March 29, 2011

Words of the Month - April Foolishness

        At its best, April Fool's Day is a celebration of good-humored nonsense, a chance to shake things up a little and make people laugh.  Apparently no one knows the origins of the tradition, although as usual Wikipedia describes some interesting possibilities.  But whatever the reasons that people celebrate nonsense on the first day of April, I will celebrate in my own way by sharing the strange and wonderful stories of some nonsensical words.  (And don't worry.  Since it isn't actually April 1 yet, I didn't make any of these up!)

hogwash - This word began straighforwardly
     enough in the 15th century as slops fed to
     hogs.  By the early 18th century it had come
     to refer to cheap liquor, and by the end of the
     18th century it meant writing without value.
guff - (1888) a puff of air, which then came to
     mean "empty talk," and thus "nonsense."
baloney - (1922) originally meant "idiot," probably from bologna sausage, which is
     made from all the odds and ends that aren't exactly of the best quality.
gobbledygook - This word was apparently coined by congressman Maury Maverick in
     imitation of a turkey's noise.  It first appeared in 1944 in a memo banning
     "gobbledygook language" in which Maverick threatened that "anyone using the
     words activation or implementation will be shot."  If that threat were actually
     carried out there might be no one left alive in the US over the age of six.
balderdash - (1590s) originally a jumbled mix of liquors.  A century later, under the
     same association of ideas that worked on hogwash, it had come to mean a jumbled
     mix of words.  But no one knows where it came from in the first place.
claptrap - (c.1720-30) a stage term for "a trick to catch applause."  It had extended to
     all "cheap, showy language" by the next century, and thus "nonsense."
poppycock - (mid 19th century) Probably from a Dutch word that combined an older
     Dutch word for "dung" with kak from Latin cacare "to excrete."  I guess they wanted
     to make doubly sure there was no mistaking their intent.
bunkum, or its shortened variant bunk - (1847)  According to the Online Etymology
     Dictionary, "The usual story of its origin is this: At the close of the protracted
     Missouri statehood debates, on Feb. 25, 1820, N.C. Representative Felix Walker
     began what promised to be a "long, dull, irrelevant speech," and he resisted calls to
     cut it short by saying he was bound to say something that could appear in the
     newspapers in the home district and prove he was on the job.  "I shall not be
     speaking to the House," he confessed, "but to Buncombe.""

        I hope these words help you enjoy a little nonsensical Foolishness on April 1.

[Picture: Catch Me!, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007 (sold out).]

March 25, 2011

A Glimpse of Paradise

        This past Monday I finally finished a print I've been working on for several weeks.  It's one of the most laborious I've done, with all the fiddly little details to carve out.  It was also probably about the longest I've ever spent on an initial sketch, since I wanted to be sure to get the perspective right on all those lines.  It reminded me of learning one point perspective in junior high, wielding my ruler and pencil.  I always enjoyed the geometry of perspective.
        The idea came to me to do a fantasy library, and I went on-line and browsed through lots of pictures of really cool libraries.  I practically had to wipe the drool off my chin as I sat there at the computer!  So my sketch has borrowed bits from various sources.  (At first I really wanted a spiral staircase in the corner.  Someday I will do a spiral staircase print because I just love them, but in the end it didn't fit in this one.)  The basic layout of the view came
from one picture, the orrery from another, the designs for floor, lamp, and all the books came from a variety of other places, and of course it all got filtered through my simplification to translate everything into plain black and white (or, technically, brown and cream).
        (In the picture of the sketch you can see that after I draw the design to my satisfaction, I draw back over all the lines darkly so that the graphite will transfer onto my rubber block.)
        Because people always ask me how long it takes me to make a print and I can never give them an exact answer, I decided to keep track of my time for once.  Of course, I didn't think of this until I'd finished drawing the initial design sketch, and that was several hours already.  However, I did keep track of my time spent carving, and the final result is that it took me nine and a half hours to carve.  That 9 and a half hours were spread over two weeks, so you can see that I didn't work long times at a stretch.  Most days I worked between 45 minutes and an hour and a half, but some days I was able to do only 15 minutes or so.

        After the carving came the printing, and the bigger the block the harder a time I have pulling
prints that are evenly and properly inked.  It took me three printing sessions to get an edition of ten that satisfied me.  Because of this, and because I was mixing brown and black, my edition has a variation in browns.  I also have a couple of pulls that have a mottled look to them.  Ordinarily I would have rejected inking like that, but in this case I thought it was kind of cool.  It seemed to go with the look of an old parchmenty library, so I kept them.  Each time I printed I spent about 45 minutes, adding more than two more hours to the total.
        And finally, after selecting the edition and tearing up the rejects, I labelled, numbered, and signed the prints, and declared myself done.  In fact, the process still has more steps.  I scanned one and made a page for it on my web site, updating all the links and everything there.  I'll still have to mat some, and frame or package them for showing.  But I won't count that time for now.  Leaving the marketing stuff aside, the final tally is that it took me about fourteen hours to make this print.
        I'm pretty pleased with it, on the whole.  I especially like how the open book on the stand turned out, and I certainly had fun with the whole thing.  I'd love to be able to step into this one and spend some time there!  I imagine there's a comfortable chair just around the corner...

[Pictures: A Glimpse of Paradise, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011 (sold out);
photos by AEGN, 2011.]

March 22, 2011

Why I Chose to Self-Publish

        If you have tears, prepare to shed them now, because I'm going to tell a tragic tale.  (A bit of a long one, too, so go get a cup of tea and make yourself comfortable…)  I always wanted to be a writer.  Pretty much as long as I can remember that's what I wanted to be when I grew up: a fiction writer.  No ballerinas, no doctors, no airplane pilots, no movie stars could entice me like the dream of writing the sorts of books I loved to read.  And write I did.  I participated in a Young Authors' Conference with special guest Stephen Kellogg in elementary school, I won prizes in poetry contests in middle school, I took creative writing classes in high school and college, and I wrote wrote wrote: short stories, poetry, satires, humor, and finally, after graduation from college, full length novels.  I submitted stuff, too, and got an article and a few poems published in small magazines, but what I mostly got was the requisite heap of rejection letters.
        So I did more research.  Where could I submit now?  What was the next step?  That's when I began to come to the realization that publication was not about writing a really good book and sending it to a publisher.  The more I learned about the publishing process the more I came to believe that my chances of even getting noticed, let alone actually published, were practically nil - and moreover, what slim chance there was had little or nothing to do with the actual quality of my writing.  Oh yes, I'd heard about all the great and now-famous books that got rejected by the first twenty-five publishers.  I'd heard about the authors who persevered because they believed in themselves despite all the rejections, and knew that their books were genius that someone someday would properly appreciate.  There was just one problem with these stories: I didn't think that I or my books were works of genius to rival the classics.  I thought my books were pretty good, I knew they were a heck of a lot better than a lot of things I've read that did get published, but… genius to compare with the greatest authors of the ages?  No, I'm not that conceited.
        There I was, certain that I would never be able to get a book published, and it suddenly occurred to me… what was the point of writing?  Writing is about telling stories, about sharing ideas, about making connections, but how can you tell a story when nobody's listening?  I realized that there was no joy in writing what no one would ever read.  It was too pathetic, like talking on the telephone even after you know the other person has hung up.  I stopped writing.  I stayed busy with my teaching and art, and then I had twin babies that didn't leave me much time for anything else anyway…
        Are you crying now?  Tragic, isn't it.  But don't worry.  I love happy endings, so this tale will not remain an unrelieved tragedy.  Fast forward maybe five or eight years and three things had happened.  The first is that my art career had begun to feel really satisfying.  I knew my art was never going to get acclaimed as the next hot thing in glossy magazines; I knew fancy New York City galleries were not going to be clamoring to represent me; but something small but very significant was occurring.  When I displayed my art, when people got a chance to see it, they liked it.  Many of them liked my block prints enough to put down money and buy them.  It didn't matter that I wasn't going to be critically acclaimed, because I could skip the critics and galleries and the art establishment and share my art directly with people, and that brought a lot of joy both to them and to me.
        The second thing that was happening is that I was really missing writing.  Writing had been one of the things that had given me the most pleasure, it had been one of the most important parts of my life, and I wanted it back.  I finally made a resolution that I would forget about publishing, and try to forget that no one would ever read what I wrote, and I would try to enjoy it just for myself.  Slowly, laboriously, because I was woefully rusty, I started to get back to work on old unfinished projects.
        And then I discovered the third piece of the puzzle: self-publishing technology had come a long way since Beatrix Potter and James Joyce self-published.  I put all the profit from my art sales into publishing a book of nursery rhymes illustrated with my block prints, and I brought it to my art shows to sell.  No agent, no publisher, no bookstore, but when I could show the book to people and they could look at it, they liked it.  And many of them handed over money and bought it.  A few years after that and the technology of print-on-demand had come even farther, and lulu and createspace had appeared on the scene.  I thought, "Why shouldn't there be a place for my books in the same way I discovered that there was a place for my art?  I may never get an agent or a publisher, but if I could just show my books to people and give them a chance to read, they just might like them."  And that's what I've tried to do.
        There are drawbacks to this method, of course.  I've never received that "seal of approval" that a publishing contract provides.  No one in the industry considers me a real author, and I can't be a member of the professional writers' organizations.  I've not had the benefit of a good professional editor to help me polish my books further (although this could be a blessing as well as a curse, considering the horror stories I've heard of editors who've told friends and friends of friends, "We love this book… now we just need you to change the set-up, the ending, the main character, and your entire point!")  I'm not on the approved purchase lists of many libraries, nor am I eligible to get reviews by the respected reviewers.  Convincing people to give my books a try is not easy, and there's no one to do it but me (and if being a writer was the one thing I always most wanted to do, then sales and marketing is pretty much the one thing I've always least wanted to do.  I was a truly abysmal Girl Scout come cookie time each year.)  Everyone knows that there are a lot of really awful books that are self-published, so I don't blame anyone for being a little wary of mine (although I would ask you to remember how many really awful books are published by large conventional publishers, too!)  I'm still trying to figure out how to make this work, but…
        But when people read my books, they like them.  Not everyone, of course, but many of them.  And many of them like my books enough to put down money and buy them, and give them as gifts to their nieces and nephews and children and grandchildren and friends… or just enjoy them themselves.  So I'm a writer again, telling my stories, connecting with people.  It's true that there aren't huge numbers of people reading my books, but no matter how few there are, as long as there's someone listening it's always worth it to share a story.  So while I still have the occasional fantasy of being "discovered" by some wonderful agent or publisher and getting my work distributed more widely, I'm just really grateful that self-publishing has made it possible for me to write again, and to share my writing with others, just as I share my art.

[Pictures:  Six Masks, rubber block prints by AEGN, 1999:
Joy, Rage, Misery, Excitement, Jealousy, Love.]

March 18, 2011

The ABC's of Block Printing

       Recently I've been having fun with Inter-library Loan, and requesting every alphabet book I could find that's illustrated with block prints.  I came up with a pretty good crop of them, too.  I've always loved alphabet lists - on long car trips or in the dark at sleepovers I enjoyed playing "I love my love with an A."  (His name is
Ambrose, he lives in Albuquerque, he likes to eat artichokes, and he has a pet aardvark.  I love my love with a B, her name is Blanche…)  So it was only natural that once I had done a number of prints of plants I should see how well they could be assigned to the letters of the alphabet.  And when I realized I was missing representation for only half a dozen more letters, it was only natural that I should carve and print those last few plants…  (Botanical Alphabet Poster)  A few years later I did the same with animals, and these I compiled into the book Amazing, Beguiling, Curious.
        Not only are there a number of great alphabet books illustrated with relief block prints, but animals are an especially popular topic, too.  I've been enjoying comparing the word choices for each letter, and how different artists portrayed the same word in their different ways.  There's enough block-printy goodness in this topic to last me for several posts, so for today I'll just direct you to the eight alphabet books I got my hands on, and the beautiful and varied work of the different artists.

      A Farmer's Alphabet, by Mary Azarian, published by David. R. Godine, 1981.
      A Gardener's Alphabet,  by Mary Azarian, published by Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
      Antler, Bear, Canoe: A Northwoods Alphabet, by Betsy Bowen, published by Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
      ABC Book, by C. B. Falls, published by Doubleday & Company, 1923.
      My Beastie Book of ABC, by David Frampton, published by HarperCollins, 2002.  (For more on David Frampton, check out my post on his work.)
      Amazing, Beguiling, Curious: 26 Fascinating Creatures, by Anne E.G. Nydam, published by Nydam Prints, 2010.
      An Alphabet of Animals, by Christopher Wormell, published by Dial Books, 1990.
      A New Alphabet of Animals, by Christopher Wormell, published by Running Press, 2002.

        By the way, if you know of any other alphabet books illustrated with relief block printing, please let me know about them!  I'd always love to see more.

[Pictures: Armadillowood block print by AEGN, from Amazing, Beguiling, Curious, 2010;
        Barn, wood block print by Mary Azarian, from A Farmer's Alphabet, 1981;
        Camellinoleum block print with multiple blocks by Christopher Wormell, from A New Alphabet of Animals, 2002;
        Frog, linoleum block print with multiple blocks by Christopher Wormell, from An Alphabet of Animals, 1990;
        Quiet, wood block print with watercolor by Betsy Bowen, from Antler, Bear, Canoe, 1991;
        Swan, wood block print with multiple blocks by C.B. Falls, from ABC Book, 1923;
        Underground, wood block print with watercolor by Mary Azarian, from A Gardener's Alphabet, 2000;
        Warthog, wood block print with multiple blocks by David Frampton, from My Beastie Book of ABC, 2002.]

March 16, 2011

Relief Printing Disaster Relief

        I'm adding this extra bonus post to let everyone know about an opportunity to help art help make the world a better place.
        Printsy member Hannah Skoonberg made this linoleum block print to raise money for earthquake and tsunami relief in Japan.  (Click on the picture to see it bigger.)  She'll donate $5 to the Red Cross for every one of these bookmarks she sells.  You can see the bit about it on the Printsy Blog, or go to her Etsy shop Skoonberg to see more info and to buy one.
        So she's inspired me to do the same.  I'm offering this miniature block print of a peace crane on Etsy, and I'll donate $6 of every sale to UNICEF for their relief work in Japan and other areas affected by the tsunami.  If you're interested, here it is on my Etsy shop NydamPrints.  Thanks!

[Pictures: Japan Disaster Relief Bookmark, linocut by Hannah Skoonberg, 2011;
A Wish for Peace, rubber block print by AEGN, 2010 (sold out).]

March 15, 2011

Feminist Fantasy Picture Books

        I am a feminist.  Now, "feminist" is a word, like many religious and political words, to which all sorts of people ascribe all sorts of different meanings, some of them practically contradictory.  When I say that I'm a feminist I simply mean that I believe males and females are equally valuable, deserve equal human rights, and should be equally permitted to pursue their own particular talents and skills, whatever they may be.  In the 1970's and 80's when I was a girl with a fascination with traditional fairy tales it was easy to start hungering for interesting, active, strong, intelligent female characters - and luckily huge crops of these soon appeared, both in bringing lesser known traditional tales to the fore and in writing new ones.  This is one of those areas in which I think that juvenile fantasy helped to save the world: it may be easier for society to accept unconventional heroes in fantasy tales.  Indeed, many of the early fantasy authors, including George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, and L. Frank Baum, presented us with feisty, adventuresome, resourceful girls before it was expected that girls could be feisty, adventuresome, and resourceful in real life.  (More about this here.)  But today I'm only going to concentrate on picture books.  Here are a few of the feminist fantasy tales I've found most interesting.

    The Dragon and the Doctor, by Barbara Danish. This is an oddity.  The story itself is extremely weak - indeed, the entire book, published by Feminist Press in 1971, seems to exist for no reason other than to state the existence of a female doctor with a male nurse.  However, it is pleasantly silly, and the dragon's plaintive cry of "Berkshmert" was a welcome addition to my family's vocabulary when I was a child.  [Note: I just discovered that they came out with a new edition in 1995 which apparently makes the doctor black and adds a lesbian couple with a daughter to the mix.  I haven't seen it, so I have no idea whether the actual story's been improved at all.]

    Brave Margaret, by Robert San Souci, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport.  A traditional Irish tale in which the punch line is "What fools we are for thinking it must be a man who slays that great, dirty giant!"

    Vassilisa the Wise, by Josepha Sherman, illustrated by Daniel San Souci.  The hero of this traditional Russian folk tale is a kick-butt woman who can do everything -- and has to, to save her loving and faithful but not so resourceful husband.

     Goddesses: A World of Myth and Magic, by Burliegh Mutén, illustrated by Rebecca Guay.  Personally, I'm not into the front flap's claim that it will "release the goddess energy that is latent in every one" of us females, and I sure wouldn't want my daughter T to emulate the sort of behavior most of these goddesses seem to get up to - and that's even with the book's most positive possible interpretation of the myths!  Still, it's an interesting reference book, representing mythology from all around the world, and it's beautiful, with gorgeous illustrations and borders.

     The Princess Knight, by Cornelia Funke, illustrated by Kerstin Meyer.  Perhaps nothing radically new, this is nevertheless a nice version of the tomboy who proves herself, with a sensible resolution after her father offers her hand in marriage to the winner of a tournament.  I like the way the illustrations scroll along the pages like a modern Bayeux tapestry.

     Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls, retold by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Susan Guevara.  This isn't really so much a picture book, having only one full illustration for each of the thirteen stories, but I count it here because it isn't a chapter novel, either.  As for the stories, I like some more than others.  My least favorites are the ones in which women act just like stereotypical male heroes - which is to say they're stupid, stubborn, obsessed with pointless honor, and convinced that everything will work out fine if they just hit harder.  I admit that there's a value to representing women of all types, and there's no reason some girls can't be brawny fighting machines… but for my taste I'd rather see more boy heroes who are not like that, instead of more girl heroes who are.  That said, this is a nice collection of stories from all different cultures, showing both the variety and the universality of heroic girls.  My favorites are probably "Bradamante" and "The Pirate Princess."

     Also, several of the picture books listed here have strong female heroes, too.

        Now here we are in 2011, and books with an explicit emphasis on strong girls seem almost pointless.  It isn't that strong female characters are no longer needed, it's just that we've reached the stage where the fact that our hero is a girl doesn't need to be the point.  P and T both take it completely for granted that a story's hero could equally be a boy or a girl.  As far as they're concerned, the idea that a girl might not be capable of all the same adventures as a boy is nothing more than a curiosity of ancient history.  Which is exactly as it should be.  I'm lucky to be raising my children in a time and place where they can take equality of the sexes for granted.  Now if only we can bring this vision out of the realm of fantasy and apply it to our entire world.  After all, that's the real magic of fantasy.

[Pictures: Dancing with Animals, wood block print by AEGN, 1999.]

March 11, 2011

Chainmail Bikinis, Etc.

        The prevalence of corsets and high heels at the Arisia convention I attended in January reminded me of the style of fantasy art represented by chainmail bikinis.  All sorts of fantasy computer games employ this style, as do the artists of D&D books, comics, and any number of other fantasy artists.  There are plenty of others who already make fun of the chainmail bikini trope, so I'm hardly the first to be pointing out its silliness, but no matter where I see a well-endowed barbarian in strategically scanty armor, I admit that it makes me roll my eyes.  My complaints are threefold.
        First of all, it's sexist - or perhaps more accurately, it's sex-focused.  The women are all portrayed as Barbie-doll objects to ogle, but in fairness, the men are all presented as muscle-bound objects of lust, too.  The people in this style of art are so busy posing and flexing that they look as if they wouldn't even notice if a dragon walked up and ate them.  Then there are the fur bikinis in the swirling snow…  While scantily clad folks with swords certainly fall under one definition of the word "fantasy," it isn't the definition that involves adventures in overcoming terrible odds for noble causes.  The people depicted in this art are far more interested in looking sexy than they are in getting a hero's job done.  At its extremes it really isn't fantasy art at all, any more than pictures of sexy nurses have anything to do with medicine.
        But even with art that is more genuinely about the fantasy genre, my second complaint is the essential implausibility of Chainmail-Bikini-style fantasy.  No one who actually intended to fight would wear armor that left them vulnerable in exactly the places armor was invented to protect.  A breastplate that covers the breasts but not the heart or stomach?  That's just plain silly.  And while a corset does, admittedly, protect the stomach, the idea of racing around Victorian London in a Victorian corset is certainly pure fantasy... but unless you're going to invoke all your magic to keep your fashionable female hero from passing out the first time she tries to chase down the villain, I'm just not buying it.  Fantasy weapons can get ridiculous, too.  I'd put my money on the person with the plain, boring no-nonsense weapon, and watch her make mincemeat of the Chainmail Bikini hero with all the curlicues and glowy bits on her sword.  Yeah, I know it's supposed to be magic, but you expect me to believe in the warrior with the Thor's
hammer twice the size of his head?  It's probably got twice his brains, too.  And look, he's wearing a chain-mail loincloth!
        And that brings me to my final complaint: it just looks really uncomfortable.  Chainmail next to the skin?  Ouch.  Maybe all those posing beauties are actually relieved to let the dragon eat them, just to escape from the chronic pain of their high heels, their corsets, and their chainmail bikinis.

[Pictures: cover of Red Sonja comic #1, Frank Thorne, 1977, Marvel Comics (Found on Cover Browser);
     cartoon from tvtropes website (I can't find an attribution for the cartoon, but there is an essay about Chainmail-Bikini-ism here.);
     design for the female barbarian character for the game "Diablo 3," found along with an essay on Chainmail Bikini Syndrome at the Suvudu website.  (Again, I have no attribution for the artist who made this design.);
     cover of Wonder Woman comic #28, Aaron Lopresti, 2009, DC Comics.]