October 16, 2020


         In the state of Rajasthan in northern India, a traditional use of block printing is the making of jajam floor spreads.  Jajam are large cotton textiles that look to my eye like heavy bedspreads or tablecloths, but their use is right there in the name: Jajam means “coming together, gathering” and their use was to spread out on the floor for people to sit on, in a whole variety of social gatherings.  They were used for weddings, festivals, village council meetings, and all sorts of social events, and a jajam might be owned by a family, a temple, or communally owned by multiple families or an entire village.  A jajam might be included as part of a dowry, might be custom made to fit a particular courtyard or floor space, or might be given as an offering to a temple.  Clearly they speak to a community-oriented village life which began to disappear in 
the mid-20th century 
when many people migrated to cities and the traditional ways of village life began to erode.
  With the erosion of the village traditions, the physical craft of printing jajam also began to disappear.  Luckily, there are some people celebrating the craft, preserving traditional jajam, and promoting new work for those artists who still practice the skills of the art.
        I’m looking at this primarily from a block printing perspective, so here are some of the things I find coolest about jajam as a printmaking medium.  For one thing, the designs are printed with carved teak wood blocks, which I understand, but it seems that these blocks are in some way packed with wool scraps, which I do not understand.  It seems to have something to do with making the block absorb ink.  In addition to printing with ink, the designs may also be 
printed with mud as a resist, and then the whole cloth dyed, leaving the printed areas un-dyed.
  The most common traditional colors are red and black (and the cream of the fabric).  I also learned that the printing is done on tables padded with multiple layers of cotton, which makes sense for getting a good, solid impression.  The designs are largely geometric, with multiple borders surrounding a patterned central area.  The borders may include botanical motifs, animals, and people, as well as geometric designs, and apparently borders of fierce things such as tigers, elephants, and warriors are thought to symbolize protection of all the people sitting on the jajam within the border.
        Perhaps my favorite thing of all is that the center of a jajam frequently includes a printed chaupad game board, which is in a cross shape.  Chaupad is related to pachisi, and I love the thought that it might be played not only at a family gathering, but perhaps as a break in the middle of a long village council meeting, too!
        As you can imagine, a fabric that people are sitting and walking on takes a lot of wear, and it seems that there are not a lot of very old samples of jajam still surviving.  I wish I could have found more pictures, and of course I really wish I could magically visit the Anokhi Museum in Jaipur, which is in collaboration with the Wabisabi Project, my main source of information for this blog post.
        I think this is the perfect time to revive an art form that celebrates people sitting around together playing board games, although unfortunately we still need to wait a little longer before we gather the whole village together on one jajam.  Maybe we’d better block print some fabric for masks, too, while we’re at it.

[Pictures: Jajam from Marwar region, printed by Usman Alarakha Chhipa, c 1960 (Image from Wabisabi Project);
Detail of traditional syahi-begar jajam, printed by Devi Sahay Chhipa, c 1997 (Image from Anokhi Museum);

Details from jajam (no specific information);
Block with motifs inspired by architecture, carved by Abdul Sattar Kharadi;
Stuffing wool into a block (namda), by Rashid Ahmed (Images from Wabisabi Project);
Printing a block (no specific information) (Images from Wabisabi Project documentary trailer);
Printing  a large jajam (no specific information) (Image from Wabisabi Project);
Jajam from Ajmer region, printed by Kanniyalal Chhipa, c 1958 (Image from Wabisabi Project);
Children sitting on a jajam (no specific information) (Image from Wabisabi Project).]

By the way, chhipa means “wood block carver”!

October 12, 2020


         Back in April I finally got around to trying an experiment I’d been mulling for three years.  I first got the idea from a couple of pieces I saw in Wellesley College’s Davis Art Museum back in 2017.  They were drypoint etchings made by South African artist William Kentridge, which you can see in my previous post here.  I’m not usually particularly interested in etchings, but these were cool because instead of a plain copper plate, the carved plates were old vinyl records.  Some time after seeing these pieces in the museum, I found a stack of vintage records at our town dump’s reuse-it shed, and grabbed a couple for experimentation.  At some point I took the next step and sketched some ideas for what to carve on a record, but even after that those records sat on my table for I don’t know how long before we went into lockdown in the spring, and I felt a little more urgency to do something.
      Let me tell you first about the record I used as a block.  It is a collection of Polkas by Lawrence Welk and His Champagne Music, from 1949 (Decca DL 5139).  I carved the B side, and if you’re really curious about the cultural treasure I defaced, you can actually listen to the pieces through the magic of the internet: Clarinet Polka, Pound Your Table Polka, Barbara Polka, and Friendly Tavern Polka.  (I would have thought this was beer music rather than champagne music, but what does a tee-totaller like me know about drinking?)
        The next question was What to carve?  I thought that it should have a musical theme, and it seemed obvious to make a little parade of musical critters marching around and around.  The critters themselves were inspired by another artist, Austrian-American Helen Siegl.  You can see my previous post about her charming monsters here.  My extra idea was to imagine creatures that weren’t just playing instruments but were instruments.  The critters featured on my piece are

• the Tufted Hornbeak, with its trumpet bill

• the Drumbelly, which is a species of gnome

• the Calliopine, which has hollowed quills, each tuned to a different note, through which it can blow air with amazing volume

• the Double-Belled Euphonibun, with tuba and trombone bells sprouting from its head, and an exceptionally elongated body for a pleasing tone and wide range

• the Harp-Finned Walkingcod, with its fin and tail formed of fine strings of tendon, together with its symbiotic partner the Melodious Octopodious, which is capable of plucking multiple notes simultaneously on both fin and tail

        The actual process of carving this unconventional block was much harder than usual.  The first difficulty was transferring my design to the grooved surface of a record.  I used carbon paper, which put down enough of a mark to function as a guide, although it was far from clearly detailed.  The second difficulty was carving.  My first attempt was simply scratching with an awl, but after first experiments it became clear that my scratches weren’t deep or thick enough to show up against the background noise of the record’s own texture.  I turned then to my mini Dremel Moto-tool and small-headed carving bits.  It took some experimentation to minimize throwing up burrs at the edges of my carving, and I ended up having to do quite a bit of scraping and buffing to get rid of burrs, edges, and tailings.  It was quite tiring for my hand, as well, and I didn’t like to carve for more than about half an hour at a time before taking a break.  I also ended up going back over most of my carving a couple of times, trying to make it show up better.  As you can see, it’s still a matter of fine lines without any larger areas of white or subtlety of texture.
        The printing stage was yet another challenge.  Kentridge printed his etched records intaglio, which means he forced ink down into his carved areas (and the records’ grooves) and wiped it off of the raised areas.  I printed relief, with the ink staying on the top edges of the groove and not going down into the carved areas.  Because of the record’s texture, the whole thing is basically grey instead of solid black.  I was quite pleased, however, that I got a subtle lithographic effect on the record’s label, where the ink Decca used to print their label repelled my ink slightly, so that you can see the writing in my print.  I think that’s cool.
        This is another of those experiments that I don’t expect to do again, while still being quite tickled by the way it turned out.  As for whether anyone else will enjoy it, it may be a while before I know.  I had expected that this piece would have been shown in several exhibitions by now, and I’d have had a sense of whether it was getting any love — but with all my shows cancelled, that was not to be.  Hopefully these cheerful musical beasties will still get their coming out someday, and when they do I hope they make a joyful noise indeed.

[Pictures: Parade, relief block print by AEGN, 2020;
carved record by AEGN;
details from Parade, AEGN, 2o2o.]

October 7, 2020

Spring-Heeled Jack

         Spring-Heeled Jack was a creature who haunted Victorian England with violent and terrifying antics, becoming a widespread and famous urban legend of the era.  From his first reported sighting in 1837 to his fading away around 1904, Spring-heeled Jack terrorized and thrilled London and a wide array of other towns all the way to Scotland.  He was said to look devilish, sometimes including horns and eyes like balls of red fire.  He was tall and thin, breathed blue flame, grabbed and scratched victims with metallic claws, and seemed to be impossible to injure with gunshot.  The trait that gave him his name was his ability to leap ten or even 20 feet high at a bound, and he used his jumping prowess both to attack and to escape.  As for his attacks, they seem to have fallen into a few different categories: sometimes he accosted young women and ripped at their clothes, sometimes he caused carriages to crash by leaping in front of them, while sometimes he rang doorbells and then terrified the person who answered.  He was blamed for at least one death, but seems on the whole not to have been as murderous as many phantom attackers.
        In some ways this all sounds not terribly interesting, but there are a few things about Spring-heeled Jack that are worth a closer look.  First of all, what sort of entity was he: something monstrous and supernatural, or just a man playing macabre pranks?  Many people seemed to assume that he was simply a human, possibly a young aristocrat playing pranks on a wager.  The metallic claws were often described as something he wore on his fingertips, rather than being his own demonic growth, and one newspaper report said he had springs on the soles of his boots.  On the other hand, his leaping feats (even with springs), not to mention his ability to breathe fire, were clearly not the behavior of a mere mischievous human, and some people believed he was something of ghost or devil kind.  Given Jack’s longevity and wide range, if he were not supernatural, there would have to be multiple men playing the part, possibly an originator of the type, followed by copycats.  I find it interesting that opinion was divided throughout the period on whether he was an ordinary human villain or a supernatural entity.  One Thomas Millbank was actually arrested and tried for one of the Spring-heeled Jack attacks in 1938, but was acquitted simply because the victim insisted that her attacker had breathed fire, and Mr Millbank demonstrably could not.
        So widely known was Spring-heeled Jack that he was invoked as a bogeyman to scare children into obedience.  By 1838 there were already three pamphlets circulating with tales of Spring-heeled Jack, and there followed a number of penny dreadfuls about the character.  The other interesting thing about Spring-heeled Jack is that in this literature he morphed from a demonic villain into a hero.  By 1900 he was basically Batman, a costumed avenger.  Presumably this change in character happened as people became less genuinely afraid of him, but I think it illustrates an interesting literary truth: endow a character with interesting abilities, including the ability to get away with things unscathed, and people will be fascinated.  Once people are fascinated by a character, they seem unable to think he’s all bad, and the next thing you know there are ballads about Robin Hood, broadsides celebrating romantic highwaymen, and millions of words of fan fic about Boba Fett.  Which brings us to our current renewed fascination with Spring-heeled Jack, who has recently appeared in a number of video games, books, and TV shows set in Victorian London.
        What was he really?  Or more likely, what were they?  Humans playing wicked pranks?  Aliens?  Ghosts?  Demons?  Monsters?  Who knows, but more than 150 years after his first appearance, Spring-heeled Jack seems to have been welcomed with open arms into the annals of fantasy.

[Pictures: Ad for a penny dreadful, engraving from 1886;
Engraving from penny dreadful, OR from The London Gazette, 1839 (Images from Wikimedia Commons);
Spring-Heeled Jack Jumping on Newport Arch, engraving from The Illustrated Police News, 1877;
Illustration from The Lincolnshire Guardian and News, 1864 (Images from Deadpan Flook).]

October 2, 2020

Symbiote City

        I have completed a new block print inspired by the idea of life on Venus, and I wanted to share some of the thought behind the design.  If you really want the full story, you should review the earlier post on Life on Venus, which lays out the scientific background, and why I began thinking about jellyfish.  So, I was imagining creatures evolved from jellyfish-like organisms, floating around in the cloud deck of Venus’s atmosphere.  I had a lot of fun carving the thick, swirling clouds representing the atmosphere, and I picked my weird color combination because I thought it evoked muggy, poisonous gases.  The ink colors are actually black and yellow.  One of the weird quirks about mixing pigments is that while you mix black with colors to get dark blue, dark red, dark green, dark purple, you never really get “dark yellow.”  It just ends up looking green instead.  So that’s how I depicted the atmosphere of Venus.
        The creatures, however, are less straightforward, and they illustrate an interesting point about creating strange new things.  The seed of my idea was that all Venusian life would be evolved from medusae.  (That’s the scientific word for jellyfish.)  Presumably these creatures have had as long to evolve as, say, the first things to crawl out of the oceans on Earth.  They could therefore be as diverse as all vertebrates, from snakes to hummingbirds to fish to giraffes to frogs to whales to ostriches to dachshunds to turtles to humans.  If I were writing a sci fi novel about life on Venus, I could depict all manner of creatures, as wide a diversity as I could imagine.  In one little illustration, however, I can’t.  Why not?  Because the idea behind the picture was that life on Venus evolved from jellyfish, and if I depicted creatures diverse enough not to look like jellyfish, no one would any longer be able to recognize the idea.  If I were capable of greater detail and precision in my carving, I’m sure I could have stretched the bounds a little further while including more subtle clues about my creatures’ origins.  However,  in the end, with the limits of my ability, I couldn’t really get wildly creative without losing the focus.
        I was taken with the idea of creatures evolving symbiotically, and imagined that very large medusae could house smaller ones.  With no solid surface land in the cloud deck, these huge ones would be floating islands, providing both a ground to build on and a protective dome inside which other organisms could thrive.  The symbiotic smaller medusae have four tentacles more like an octopus, with which they are capable of manipulating their world with great dexterity.  Likewise, there's no reason that intelligent, dextrous jellyfish should, when building towns, come up with anything even remotely like human towns.  Yet I've made mine look fairly humanoid so that my humanoid viewers can recognize it as a town.
        Then there’s another little type of jellyfish inside the dome, and I picture these perhaps processing the chemicals in the atmosphere in a way that makes them useful so that the dome dwellers have domesticated them.  Perhaps there are also species that are kept as pets.  To the lower right a flock of them is fleeing to the safety of the island dome’s tentacles, pursued by a large predatory medusa.  To the left and in the upper right corner are a couple of other species.  The fact is, though, that they all look a lot like basic Earth jellyfish, and not nearly as wild and alien as they could actually be in real life, if real life actually evolved on Venus.  I alluded to this before in my discussion of the poem Jabberwocky, because nonsense and sci fi/fantasy both have to balance the known with the unknown, the strange with the relatable, and the wildest stretches of the imagination with the intelligibility of the story to be told.  This piece is not intended to be a great flight of world-building bravura, but is rather a just-for-fun whimsy.

[Picture: Symbiote City (Venusian Medusae), rubber block print by AEGN, 2020;
the carved block, photo by AEGN, 2020.] 

September 28, 2020

Words of the Month - Athenian Democracy

         With the significance of early voting and voting by mail for this year’s elections in the USA, I thought it would be interesting to take an early look at some of the words that English has derived from classical Athens and its democracy.  However, I’m not talking about words like democracy itself (which means literally “people power or rule”), but rather a few words that have strayed a little from their original meanings and may surprise you.

idiot - The literal meaning was “private person,” with the sense of one who lacks a professional skill and does not take part in public affairs.  Pericles is supposed to have said “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all,” and some have argued that it was the Athenian attitude toward people who failed to participate in politics that shifted the sense of the word to “an ignorant or foolish person.”  However, its current definition may have come more by way of class snobbery, as in Latin it had come to mean “uneducated, ignorant.”  By Middle English it meant “a mentally deficient person.”  In any case, I hope you will not be an idiot this year, but will educate yourself (with actual facts) and take part in exercising the power of the people.

parasite - The literal meaning was “one who eats at another’s table,” with the sense of a hanger-on or sponger.  The parasitos became a stock character in fourth century Greek comedy, but the word may have been used to refer not only to those who were literally fed by others in return for flattery, but also those who reaped the benefits of Athenian life while failing to work for the city-state or participate in its democracy.  I find it particularly interesting that the scientific definition of “an organism that lives in or on another species while offering no benefit in return” is the meaning derived metaphorically from the freeloading human, rather than the other way around.

liturgy - The literal meaning was “public works,” and specifically it was a service that citizens of sufficient wealth were required to perform for the state at their own expense.  These services included sponsoring public performances, festivals, and cultural events, all the way up to paying for the building and manning of warships.  In medieval Latin the word had come to mean “a public religious service or public worship,” and from there we shifted to the current meaning of “collective formulas for the conduct of divine services in Christian churches.”  It isn’t hard to see how public works and religious works were inextricably entwined in cultures from classical Athens to medieval Europe, where church and state were not separated.  Now, however, perhaps it would behoove us to reconsider the idea of moral obligations to care for the welfare of the entire populace of our nation.

ostracism - The literal meaning was “the practice of using potsherds,” and what the Athenians used potsherds for was a medium on which to write the name of a political figure they felt should be banished.  Anyone whose name appeared on enough of these potsherds when the votes were counted was banished from Athens for 10 (or possibly 5) years, so it was severe, but not permanent.  The system was intended to limit any one man gaining a dangerous amount of power, and to get rid of one seen as an embarrassment to the state.  The connection to our modern meaning is obvious, and English was using the word to mean “expulsion or exclusion from society” by the early 17th century.

        Although we like to talk about Athenian democracy now, it was not considered a success through most of history, and our modern so-called democracies were philosophically based more on the republic of Rome than the democracy of Athens.  Be that as it may, this year it is more important than ever to vote safely (use early voting or vote-by-mail if you can, to avoid crowds) and vote for inclusion, justice, and love.

[Picture: The Greek Assembly - Oration of Demosthenes, wood engraving by HMP, from Ridpath’s Universal History, 1894.]

September 23, 2020

Life on Venus?

         There has been much recent excitement over the report that scientists have discovered levels of the chemical phosphine in the atmosphere of the planet Venus.  This is exciting because phosphine is produced by microbes and thus could be an indicator of life on Venus or, to be more specific, in its atmosphere.  If you haven’t seen the news, you can read about it here.  Of course the idea of life on other planets is also of great interest in the field of speculative fiction, so today I’m leaping straight from the cautious scientific possibilities of hypothetical microbes to imagining complex and potentially intelligent alien life.
        First, a quick review of how sci fi writers have imagined Venusian life in the past: Venus is often called Earth’s twin, and in the early days of science fiction Venusians seemed as plausible as any other space aliens.  First Venus was generally understood to be tropical jungle and/or largely oceanic, then it was presumed to be harsh desert, in both cases with the appropriate fauna.  I haven’t read or seen any of these myself, but according to various sources the Venusians may include creatures that are a blend of elephants and horse-flies (Fred. T. Jane, 1897), spider-like shelks (Charles R. Tanner, 1930’s), serpent or lizard people (Lumley and Lovecraft, 1930’s), green humanoids (C.S. Lewis, 1940’s), giant frog-like amphibians (Captain Marvel, 1940’s), Aphrodite-worshipping fairies (Wonder Woman, 1942), grinning cones (“It Conquered the World” 1956), three-eyed chefs (“The Twilight 
Zone” 1961), animated plants (Arthur C. Clark, 1960’s), three-headed green Fearians (“Challenge of the Super Friends” 1978), horse-sized bees (Jacqueline Susann, 1979), snakes with sulfur blood (Ben Bova, 2000), or many other variations, especially of humanoids and dinosaurians.  It seems that a very high proportion of Venusians are either driven to extinction by humans, or do their darnedest to drive humans to extinction.
        Sci fi is concerned with exploring big questions such as war and peace, relationships with the “other,” evolution and extinction, what it is possible to do and whether it is right to do something just because it’s possible… and of course, sometimes it’s also simply about telling a rip-roaring adventure yarn.  In any case, when writers imagine aliens, it’s about the story they’re trying to tell, influencing whether the aliens are more or less intelligent than humans, more or less aggressive or warlike, more or less enlightened, and so on.  But I’m not telling a story here, so I’m just thinking about what sounds cool to me!  If life were to exist on Venus, it would probably have to exist in the particular level of the atmosphere where the temperature and pressure levels are not quite as extreme, but even there the atmosphere is full of sulfuric acid.  Any life in this “cloud deck” would clearly have to be quite different from life on earth.  Again, however, I’m just imagining what sounds cool, so I look at these various factors and imagine… jellyfish.  If life had actually evolved in the oceans of Venus before runaway greenhouse effect turned the planet’s surface into a searing hot hellscape, why not have aquatic life adapt to move up into the atmosphere?  And what aquatic life would be more suited to floating up into the clouds than jellyfish?  Here are a few fun facts about jellyfish that make them seem particularly plausible as candidates to evolve in the oceans of Venus and then continue adapting as conditions there changed.
   * Jellyfish are the oldest multi-organ animals on earth, making them basic enough to evolve in the first place, with plenty of time to evolve further.
   * Jellyfish are the most energy-efficient swimmers of all animals, so they need relatively less energy to get around.
   * Jellyfish have a variety of ways to reproduce, including asexual budding and sexual combining of egg and sperm; and different species have all manner of variations in their life stages.  All this variety makes it more possible that some version might be adaptable to any of the changing conditions Venus might throw at them.  Whether they need to anchor or swim free, protect developing polyps or broadcast them through the ocean, there’s a jellyfish that does it.
   * Some jellyfish have mutualistic algae growing inside them, and others have symbiotic relationships with single-celled planktons, giving them yet more ways to collect and process energy and nutrition, and yet more possibilities for different ways to interact with their environment.
   * Jellyfish often benefit from disturbed ecosystems, such as lower oxygen, higher salt, or turbid water, which implies that they would be more likely than many other species to survive and adapt to catastrophic changes to their environment on Venus.
        So, imagine a world that is a narrow band of cloud encircling a planet.  Imagine not just your most stereotypical image of an Earth-ocean jellyfish, but every sort of ecological niche filled by the descendants of jellyfish-like creatures.  Huge balloons the size of whales could drift through the clouds dangling kilometers of winnowing tentacles as they feed on vast swarms of single-celled creatures or tiny jellies only a few millimeters in size.  Other jellyfish could live in the lowest band of the cloud deck, scavenging the creatures that lose their buoyancy and sink.  There could be swift-moving jellyfish, having bells that can expel spurts of gas like a deflating balloon, sending them shooting through the clouds either as predators or as prey.  Various senses could have evolved, including sight, sound, and smell, but also different ways of perceiving their world, such as sensing heat or electrical currents or vibrations.  There 
could be jellyfish that evolved ways to move and control their tentacles more precisely, so that they might be capable of all the physical manipulation made possible for humans by upright stance and opposable thumbs.  There could be jellyfish large enough that other sorts of jellyfish build cities inside them, forming symbiotic relationships as island city-states floating through the atmosphere.
So that’s what I’m imagining.  What about you?  If there were to be life on Venus, what do you imagine it could be like?  (You can see what I came up with here.)

[Pictures: Plate 78: Cubomedusae;
Plate 36: Leptomedusae;
Plate 26: Trachomedusae;
Plate 46: Anthomedusae;
Plate 88: Discomedusae;
Plate 16: Narcomedusae, all from Kunstformen der Natur (Art-forms of Nature) by Ernst Haeckel, lithographs by Adolf Giltsch from drawings by Haeckel, 1904 (Images from Wikimedia Commons).]

September 18, 2020

Dancing with Color

        Back in early May I had a craving for something bright, colorful, energetic, and cheerful.  Quite probably this grew out of sheltering-at-home and the oppressive grey feeling of so much of life these days.  At any rate, most of my block prints are black and white or maybe another dark color or two, and I wanted something brighter.  My mind turned to Matisse collages.
        When I used to teach middle school art full time, one of my favorite projects was Matisse collages.  We looked at the collages Henri Matisse (France, 1869-1954) made in his collection Jazz, and analyzed the color schemes and emotional impact, and the way Matisse used the colored paper.  He didn’t just cut out various shapes and glue them down, positive space on a background.  Rather, he cut out shapes and then used both those shapes and the leftover pieces of paper from around those shapes: negative space.  After we talked about all this, I let the kids loose on the Fadeless Art Paper, which is sheer artistic heaven.  Unlike the 5 or 6 coarse, dull colors of cheap construction paper, Fadeless Art Paper comes in 20 or more rich, intense, smooth, luscious colors, in large 18x12 inch sheets.  (Do I sound like an advertisement?  I promise, I’m getting nothing from Fadeless for saying this!)  It is absolutely impossible for any child and most adults to see an array of this paper and not want to get right to work.
        Now, every time I assign a project to my students, I do it first, and the samples I had made for this Matisse collage project particularly pleased me.  Further, I would always make mini-collages out of leftover bits and scraps of paper while the kids worked on their assignments, and these collages are almost certainly my favorite abstract art I’ve ever done.  So when I craved bright color, I thought about the collage designs I’d done and decided to turn one of them into a print.
        My first thought was to do a separate block for each color, but then I decided I would try something new, and I devised a scheme to make stencils for each color.  So essentially the concept of this print is like silkscreen (which is how Matisse’s collages were reproduced), except without a screen to hold the stencils in place.  Definitely a rough-and-ready poor-artist’s version of the concept.
        Step 1 was to adapt the design to an aspect ratio that would fit better in a standard frame size AND could fit on 8.5x11 paper.  
        Step 2 was to make the outlines of all the shapes on the computer and then print 5 copies on lightweight card stock.  (Hence the need to fit on standard sized paper that could go through my printer.)
      Step 3 was to cut out the shapes with an x-acto knife.  On each of the five sheets I cut out all the shapes of one color.  (I had also had to do some slight modification to the design to ensure that there would be no untethered bits of card: no islands of color anywhere.)
         Step 4, to print, I laid down the first stencil and pounced the first color of ink through the cut-out areas.  I did only one color each day, and it was quite laborious — not nearly as much fun as printing blocks with a brayer!
        This method made for the occasional messy place when ink got under the edge of the stencil, and it was enough of a pain that I do not have any plans to do any more, despite having another design prepared.  Still, as an experiment I think it was 
pretty successful, and I am quite pleased with the bright, colorful, energetic, and cheerful 
final piece, which is just what I had been needing.  I hope it brings a little cheer to others, as well!

[Pictures: Dancing, collage by AEGN, c 1993;
Dancing, stencil print by AEGN, 2020;
Untitled mini-collage by AEGN, c 2015.]

September 14, 2020

Art Changes People

        It’s been a while since I quoted someone at you to prove again how important art, fantasy, and imagination are, but as we watch the swirling storm clouds over a world that cries out for change, it seems a good time.  First, here is writer Rebecca Solnit acknowledging the sometimes deep and invisible roots of change:

        After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork — or underground work — often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

        Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power.

        Of course I want to call attention to Solnit’s mention of the work done by writers, and add to that the work of artists.  One part of our job is to bring forth the mushrooms of imagination, taking tiny mycelial threads of ideas and popping them up into the white stalks and frilled and spotted caps that others may notice, and consider, and perhaps remember.  Our mushrooms loose their spores into the air, millions of miniscule specks, like particles of smoke, of which we never know when, whether, or where one may land in a hospitable environment and lead in time to the mushrooming forth of further imagination somewhere else.

        I try to avoid politics in this blog largely because, while I do not wish to be an ostrich with my head in the sand, nevertheless we all need places we can go to have respite from the stress.  Still, I have always maintained that art and writing do not exist merely as the negative space of not-stress.  They have an important job to do as the positive space of helping us imagine a better world, so that we can move toward it.  At times like the present I find it easy to feel like my small-time art and writing are not much, certainly not enough, and perhaps really a waste of time altogether.  And that’s when it’s important to remember the simple but powerful words of artist Joey Hartmann-Dow:

        Art changes people, and people change the world.

[Pictures: Wood block prints from The herbal, or, Generall historie of plantes by John Gerarde, enlarged and amended by Thomas Johnson, 1636 (Images from Internet Archive).]

Quotations from Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit, 2016 (as quoted by Maria Popova in “Brain Pickings”), and Joey Hartmann-Dow as quoted in Friends Journal, June/July 2018.

September 9, 2020

Abstract Prints by Drewes

        In the last post I shared a number of figurative wood block prints by Werner Drewes  (1899-1985, Germany/USA).  They were of a range of levels of realism, but all had recognizable subjects.  Today I’ll share a number of wholly abstract pieces by Drewes, because he is somewhat unusual in working extensively with both modes of expression, holding his own in the face of art-world fads.  What’s also somewhat unusual is that I really like a lot of his abstract stuff!
        To continue with the transition from representation to abstraction, the first piece today is called Islands, and it is definitely identifiable as such when you know what you’re supposed to be looking at.  I just love the colors, and I think the faceted shapes wonderfully capture the scintillation of sun on waves.
        The next two pieces also have titles that reveal Drewes’s real-world inspirations and give the viewer a hint about what’s being expressed.  However, they both are just one little step more abstract because I don’t think you’d guess the subjects just from looking at the pieces.  Want to try?  When you’ve made your guesses, you can check on the titles in the information at the end of the post.  So, did you know?  But even if you didn’t guess correctly, now that you know, look at the pieces again: the violent colors and sharp, stinging shapes of the purple one, and the warm, bright sparkles of the yellow one.  Now that you know what to look for, you can really see what Drewes was getting at, can’t you?
        I think all three of these color woodcuts have five colors each, and were carved and printed with five separate blocks each.
        Drewes also made abstract pieces with titles based on abstract concepts rather than tangible objects.  I didn’t pick any that were exactly that, but this next piece is entitled Intrusion, and clearly is more about capturing a feeling than just a purely physical description.  It’s an interesting balance of precise geometry and rough carving.

        The next piece is one of 10 prints from the portfolio It Can’t Happen Here, which Drewes made in 1934, after he had emigrated to the USA, fleeing from the rise of Nazism in Germany.  Although the individual pieces in the portfolio have purely abstract titles (Composition X), the overarching title leads me to see the predominant dark areas as oppressive and the sharp darts and angles as threatening.  It’s a title that I find particularly haunting in our present political climate.
        As the final piece today I share Dynamic Yellow, a title which gives the viewer no context, emotional cues, or message about how to interpret what they see.  This is pure abstraction, in which the only subject of the piece is itself, its own shapes and colors and composition.  I find it surprisingly pleasing, as I would have predicted that I wouldn’t care for the color combination or the primarily rectangular shapes.  It appears to use 8 inks, probably with 8 blocks.  I would love to see how Drewes came up with this composition, since wood block prints can’t be done as spontaneously as paintings, with modifications and going-with-the-flow changes.  (Though it is possible, of course, that he designed it first in painting, and then translated to printmaking.  That’s somewhat how I made my piece Dancing, which I think I’ll post about soon.)  How does this one make you feel?  How do you respond to it?

[Pictures: Islands, color woodcut by Werner Drewes, before 1971;
Scorpion, color woodcut by Drewes, 1946;
Summer Garden, color woodcut by Drewes, before 1969;
Intrusion, woodcut by Drewes, 1974;
Composition X - Dynamic Rhythm, woodcut by Drewes, 1934;
Dynamic Yellow, color woodcut by Drewes, 1982, (All pieces from Smithsonian American Art Museum).]