August 31, 2010

Words of the Month - What's in a Name?

        A word that derives from the name of an individual is called an eponym.  There are lots of obvious ones, such as all the units named after scientists, from volts and watts to becquerels and curies.  There are plenty of minerals, such as Howardite, Zhemchuzhnikovite, and Thomasclarkite, and plenty of flowers - think forsythia, poinsettia, begonia…  But there's nothing interesting about these eponyms.  They're too deliberate, too self-conscious, and most of them aren't even familiar to any but specialists in their fields.  No, the eponyms I want to focus on here are the ones that seem like ordinary words (if there is such a thing in this fantastic language!).  These are words that you may have used quite commonly for years without ever even realizing that you're actually saying someone's name.

        boycott - Charles C. Boycott (1832-1897) English estate manager in Ireland
In 1880 Boycott, who was a land agent for Lord Erne in County Mayo, was targeted by a campaign for tenants' rights.  The local labor refused to harvest Lord Erne's crops, and when Boycott tried to stop them, he was ostracized by his community.  Even the postman refused to deliver mail to him.  In the end 50 Protestants travelled to County Mayo, protected by over a thousand troops and policemen, and brought in the potato harvest... and the incident gave the world a new word.  Boycott left Ireland shortly thereafter.
In this silhouette, Nimble Jack appears
to be wearing a leotard.

        leotard - Jules Léotard
     (c1839-1870) French aerialist
Leotard was a revolutionary trapeze artist who was the first to turn a full somersault in midair, and the first to jump from one trapeze to another.  He inspired the 1867 song "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," and of course was known for his skin-tight one-piece outfit.  He himself called this garment a maillot, but in 1886 it was called a leotard in English.  Fun fact: Léotard passed his law exams before joining the circus.

        maudlin - Mary Magdalene
     (some time around 0-50) disciple of Jesus
Very little is known about the life of Mary, although she may have come from the town of  Magdala.  Jesus healed her of some disease, and she supported his ministry, both financially and by accompanying him as he preached.  She may have been the only person present at the crucifixion, the burial, and the empty tomb, all three.  She is believed to be the first person to have seen Jesus after the resurrection, and she brought the news of the resurrection to the apostles.  One thing she almost certainly was not was a prostitute who had to repent of her guilty life.  It was Pope Gregory the Great who identified her as a prostitute in 591, and thereafter she has been depicted in art as perpetually weeping over her own past sins.  By c 1600 her name (from the Middle English version of her name, Maudelen) had come to mean tearful, and by the 1630s the word had reached its present meaning involving tearful sentimentality.  (The Eastern Orthodox Church never viewed her this way, and in 1969 the Vatican admitted that Roman Catholicism had been mistaken in identifying Mary Magdalene as a prostitute.  Perhaps now she can finally dry her tears.)

        shrapnel - Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842) British army officer
Shrapnel invented "spherical case" ammunition, which consisted of a hollow cannon ball filled with shot, that burst in mid-air causing wider damage.  His invention was adopted by the British army in 1803, and was at that time called after him.  In return for the success of his invention, Shrapnel was promoted and given a generous pension.  The shells of his design were made through the end of World War I, and his name is now given to any sort of explosive fragmentation and flying debris.  (Thanks for the carnage, Henry!)

        silhouette - Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767) French finance minister
De Silhouette was given the task of getting France's terrible deficit under control during France's Seven Years' War against England.  Among his measures were taxing the rich according to signs of wealth, such as windows, luxury goods, and servants.  (Nobility had been exempt from taxes.)  He also ordered the melting down of precious metals for the war effort.  Needless to say, the nobility failed to appreciate his efforts.  His name was used mockingly to refer to the simple and inexpensive portrait form that less wealthy people could afford.  The word entered the English language around 1790-1800, after his death.  I don't know when it was first used in France.

        grog - Edward Vernon (1684-1757) British admiral
Edward Vernon may not sound much like the name that gave us the word grog, but bear with me.  The admiral's habit of wearing a grogram cloak, (grogram being a fabric) gave rise to his nickname "Old Grog."  In 1740 Vernon ordered that his sailors be served a mixture of rum and water rather than pure spirits, and he also had citrus juice added to the mixture to improve the flavor of the foul water.  (It was not until 1747 that James Lind proved that the vitamin C in the citrus juice was helping to keep the sailors healthier.)  The rest of the navy followed suit and by 1770 the mixture was known by Vernon's nickname.  Groggy originally meant "drunk," and came to be used for "staggering, dazed, weak" around 1832.

        I'm afraid I really ought to stop lest I get completely carried away and go on forever.  But there's no reason you can't do a little research yourself.  Here are a few more nifty eponyms to look up: cardigan, chauvinist, derrick, doily, draconian, graham cracker, guillotine, guppy, lynch, quixotic, sandwich.  I can't tell you how tickled I was to learn that it was Mr Guppy who first presented samples of those little fish to the British Museum.  Maybe you'll learn something that delights you.

        [Picture: Jack, Be Nimble!, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002.]

August 26, 2010

"Survivor" by Elizabeth Catlett

        "Survivor" is a linoleum block print made by Elizabeth Catlett in 1983. It's a striking image, based on a photograph by Dorothea Lange called “Ex-slave with a Long Memory” taken in Alabama in 1937 or 1938. Like much of Catlett's work, "Survivor" is a striking evocation of dignity in the face of hardship. But in addition to the power of the piece, for me it brings up two art-making issues. The first is the carving. I'm always scoping out other artists' carving, of course, and Catlett has a style sufficiently different from my own that I can't imagine ever thinking the way she does about dark and light, and filling space. The apron is really interesting because I never think to use that sort of texture. I’d probably have either made it solid white or maybe very careful cross-hatching. Either way it wouldn’t have had the same worn look. It would have been too jarring and taken the focus from the woman’s face. Good thing Catlett doesn't think like me!
        The second issue this piece brings to mind, though, is that of adaptation. As I mentioned, this piece is based on another artist's photograph. Comparing the two images, you'll see how closely they're related. You'll also notice that the pictures face opposite ways, because Catlett must have copied the image forwards on her linoleum block, and then the printing would have reversed it. Catlett has also changed the background. "Survivor" comes from a series of prints, many of which are based on other sources. For example, Catlett did portraits of Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Tubman based on antique engravings.
        Generally speaking, the guideline about using other people's images is supposed to be whether you make something demonstrably new and different from the original. Under this test Catlett has clearly made a different piece of art from the piece that Lange made. Nevertheless, I find myself extremely squeamish about the possibility of unintentional plagiarism. If I need reference photos for something, whenever possible I try to use my own photos because I feel so nervous about copying someone else's image. If I need other people's photos, I usually make sure to use several so that the image I draw and carve does not too closely resemble any one of them. (Ahh, it's almost enough to make one pine for the good old days of the Nuremberg Chronicle when no one worried about their sources!) It's a touchy question and one that most artists have to wrestle with at least sometimes. But thank goodness Elizabeth Catlett didn't allow such fears to stop her from creating this beautiful piece.

[Pictures: Survivor, linoleum block print by Elizabeth Catlett, 1983.
I scanned this picture from Elizabeth Catlett: In the Image of the People, by Melanie Anne Herzog, c 2005, The Art Institute of Chicago; the image of Survivor in this book comes from the Collection of Judy and Patrick Diamond. Many thanks for making it available.
Ex-Slave with a Long Memory, Alabama, gelatin silver print by Dorothea Lange, 1937. This particular image comes from Christie's sale catalogue.]

August 23, 2010

The Jabberwocky

        Fantasy and poetry go well together for many reasons. For example, poetry is perfect for evoking a single image or scene with an intensity and wholeness that make it come alive, just as fantasy tries to make a strange universe seem whole enough to come alive. Poetry is also perfect for epics that need to be remembered and recited over generations. That's because poetry sticks in our brains better than prose.
        My family has a particular affinity for poetry, and in my youth my mother was always liable upon the slightest provocation to launch into a dramatic recitation of the "Jabberwocky." Much impressed, I soon memorized it for myself. I highly recommend the practice of keeping a few favorite poems in your head at all times. You never know when they might come in handy, and as long as you have them at the ready you need never be without entertainment. To get you started I offer here Lewis Carroll's famous "Jabberwocky." Allow yourself to enjoy the full range of melodrama: from the pathos of the poor borogoves and mome raths to the sinister description of the Jabberwock, Jubjub bird and Bandersnatch; from the suspense as our hero stands in uffish thought to the thrill-packed climax - snicker-snack! - and the frabjous jubilation of triumphant homecoming; and finally the melancholy of the raths still mome and still outgribing about it.


'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
     Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
     And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
     The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
     The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
     Long time the manxome foe he sought -
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
     And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
     The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
     And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
     The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
     He went galumphing back.

"And hast though slain the Jabberwock?
     Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
     He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
     And the mome raths outgrabe.

        One of the things about nonsense is that it must actually be quite carefully balanced with sense or it becomes not nonsense but simply meaningless sounds. In the "Jabberwocky" it's always quite clear what part of speech each word is, and which is doing what to whom. (If you don't know the explanation of Carroll's made-up words, look here.) The same thing applies when writing fantasy. The new imaginary creatures and concepts you add to your world must be carefully balanced with familiar things lest you add so many strange words and concepts that you tip over into meaningless sounds. In fantasy, as in nonsense, there must be a fine balance between the known and the unknown.

        [Pictures: Two illustrations for "Jabberwocky" from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, pen and ink (copied as wood engravings for printing), by Sir John Tenniel, first published 1871.]

August 19, 2010

The Value of Original Art

       Some people value New In Box Barbie dolls, others value original comic books.  Different people value different things in original.  I don't happen to care about either Barbies or comic books, but I do value original art.  (Notice that I'm not counting Barbies or comic books as art.  That's a whole 'nother discussion!)  But why do I value original art?  There is an argument to be made that since visual art has no use beyond its appearance, therefore a reproduction does everything an original does.  So what's the value of original pieces?
        I imagine that most people can accept that a poster of a painting by Van Gogh fails to capture the true appearance of the original.  A reproduction won't have the texture, or reflect the light the same way, or capture the colors exactly right.  It may not be the same size as the original.  But the closer a reproduction is to an original, the more valid the question becomes: when two things look exactly the same, why should one be worth so much more than another?  I confess this is the very reason I've never bought an original photograph.  To me it seems as if a reproduction of a photograph is, in fact, a photograph.  (Any photographers out there please feel free to explain to me why I'm wrong about this!)  I admit that a simple black and white block print, unlike a Van Gogh painting, can be reproduced sufficiently accurately that it might be hard to tell the reproduction from the original at first glance.  Maybe that makes it seem hardly worthwhile to spend good money on buying original art when you can get a perfectly nice reproduction for a fraction of the cost.  So I propose that there are two differences that give the original a special value.
        1.  You can tell an original block print if you look a little more closely.  You can see the texture of the ink laid on the paper, and you can see the embossing of the paper from the pressure of the block.  (Admittedly, most of my prints, done with rubber blocks and hand pressing, have very little embossing.  On the other end of the spectrum are wood blocks done on a professional press, which embosses the paper so deeply and clearly that you can even make "prints" with no ink at all, as in "gauffrage" and the Japanese "karazuri" technique.)  In any case, though, I love that when I look at an original print I can see the process that produced it - the embossing that occurs only because of the carving of the block, and the ink that occurs only because of the rolling and pressing.  And that brings me to…
        2.  Knowing that someone made a piece by hand, and being able to see the evidence of that hand work, makes me feel a connection to the artist and the art that is not the same when viewing a reproduction.  I went to an exhibit of Escher's work once, and although many of the pieces there were entirely familiar to me already through reproductions, there was something much more wonderful about seeing the originals.  I could really see that Escher actually made these things I was viewing.  I could imagine his mind and his hands at work in every detail.  (That was where I first saw and fell in love with Palm.)  At my shows I really enjoy meeting the people who buy my work.  I love hearing why they've chosen a particular piece, whom they plan to give it to or why it's meaningful to them.  And I think they really enjoy meeting me, and feeling as if they have that much more of a connection with the person who made the piece that gives them pleasure.
        In the exclusive world of art dealers and collectors it's all about supply and demand.  There are millions of Van Gogh posters, but only one of each particular painting, and if someone is willing and able to plunk down a few million bucks to buy it, they know that they're the only person in the world who can say they own it.  Limiting an edition of prints promises viewers that there are only 10 pieces of this artwork in the world, or only 15, or whatever, and that adds to the feeling of uniqueness.  Rarity is always going to seem special.  Of course, for those of us who can't afford original Van Goghs, a poster may be better than nothing, but I still find that there's something special about a piece individually made by the artist herself.  Far more important than some sort of bragging rights, I think original work is valuable because it has come in a sense in a direct line from the artist's imagination, through his hands, into the world.  When viewing original art work there is a connection, even when you'll never meet the artist, even when the artist has been dead for centuries, even when the artist is anonymous or unknown -- and ultimately, making connections is why humans make and appreciate art, and what art is for.

[Picture: Circle of Angels, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007 (sold out).]

August 16, 2010

Praised Be the Fathomless Universe - Fantasy Worlds Need Depth

        The other evening as the family was taking an idyllic stroll, P and T were happily occupied in playing catch with acorns, leaving D and me free to fall into the subject of "Star Wars."  I don't remember why, but it's not such an improbable occurrence in our household, so the beginnings of the conversation aren't relevant.  What is important was D's sudden clarity into why Episodes I-III don't ring as true as Episodes IV-VI.  But before I get to his brilliant insight and its implications for all of fantasy, let me give a few disclaimers.
1.  Yes, I am of the generation to whom "Star Wars" Episode IV came as a revelation, and I am well aware that it would be almost impossible for anything to match it.
2.  No, I don't think that Episodes I-III are dreadful trash and a hideous crime against the original holy trilogy.  I think they were decent movies with great special effects that were a lot of fun to watch.
        That said, D and I still feel that I-III were lacking something beyond complaints about the dialogue or the story lines or Jar-jar Binks, something that until D's revelation on our evening stroll neither of us had been able to put a finger on.  D suggested, and this at once rang true to me, that the problem exists in the depth of the universe.  Quite simply, the universe of Episodes IV-VI seems to have depth and reality beyond the presence of the immediate characters and story, while the universe of Episodes I-III, for all its beauty, seems to exist merely to be a stage to serve the requirements of the plot.  (D thinks this a problem inherent in prequels in general, but I'm not going to get into that now.)  Take Kamino, for example.  Kamino is the planet on which the clone army is being built (or grown) by the Kaminoans, and when I watch Episode II, I get the feeling that creating the clone army is the only thing that ever has or ever will happen there.  There is no history, no culture, no other cloning jobs under way, no depth beyond the immediate needs of the plot of Episode II.  Compare that with Tatooine, and Mos Eisley in particular.  Mos Eisley, that "wretched hive of scum and villainy," seems to have hundreds of stories to tell, not just the story of Luke and Kenobi's meeting of Han Solo.  Watching the movie, I feel that Mos Eisley existed before Luke's arrival and will go on existing after he leaves, and that to all the other aliens and creatures, smugglers and pilots, Luke's story and the story of the rebellion aren't even all that important.
        I'm not sure exactly how the difference is achieved, although I think it has something to do with the balance of information we receive.  If we get too little back-story it feels like there's nothing else to the world, but too much back-story crammed in and we feel like we've now heard all there is to know.  D suggests there's an issue of intimacy, too.  When we see Coruscant with its teeming swarms of vehicles whizzing in every direction, there's clearly plenty of life there, but it's so impersonal that it's hard to get a feeling that all those little vehicles hold people with stories of their own.  The Cantina in Mos Eisley, by contrast, gives us just enough of a glimpse to see that the world is full of individuals.   That gives the whole movie more of a soul and a depth that I can connect with and believe in.
        Obviously this idea of universes with depth is key to every sort of fantasy.  The best fantasy immerses us in worlds that are believable, and a lot of the believability, it seems to me, depends on giving an impression that the world is more than the single story being told at the moment.  Tolkien may be the obvious example here, because of course The Lord of the Rings was not the only story Middle Earth held.  I'm not such a hard-core fan as to have memorized the lineages of the Noldor - I've read every scrap of Middle Earth writing once, The Silmarillion perhaps twice, but for the most part I don't care for the stories of the mythology and history.  What I do like, however, is that their existence gives Middle Earth a certain solidity.  LeGuin is another master at world creation, and, to give credit where credit is due, so is Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials.  On the other hand, the world of E.D. Baker's The Frog Princess, which I'm reading with P and T now, is nothing more than a blank stage on which the action can move.  Baker seems to have no interest in creating a world at all, but the result is that I'm not finding myself convinced by the story.  Worlds seem to be richest when the background is neither too explicitly spelled out nor simply left out, when it's hinted at, alluded to, and just visible around the edges and in the background.

        I happen to love creating worlds and have been doing it to one degree or another ever since seeing "Star Wars" for the first time.  The universe in which my Otherworld Series is set has been under construction for over 25 years now, and huge amounts of history and culture exist beyond what the window of the 5 books in the series has ever illuminated to a reader.  One of the most enticing things about fantasy is its ability to transport us to new and wonderful worlds which are magically strange and unique and yet utterly real.  I hope my Otherworld books do that for readers.  It is exactly what "Star Wars: A New Hope" did for me, as it did 1000 miles away for D, when the house lights went down in those movie theaters thirty-some years ago, and we first saw the suns rise on Tatooine.

[Pictures: Anchored in the Living Sea, rubber block print by AEGN, 2005;
Coins of Yuwara Ul Sahd, photoshopped pen on paper by AEGN, 2008.]

August 13, 2010

Nobody Sees a Flower, Really

        Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven't time - and to see takes time… So I said to myself, I'll paint what I see - what the flower is to me - but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it - I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.
-  Georgia O’Keeffe (1939)

        At first glance block prints and the flower paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe would seem to be about as different as two styles of art could be.  O’Keeffe’s flowers are famous for their huge scale and bright, glowing color palette.  Block prints, by contrast, are usually quite small in scale and are often staid, spartan black and white.  All the same, I love them both, and, perhaps strangely, I love them in part for the same reason: both styles can serve to focus the attention on one simple thing.  They can both perform the same function of encouraging the viewer to stop, look closely, and appreciate anew something they may have taken for granted or dismissed as unimportant.
        Of course, block prints can have a wide range of subjects, and the artists who make them have as disparate motivations as any artists, but for me, at least, one of the things block prints do so well is draw attention to the essence of a scene or an object.  Without being large or bright, a block print can nevertheless focus on its subject in a way that catches my attention and makes me stop and appreciate the beauty of a curve, the delight of a pattern, or the interplay of light and shadow.  I also appreciate the brilliant economy that can evoke a complex image in a few simple strokes, or the incredible talent that it takes to carve intricate details.  And that fills me with wonder and gratitude not only for the subject of the print but simultaneously for the grasp of human imagination and the skill of human hands.

        Throughout the entire process of making a block print – deciding what to do, researching or gathering reference materials, sketching a design, carving, and printing – my mind must be focused on my subject in a way that gives that subject, no matter how mundane, importance and value.  And when I have a piece of art hanging on my wall, whether it be something I’ve made or the work of another artist, I have the opportunity every time my eye falls on it, to wonder and appreciate anew.  Yes, of course I have times when I’m not thinking about the pictures on my walls, or when my eye passes over them without a second thought… Yet there are times, too, when a glance falls on some small picture and I stop just for a moment and am grateful for the beauty of the art, for the world that holds such beauty even in every disregarded thing, and for the human ability to wonder and savor and create beauty.
        Both O'Keeffe's flower paintings and certain block prints can serve as celebrations of thanksgiving - O'Keeffe's flowers are triumphant hymns of praise, while the block prints are quiet prayers of gratitude.

        Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks.
- 1 Thessalonians 5, 16-18

[Pictures: Squash Flowers No. 1, oil on canvas by O’Keeffe, 1925;
Squash Blossom, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006;
Jack-in-the-Pulpit II, oil on canvas by O'Keeffe, 1930 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC); 
Spear Thistle, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997 (sold out);
Oriental Poppies, oil on canvas by O'Keeffe, 1928 (Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota);
Common Poppy, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997]

August 10, 2010

What Makes Juvenile Fantasy Juvenile?

        The short answer is: nothing.
        Seriously.  There is fantasy for adults that would be inappropriate for younger readers, but any book that lacks inappropriate content gets automatically labeled “juvenile.”  All kinds of books, such as Oliver Twist and Pride and Prejudice, that were written for adults now get shelved in the children’s room for no reason other than their lack of explicit sex or too horribly graphic violence.  Within the genre of fantasy that’s what gets Goldman's The Princess Bride shelved in the Young Adult books, for example, or what makes LeGuin’s Earthsea books “Juvenile”: no explicit sex, no cussing, and not too much gore.  On the one hand, lucky kids to get these books marketed to them!  On the other hand, why should such books not be considered adult books?  Certainly there are children's books that seem a little shallow when I reread them now - (Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books spring to mind, for example, although it may be time for me to reread them again.  Certainly Abbott's Secrets of Droon series and its ilk are for kids only) - but for most of my favorites I find that adult reading only enhances my appreciation.  Many of these books have all the depth, sophistication, and complexity of any adult book.  They wrestle with the same themes adult books should tackle.  Their vocabulary and writing are in no way over-simplified or dumbed-down.  In short, I believe it's seriously misleading to imply that they are suitable for children only.
        I have a theory that in the entire history of humankind there has been a period of only about one hundred years in which fantasy was treated as the province of children.  Tales of fantasy were told by and for adults through all the millennia of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, Beowulf and King Arthur, the Thousand and One Nights and wicked stepmothers.  These stories were shared with children, but they were not thought childish.  Then the Enlightenment turned sensible adult thoughts toward logic and science, and Victorians invented the modern concept of childhood as a time of innocence before rationality took over, and bingo - the idea of fantasy was assigned to the realm of childhood.  With George MacDonald's stories for children in the 1860's and 70's and  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, the innocence of childhood was firmly bound up with the idea of imagination and fantasy.  In the next seventy-five years some really wonderful fantasy was written explicitly for children:  Nesbit’s fairy tales and Baum’s Oz series, for example.  If you count the classic talking animal books as fantasy, the list grows even longer.  Adults, meanwhile, could have gothic horrors such as Dracula, and sci-fi such as Verne and Wells, but anything too much about magical worlds or swords and sorcery was definitely marginal.  In this spirit Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for his children.  But with The Lord of the Rings, written for adults, and wildly popular with adults (by the late 1960's in the US), Tolkien broke the dam and reminded us that even for such practical, learned, scientific adults as we, there is a place for fantasy.
        So now we are coming back out of the realm of juvenile-only fantasy and the bookstores are full of fantasy for adults.  The genre lines are also blurring again, back toward the attitude that all of humanity held for the entirety of our existence until just an eyeblink ago: that fantasy can be entwined in all sorts of stories for all sorts of people.  This is a wonderful thing, but the attitude that all fantasy is juvenile is disappearing only slowly.  (And The Lord of the Rings is firmly shelved in the Children's Room.)  That’s all right, too.  I like the so-called juvenile fantasy better anyway – instead of assuming that I'll need to read about lots of graphic sex and violence to keep me interested, "juvenile" fantasy explores all the deepest, most important issues that any human of any age ever had to wrestle.

        [Picture: The Enormous Turnip, rubber block print by AEGN, 2008.]

August 6, 2010

Letterboxing Stamps

        Earlier this summer my children, my visiting brother, and I went letterboxing for the first time.  Letterboxing is like geocaching without GPS, or like a little outdoor treasure hunt.  (Here’s a link to additional information about it.)  The idea is that people post clues to find a “letterbox” that they’ve hidden on public land somewhere.  If you follow the clues and find the letterbox, you can stamp into the box’s log book with your own stamp, and also use the unique stamp that comes in the letterbox to make a record in your own notebook.  I had heard that people often make their own personal stamps for this game, so P, T and I each chose a small original animal stamp from a number of them I had made some time ago during a fabric-printing project.  (I chose the llama, T was the deer, and P took the elephant.)  Then we set off to a local forest where the clues I’d printed from the computer were to lead us to six hidden treasure spots.
        After failing to find the first two letterboxes, morale was getting a little low, which in my kids translates to claims of starvation and near-fatal exhaustion.  Intrepid explorers that we are, however, we persevered, and eventually succeeded in finding the other four.   Starvation and exhaustion suddenly receded, and a good time was had by all.  I must say, however, that despite the lovely day and the fun walk in the woods, what impressed me the most was the quality of the stamps we found on our trek.  I had not expected small works of art.
        This is my favorite, called “The Giant’s Daughter.”  It’s a poor impression, unfortunately – it isn’t so easy to get a clean impression using a too small stamp pad for inking and a rough granite boulder for a pressing surface!  (And this one, the best impression we got, was T’s – too bad she chose a lined notebook.)  But what a nice little image.  It’s based on an illustration by John D. Batten for Joseph Jacobs’s Celtic Fairy Tales, printed in 1892.  I especially like the folds of the robe, the birds, and the border.  I can’t give proper attribution to the artist, since he or she is identified only as “Dragonfly” in the letterboxing clues.  Nevertheless, thanks to Dragonfly for putting such work and artistry into something that spends most of its time wrapped up, inside a Tupperware box, and buried under mouldering leaves and “a suspicious looking pile of rocks.”  We've got plans to go letterboxing again some time, and I look forward to seeing whether other letterboxing stamps are equally beautifully done.

        [Pictures: 3 animals stamps, carved rubber by AEGN;
Giant’s Daughter, rubber block print by “Dragonfly,” placed 2005.]

August 2, 2010

Interesting Things

Tree ferns are straight out of
the world of dinosaurs, with
fiddleheads bigger than a
cello's.  In Maori culture,
unfolding tree fern fronds
represent new life and
positive beginnings
        On Saturday I took down a show of my work that had been up for the month of July at a local library.  The theme of the show was "Interesting Things," and in many ways it illustrated an idea that I think is inextricably entwined with both art and writing: that is, the habit of finding things interesting.  Different people find different things inspiring, of course, but I suspect that one of the common threads among all kinds of creativity is an aptitude for engagement, a curiosity that looks for the interesting all around, in the ordinary as well as the exotic, the ugly as well as the beautiful, the strange as well as the familiar, the plain as well as the ornate…  So many artists and writers carry notebooks with them because you never know when something might strike your fancy, or what might spark your imagination.  And when you learn or notice something wonderful it's natural to try to pass that wonder on to others.

In 1898 the Winton Motor Carriage Company,
based in Cleveland, Ohio, was the first in the
United States to sell a gasoline-powered auto-
mobile.  They were also the first to mass-produce
cars, selling 22 in 1898 and over 100 in 1899.
        I had 38 pieces in the show, and on the label of each one I wrote a sentence or two explaining why I thought it depicted an "Interesting Thing."  I found this to be an interesting exercise in itself, and I recommend it to anyone.  Like counting your blessings, look around and spell out to yourself how many things you're curious about, and why you find them so fascinating.  Follow your curiosity, chase after your questions, grab the end of the thread and see where it leads.  Don't be afraid to divagate!
        (Teachers usually teach best when they're dealing with their favorite subjects, and the same holds true for artists and writers, and presumably all sorts of other people, as well.  Sometimes it's fun to pick out writers' particular interests as you read their books.  Lloyd Alexander is obviously a cat person, for example.  I just finished reading Time Cat with T & P, although I like Dream-of-Jade better.  Or the incredible Crystal Palace of Victorian London has caught the imagination of more than one juvenile fantasy author -  Jonathan Stroud in Ptolemy's Gate and Catherine Webb in The Obsidian Dagger, to name a couple.)
There's so much that's interesting about octopuses that I
hardly know where to start.  From their blue blood to their
excellent eyesight, their skin that can change color and
texture to their independently functioning arms, their
amazing intelligence... Just go get a book about octopuses
right now and learn about them yourself!
        One of the things I like about making visual art is that I can hold something up without saying a word about it, and just remind people to take a moment and consider what might be interesting about it.  This once, however, it was also fun to spell out what I found so fascinating - why this plant or scene or object or animal interested me enough that I went through the process of sketching it, carving it, and printing it.  For my exhibit I showed all sorts of things: a cocklebur, a grasshopper, a steam locomotive, my cello, a tree with gnarled roots, Pandora with her box… and of course, some dragons.  They are all Interesting Things to me.  What interests you?

There may be nothing in this world more interesting than a good puddle.
(At least, to a toddler.)

[Pictures: New Zealand Fern, rubber block print by AEGN, 2000;
1898 Winton Phaeton, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007;
Octopus, wood block print by AEGN, 1998 (sold out);
The Puddle, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006 (sold out)]