February 1, 2023

A Year of Rabbits

         Sure I’m a little late for the lunar New Year celebrations, but I’m happy to celebrate rabbits every year, and every time of year.  Evidence for this fact can be found in the large number of previous posts in which I’ve featured them.  This year we’ve got New Year’s rabbits, and previously I’ve had Valentine’s rabbits by Celia Hart, and Easter rabbits as well as other rabbits in fantasy.  You can also check these additional links to see rabbits and hares from

1865 Alphabet of Animals

Betsy Bowen

Raoul Dufy

John Lawrence

Howard Phipps

        Nevertheless, it wasn’t very difficult to find a few more wonderful wood block prints of rabbits to add to the mix.  First, a snowy one from 1999, a previous Year of the Rabbit.  This rabbit is not super detailed, 
but its essence is perfectly captured, and it looks gorgeous against the snowy black.  The little block of red is auspicious, as well.
        Next we have a print of two rabbits in the Japanese style that aims to emulate brush painting.  It uses grey with the black to mimic areas of more watery ink.  This one also has a little red detail, this time as the white rabbit’s eye.
        Depicting two rabbits together, one black and one white to set each other off, is a technique used by our next piece, as well.  This time the black is in front and both rabbits face the viewer.  This appears to have been inked with thinner 
ink on the top/background areas, which allows the wood grain to show through clearly and, also like the piece above, gives us grey as well as black and white.
        Finally, I’ll pin these rabbits back to Lunar New Year with a piece depicting a tiny rabbit figurine along with a New Year decoration.  I don’t have an exact date for this print, but presumably it, too, was made in a Year of the Rabbit.
        Wikipedia informs me that white is a color to be avoided in the year of the rabbit, which is difficult when the rabbits themselves are white, and is a good reason not to get too tangled up in such “rules.”  I trust these rabbits will bring nothing but good luck to everyone.  So how else could I end this post except by wishing everyone a Hoppy Year?




[Pictures: Year of the Rabbit, woodcut by Andrew Valko, 1999 (Image from AndrewValko.com); Rabbits from Bairei Gakan by Kono Bairei, (before 1895) 1913 edition (Image from rawpixel);
The Rabbits, woodcut by Henri Charles Guérard, 1893 (Image from Cleveland Museum of Art);
Rabbit and New Year decoration on a stand, woodblock print by Hada Gesshu, late 19th century (Image from The British Museum).]

January 27, 2023

Words of the Month - So Many Frogs!

         If you ask an English speaker to define the word frog, most would presumably think immediately of the tailless amphibian of the family Ranidae.  We’ve had that word in English since at least 1000 CE, when it appears in descriptions of the Bible’s second plague of Egypt.  And in fact, although frog would seem to be a pretty simple, straightforward word with a simple, straightforward definition, the English language actually has a veritable plague of different frog words.
        I can begin with a number of phrases that clearly derive from this same, amphibious word.
frog in the throat - our current definition, a slight hoarseness, presumably because it makes you sound like you’re croaking, dates back only to about 1900.  However, frog was used of a variety of diseases of the mouth and throat all the way back to around 1650.
leap-frog
- (c.1600) a game obviously named for its suggestion of leaping like a frog
frog-march - (c. 1870) Our current definition of hustling someone forward with their arms pinned behind them may not seem to have much connection with our amphibian, but the word first meant crawling, and then carrying someone face-down by their four limbs, both of which look more froggish. 
frogman - (c. 1945) a scuba diver, who, with wet suit, flippers, and oxygen tank, can swim like a frog, and looks rather like one, too
Frog - This derogatory slang for a French person derives from the stereotype of frogs being a noteworthy element of French cuisine.  It appeared around 1778 when the French were siding with the Americans against Britain, and it took off during the Napoleonic Wars.  But back in the 1650s, before turning against the French, the slang was applied to Dutch people because of the marshiness of the Netherlands.


        It’s relatively easy to see the frog-connection in those words, and they are only a sampling of words clearly derived from the amphibian.  There are plenty of other animals (like frogfish and frogmouth), plants (like frog's-bit and frog spit), etc, named after frogs.  But that’s only the beginning of frog in English.


frog
- an ornamental fastening for a coat, consisting of a spindle-shaped or knotted toggle or button that passes through a loop; plus the related definition of a loop on a belt from which a scabbard or holster may be carried.  This frog is of unknown origin, but may be derived from Portuguese froco, from Latin floccus “tuft of wool, or cord” (c. 1710)


frog - an elastic, horny organ in the middle of the sole of a horse’s foot, also of doubtful origin, but perhaps from French fourchette (c. 1610)


frog - a grooved piece of iron placed at the junction of the rails where one track crosses another, possibly derived from its resemblance to the frog of a horse’s hoof (c. 1850)


frog - the part of the bow of a stringed instrument by which the bow is held.  The etymology of this one has a plague of theories: perhaps from Latin floccus (like the toggle) because it’s where the horsehair is attached; or perhaps because the shape was thought to resemble the bottom of a horse’s foot (like the railroad switch); or perhaps from the vice used in the crafting of the bow, called a frock (though where that name came from I’d don’t know); or perhaps from a part of a plane used in bowmaking called a frog (again, no explanation of that one); and perhaps from German frosch meaning “frog,” which was a word for a riser block that spaces items as the frog of a bow holds the hair away from the stick…  Yeah, let’s just admit that no one has a clue.


frog - in a moldboard plow, the frame or standard to which soil-wearing parts are attached.  I can’t find any etymology or date on this definition, but I’ll throw out a wild off-the-cuff speculation that perhaps it could relate to Old High German pfluog, “plow.”


        And then what about just a few more that might be related to the amphibian…
frog - recessed area in the side of a brick.  According to the only place I found a derivation given, the word comes from the part of a traditional brick mold that released the clay.  This was called kikker in Dutch, which means frog.  English speakers translated the word when they borrowed it.  Presumably the kikker was called so in the first place because it kicks the clay out of the box with a jump.


frog - a small spiked or perforated object placed in the bottom of a vessel to hold flower stems in position in an arrangement.  This may possibly have begun as a slang term in the 1920s and 30s because they sit in water, but there is no evidence to support the theory one way or the other.


frog - In fiber artist slang, to pull knitting off the needles and unravel it.  This is by far our most recent frog, with the first attested use c. 1996.  The etymology usually given is that if you pull out all your needlework you “rip it, rip it,” which of course sounds like a frog.  This may or may not be a folk etymology, but given the recent informal invention of the term, it’s entirely possible.


        I called this list a plague of frogs, but of course all these words are not a disaster at all, but instead a party!  I first became tickled by the idea that there were multiple unrelated meanings of the word frog when I began to play the cello at age ten, and around that same time came upon the word frog to refer to the decorative knotted fastenings.  I remember feeling quite delighted by this quirk of the English language.  I hope it delights you, too.
        (And if you want to enjoy a few more relief block prints of frogs, you can revisit art by Alcorn, Frasconi, Wormell 1, and Wormell 2.)


[Pictures: Dancing Frogs, wood block print by Tokuriki Tomichiro, 1950s (Image from Ukiyo-e.org);

Leap Frog Boys, woodcut by Leona Pierce, 1951 (Image from The Old Print Shop);

Magyar Hussar with frogs on his jacket, his belt, and his horse, wood block print after a drawing by Jost Amman, c. 1550 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Bullfrog, collagraph by AEGN, 2012.]

January 23, 2023

Staples and Crayons

         How long have you been writing?  Authors hear this question a lot, and it arose again during the author question-and-chat period following the most recent Strong Women-Strange Worlds group author reading.  This time, though, a funny pattern became apparent among the answers.  I always tell people that I’ve been writing - and wanting to be a writer - for as long as I can remember.  But the first author to answer at this event said that although lots of authors seem to have been making little books out of staples and crayons since they were kids, she had really only started writing in 2012.  When all the other authors chimed in, it seemed as if every author there had either been a staples and crayons kid, or had also begun writing in 2012!  Okay, perhaps not all 2012, but there was a definite bivalent pattern.  Listening to the chat, I thought it might be fun to share my own earliest efforts at making books, since I was definitely one of those staples and crayons kids.
        My mother not only has a PhD in history, but also comes from a long line of pack rats, so she kept a fair sampling of my childhood projects, for which I am very grateful.  It gives me a good chuckle at my own early efforts, and it allows me to share a few with you.  Although the original idea behind this post was not just about early story-writing, but specifically about the attempt to make actual little books, I’m starting with the first proper story I can find.  I wrote and illustrated this at the age of four and a half, and in case you can’t follow, the story begins in the middle of the page, goes to the bottom, then up to the top, then to the middle and down again.  It reads “Once-upon a time in the sea there was 5 octopuses.  And the octopuses 
played.”  In case you’re thinking this isn’t really a story, I would like to point out that anything beginning
 “Once upon a time” is definitely a story.  I will also direct your attention to The Happy Little Elephant, a prior post examining a story written about two years later, and the similar weakness of its plot.
        But next up is the first actual “book” I can find among the stuff my mother saved.  It’s a 12-page codex entitled Two Dogs (if you correct the spelling) and written, as my mother noted, all by myself at the age of five and a half.  I point out that it was made with scrap paper that already had writing on it.  That was pretty standard for my creations, and Young Me had a tendency to hoard and treasure any paper that was actually clean and blank on both sides.  (To be honest, I kind of still do!)
        I wrote and “published” Anne’s Fairy Tales right around my seventh birthday.  The picture shows the cover and the beginning of the second tale.  You can see that I was not breaking any new ground in my stories!  I was still obsessed with fairy tales when I wrote and bound The Moon Pearl.  I also include a view of A Book of Poems, also all quite terrible, but very enthusiastic.  And I include, too, a picture of some higher-quality  efforts as I got older and continued my making of books unabated.
        So what’s the point of all this?  Well, it does in fact confirm what I always tell people, which is that I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember.  It also shows that my love of fantasy and love of poetry have been 
there right from the start (as well as a love of animals).  More generally, though, these early stories and poems of mine illustrate that what you read is the raw material that will be turned into what you write.  I don’t really have a sense of whether these earliest writings were particularly good for the age I was, but I do know that my teachers and parents were very encouraging, and perhaps that’s the last important point: that if a kid has something they love, whether or not they seem to be prodigiously talented at it, they should 
be encouraged.  It will give them the strength to build their dreams which, I can attest, is an endeavor that should never be completed.  I’m still taking delight in writing my stories and making my little books.


[Pictures: Octopuses, story by AEGN, January 1975;

Two Dogs, book by AEGN, April 1976;

Anne’s Fairy Tales, book by AEGN, July 1977;

A Book of Poems, book by AEGN, fall 1978;

The Moon Pearl, book by AEGN, spring 1979;

Bound books by AEGN from 1983-1985.]

January 18, 2023

Moon-Veggies

         I love the moon, and I’m hardly alone in this.  The moon has exerted a more-than-gravitational pull on humans since the first time we looked into the night sky.  I've shared lots of previous posts featuring art inspired by the moon (Observing the Moon), poetry (Singing on the Moon
Moon-Griffin
D is for Diddle), and speculative fiction about the moon (A True Story; The Great Moon Hoax).  Today I’ve got two more pieces depicting lunar landscapes with a distinctly speculative bent.
        The first is an engraving by Filippo Morghen (Italy, 1730-c1807), and it comes from a suite of ten etchings entitled “The collection of the most notable things seen by John Wilkins, erudite English bishop, on his famous trip from the Earth to the Moon.”  I love that Morghen basically imagined a sci fi adventure, but simply hints at it by depicting highlights.  John Wilkins, you may remember, was a real person, whom you can find in my previous post about his 1638 book Discovery of a World in the Moone, in which Wilkins proposes logical reasons to suppose that the moon may well be inhabited.  So Morghen took this a step farther and imagined that Wilkins had indeed reached the moon.  This particular piece from the collection is entitled “Pumpkins used as dwellings to secure against wild beasts,” and depicts enormous pumpkin vines towering up out of a swamp, with windows, doors, and ladders.  I love the detail of laundry hanging out, as well as the way Morghen has made the plants in the foreground spill very slightly over the border of his etching.  A particularly interesting thing that didn’t occur to me immediately, however, is the reminder that pumpkins are a New World plant, and the tiny moon-people in this image were also clearly inspired by people of 
the New World.  For Europeans of this time period, the discovery of the Americas seemed as amazing and fantastical as reaching the moon.  New worlds could be discovered and explored (and exploited), so why should the moon be any more improbable?
        I’ve paired this with another lunar landscape, drawn by E. Hering in 1901 as an illustration of The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells.  Over a hundred years later and artists were still imagining that the moon would be covered in giant vegetables!  Now that yet another century has passed, we all know the surface of the moon is just dust, so we have to push our fantasies either under the surface of the moon, or onto other bodies farther into space.  As for me, I confess that my love of the moon has no desire that it support life, or that people go there… indeed, I think its distance and isolation are part of the appeal.  But I still am charmed by these images of a strange and swampy sister world.


[Pictures: Pumpkins used as dwellings to secure against wild beasts, engraving by Filippo Morghen, after 1778 (Image from The Met);

The crest on which we were was high and commanded a wide prospect of the crater landscape, illustration by E.Hering from The Cosmopolitan, March 1901 (Image from Google Books).]

January 11, 2023

Alien Cities

         Today I have a few strange and alien cities to share with you.  In each case the artist’s style is radically different from anything I do, and yet in the first two cases I, too, have made a piece that I think reveals a bit of the same curiosity, fascination, and imagination at work.  First up is Toward the Sky by Yoshida Toshi (Japan, 1911-1995).  This has a wonderfully doodly 
sensibility, which reminds me of my own 
City I and City II (about which you can read more in prior post Cities of Dreams).  Yoshida’s piece has a playful vibe somewhere between mid-century atomic and psychedelic, which isn’t so surprising given that it was made in 1965.  At the same time, though, there’s a peaceful wistfulness about it, as the strange, towering structures stand all by themselves in a vast empty plain under a vast empty sky.  Do you think it’s sunrise or sunset?  Although the title doesn’t tell us where this city stands, I’m convinced it must be on an alien planet.  It’s also quite large for a block print, about two feet wide, which I think must make those open, luminous spaces even more dramatic, although I haven’t seen this in person.
        Next is a more abstract piece whose alien city designation comes more from the title than anything you might recognize at first glance.  Martian Worm Village is a relief block print by Alan Shields (USA, 1944-2005).  I love the suggestion of Martian worms making maps of their towns, complete with Martian symbols representing I don’t know what.  Do you have any idea what the different shapes and colors might mean?  Although it is visually and stylistically very different from my Symbiote City (about which you can read more in this prior post), still I think Shields and I were both fascinated by the idea of alien life forms going about their 
own alien lives, and how different their living spaces might be.  His are presumably underground while mine are up in the atmosphere, but I particularly love that I can imagine his being depicted by the Martian worms themselves, while mine is illustrated by an outside observer.
        In today’s final piece the alien city is just one element of a very surreal image by Marcel Molina (Cuba, b. 1987).  A person - if that’s what it is with a fingerprint for a face - reads some sort of magazine or newspaper.  On the back page are images like the icons for Olympic sports, but on the front is this view of a city with a huge figure atop a 
skyscraper like King Kong, and giant tentacles in the foreground like some alien or cthulu-monster.  What do any of these elements have to do with each other?  Where is this city?  Is it a disaster, or is this all perfectly normal for that city in that place?  The way the sky is portrayed as jags of light adds to a sense of doom, but you never know.  The block I’ve paired with this 
piece is not my own, but one made by a student in a summer class for children.  The difference in detail between wood engraving by a professional and rubber block print by a child is, of course, considerable, but I think both artists were inspired by the sense of dread and confusion of monstrous, uncontrollable forces.
        Do you imagine alien cities?  What do you think they’d be like?  Would you like to visit, or would you just as soon stay safely in more familiar places?


[Pictures: Toward the Sky, wood block print by Yoshida Toshi, 1965 (Image from Minneapolis Institute of Art);

City I and City II, rubber block prints by AEGN, 2019;

Martian Worm Village, color woodcut with stamp additions by Alan Shields, 1996 (Image from Kansas State Beach Museum of Art);

Symbiote City (Venusian Medusae), rubber block print by AEGN, 2020;

El diálogo, wood engraving by Marcel Molina, 2014 (Image from Universidad de Puerto Rico);

Kraken, rubber block print by PGN, 2015.]

January 6, 2023

What's New in the New Year

         New month, new year, and still as busy as ever.  Plenty of the things keeping me so busy are of no interest or relevance to this blog, of course, and unfortunately plenty of those things are keeping me too busy to do any writing in the last couple of months, which I’m not so happy about.  But there has been plenty of activity on the art front, so I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been up to in that department.
        First of all, I finished two new pieces just under the wire in 2022.  First of these is another steampunk creature.  Steampunk’s popularity has been waning and it’s no longer the hot trend it was, but I still like it!  (It’s always been a bit of a puzzle to me how people can be so fickle in their likes.  Do you actually like something, or don’t you?  But that’s beside the point.)  However, steampunk is still around enough that I finally got the opportunity to apply for a booth at a local steampunk festival.  I’ll find out later this month whether I was accepted, but in the meantime I got inspired enough to make this steam-powered insectivore.  I started with a base of the 1804 steam engine by Richard Trevithick, which had come to my attention last spring, and is featured in this previous post.  Then I had to decide what creature could best be combined with this steam engine.  I thought the large flywheel should match up with a large 
round haunch.  A bear would be the right shape, with its hindquarters higher than its 
shoulder, but I thought it would be funnier to imagine a whole steam engine miniaturized in a small beastie.  And really when you start to think about it, you can see at once how well-suited Trevithick’s engine is to power an elephant shrew.  I’ve been delighted by the black and rufous elephant shrew ever since encountering them at a zoo nearly fifteen years ago, and this was the perfect opportunity to feature one!  As with my other steampunk creations, I like to imagine a bit of back story about the invention of this little mechanical companion, and in this case it was created, of course, for pest control.  Let this little critter keep your home free of cockroaches and other unwanted insects!  (Admittedly, it’s a bit of a fire hazard, and it may spew a bit of coal smoke…  But hey, those Victorian-era inventors never allowed themselves to be held back by minor details like that.)
        Then there’s a very different piece, also completed just before the new year, but actually the end point of a very long history.  It is made of two separate blocks, and the black block - just the outlines of the place setting - was carved twenty years ago in 2002 or 2003.  (Oh my goodness, “twenty years ago”… I almost gave myself a heart attack just thinking about it!)  But it was, frankly, boring, and I never printed it.  Then about a year or so ago I rediscovered the block and started thinking about how I might do something fun with it.  I considered watercoloring a background, and I considered printing it on patterned paper…  But eventually, after long, intermittent mulling, I decided to carve a second block to go with it.  I’m kind of obsessed with blue and white china, and blue and white tablecloths for my dining room, so obviously that’s what sort of place setting this was going to be.  As usual, registration (lining up the two blocks) was the hardest part, so I ended up having to print and discard a ton of extras that didn’t come out.  But in the end I am pretty pleased with it.  But then, I may be biased, what with my blue-and-white obsession.  We’ll see whether the rest of the world likes it!
        I began the new year with a bang, hanging a solo show at the Newton Public Library on the third.  I managed to fit 38 pieces into the exhibit space, for a show entitled Wonders Everywhere.  The theme is really just the theme of all the art I ever do!  The show will be up through the month of January.
        Meanwhile I was already starting preparations for the Arisia art show, which will be up at the Boston Westin Waterfront Hotel January 13-16 during the convention.  I plan to hang no fewer than 60 pieces on my allotted panels.  Yes, I know, I know, you shouldn’t overcrowd your display… People can focus on and admire each individual piece better if there’s space around… It will all look more clean and slick and professional if it’s not a big jumble… Viewers can get a better sense of how a piece might look hanging on their own wall… Less is more… I know, I know, and I believe it all.  But I just can’t help myself.  If I bring fewer pieces, people will see fewer pieces.  And they can’t enjoy what they never saw.  So I shrug and fit in as many pieces as I can.  Which means that this month I need to have just shy of 100 pieces of art framed and hung simultaneously, which is why the past couple of weeks I have been madly matting and framing and laying out arrangements of art all over the floor.  But I’m on the home stretch now, and looking forward to Arisia.
        Meanwhile, all the December shows are over, so yesterday I had to drive out and pick up pieces from a show in Lexington, while tomorrow I’ll have to drive in and pick up a piece from a show in Jamaica Plain.
        Meanwhile, work is beginning to ramp back up in organizing Strong Women-Strange Worlds author readings (I’ll be one of the authors presenting my work on March 3) and organizing Needham Open Studios (which will be May 6-7).
        Meanwhile, I’m not getting any writing done, but I certainly can’t complain that I don’t have enough to keep me busy!  (And I am trying to keep up-to-date with submissions of the stories and poems I do have.)  For my next creative endeavor I have to think of some little block to carve as a demo during workshops at Arisia.  Any ideas?


[Pictures: Steam-Powered Insectivore, rubber block print by AEGN, 2022;

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

Black and rufous elephant shrew, photo by AEGN, 2009;

A Place at the Table, rubber block print from two blocks, AEGN, 2022.]

December 28, 2022

Words of the Month - Finding the Present Tense

         It’s all the rage these days to write novels in the present tense.  The idea is supposed to be that present tense somehow makes the narration more “immediate,” more “cinematic” as if you’re watching events unfold as they happen, and more “authentic,” as if there is no filter between the action and the narration.  For young adult writing in particular, present tense seems to be practically required these days, because “everyone knows” that the YA audience demands that immediate personal immersion.  I hate it.
        The “cinematic” claim makes no sense to me, because in any narrative you’re always watching events unfold as they happen.  You can read only one sentence at a time no matter what tense that sentence is written in.  The only difference with present tense is that you get less of a narrator overlaying their current knowledge or emotions onto events that took place in the past.  Still, I don’t think the “more cinematic” claim really has much substance.
        As for the claim of being “more authentic,” the thing is, present tense is actually artificial, contrived, and nonsensical, because people don’t naturally tell stories in the present tense.  Anecdotes, certainly… “So I’m standing in the check-out line and this bloke in front of me has a cart full of pickles.  Seriously, there are like 80 jars of pickles in there!  And then he goes, 
‘You need to put each one in a separate bag so they don’t clink,’ and the bagger has this look on their face like WTF…”  Anecdotes can be told in the present tense because they exist in a single moment - everything occurs in a period of time brief enough that it can all be a single “present.”  But any story that takes place over days, weeks, months is never naturally told in the present tense because that wouldn’t make sense.  If someone were to tell the story about how they see the pickle man every week, and what they’ve learned about his background, and how the pickle drama unfolds over time, complete with thrilling climax and eventual resolution, they would tell that story in the past tense.  "The first time I saw the pickle bloke, he was in front of me in the checkout line, and he had about 80 jars of pickles in his cart..."  It can’t all be in the same present, so some of it must be in the past.  Therefore, use of the present tense in a story that wouldn’t naturally be told in present tense by any normal, rational person, is a constant, niggling, irritating reminder that the author thought they were being clever and modern.  And any time the writing is a constant reminder of the author, so far from being “more immediate,” it yanks the reader right out of the fictional narrative.
        Today’s younger readers may well not find the present tense distracting and off-putting.  After all, they’ve been trained to expect present tense narrative as the standard convention of fiction aimed at them.  They’re used to it as a literary device.  And when I say that I find it as irritating as fingernails on a chalkboard, I speak as one who actually remembers chalkboards and fingernails thereon, so I am clearly not the YA target audience.  The fact remains, however, that present tense is at best a literary convention and not a natural “authentic” narrative structure.  If a book is sufficiently engaging I can sometimes go for pages at a time without being painfully aware of the author’s artificiality, but there have been many books in which the first few paragraphs of present tense narration were enough to convince me that this story was not worth reading.
        I recently read a Middle Grade novel in present tense, with which I was rather disappointed.  The use of present tense added absolutely nothing, and came across as the new cliché in writing for younger readers.  It also accentuated the constant, heavy-handed statement of what the narrator was thinking and feeling, rather than descriptions or actions that would have evoked those thoughts and feelings.  I also recently read The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, which intersperses third person sections with first person sections.  Present tense narration is almost always linked with first person, and yet Osman uses present tense for the third person sections, while the first person sections are in past tense, as any real first person would really naturally speak or write in relating the story of what they’ve been experiencing.  So I simultaneously appreciate that Osman gave Joyce an authentic past tense voice, and wonder why he had to go and put the third person parts in gimmicky, contrived, irritating present tense.
        As for my own writing, I have written a short story in present tense, partly as an exercise, and partly because it really did seem like the right voice for that particular story - which does indeed take place in a very immediate, short time frame, in which the narrator is very much focussed on only one moment at a time.  So, yes, of course there can be a place for present tense stories - we have this wonderfully rich and complex language because we have a wonderfully rich and complex array of things we want to communicate in wonderfully rich and complex ways!  But for myself, I think the current fashion for present tense narration is more often than not distancing where it claims to be immediate, artificial where it claims to be authentic, and altogether annoying!  What do you think?  Love it?  Hate it?  Couldn’t care less?


[Pictures: The Back of the Clock, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011;

Pickle Magic, woodblock print by Lisa Toth, 2012 (Image from LisaToth).]

December 23, 2022

More Merry Christmas!

         Each year as we approach Christmas I think about posting some Christmas-themed block prints and (unlike with the Hanukkah illustrations) there seems to be a nearly inexhaustible supply of them to share.  Sure, there are similarities among the many illustrations of mothers and infants, stables and stars, but there are also wonderful variations in the ways different artists have approached the two thousand year old motifs of Christmas.  To see those I’ve posted in the past, you can revisit these posts:

Nativity 1

Nativity 2

Nativity 3

Merry Christmas! (2021)

Merry Christmas! (2019)

Merry Christmas! (2018)

Los Pastores

        This year I have yet another selection of beautiful nativity scenes.  We start with my favorite of this batch, by Emma Schlangenhausen.  I like the haloes, and the glowing baby.  Interestingly, there are no people in the scene besides Mary and Jesus, but just a host of angels flocking to adore him.  There are, however, sheep and one shepherd visible out on the distant hills.  Perhaps the angels have already given them the good news and then zipped on ahead to visit Jesus while 
the shepherds have to make their way through the night.
        Today’s second piece, by Rufino Tamayo, also features angels beside Mary, but otherwise it’s very different.  Instead of solid blacks and whites, it’s all rough lines of texture.  Instead of a glowing baby Jesus, the baby isn’t even really visible, but is presumably nestled in his crescent-moon-shaped manger.  Between the manger like a moon and the straw morphing into cloud-like shapes, this almost seems to place Madonna and Child up in the sky.
        Mary is accompanied by lots of people in the third piece, by Fritz Eichenberg.  The triptych composition is quite traditional, and works well to focus on Mary and Jesus while still including the other elements of the story.  I’m not sure whether the men on the right are meant to be the three wise men.  If so, they’re certainly not dressed as kings, and their gifts are not the traditional caskets of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  I particularly like the tenderness on the face of the man standing to the left, who may be Joseph.
        And finally, a medieval Madonna.  In medieval art, Jesus never looks like a newborn, and Mary tends to look a little sour, but this still has some beautiful touches.  I like the haloes with crowns, and the folds of the robes.  Saint Ulrich on the left actually has a funny little smile (and holds a fish, in the odd way of saints).  But my favorite part is the framing at the top, where branches suggest an architectural arch over the people, with leaves and flowers suggesting the night sky and stars.
        The thing about the Christmas story is that we can keep repeating it year after year, and while different people find resonance (or not) in some of the various details, I think just about everyone can take joy in the reminder that love is born in even the smallest and most humble corners of the world.


[Pictures: Weihnacht, wood block print by Emma Schlangenhausen, 1933 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Virgin, woodcut by Rufino Tamayo, 1928-30 (Image from Davis Museum);

Nativity scene, woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg, 20th century (Image from Davis Museum);

The Madonna and Child between Saints Ulrich and Afra, hand colored woodcut, Augsburg school, c. 1490s (Image from Davis Museum).]

December 19, 2022

Illuminated Creatures

         Each year during Hanukkah I think about posting some Hanukkah-themed wood block prints from renaissance Jewish prayer books.  But the iconography of these illustrations doesn’t vary much, and I think I’ve exhausted them as a topic of interest.  While I was thinking about these beautiful old prayer books, though, I was reminded of the really wonderful illuminations in some of the pre-print versions.  So today, having nothing at all to do with Hanukkah after this magnificent opening menorah, I celebrate by sharing some of the marvelous magical marginalia I’ve discovered in illuminated Hebrew manuscripts.
        As with all kinds of marginalia in medieval manuscripts, the illustrations may have no connection with the subject and content of the text.  These creatures are, for the most part, akin to doodles: whatever the artist felt like at the time, although perhaps informed by larger themes associated with the work or the patron who commissioned it.  I certainly don’t know any particular background to these examples I’m 
sharing today, and take them at face value as magical monsters.
        My favorite is the green dragon, painted in the fifteenth century, which fits quite well with my modern ideas of how a dragon should look, despite being a little furry around the chin.  It’s got nice details, including a triple-forked tongue, sharp little fangs, and touches of gold to highlight the edge of the wing.  It looks like it might be suitable for a pet dragon, because although there’s really no indication of scale, I picture it being relatively manageable in size, and it’s got a grin like a dog.
        The next piece has four creatures (plus feline heads in the four corners), and although the one on the right is probably a pretty ordinary antelope, and the one on the left may be a panther or some such big cat, but the two on the 
top are definitely marvels.  The winged dragonoid has ears and eyes like a hound, and a wispy beard and tail.
        Next (topped by another panther/lion) is another selection of winged wyvern-like beasties.  They have botanical tails adding to the fantastical mix.  The monsters in the inset have an even wider variety of parts, including human arms on the antlered, plant-breathing thing to the right, while the thing on the left has two human heads, a crocodilian tail, and odd webby hands (or perhaps they’re feet).  The one in the center has gorgeous wings, great curly horns, feet worthy of a T. rex, and a beautiful pattern down its neck.  I’m hoping the one on the left doesn’t manage to hurt it with the enormous club!
        And I end with another illumination from the same thirteenth-century prayer book with which we began, and another detailed and complicated illustration fully inhabited by interesting critters.  I like the architectural framing of the whole things, like a castle full of magic.  There are lions, dogs, and a crane/egret, but also a variety of creatures with heads like lions or “serpents,” tails sprouting into leaves and flowers, and some with wings.  The one on the top right actually has more bat-like wings, unlike the bird-like wings more common for medieval dragons.
        Well, it may not be a traditional Hanukkah gift, but I hope you enjoyed today’s magical monsters.


[Pictures: Menorah, folio 226v from Rothschild Pentateuch, 1296 (Image from Getty Museum);

Dragon, folio 44v from Mahzor festival prayer book, 1450-1474 (Image from British Library);

Assorted creatures, folio  294 from Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, 1300-1325 (Image from British Library);

Marginalia, folio 5v from Northern French Pentateuch, 1277-1286 (Image from British Museum);

Illumination, folio 106r from Festival Prayer book, 1300-1329 (Image from British Museum);

Illumination, folio 130 from Rothschild Pentateuch, 1296 (Image from Getty Museum).]