November 30, 2010

Words of the Month - Plain, Honest Witcraft

        Remember the Inkhorn Controversy and how writers and speakers of English were irrationally exuberant about all those wonderful new words they were inventing?  Well, it should come as no surprise that some people began to think things had gotten a little too chaotic in our native tongue.  The reaction took two forms.  One was a Nativist movement, in which scholars made up news words derived from English roots instead of borrowing from ancient and European languages.  And secondly, when the Enlightenment arrived in its bright glow of logic, scholars employed all its new arguments in their attempts to make English rational, ruled, and altogether more like the perfection of Latin.  It was time to lay down the law on the crazy English language.
The raven seems a sober bird, well-suited to represent
the manly strong English language.  (Or did Poe spoil
that image by making the raven into a fulsom and
luscious metaphor?)
        "Right," you say, "And how did that work out for them?"  But you already know the answer: language-watchers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries couldn't tame English any more than anyone else ever has.  But some of their attempts were pretty amusing.
        We'll start with Ralph Lever in 1573, who railed against Inkhorn terms in the midst of the Controversy.  Among the words he chose to use instead were:
    naysay - negation
    yeasay - affirmation
    witcraft - logic  [If this word had caught on just think how many logicians might have been burned at the stake due to careless reading!]
    saywhat - conclusion
        In 1671 controversial theologian Samuel Parker proposed, "Had we but an Act of Parliament to abridge Preachers the use of fulsom and luscious Metaphors, it might perhaps be an effectual Cure of all our present Distempers."  An act of Parliament against metaphor?  Now that's a logical idea!
        Nathaniel Fairfax was a physician and philosopher who talked his walk.  When he published his grand metaphysical opus A Treatise of the Bulk and Selvedge of the World in 1674 he made a point of using his own English-ish coinings instead of all those foreign inkhorn terms.  He argued that "however our smoother tongued Neighbours may put in a claim for those bewitcheries of speech that flow from Gloss and Chimingness; yet I verily believe that there is no tongue under heaven, that goes beyond our English for speaking manly strong and full."  He thought speakers of English should "fetch back some of our own words, that have been justled out in wrong that worse from elsewhere might be hoisted in."  And so he himself did.  Among his more fabulous words:
    allfillingness - immensity
    thingsomeness - reality
    metesome - measurable
    biggen - increase
    bulksomeness – volume or mass
    cleavesomness – divisibility
    meteings – dimensions
    roomthiness – extension in space
    talecraft – arithmetic
And my favorites:
    brain-break – enigma, paradox
    unthroughfaresom - impenetrable
        In his 1776 grammar The Philosophy of Rhetoric, George Campbell proposed another interesting idea to bring some logic to our vocabulary:
     enough/enow - (on an analogy with less/fewer)
        enough should mean degree only, enow was the corresponding word regarding number
        Most of these words sound pretty silly, but don't think that English can't make perfectly successful new words from its own roots.  After all, we have forewords as well as prefaces and handbooks as well as manuals.  This chapter in the history of English, like all the others, just served to add to the depth and richness of our language.

[Picture: Raven, wood block print with chine collé, by AEGN, 2000 (sold out).]

November 26, 2010

Cat Art

        If you search on pictures of dragons, you may notice an entire sub-genre of pictures of dragons and cats.  If you look for butterflies, you'll find butterflies and cats.  Looking for mugs?  How about mugs with cats?  Posters with cats?  Cardigans with cats…  Blankets with cats…  Christmas ornaments with cats…  Bottle openers with ...cats?
        D and I have a theory that  a True Cat Lover will buy anything with a cat depicted on it, whether it be a brilliant work of art or the purest mass-produced schlock - if it's got a cat, the Cat Person will love it.  This is the phenomenon of Cat Art.
        Now, we happen to have a cat, and we're very fond of our cat.  With a feline model so conveniently to hand it's hardly surprising that I've made a number of block prints of cats.  Moreover, cats tend to feature in many of the nursery rhymes that I like to illustrate, so that means even more cats in my art.  Naturally I like to think that the pieces I make are reasonably decent art, cats or no cats, and I would hope that my prints of cats wouldn't be called Cat Art in the term's fullest and most disparaging sense.  All the same, the fact is indubitable that pieces with cats are definitely among my best sellers.  I can only assume that I have benefitted from the unholy magic of Cat Art.  In my defense I solemnly affirm that I have never made a potboiler with a cat merely in order to part the True Cat Lover soonest from his money.
        However, when D and I talk about "Cat Art" it might have nothing to do with cats.  The term has grown in our parlance to mean any piece or category of art that is bought because of what it represents rather than because of any intrinsic quality.  The term now goes beyond cats, and refers to the same idea with any focus, such as Betty Boop, perhaps, or Mystical Purple Things, or golden retrievers, or vintage Coca-Cola logos…   When we talk about "Cat Art" not only might there be no cats involved, but the phrase goes beyond the art itself and can refer more broadly to the entire phenomenon of making, marketing, and selling art that a certain segment of the population is bound to like uncritically.
        In conclusion I can only urge you to Keep Vigilant!  Take heed of the danger to quality and good taste that Cat Art poses!  There's some truly wonderful art depicting cats, but for goodness sake, Beware of Cat Art!

[Pictures: K is for kitten, illustration from Amazing, Beguiling, Curious: 26 Fascinating Creatures, by AEGN, 2010 (adapted from detail of Three Little Kittens, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007);
Pussy-Cat, Pussy-Cat, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001.]

November 23, 2010

The Borders of Fantasy

     I suppose all genres have blurry edges, but it's certainly true that fantasy is hard to pin down.  Here are a few of my own thoughts on a narrow definition of what is fantasy, and what it is not.  These are, of course, merely my own opinions, colored by my own interests, and I'm fully aware that other people may draw their genre borders in other places with other criteria.  Feel free to add your two cents to this post if you like!
        I'll start with the sci fi/fantasy grouping.  I think many people (especially those who aren't especially interested in either genre!) tend to differentiate the two based on their setting or accoutrements.  Science fiction is set in the future or in space and includes spaceships, fancy technology, robots, aliens, and so on.  Fantasy is often set in pre-industrial societies, and involves magic, mythological creatures, and the sorts of characters you find in fairy tales.  These differences are becoming increasingly fuzzy as more and more books include both magic and technology, both mythological creatures and robots, the scenery of past, present, and future…  But I don't think the differences in setting are substantive markers of genre anyway.  Rather, the difference between sci fi and fantasy has more to do with the role the magic/technology plays in the story.  Sci fi explores the impact or implications of the technology (which has at least a token explanation of how it's consistent with natural laws) as a major focus of the plot, while fantasy's magic (which is counter to or beyond the laws of nature) is more part of the setting or framework the characters have to work in.  Star Wars, for example, is fantasy, not sci fi, because the technology is purely magical, simply an unexplained fact of the universe, and the issues the characters face are the basic good versus evil quests.  On the other hand, I would categorize The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting as science fiction because the Doctor's ability to speak with animals has a scientific explanation (it doesn't matter that it's a fictional scientific explanation) and the stories often explore the limits and uses of that new communication technology.
        Speaking of talking animals, another category that often gets labelled "fantasy" is stories peopled by animals.  The Redwall series by Brian Jacques is a representative example of the type - but I don't believe that this sort of book really has much to do with the fantasy genre.  Other than the purely decorative accident that the characters are woodland creatures, this is simply a novel set in a fictional historical setting.  It's historical fiction with more fiction than history, true, but it isn't magical.  If you replaced all the mice and rats with humans, nothing about the story would change, and it would have nothing fantastical about it.  Watership Down by Richard Adams and the Warriors series by Erin Hunter have even less to do with fantasy, as the animals that are the characters don't even wear clothes and walk on their hind legs, yet both works are frequently listed as fantasy.  I assume the idea is that to imagine that animals can interact with each other as if they had societies is supposed to be fantastical, but to me that's simply fiction, just as any set of imagined characters facing imagined conflicts is fiction.
        Redwall's fictional historical setting brings me to folk tales such as Robin Hood.  Folk tales are lumped in with fairy tales, and fairy tales are fantasy…  But Robin Hood, according to my ideas, is really not fantasy at all.  Again, it's historical fiction.  At most it's a bit of a tall tale.
        And finally, another category that isn't fantasy is anime.  Some anime is fantasy, of course, but anime is a medium, not a subject.  To throw all anime into the fantasy section of the library or bookstore is a silly as saying that all movies are sci fi or all short stories belong in the mystery section (or all cartoons are for children, a categorization that we're just beginning to break out of here in the US).  And yet anime seems to be a standard topic at fantasy conventions.  I guess that has more to do with an assumption that there's a sufficiently large overlap among fans of anime and fans of fantasy.  Still, I'm a fan of both fantasy and block printing, but I would never expect there to be a convention dedicated to both simultaneously.  (Hmm… that would be pretty cool, though, wouldn't it!)
        So if I'm full of strictures on what fantasy is not, perhaps I'd better try to say what I think fantasy is.  I could talk about the magic, and the impossible creatures, and goodness knows fantasy is as prone as any genre to its own conventions… but I guess at its most basic and its best I think fantasy is a genre that's about allowing the imagination free rein, so that both the storyteller and the reader can be unbound by expectations about reality.

[Picture: Pandora Dreaming, wood block print by AEGN, 2005.]

November 19, 2010

Chuck Close's Printmaking

        I stick to the same medium all the time but use it to depict a wide variety of subject matter.  Chuck Close does the opposite: his work consists almost exclusively of images of people's faces - in fact, he uses some of the same faces over and over - but he experiments with all different styles and mediums to portray the same subject matter.  I find Close a fascinating artist and especially love his huge rainbow-colored paintings that look like bright, beautiful abstract grids when viewed close up, but resolve themselves into realistic portraits when viewed from a distance.  One day, however, I encountered a reduction print portrait he did and I was blown away.  I don't remember where I saw it (I think probably the Smithsonian), or which of his faces it was, but it was the first I'd heard of the reduction print process and I was intrigued and amazed.  At some point I'll do a post on reduction prints, because they're seriously cool, but for now I want to feature Close as a printmaker.  There are four things about Close's prints that I find remarkable.
        The first point is just the amazing scale and quality of the works.  Most of them are huge and all of them are meticulously detailed and require impressive technical proficiency.
        The second point is the diversity of techniques Close has experimented with.  He's done silkscreening, mezzotint, woodcut, linoleum, multiple plates, Ukiyo-e, etching, lithography, paper pulp collage (which for some reason seems to get classed with printmaking, although I have to say I'm not sure why)…
        The third point is that when I say Close has experimented with all these techniques, what I mean is that he's collaborated with experts in all these various techniques.  I tend to have the prejudice that if an artist doesn't do every step himself he's somehow cheating, but the truth is that in all the history of art it's been very rare for an artist not to have assistants, collaborators, or experts to contribute to various parts of the creation of a piece.  (And of course I don't make my own paper or ink or other materials, and I suppose one could just as well argue that that's cheating.)  Here's an interesting description of the work one of Close's collaborators has done to create the color woodcut above that reproduced a lovely painting Close made.  For some of his prints Close does more of the work himself, for others, like the woodblock described in the link, he does less.  (In 1988 Close suffered a spinal artery collapse that left his movement severely restricted, but even before what he calls "The Event" he was experimenting with a variety of techniques, and even after it he continues to be able to adapt and find ways to achieve his effects.)
        And finally, the fourth point is that Close gives credit to his printmaking for driving and facilitating the creativity and innovation which have earned him his reputation as an influential artist of the highest tier.  This is interesting because printmaking is often considered to be a lesser medium, even somewhat derivative.  Serious artists doing their serious work paint in oils or sculpt, while printmaking is for reproduction or for fooling around.  Given that prejudice, it's nice to hear a great artist giving printmaking mediums their due.  And Close's prints have been receiving their due, too, in the form of an exhibition that has been around to a number of locations - none of them, alas, near me.  (I was in DC not too long before the show came to the Corcoran, but a miss is as good as a mile… *sigh*)  As far as I can determine that was the last location and it's over now, but I still hope to run into more of these pieces in museums in the future.  And I hope Close keeps producing more work for a long time to come.

[Pictures: Emma, ukiyo-e woodcut based on a painting by Chuck Close, 36x30 in, 2002;
    Untitled (Self-Portrait), relief print by Chuck Close, 40x30 in paper, 1999;
    Lucas, linocut by Chuck Close, 31x32 in, 1988;
    S.P. II, linoleum cut printed reductively, by Chuck Close, 11.5x9 in, 1997.]

Thanks to Greg Kucera Gallery, Inc. for a great listing of images.

November 16, 2010

"Are Your Children Artistic, Too?"

        Another weekend, another sale, and this one, I'm very sorry to say, with Christmas overtones.  I can't believe I'm taking part in promoting Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving!  Anathema!  But putting that aside, what struck me this weekend was a question that I was asked by at least three people who were viewing my art and books: Are your children artistic, too?
        The answer that I give is "Yes."  My children both enjoy drawing and all sorts of craft projects, and they both enjoy writing.  P has been at work on an epic sci fi/fantasy adventure entitled The Adventures of Space Squirrel Fluff, while T is to illustrate this ever-lengthening masterpiece.  T also works hard and takes joy in adding a wealth of detail and description to her weekly essays assigned for school, and appears to believe that there is nothing in the universe that she can't make out of scraps of paper.  They both did a number of pictures to illustrate my Kate and Sam Adventures books, and they're full of all kinds of creative ideas.  Yes, both my children are artistic… But of course they are, because what strikes me about the question is the assumption that there are children who are not artistic, and this seems like a very strange assumption.
        I believe that all people (which includes all children!) are naturally artistic in some sense.  I believe that all children are capable of telling wonderful stories, creating beautiful visual images, and surprising the world with interesting new ideas.  Some may be better at drawing a horse so it looks like a horse, others may be better at improvising tunes on a harmonica, still others may have a special gift for expressive metaphors, others may have a wonderful color sense.  Unfortunately, many people decide at some point in their lives that they aren't artistic - usually anyone who isn't particularly natural at drawing the horse that looks like a horse.  When I was an art teacher I was occasionally told by my students' parents about how some never-forgotten elementary or middle school art teacher of theirs told them they had no talent, and that was the end - they never made art again.  I've also seen children look at their neighbor's picture and conclude for themselves that if her horse looks more like a horse than theirs they might as well just stop trying.  But for whatever reason people decide they have no talent, the more they believe it the less they try, and the less they try the less skill they have, and the less skill they have the more it confirms their belief that they just aren't artistic.
        Yes, it's absolutely true that for any given skill some people have less natural facility than others.  It's absolutely true that we aren't all geniuses.  But I've seen students with no particular "talent" produce gorgeous works of vibrant, meaningful art because they put their whole hearts and their whole enthusiasm into creation.  I myself am living testament to the belief that not being a genius is not the same as not being artistic.  I am no artistic genius - but being artistic isn't a zero sum game.  It isn't as if someone else's ability to write a thrilling narrative or sketch a beautiful portrait uses up some of my share of creativity.  We can all be creative.  We can all be artistic.  Indeed, I believe that we all are… or would be if we would just work at it instead of giving up on it.
        As for children, I know mine are artistic, but so are you and your children, and so are everyone's, because humans are born artistic.  Imagine what the world might be like if we succeeded in helping the next generation stay that way!

[Picture: Busy Time, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007;
"Sam put the basket where the bee directed him," colored pencil and marker on paper by T Nydam (aged 6), illustration from Kate and Sam to the Rescue, p 35, 2008.]

November 12, 2010

Field Guides to the Creatures of Fantasy

        Earlier this year my son P declared his intention of being a cryptozoologist when he grows up.  I'm pretty sure he views the job more as fiction than as science, but in any case I thought it was an admirable aspiration for an eight-year-old.  It also got me thinking about what a great branch of fantasy cryptozoology can be.  At P's instigation we've been combing the library for all sorts of books about mythological and fantastic creatures - but not just stories that involve these creatures.  No, P likes the trappings of science.  He wants field guides, histories, descriptions of attributes… in short, he likes "non-fiction" books about fictional creatures.  And we've found quite a number of excellent ones, too.
        First and foremost on the list have to be the Dragonology books and Monsterology "by" Dr. Ernest Drake.  There's a whole series of "Ology" books, and not only are they fabulous, but they must have been so much fun to create that I go giddy with envy at the thought of it.  (P and T's other favorite is Wizardology.)  The Ernest Drake books have proven successful enough that  Candlewick Press have spun them out into all sorts of additional volumes, including The Dragonology Handbook, Drake's Comprehensive Compendium of Dragonology, several books that come with model kits, and a series of novels, The Dragonology Chronicles.  All of these books maintain a veneer of history and science that adds to the fun.  I was particularly impressed with the Homework assignments in The Dragonology Handbook.  They're cleverly designed so that everything a child is instructed to do involves researching and working with actual facts, including lessons in geography, history, food chains, and the Mohs mineral hardness scale, all seamlessly integrated into Drake's assertions about dragons.  And of course the books are beautifully made, with gorgeous illustrations, lots of flaps and envelopes to explore, and a nice faux-singed finish on the edges of the pages.    T especially commends the "specimens" of unicorn hair, dragon skin, and so on in Monsterology.  We all highly recommend these books for any lover of fantasy cryptozoology.  (They aren't cheap books, but we've checked many of them out of the library, and been able to pick up a couple at library book sales.  But I'd say it's worth it to splurge on your favorite.)
        The Ology books are by no means the only ones in the game, however.  This is a genre that's been quite trendy recently.  Isn't it wonderful when fashion actually coincides with your own tastes?  Here are our reviews of a few others that we've checked out at our house.
        Life-Size Dragons by John Grant and Fred Gambino.  Personally, I don't agree with this book's vision of the origin and science of dragons, and wasn't crazy about the computer-style illustrations… but P loved them, and the poster printed on the inside of the book-wrapper sealed the deal for him - he bought this book with birthday money.  The poster adorns his bedroom wall.
        Mythical Beasts by Katie Torpie and David Deen.  This is a Groovy Tube Book, and while its content is a serviceable if uninspired introduction to various mythological beasts of the world (with an emphasis on Greek mythology), its real claim to niftiness is that it comes with a board game and a collection of fifteen small plastic models of beasties, from a gorgon to la chupacabra.  These models (along with all the others T and P have collected - and made for themselves from polymer clay) have recently found habitats all over the house, so that everywhere I look I'm liable to come face to face with a miniature dragon, chimera, or roc.
        The Discovery of Dragons by Graeme Base.  Again, gorgeous illustrations, and witty short tales in the form of facsimile letters describing the discovery of each species of dragon.  P found it a little short on scientific details, but the rest of us enjoyed it.  (I guess the satirical "scholarly" introductions were a bit over the eight-year-old heads.)
         Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling.  We like this mainly because of the Hogwarts connection.  It lists plenty of interesting creatures and displays Rowling's usual wit, but on pure cryptozoological handbook basis, it wouldn't be able to beat some of the fancier, more lavishly illustrated competition in the field.  (But I do also have to commend it for having been written and published to raise money for the Comic Relief charity.  As far as I'm concerned, anything that combines mythical beasts and making the world a better place has got to be pretty good!)
        Gruesome Guide to World Monsters by Judy Sierra.  This book is aimed at older children or perhaps adults with its über-hip graffiti-like mixed media illustrations and gleefully bloodthirsty descriptions of each monster's modus operandi.  While I liked that the creatures represented folklore from all around the world, for my taste the book had too much of an emphasis on ghosts and bogeymen, fantasy I don't happen to care at all about.  P and T (who were 7 at the time we checked it out from the library) found it somewhat too scary for enjoyment.
        A Field Guide to Monsters: Google-Eyed Wart Floppers, Shadow-Casters, Toe-Eaters, and Other Creatures by Johan Olander.  This is another book that must have been fun to make.  Like the Ology books it includes facsimiles of sketches, pages from journals, and other alleged evidence regarding its monsters.  In this case, however, the monsters are not classics of folklore but are all imagined by the author.  Many of them are quite silly, as for example the Balloonster that P & T thought was highly amusing.  Some were a bit creepier than the kids could enjoy.  Its general tone seems calculated to amuse adults more than children.
        A Practical Guide to Dragons by Lisa Trumbauer and A Practical Guide to Monsters by Nina Hess.  These books are from the Dungeons & Dragons game world.  They feature the standard D&D monsters and the D&D types of metallic and chromatic dragons with their various affiliations of good and evil, which seems rather constraining to me.  Be that as it may, they are fun field-guide-style collections of creatures.  T really likes the detailed illustrations of lairs, and P especially commends the boxes with facts for each creature such as habitat, diet, weapons, and your best defense.  Both of them give these books an enthusiastic thumbs-up despite not even being aware that they're spin-offs from a game.
        Aahhh, what a wonderful richness of field guides is available to the fantasy cryptozoologist now!  And what a delightful trend their publication is for one who wrote many a fantasy field guide in her youth.  I envy the authors and illustrators who have made these books, and I'm grateful that my family and I have been able to enjoy them.  Why not nip over to your local library and check out a few?

        P.S. Here's a supplement: More Field Guides (Part II).

[Picture: Fiery Dragon, rubber block print by AEGN, 2010 (sold out).]

November 9, 2010

Three Thoughts from Another Open Studio Weekend

        I was too busy this weekend, which is, of course, the sign of a good sale.  Saturday was particularly busy, so I was feverishly restocking late into the night, with more work early on Sunday morning.  Sunday was slower, but still good, giving me the chance to think about something beside the economy.  Here are three of those thoughts…
One of the things that particularly struck me this weekend is how pieces sometimes seem to sell in inexplicable waves.  The buyers aren't all there at the same time, so it isn't that they influence each other, and yet somehow there seems to be a vibe in the air.  On Saturday I sold out my entire stock of animal alphabet posters.  On Sunday D (with P and T in tow) heroically got more printed up and delivered them to me at my location… and yet I sold only a couple that day.  The overwhelming interest in animal alphabet posters disappeared as quickly as it came.  Calendars were the hot commodity three weeks ago… but again, only on the Saturday.  The block prints
are occasionally the same, although a real run on any particular piece is limited by the fact that I never have more than one framed and one matted impression with me at the same time.  Still, this weekend I ended up with several orders for "Tree Palace," having sold none at the previous show.  Is there something in the air?  Does some sort of disembodied memory linger at the site of particular enthusiasm?  It's quite amusing - and very mysterious - to watch such patterns take shape.
        • Often my favorite sales are the purchase of the very first of one of my pieces, and the purchase of the last of one of my pieces.  This weekend I had a couple of each sort of sale: the last "Happy Place" cats and the last camels, and the first for several of my newest prints.  *Great satisfaction.*  Selling out means no more matting up another copy, no more hauling one around to every sale, no more space devoted to it on the web site…  And of course making a first sale means proof that someone else loves my baby!

        • Finally, I got some good carving done.  Most of my time - the time during which I wasn't talking with people, that is - was spent on the "New-fallen Snow" scene.  When I finished that as well as I could, I also carved a tiny seahorse.  (Too bad our scanner gave up the ghost two weeks ago, so there will be no decent scans until it can be replaced.  In the meantime, plain photos in poor light will have to do.)  All the little twigs were really a lot of fun to carve and I'm quite delighted with how they came out.  The printing this morning wasn't so delightful - for some reason the ink kept seeming too sticky - but on the whole I'm quite pleased with this one… and I'm certainly pleased with a very successful weekend.
(Many thanks to all who came!)

[Pictures: Seahorse, rubber block print by AEGN, 2010 (sold out);
my display at Roslindale Open Studios;
New-fallen Snow, rubber block print by AEGN, 2010;
drying New-fallen Snow prints.]