wood engraving, depending on their size.  I would love to experiment with this sort of imaginative designs added to otherwise realistic images.  I certainly don’t feel like I have the confidence to pull it off, but that’s what experiments are for.
        Many thanks to Diana, for thinking of me and bringing me such a delightful surprise gift!

[Pictures: four illustrations by Stephen Alcorn, from Cotton is Environmentally Friendly: Crane is Cotton, 1990.]

November 8, 2023

Mulligan's Mysterious Monsters

         Today I want to share some relief block prints by one of my fellow artists who showed with me at Roslindale Open Studios last month.  (Often I find myself the only relief printmaker at any given show, but this time there were actually three of us!)  Mark Mulligan of Wheaten Press does a variety of print media, including letterpress and intaglio, but of course for purposes of this blog I’m especially interested in his relief block prints — and especially especially interested in his relief block prints with an element of fantasy.  Mulligan makes plenty of “straight” prints, but is also drawn to cryptozoological subjects, and he’s made a small collection featuring some favorites.
        First is the cattle rustler getting his cattle re-rustled by a rustler farther up the food 
chain, as it were.  I like how the spacecraft breaks the edges of the border.  (To see another artist
’s take on a similar concept, revisit this post about Aliens Among the Diné.)
        Another piece in which we humans find ourselves no longer at the top of the food chain is Mulligan’s “Seafood.”  The mirrored poses of the lobster fisherman and the kraken are cleverly done.  This is the most unambiguously “horror” of Mulligan’s pieces.  Although all of them have a certain whimsy, they also tend to imply a little uncertainty about the outcome of these encounters.
        At least the skier and the bigfoot who meet each other on the mountainside seem to be able to cross paths without conflict.  They’ll each have an exciting story to tell when they get home!  Mulligan does a nice job of placing these cryptid encounters in settings that balance between plausibly remote habitats for mystery creatures, but also ordinary enough situations that they feel like a fantastical intrusion into the everyday.  Who knows, as ski season comes to the northern climes, whether you, too, might spot a bigfoot on the slopes this year?
        The final piece highlights especially strongly the unsettling side of Mulligan’s speculative views.  Is this winter dream really a nightmare?  The snowman’s outstretched arms look rather menacing, but the child is smiling as if this creature is going to be a marvelous playmate.  And is it all just a dream, or has the snowman really come to life?  Benign “Frosty” figure or malign winter monster?  Naturally I’m going to vote for delightful magical adventure, but what do you think?
        It’s always wonderful to see what my fellow artists are up to, but especially fun to have met one with such overlap of interests.

[Pictures: Rustler, linocut by Mark Mulligan;

Seafood, linocut by Mulligan;

Trailblazers , linocut by Mulligan;

Winter Dreaming, woodcut by Mulligan (All images from Mulligan’s web site Wheaten Press.)]

November 3, 2023

Finding Balance

         I have so many things going on right now that my head is spinning, so today I have a wood engraving of people who may be doing a better job than I at finding balance!  This wood engraving by William Phelps Cunningham (US, 1903-1980) depicts a crowd at a Tri-County Fair watching the performance of “The Five Comptons.”  (At least, that's my guess.  It could be Bromptons, Lomptons, or Yomptons!)  It looks like an impressive feat, and the crowd certainly seems riveted!  I feel a certain kinship with those who make their living by setting up their show at various locations, and seeing who comes to see.  Two weeks ago I was at Roslindale Open Studios, tomorrow I’ll be participating in the Needham Open Studios Fall Art Pop-Up, and in a month I’ll be at the Celebrate Newton Holiday Craft Fair.  And that’s just the art side of things.  What’s really making my head spin is all the other hats getting shoved on and off and on again all the time!  But tomorrow I’ll be sitting at my table carving a block, and all I have to do for those five hours, like the performers in this piece, is focus on the job at hand.

[Picture: Tri-County Fair, wood engraving by William Phelps Cunningham, 1933 (Image from Beach Museum).]

October 30, 2023

Words of the Month - Ye Olde TH

         The phrase “ye olde” (pronounced yee oldee) now denotes consciously old-fashioned things, especially those that are particularly cheesy, artificially quaint, and inclined toward trapping ignorant tourists.  Most people are under the vague impression that the phrase is genuine, if perhaps overused, and indeed it is — sort of.  Let’s clear the biggest issue out of the way at once: “ye olde” was never pronounced yee oldee.  During the time when this was a legitimate spelling, it was pronounced “the old,” just as the words have come to us today.  The -e on olde simply represented the fact that spelling was not yet standardized, and other variants including auld, alde, awld, ole and old were just as common.  Today we’re going to spend more time looking at the spelling of the sound that we now spell th.
        The -th- sound (technically a dental fricative, either voiceless /θ/ as in thumb, or voiced /ð/ as in them) is relatively rare in world languages, and while Old English and Greek have it, Latin and most other European languages do not.  Greek spelled the sound with the theta θ, and when Latin borrowed Greek words that included it, they usually spelled it th, but most often pronounced it as a simple t.  That’s come down in the pronunciation of Romance languages.  Meanwhile, Old Norse and Old English used the letter thorn þ to represent the unvoiced variant, and eth ð to represent the voiced version.  So far, so good.  But of course it wasn’t long before Latin collided with Old English…
        Old English occasionally spelled things with th on the Roman model, and when the Norman French turned Old English into Middle English, they also brought their own version of spelling.  Indeed, they drove poor eth to extinction by around 1250.  Thorn, however, was made of sterner stuff and lasted quite a bit longer.  It was especially inclined to persist in the very common words such as þat, þis, and þe.  After all, it’s shorter and quicker to write.  (If you’re paying attention, you should be thinking, “But shouldn’t those words be spelled with eth rather than thorn?”  And you’d be right, except that a) eth was extinct by now and b) English was never as precise about spelling as Old Norse!)  So far, so good (for thorn, if not for eth).  But of course then Gutenberg had to go and invent that printing press…
        The printing press reached England around 1475, but although we always talk about the press, it wouldn’t have done much good without the moveable type that went with it.  Most of the type in England was originally imported from the continent and therefore didn’t include pieces for the letter thorn, which wasn’t in use where the type was being made.  What to do about the missing letter?  Sometimes printers used y in place of þ because the shape was somewhat similar, and that’s how we end up with ye olde.  It’s simply an orthographic variant of þe olde and was always intended to be pronounced as such.  If you look at a couple examples of fifteenth century orthography, you can see the similarity between the two.  I’ve circled eths in blue, and y’s in green.  In the first example, handwritten around 1440, you can see that the two letters are practically indistinguishable.  In the second example, printed in 1478, the y’s look just like the handwriting, while the thorns are a little different.  (In both, you can see the habit of writing the e above the thorn as a sort of abbreviation for the.)  While Y clearly made a reasonable substitute for thorn, however, its use was not universal, and plenty of people just fell back on th instead.  As printing enforced its standardization on English, th became the winning orthographic solution, which is why today we look at “ye olde” and think it should be pronounced yee.
        As a footnote, however, English spelling still had a lot of confusion to get through before reaching its current state.  In the fifteenth century some overzealous scholars added H to the T’s of words that they thought came from Greek TH origins, such as author and Thames, while other words were borrowed from Romance languages that followed the Latin model of spelling Greek words with th while pronouncing them with t, such as thyme and Thomas.  (For more about the influence of overenthusiastic Latin-loving spelling reformers, see prior post on The Fault in Our Salmon.)  And those are just some of the reasons for the strange variety of spelling and pronunciation of words with th.
        Personally, I really miss eth and thorn and wish we still had them in the English alphabet, along with something new for ch and sh, too!

[Pictures: Ye Olde Mixer-Upper, wood-cut by John Held Jr, 1935 (Image from AbeBooks);

Detail from The Book of Margery Kempe manuscript by Margery Kempe, 1436-48 (Image from The Margery Kempe Society);

Detail from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, printed by William Caxton, 1478 (Image from Worcester Cathedral);

The Book Printer, wood block print by Jost Amman from Panoplia omnium illiberalium, 1568 (Image from Internet Archive).]