June 28, 2010

Block Prints: Ink or No Ink

The basic concept of a relief block print is simple:
1. carve a design into a block              2. ink it                          3. press onto something to print
4. repeat steps 2 and 3 as desired
        Your material could be wood, linoleum, rubber, a Styrofoam meat tray, a potato… (I use mostly rubber blocks, and sometimes wood.) Your ink could be printing ink, a stamp pad, acrylic paint, thick tempera paint, nice juicy markers… (I use proper block printing ink, usually Speedball brand.) And what you print onto could be paper, fabric… You get the idea. Simple. But as Anjar Co. trademarked in reference to their game Othello (another work in black and white), block printing takes a minute to learn but a lifetime to master.
        One of the first things most people notice when they try carving a block is that the printed image will be backwards (left to right) from the carved image. This isn’t as big a deal as you might think, for two reasons. One is that most pictures don’t really matter which side is left and which is right. The other reason is that a pencil sketch can be transferred to a rubber block by turning it onto the block and pressing from the back. This flips the image over for you so that you can draw the image in the same direction that it will ultimately print. Very handy! Unfortunately, you can’t use that technique with wood (or potatoes), so you do have to pay a little more attention to the backwards issue when designing a wood block. (Here's a wood block print in which I forgot to make my initials backwards when I sketched.)
        There is another “backwardness” to consider. When the carved block is inked, the ink will cover the highest areas, which are the ones that have been left uncarved. Anything that has been carved away will not get inked and will not print and will appear white (or whatever color your paper is). If you think about it, this is the opposite of an ordinary pen or pencil drawing in which the line you make is dark on a light background. When you carve a relief block, the line you carve will be white on a black (or ink-colored) background. (This is also the opposite of intaglio techniques, including engraving and etching, in which the ink goes down into the carved areas and is wiped off the raised areas, so that what prints is the same line that was carved.) Therefore you could think of relief printing as essentially a subtractive process, almost like carving a sculpture. You start with a solid block and take away, bit by bit, anything that isn’t the image you want. On the other hand, I don’t think of the white areas as merely the absence of black. White and black, ink and no ink, are equal parts of any image, and neither can have any meaning without the other. In the words of Ursula LeGuin, “Only in silence the word, only in dark the light…” And only in light the dark.
        Which brings us to what may be the main difference between basic relief printing and many other printmaking techniques such as etching, aquatint, and mezzotint, plus painting and most other visual art media. In relief printing there are no mid-tones, no grey. There is only black or white, ink or no ink. (Various color and wash techniques can be achieved through inking, as in Japanese printmaking, but not through the carving of the block itself.) I love to see the beautiful soft greys of other printing techniques, but part of what makes relief printing so much fun for me is the discipline of simplifying the complex gradations of all that our eyes see. And yet the simplification should not be a trivialization. Rather, it should be a paring down to the essence. The challenge I enjoy in block printing is neither to reproduce an object or scene with accurate realism, nor to come up with some new abstract vision. Rather, the challenge is to distill an image to its basics: there is only black and white, ink and no ink.

[Pictures: process photos by M.J.P.Grundy, T.P.Grundy, AEGN;
Iguana at Uxmal, wood block print by AEGN, 2008;
Cat Asleep, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999 (sold out).]

June 25, 2010

How Juvenile Fantasy Will Save the Earth

        All stories have some level of social agenda, (even if that agenda is merely to cater to the latest fad in the hope of making the author rich.)  From Gilgamesh to Twilight, the stories we tell and the stories we love to hear tell us about who we are, how we want the world to be, and what we believe to be true.   But what we believe to be true is often only the merest sliver of the truth that the world really holds.
        So-called realistic fiction is bound hand and foot by the “you couldn’t put it in a book” phenomenon.  Let a story stretch even an inch beyond the critics’ current narrow definition of what’s realistic and it will be condemned.   (That those conventions are not as “true” as we assume while we’re in the midst of them can be shown by the way the fashions of such conventions shift over time.  That would be a fascinating topic for a thesis that I don’t intend to write.  If you happen to be looking for a thesis idea, be my guest – and send me a copy when you’re done!)
        I first ran up against this when I was a kid and Judy Blume books were all the rage.  Judy Blume’s books were, I was assured, realistic.  They explored the issues that were, I was assured, vital to me as a child and a young adult, reflecting what I cared about in my school and my family, telling me what a “normal” child experiences…  There was just one problem.  I didn’t relate to Judy Blume’s characters, I wasn’t particularly concerned with her issues, I didn’t find her scenarios reflective of my life, and to the extent that they were, I didn’t care.  So, how realistic were those books to me, really?
        (I had to smile when I saw the phenomenon all over again last year.  My daughter T was in first grade and addicted to Rainbow Magic books.  My daughter’s teacher said in our conference that she was trying to encourage T to read more realistic books that had more to do with her own life – books, Ms. S. said, like Junie B. Jones.  Now, Rainbow Magic books, let me say right away, are not great literature, nor do they add anything to any discussion of morality.  They are merely harmless fluff.  But they are truly no less realistic than Junie B. Jones, with her kindergarten love affairs and her exaggerated misunderstandings, her thoughts and actions that are at least as foreign to my daughter’s six-year-old life as the idea of trying to help rainbow fairies in trouble.)
        Perhaps you loved Judy Blume, and that’s fine.  Her enduring popularity attests to the fact that clearly plenty of kids are finding something there that I did not.  My point, however, is that so-called realistic books can be constrained by the necessity of fitting a conventional view of likely scenarios and “hot” issues.  This is where Fantasy swoops in to save the day.  Fantasy (and I include under this umbrella some sci-fi and other related speculative genres) has an extremely powerful and subversive ability to slip behind our defenses while we are willingly suspending our disbelief.    Because readers of fantasy are less likely to object, “But that could never happen!” fantasy can show us visions not only of nifty things like fairies, dragons, and magic, but also visions of individuals and societies functioning in ways that we would otherwise reject as impossible.
        An obvious example here is that it was the original Star Trek that was able to show a barrier-breaking interracial kiss on TV, albeit a grudging kiss both from the point of view of the characters in the plot and the point of view of the network.  Still, it broke a barrier.  Perhaps Star Trek was a more important agent for social change simply by modelling a future in which men and women, Russians and United Statesians, worked together with respect and cooperation.  Totally unrealistic!  (In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit here that I never particularly liked Star Trek.  I am only a partial geek at best, but I am married to one, so a certain amount of osmosis inevitably takes place.)  Another example of a vision of justice in fantasy is the basic fact that in fairy tales virtue lives happily ever after and wicked stepmothers are punished.  Nowadays happy endings are considered unrealistic and are practically banned from serious realistic fiction, but in juvenile fantasy we are still allowed to hold up an image of justice without being condemned as unrealistically saccharine.  Only in fantasy are we permitted to imagine what might happen, instead of following mindlessly the pre-laid tracks of what convention agrees does happen.
        So, fantasy, particularly juvenile fantasy, is a genre uniquely positioned to explore important social issues, and to me that makes it one of the most interesting genres both to read and to write.  Take the Harry Potter series, with its messages about making choices, about the strength and limits of loyalty, about good and evil and imperfection.  These are profoundly moral books.  Or take Terry Pratchett’s handling of huge issues including prejudice, freedom, and war, all while being so silly that we never raise our defenses against being lectured.  It’s this ability that fantasy has to hold up new ways of thinking before us – in a way we’re actually willing to stop and consider – that just might save the Earth.
        Of course, as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility, and the idea that the messages of, say, Twilight, are also slipping in under the defenses of large numbers of the female population is pretty scary.  And some other time perhaps I’ll share my rant about why Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is one of the worst things I’ve ever read - but even these negative examples only serve to prove the power that fantasy has.
        As a reader, those arching themes of love and courage and morality are far more interesting than the angst about parties, drugs, shopping, and weight loss that are supposedly a realistic portrayal of my life and the issues I’m supposed to relate to.  As a writer I try not to hit anybody over the head with a moral, and I hope I’m not overly pedantic, but all the same, I believe that I wouldn’t be writing the truth if I didn’t use fantasy to show my vision of what a world – any world, even our world – might actually be like if people made different choices.  What might really happen if people faced conflict by trying to reach understanding instead of hitting first and wondering afterwards why everyone’s always fighting?  What might really happen if people tried to live thoughtfully and creatively and kindly even in the face of brutal injustice?  Is that pure fantasy?  Perhaps.  Is it True?  I think so.  And that’s my social agenda.  I hope it slips under a few defenses and helps to save the Earth!
[Pictures: Intertwined, rubber block print by AEGN, 2003 (sold out);
Holy Mountain, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007.]

June 22, 2010

It's All About Stories

        I enjoy learning stories and I enjoy telling stories.  Some of my stories are told in books, some are told in pictures, and some are told to my husband D when he gets home from work.  It's the first two that I intend to explore in this blog.  The genre of written stories I will specifically be thinking about would roughly be called juvenile fantasy.  The genre of pictures is relief block printing.
        So, why stories?  Everything about humans is stories.  Have you ever noticed that although we watch the Olympics for the sports, it’s the personal profiles of the athletes that get the news coverage?  Although we care about political issues, it’s the biographies of the candidates that have everyone talking.  I admit that I get pretty annoyed by the media in both those cases, but nevertheless, there is a truth at work here.    People think in stories.  People like stories.  People live stories.  Everything about humans is stories.  This will be a blog about reading and writing juvenile fantasy, and about enjoying and making block prints - but when it comes right down to it, it’s really a blog about telling stories.
        A picture can be worth a thousand words, and of course a good book is worth more than a thousand pictures (and how many stills are there in the average movie these days?)  But the math isn’t the important thing.  The important thing is that both words and pictures can tell stories, and stories are who we are.  I plan to post twice a week, and I hope that my posts can start a conversation – or at least contribute to some trains of thought – on subjects relating to the writing and reading of fiction and the making and viewing of art, and the stories told thereby.

        (Who am I?  It wouldn’t matter, except that of course opinions mean less without a story behind them.  Here are a few tidbits from my story: Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to be a writer…  I was born and raised in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  I loved it there.  In college at Yale I majored in linguistics, with a thesis at the intersection between historical and sociolinguistics.  I loved Yale and I loved linguistics.  After graduation, for reasons relating more to the desperation of a school’s staffing needs than my qualifications, I got a job teaching middle school art.  I loved teaching.  (Are you noticing a theme here?  It continues.)  Teaching art was how I became, de facto, an artist myself.  Along the way I got married, and when our children were born I became a stay-at-home mother, and realized that since I could no longer call myself a teacher, I had better make sure I could still call myself an artist and a writer.  And here I am, calling myself an artist and a writer, despite being essentially self-taught, primarily self-published, and inclined to be self-effacing  (so admittedly I’m probably not a natural blogger.)  My other hobbies include gardening, playing cello, quilt-making, and failing to do housework.  Except when feeling grouchy, I love it all… And she lived happily ever after.)

[Picture: Story Time, rubber block print by A.E.G.Nydam, 2003 (sold out).]