September 28, 2010

Words of the Month - The Inkhorn Controversy

        These days native speakers of English have a tendency to be a bit arrogant concerning foreign languages, thinking we don't need to learn other languages because everyone else will learn ours.  But it was not always so.  Until the end of the sixteenth century English had a serious inferiority complex.  Speakers of English considered their language to be rude and uncouth compared with the other European languages, especially French and Latin.  A representative comment is that made by a translator in 1563 on "our own corrupt and base, or as al men affirm it: most barbarous language."  Translators almost invariably apologized for transforming the eloquence of Greek or Latin into the unworthy English, but nevertheless, they continued to use the vernacular.  They claimed that they needed to educate those who were unable to read the classics in the original.  This meant that, despite continuing charges of barbarism, English was being used for scholarly works.  And that practice led directly to a change in attitude about English that took place toward the end of the sixteenth century.  In order to translate the classics and say all that seemed to need saying, English had to have more words, and the choice of new words was the root of a magnificent linguistic controversy.
        Many translators borrowed huge numbers of words from their sources when they couldn't find appropriate English words.  Many writers in English made up new words with reckless abandon.  Other scholars argued against the neologisms as obscure, pretentious, and affected.  The "Inkhorn Controversy" was not concerned with the necessity of new terms in English - that was never denied.  But although Latinisms were accepted when they were required for meaning, many writers deplored the indiscriminate use of outrageous neologisms to make a more learned-sounding style.  (Purple patches, anyone?)  Sometimes the borrowings defeated the entire purpose of translation, since they made the English as difficult to understand as the original.  However, towards the end of the century there was an abrupt turnaround in attitude toward English, and suddenly the flood of new words had had an effect: English was the language of eloquence.
        Here are a few of the many, many weird and wonderful new words that first appeared in English as Inkhorn terms.

absterge – (1541) to wipe away, to cleanse
accerse – (1548) to summon, to be sent for
anonymous – (1601)
antique – (1540)
catastrophe – (1579) the change or revolution which produces the conclusion
     or final event of a dramatic piece; (1601 for the current sense)
commentitial – (1611) fictitious
contemplate – (1590’s)
deruncinate – (1656) to cut off that which is superfluous, to weed
detail – (c.1600)
encyclopedia – (1531) the circle of learning (This one's interesting because the p
     really doesn't belong there.  It's derived from a false reading of the Greek term
     encyclical, as in a well-rounded education); (1644 for the current sense)
enthusiasm – (1579) possession by a god, supernatural inspiration;
     (but not until 1716 for the current sense)
exaggerate – (1533) to pile up; (c.1564 for the current sense)
illecebrous – (1531) alluring, enticing, attractive
impecunious – (1590-1600)
intermure – (1606) to enclose between walls
irrefringible – (1596) incapable of being broken down or demolished
lucubration – (1585-1595) laborious work or study, especially at night
nullifidian – (1564) atheist
oscitancy – (1619) drowsiness, as manifested by yawning
pathetic – (1598) (first spelled pathetique)
peccable – (c.1600, probably earlier) capable of sinning
precipice – (1590-1600)
skeleton – (1578)
spendidious – (1560) (one of several variants at the time, of which the one that
     is accepted nowadays is splendid)
tenacious – (1600)
timid – (1549)
tranquil – (1595-1604)

        It's a complete mystery why some of these words were accepted into common speech and are words in good standing to this day, while others never caught on, or enjoyed only a brief popularity, and seem utterly ridiculous now.  If you roll them around in your mouth a bit, you really have to admit that anonymous is every bit as implausible as irrefringible, while it's hard to imagine that timid was criticized as an obscure and pretentious neologism.  As for peccable, it's just plain silly that it should have died while impeccable still lives.   So don't try to question the mysterious ways of a living, breathing language.  Just contemplate with enthusiasm the sixteenth and early seventeenth century writers who gave us such spendidious words.

        (A word on dates - There's no way of knowing when a word was first spoken, and while scholars can try to find an earliest written use of a word, you never know when there were earlier examples that no one's found.  The OED and various other etymological dictionaries don't always agree on dates, either.  So I've given what I hope is a reasonable approximation of a first appearance in English for each of the words listed.)

[Picture: David's Inkwell, wood block print by AEGN, 2000 (Commissioned as an illustration for Resistance and Obedience to God: Memoirs of David Ferris, ed. Martha Paxson Grundy, Friends General Conference, 2001.)]

September 24, 2010

WPA Printmaking

        During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt's New Deal economic program was intended to relieve unemployment by providing jobs so that people would not only have money for food and housing, but would also gain the moral and emotional value of having meaningful work.  The WPA Federal Arts Project was founded in 1935 and anyone who could demonstrate need and that they had previously worked as an artist was eligible.  Men and women, all ethnic backgrounds, all styles of art were accepted.  The government identifies 1,114 printmakers that worked under the WPA/FAP program, and it's estimated that about 11,300 different images were produced.  Moreover, the program's system of setting up printmaking studios and fostering education and innovation ended up having a huge influence on the course of 20th century printmaking.
        WPA printmakers worked with wood blocks, linoleum, lithography, etching, and screen printing.  They made both abstract and representational images, and they depicted all variety of subject matter.  Generally speaking, the works tend to be populist and reflect a democratic ideal, but (except in the poster division) there was no explicit political agenda.  A printmaker made a proof, and a workshop director would decide how big an edition should be run.  Most were very small editions, many under 25, and the prints were used to decorate government offices and other public buildings.  Except for a few proof copies that the artists might keep, everything belonged to the government.  (Even now the government claims ownership of art produced under the WPA, so there are some interesting murky issues for collectors trying to buy WPA art for private collections.)
        The program allowed artists to cross-pollinate in wonderful ways, and gave all sorts of artists access to high-quality equipment and supplies, as well as mentoring and collaboration.  Unfortunately, after the FAP program ended, the prints don't seem to have been valued much.  Some were destroyed accidentally, some lost, others used as scrap paper!
        Obviously, I tend to appreciate the relief block prints, although of course there are also some wonderful lithographs and other print media works.  I particularly love the industrial scenes and some of the landscapes.  I've posted what I could find on the internet that I especially liked, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

[Pictures: Railroad Bridge, wood block print by Edward Jansen, c.1937;
Near Franconia, N.H., wood engraving by Isaac J. Sanger, c.1937;
Coal Barges, wood block print by Isaac J. Sanger, c.1937;
My Backyard, wood block print by Hyman Warsager, c.1937;
Mountain Pines, wood block print by Charles Reed Gardner, c.1935;
An Old Town in Illinois, wood block print by Todros Geller, 1940;
Railroad Crossing, wood block print by John P. Heins, c.1937.]

(I found much of the above information in an article by John A. Stewart, and the pictures are all from the Gibbes Museum of Art and Rona Schneider Fine Prints.  I appreciate that all these resources are posted where I and everyone else can use them.)

September 21, 2010

Shock Tactics

        Back when I was teaching middle school art I took a couple of classes at MassArt during the summers.  Those classes for art teachers are the only two proper art school classes I’ve ever taken, and I found the glimpse into the Art World Establishment fascinating – and food for much thought.  Today I’m reminded of a comment from an artist and art professor who came in as a guest teacher once.  He conceived of his work as powerfully political, and he said, “If everyone likes your art, something is wrong.”
        There is certainly a place for art and literature that make people uncomfortable and shake us out of our complacency.  Indeed, that’s one of the ways art and literature can make the world a better place.  Consider Picasso's "Guernica" for example, or Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.  But where is the line between a wake-up call and gratuitous shock value?  I’ve never been impressed by comedians whose only joke is to use fouler language than anyone else.  (Although clearly I cannot make the absolute statement, "That's not funny!”)  I’ve never cared for the work of Damien Hirst, or Robert Mapplethorpe, or for the infamous “Piss Christ,” all of which seem more interested in self-advertisement than in accomplishing anything constructive.  It isn’t that I deny their right to make such pieces or that I advocate censoring them.  It’s just that I don’t think such pieces are very good art, and I’m not much interested in viewing things designed merely to shock, outrage, and sicken me or other viewers.
        There are books, too, that hope to whip up sufficient notoriety to become bestsellers.  Furthermore it seems that even in less aggressively controversial works there’s a clear pressure to be edgy, gritty, raw…  In the field of fantasy, and even more in sci fi, I'm thinking of all the dystopian visions of places where Good not only fails to triumph but doesn't even get to be represented by the protagonist.  Apparently, if you want to get taken seriously you have to push the envelope…  But why?  Or more specifically, why is the envelope of ever more extreme sex and violence the one that must be pushed?  Why not push the envelope of wonder, or the envelope of breaking stereotypes, or the envelope of gratitude, or the envelope of creative problem-solving?  Human society is limited by countless conventions in countless directions, so why try to break down the conventions that might keep us from utter brutality when we might instead be trying to break down the conventions that hold us back from becoming better?
        As I was sitting at my table during an Open Studios show once, I overheard a couple strolling by discussing the work.  The woman pointed to one of my block prints of an industrial site and said, “Oh, look.  That’s edgy!”  I had to restrain myself from totally cracking up.  It was the first time, and probably the last time, anyone will ever call my art “edgy.”  Which brings us back to the artist who said, “If everyone likes your art, something is wrong.”  Obviously not everyone likes my art, or my writing, but the people who don’t care for my work are unlikely to be offended by it or made uncomfortable – they probably just find it boring.  Does that mean something is wrong?  No one wants to be thought boring, I suppose, but is boring the only possible alternative to depravity?  Are my only options Damien Hirst or Thomas Kinkade?  If no one is offended by my work does that indicate a lack of depth and an inability to be serious art?  Or is there a place for art and literature that aim for serious joy?

[Picture: February 15, 1999 - Boston Sand & Gravel, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999.]

September 17, 2010


        Wikipedia defines steampunk thus: “Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction, frequently featuring elements of fantasy... The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used — usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era Britain — but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date…”  Recently I’ve encountered a few juvenile fantasy books that are clearly somewhere in the steampunk continuum, and I see a bit of a recent trend toward two strains of steampunk influence in juvenile fantasy.  One theme is the pseudo-Victorian style (and alternate reality setting) and the other is the addition of technological fun and games to the magic.  The books I’m thinking of aren’t really sci-fi, and the “-punk” suffix isn’t really appropriate to books without the dystopian vibe.  So in the spirit of the constant crop of new subgenre coinings, perhaps I should call these books “steamfantasy” or “technofantasy” or something.
        Whatever you call them, here are a few I’ve enjoyed.

Alternate reality settings with magic (but no emphasis on technology)
        1. Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy (set in un unspecified not-long-ago era with an alternate history).  The character of the demon Bartimaeus is what I like best about these books.  While he is, well, a demon, his intelligence and sense of humor make him far more likable than the human characters, even the ones who are protagonists.  The setting is nifty, the plots ingenious, and the conception of magic is original and interesting.
        2. Wrede and Stevermer’s trilogy beginning with Sorcery and Cecelia (set in 1817).  These books are a delightful romp through Regency society from the point of view of a pair of spirited cousins who discover that magic and magicians are all around them plotting devious plots that must be foiled, all without interfering too much with The Season.  (It looks like Stevermer’s new book Magic Below Stairs involves the same cast of characters, and it’s definitely on my reading list.)

James Bond meets Magic (technology & magic go together in the present)
        1.  Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series.  I admit that I haven’t read the last couple of these books, and the series keeps getting longer… but what an original vision of fairyland!  The blend of high-tech high-jinks with leprechaun (or should I say LEP Recon) gold is good fun.
        2.  E. Nesbit’s Fairy Stories.  Well, for us now it’s a historical setting and I can’t exactly cite her as part of a recent trend, but her stories were set in what was the present when she wrote them.  Nesbit was fascinated with exciting new technology such as diving bells and elevators, in a time when most fantasy writers were strictly pre-industrial romanticists.  She offers a charming blend of speculative builders and magic golden apples, beautiful princesses who solve their problems with math, and dragon-cursed nations who advertise for their rulers at the registry office.

        1.  Howard Whitehouse’s series beginning with The Strictest School in the World (no magic as such, but still clearly fantasy, set in 1894).  Zany, madcap adventures beginning with a girl who wants to invent the airplane and discovers the perfect partner in her experimentation: an Indestructible Boy.  One of my favorite parts of the first book is that involving the hockey-stick-wielding Josie, but bloodthirsty Princess Purnah’s fractured English alone is worth the price of admission.  I keep hoping that the trilogy will turn into a quadrilogy. (Addendum: I really need to add that two and a half years later this remains one of our favorite series and P and T still reread it themselves and ask me to reread it to them.)
        2.  Catherine Webb’s Horatio Lyle series (Victorian).  This probably qualifies as true steampunk, with faerie villains and Faraday’s inventions sharing the stage with the muddy underbelly of Victorian London.  I find it interesting to be cheering for the (mostly ruthless) humans when the (mostly ruthless) faeries’ arguments often seem the more compelling, so I’m curious how this conflict will develop.  I’ve read the first two so far, and I have the third on my reading list.
        [Pictures: Fantasy Clockwork I and Fantasy Clockwork II, rubber block prints by AEGN, 2008.     (Fantasy Clockwork I was commissioned for The Paper and Ink Kaleidoscope by C.P. O'Brien, a not-yet-published technofantasy adventure set in Boston.)]

September 14, 2010

One Inch Stamp Project

        This is a project that I did for many years with sixth grade students.  It's a great introduction to relief printing, and also a lot of fun for anyone, whether you're a long-time expert or have never before tried your hand at carving a printing block.  Here's what you'll need to give it a try:
     1. carving tools - I use the Speedball linocut tools I use for all my rubber blocks, and that's what my students have used, too.  A basic set of tools is available at most art supply stores and should cost in the neighborhood of $7.  (You could also try it with an x-acto knife or any similar carving tool.)
     2. a 1" square of carving rubber - There's nothing magic about this size, but it's easy to get hold of a small piece of rubber like this: just get a plain white rubber art eraser and cut a square length off the end.  You do need to make sure that your eraser has a smooth surface, because some brands have logos imprinted on them, and if they're in a cardboard wrapper you might not see it without checking.  Also, this project works best if you have a reasonably accurate square, regardless of its exact dimensions.
     3. ink - You have plenty of options when it comes to ink.  The easiest is a standard stamp pad, but more fun is a set of nice, juicy wide-tip markers.  The most successful with my classes was the Mr Sketch brand, which have lots of ink and a good chisel tip.
     4. white paper - any kind will do, or you could experiment with any light colored paper
The block on the left makes the design above, and more below.

        The carving is simple - just doodle any old design as you carve.  Don't sketch first, don't plan too hard, just carve.  Part of the fun of this project is that often the most random designs work the best.  The black stamp shown here is one I carved from a block that a student had begun and then abandoned, claiming it was ruined.  My point is that you really can't ruin the project.
        One thing I do recommend is to try to involve at least one or two of the corners, instead of carving a design that floats in the middle of your square.  Using the corners always leads to interesting results.  (Of course, you'll have two sides to your rubber block, and you can get two mini-blocks out of any normal eraser, so you'll get at least four opportunities to experiment with different ideas.  So you can try a couple with elaborate schemes if you like, and still try a couple spontaneously.)
        The interesting thing about this project is not the single 1 inch design (which often doesn't look like much in itself) but what happens when you print the design repeatedly, as if you were tiling a wall with it.  My students were required to do some sample experimentation, arranging their multiples in several different ways before they decided on their favorite.  It's always a surprise to see what happens when you get the different patterns going.  One pattern you should definitely try is what I think of as "tiling."  To help yourself keep track of the corner you're rotating around, use a permanent marker to mark the corner on the vertical edge of the mini-block (as shown in the photo of the carved stamps above).  Time after time a student would complain that her design was boring… only to squeal with surprise and delight when she saw what happened when the block was printed with rotational symmetry.
Experimenting with repetition
Stamp as carved
A different "tiling" pattern -
compare with the design above.

Stamp as inked
with 3 colors

        And finally you get to play with the variable of color.  This is where the markers are fun.  My classes found that you can color your block with as many as three different colors in each stamping.  More than that and the first colors dry up before the last colors are applied.  (Tip: if your first color isn't printing, try blowing a warm, moist breath over the mini-block right before you stamp.  That often refreshes the ink enough to make it print.  But you do need fresh, juicy markers.)
        That's it!  You can use your mini-block to make little works of art suitable for framing, you can make notecards for your correspondence, you can make wrapping paper, you can decorate paper for use in all sorts of crafts…  If you use acrylic paint for your inking you can even stamp fabric (although that works best with a design that isn't so detailed)…  So go find yourself an eraser and get carving!

[Pictures: Mini-block by AEGN;
Flashback to the 60s, by L. Walton, 2000;
Flowers in a Field of Diamonds, by K. Mika, 1999.
(L. and K. were sixth grade students of mine.)]

P.S.  Thanks to amazing artist Nan Daly for pointing me to her post with some similar ideas - and some different directions for more fun with mini stamps.  Check it out at her blog Collage Lab By Two here and here.

September 10, 2010

On Creativity, Part III - What If?

        If creativity consists in making new things and making things new, the next question is clearly, "But how does it work?  How do you do it?"  Stephen Nachmanovitch (in Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts) says, "What we usually call creativity involves factors such as intelligence, ability to see the connections between formerly separated facts, ability to break out of outmoded mindsets, fearlessness, stamina, playfulness, and even outrageousness."  I like this definition, but it describes an awfully tall order.  I look at it and begin to doubt my own creativity.  I know I don't have much stamina, sometimes I feel pretty dense, and how successful am I at breaking out of outmoded mindsets?  I wouldn't know, since if I haven't broken out of them, I can't see that they're outmoded.  And most people think of intelligence as something they cannot change, just like their creativeness, reinforcing the idea that creativity is some nebulous attribute that a special few people magically have.  The rest of us may as well forget about it.
        As opposed to Nachmanovitch's definition, I find a much simpler explanation of creativity compelling.  It may be less philosophically accurate than Nachmanovitch's perhaps, or less descriptive, but it's much more concrete and accessible.  It's something you can actually do something about.  My explanation of creativity is simply asking "What if?"  To elaborate, "What if" questions are, consciously or unconsciously, what the mind is doing when it's being creative, and creative people are those who ask "what if" questions.
        What I found when I started thinking about creativity this way is that I could more consciously prod myself to start asking "What if" questions in order to brainstorm more creative ideas.  (What if the character I'm writing about has to deal with people she likes doing cruel, stupid things?  What if I try to design a block to be printed with light ink on a dark background?  What if I tried telling a story purely in the form of letters between two people?  What if I take the ancient stylized symbol with three rabbits, and render it as if the rabbits were real animals?  What if D and I were inconveniently carried off one evening by a large dragon, and P and T had to rescue us?)  The more practice we have in creativity, the more our minds may slur across the individual questions and present us with compelling ideas whose origins we can't trace.  Nevertheless, somewhere in there, "what if" questions were being asked.  Deliberately coaching ourselves to creativity through the use of "what if" questions gives us the ability to show our minds the way, when they move sluggishly.  It allows us to do consciously and with some control what we thought we had to wait for our subconscious to do on its own.  And, like any exercise, it strengthens our ability to use creative habits of mind at all times, both deliberately and by receiving inspiration.
        It is through creativity, through asking "what if," that ways around obstacles are found, new insights are reached, and the world is not taken for granted.  That push toward creativity is the real power of art.

[Picture: Stairway in the Garden, wood block print by AEGN, 1998 (sold out);
Three Rabbits, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (sold out).]

September 7, 2010

On Creativity, Part II - Make New Things or Make Things New

        In an article on teaching entitled "Making Interdisciplinary Connections," Samuel Hope says that the unique perspective of the discipline of art is "to make new things, or to make things new."  When I first read the article in 1999, I was quite taken with this definition of art, and immediately set out to apply it to all the projects I assigned my students.  I found it a useful tool for making sure that the projects really got the kids to create art, and not just churn out something without the need to use any creativity or to think in "the unique perspective of the discipline of art."  But now that I'm not in the classroom any more, I've begun to think about this definition of art again, this time in terms of how it applies to the block prints I'm doing now.  It seems to me that the definition can also apply more broadly to all sorts of arts, including writing fiction.
        As mentioned in the last post, you can get bogged down if you worry too much about what's "new," but that's where Hope's phrase is so nice.  Think about Monet's water lilies.  Painting a pretty garden with flowers was hardly new, yet he looked at the scene in a new way, and his paintings make the very light new to those who see them.  Think about the example of Harry Potter.  There's nothing new about an orphan boy with mean caretakers, who discovers a wonderful world of magic.  Yet J.K. Rowling put together these classic ingredients with some truly new ideas of her own, and produced a series that made a whole new world for millions of people.  Perhaps an even more interesting example is the movie "The Fifth Element."  In some ways the movie came up with nothing original at all… and yet the elements were mixed up together in such a fun way, with such a new, slick, funky look, that I found that the movie "made things new" for me, even if it didn't make anything new.
        So, as I try to critique my own work, I wonder if I've managed to make anything new.  Inevitably I feel that some of my pieces are more successful than others, but for some I know that I've made things new for myself, even if for no one else.  After all, that's what makes creation fun.  That's why I keep coming back for more.  Goodness knows there's nothing new about depicting a rooster.  And yet as I made this block I tried my hand at a variety of different patterns and design elements that were new and exciting to me, and the response from viewers seems to confirm that my rooster brings a new vision to at least some others, too.
        On the writing front, my Otherworld Series is set in a fairly traditional fantasy world.  It's medieval-ish, with elves, dwarves, and humans, dragons and mages, evil to be conquered by brave young heroes… all the usual stuff.  So how is it anything new?  What I wanted to explore was what might happen if people who lived in such a world - a world that we all think we know all about -  tried to approach their world in a less traditional way, a new way, without the swords and sorcery or the knights in armor that are usually shown conquering evil.  In other words, I was trying to show an old, familiar world in a new, unfamiliar way that might make readers rethink what they take for granted.
        In any case, the idea of making new things and making things new seems to me to capture the essence of what art does - what we recognize as creativity.  This is what we're responding to when we see a piece of art or read a book and feel as if windows are opening within us and new light is flooding in.

[Picture: Chanticleer, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (sold out).]