October 28, 2011

Words of the Month - Borrowed Fantasy

        One of my favorite things about the English language is how we don't just borrow words from other languages - we adopt them.  We bring them into our family, embrace them, and love them as our own until we don't even remember where they came from.  No doubt I'll be doing more posts on borrowings over time, because it's such a rich topic, but today I'll share the exotic origins of a sampling of words that the fantasy genre just couldn't do without.
        Let's start with words that might be found in Dungeons & Dragons, where many an older fantasy geek was first immersed in the world of magic…
magic, bronze - Avestan  (Middle East)
ceremony - Etruscan  (Europe)
shaman - Evenki  (Asia)
bard - Gaelic  (Europe)
rogue - Sinhalese  (South Asia)
horde - Polish  (Europe)

        Do you like high medieval fantasy?
saga - Icelandic  (Europe)
chivalry - Norman French  (Europe)
saber - Hungarian  (Europe)
crusade, pilgrim - Provençal  (Europe)
ebony, ivory - Egyptian  (Africa)

        How about Star Trek and sci fi?
trek - Afrikaans  (Europe/Africa)
robot - Czech  (Europe)
technology - Greek  (Europe)
orbit - Latin  (Europe)

        Angels and demons and assorted monsters and beasts?
cherub - Akkadian  (Middle East)
paradise - Avestan  (Middle East)
abyss - Sumerian  (Middle East)
Dracula - Romanian  (Europe)
vampire - Serbian  (Europe)
zombie - Kongo  (Africa)
yeti - Tibetan  (Asia)
sasquatch - Salish  (North America)
jaguar - Guarani  (South America)
shark - Maya  (Mesoamerica)
anaconda - Tamil  (South Asia)
piranha - Tupi  (South America)

        A few more words, perhaps for horror or urban fantasy…
geek - Dutch  (Europe)
tattoo - Tahitian  (Pacific)
bizarre - Basque  (Europe)
taboo - Tongan  (Pacific)
cannibal - Carib  (South America)
bludgeon - Cornish  (Europe)
fog, kidnap - Danish  (Europe)
voodoo - Ewe  (Africa)
juju - Hausa  (Africa)
ninja - Japanese  (Asia)
berserk - Norse  (Europe)

        And finally, what would fantasy be without
purple - Phoenician  (Middle East)
map - Punic  (Middle East/Africa)
chocolate - Nahuatl  (Mesoamerica)
                   How else will you recover from an encounter with Dementors?

        Did you know where English got all those wonderful fantasy words?  Forty languages from all around the world are represented here.  Some of the words come from languages that are long extinct, living on only in their words that have passed into other languages.  Some words are recent enough borrowings that most people still recognize their foreign origin.  I hope this list gives you a new appreciation for the wonderful diversity of the English language - and for the human tendency to embrace fantasy wherever we find it.

[Pictures:  Magical Symbol, rubber block print by AEGN, 2008 (commissioned for a not-yet-published fantasy novel by a friend of mine)
Ninja, "Kuni Ghika wood block print," (not sure what that means!) 19th century (Image from Live Auctioneers.)]

October 25, 2011

Handbook by George A. Walker

        For anyone who's interested in block printing, I highly recommend The Woodcut Artist's Handbook, by George A. Walker.  It's got loads of great illustrations, many by Walker, but also by a whole variety of other artists from Albrecht Dürer to Ralph Steadman, who inks up scraps of old, used wood.  Although the title says "woodcut," this book also covers linoleum block printing and wood engraving, and makes an effort to include a wide variety of styles.
        The chapters cover "Selecting Materials for the Block" through signing and numbering "The Edition," and address the basics as well as more advanced materials and techniques.  In addition to the illustrations of block prints there are also lots of illustrations and diagrams of step-by-step processes, how to hold tools, the different types of cuts made by different tools, how presses work, etc.
        I confess that I didn't read every word of all the chapters.  I skipped the details of how to assemble your own engraving block, or how to repair Resingrave, for example.  But it looks like in everything Walker does a good job of covering both the basics for those who don't know much about block printing, and the advanced details for those who are already pretty immersed in the craft.
        The bottom line, though, is that I enjoyed the illustrations.  Walker's selection included lots of contemporary artists I wasn't familiar with and whose work I'll be keeping an eye out for.  He has a particular emphasis on Canadian artists, since those are the people he works with and knows.  Again, that meant it was a selection I wasn't so familiar with.  And Walker's own work is quite diverse, though he appears to have a special interest in political, urban, and slightly darker interpretations of things.  Here are some of his pieces.  On the whale above I like the contrast between the scratchiness of the whale and the controlled swirls of the water.  As for the caterpillar, I'm sure everyone recognizes it as Alice's acquaintance in Wonderland.  I like its scruffiness.
        I was definitely glad to have found this book to look through.  Check it out.

[Pictures: Whale, wood (or Resingrave?) engraving by George A. Walker, 2004;
Advice from a Caterpillar, wood engraving by Walker, c. 1985.]

Walker, George A., The Woodcut Artist's Handbook: Techniques and Tools for Relief Printmaking, Firefly Books Ltd., 2010.
Walker's Web Site

October 21, 2011

Fantasy Hallowe'en Costumes

        Let me just say right up front that I have always loved dressing up, but that I have always believed that half the fun of costumes is making them.  I've got no problem with buying an accessory or a special hat or something, but grabbing a complete pre-made costume off the shelf really defeats the purpose.  I always made my own costumes as a child (with some help from my mother) and I've always made P and T's costumes…  until this year, when I've put them in charge of assembling their own.  I hate seeing so many kids coming to our door in boring, generic outfits, and I'm always delighted to see anyone displaying a bit of creativity.
        Naturally my taste in Hallowe'en costumes has tended toward fantasy.  The Wizard of Oz kept me in costume ideas for several years in elementary school: I particularly recall the Cowardly Lion, Ozma of Oz, and the Wicked Witch of the West.  Another year I was Artemis.  Freshman year in college a whole group of my friends and I went as characters from Alice in Wonderland.  (As the one with long blonde hair I was inevitably Alice.)
        P and T have been even more fantastical.  At age three they were dragons, and I was very happy that they could still fit in the same costumes when they wanted to be dragons again the following year.  (Those were a lot of work!)  At age five they were griffins (lion-headed griffins, to be specific).  At age seven P was a dragon again (necessitating the creation of a whole new dragon costume) and T was a fairy.  And last year P was a phoenix and T a "Hogwart's-style witch."
        Of course there are plenty of non-fantasy costumes I've made and admired over the years.  (One of the best ever was when T and P were salt and pepper shakers as toddlers.)  One could argue that any costume at all is a form of fantasy, since costumes allow you to pretend to be something completely different, for good or ill.  (There's also the "fantasy" aspect of the fact that so many female costumes
involve improbable quantities of cleavage, thigh, and shoe heel.  But that's a rant I won't go into today.)  Suffice it to say that Hallowe'en is a holiday with many pros and cons, but perhaps its most positive attribute is when it serves to empower children (or any age) to imagine something, create the costume representing their vision, and get out and show it off without embarrassment.  When it's child-directed and involves actual creativity, not just the wielding of a credit card, Hallowe'en is a fun, empowering, imaginative, wonderful holiday.  So let your creativity run wild!
        And now it's time to get busy for this year's costumes.  One of our jobs for the weekend will be helping P and T get to work on their costumes.  I hope you have fun with yours!

[Pictures:  T as a green dragon, 2005;
T and P as lion-headed griffins, 2007;
P as a phoenix, 2010, photos by AEGN.]

October 18, 2011

An Owl and a Pussy-Cat

        This weekend was an Open Studios show and that means I sat and carved all weekend.  On Saturday I carved Cat Art.  This one was fun and different for me because it's actually a portrait of Talia, our new kitten.  (We've had her for about three months now, and she's about nine months old.  She doesn't look kittenish any more.)  Our former cat of happy memory, Nightshade, served as the model for much previous Cat Art, but the cat images she inspired were all rather generalized.  Nightshade's blotchy mulch-colored fur didn't translate well into bold black and white, so all my cats ended up being solid black or white, or wholly fictional tabby-stripes.  Talia, however, is a true classic tabby, mostly black with narrow ticked whorls.  I thought I'd try actually reproducing her pattern in this piece, and it turned out better than I had feared at the point of carving.  I especially love the white rim around her eyes while she snoozes!
        On Sunday I carved an owl, based on a screech owl, though without any claims of Audubon-worthy accuracy.  Instead of being about reproducing an accurate portrait of a creature, this piece is more about pattern and texture.  (T is quite excited about it, since two of her favorite people have owl companions: Harry Potter and Athena.)  I saw a program about owls once from which I learned that owls are actually pretty stupid birds, which makes their use as a symbol of wisdom delightfully ironic.  But even if keen intelligence isn't their specialty, owls are still wonderful, amazing creatures.
        Of course my two days of carving were interrupted for sales (if never as many as I'd like!)  And actually the carving was interrupted for quite a few very nice conversations, as well.  I'm thinking of three in particular that were especially gratifying.  Two of these were people who had bought books last year as gifts for children (a daughter with Hey, Diddle Diddle! and a grandson with Amazing, Beguiling, Curious, to be specific.)  They reported back to me how much the children loved the books, and I really appreciate this feedback.  I pour a lot of love and care into those books and art.  They come from deep in my own imagination and my own visions of the world, they are personal and precious to me, and then I throw them out into the world and they disappear.  I never hear back from most readers of my books, or from recipients of my art, so when I do find out that someone out there is sharing my enjoyment and treasuring the connection I've made with them, that really means a lot to me.  The third example was a four-year-old boy who came in with his parents.  Last year they'd bought a vintage car for his bedroom, and this year they came back to choose a second car to go with the first.  He also tried his hand at carving the rubber and was excited to learn the process of how the car prints were made.  He was preparing to redecorate to a "big boy" room, and he wanted my cars to be part of it.  I am honored and pleased that something I created is a part of that boy's life!

[Pictures:  Curled Up with a Good Book, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011 (sold out);
Screech Owl, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011 (sold out).]

October 14, 2011

Renaissance UFO Woodcut

        Here's a nifty confluence of wood block printing and speculative fiction!  This woodcut made by Hanns Glaser is entitled "Heavenly apparition over Nuremberg on April 14, 1561."  The woodcut was actually made in 1566, based on reports of what UFO enthusiasts call a mass sighting of an alien battle in the skies over Germany.  The report, printed in a broadsheet called the Nuremberg Gazette, says that at dawn on April 14, 1561 many people looking at the sky witnessed large numbers of "cylindrical shapes from which emerged black, red, orange and blue-white spheres that darted about."  Crosses the color of blood and a large black spear-shaped object were also involved, fighting with one another for about an hour, after which time some of the shapes flew into the sun while others fell to earth in clouds of steam.  Some people of the time took the vision as a divine warning.  Some people of this time take the account as proof of an extraterrestrial space battle.
        I was unable to determine much about the authenticity of the "newspaper" account.  The document is in the Zentralbibliothek Zürich's collection of early news, but it's certainly anomalous.  It's hard to find any unbiased information discussing this stuff.  (Perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise.  I used to get annoyed with "In Search Of" and such television programs, that begin with intriguing questions which always, always, ALWAYS end up inconclusive and unresolved.)  But the authenticity of Hanns Glaser's 1566 woodcut seems to be unquestioned.  The question is just what, in fact, it shows - how accurate a depiction is it of whatever happened five years earlier, and just what exactly did people see on that April morning?
        My brother and I have come up with four plausible scenarios.
    a)  Aliens A are attempting to conquer the Earthlings but Aliens B arrive to defend Earth.  B's win, and leave without making contact, nobly following their Prime Directive not to interact with the primitive species.
    b)  Aliens A are escorting captured rebels (Aliens B) from their remote base to the Galaxy headquarters.  As they pass Earth, Aliens B attempt to make a break for it, but are recaptured by Aliens A, who then proceed upon their way.
    c1)  Future Humans A come back in time with their space age technologies to assassinate some Nurembergian ancestor of Adolph Hitler.  However, Future Nazis B come back and thwart them, so Hitler does indeed rise to power as we know.
    c2)  Future Resistance Fighters A come back in time with their space age technologies to assassinate some Nurembergian ancestor of Adolph Hitler's unstoppable mad science genius Von Schnell.  Future Nazis B attempt to stop them, but fail in a thrilling battle in the skies.  The Von Schnell progenitor is assassinated, thus there is no unstoppable Nazi science genius after all, and the Allies are indeed able to defeat the Nazis as we know.
        Whatever the truth of the celestial phenomenon, Glaser's woodcut is something real to be enjoyed.  In the image I like the city under the black arrow just like Theed beneath a star destroyer.  I like the little Renaissance gents pointing up excitedly (and understandably so).  I like the way the sun looks sort of bemused as balls hover around his face like pesky flies, and crescents arc gigantically behind him.  It's certainly intriguing!  When it comes to UFOs I'm a skeptical agnostic, but when it comes to block prints, I'm a true believer.  This Glaser print is a perfect example of how block prints, like photography nowadays, can be timeless fine art or a sensational journalistic tool reflecting the popular preoccupations of their times.

[Picture: Himmelserscheinung über Nürnberg vom 14. April 1561, woodcut with hand painting, by Hanns Glaser, 1566.  (Image from Wikimedia Commons, with thanks.)]

October 11, 2011

The Wisdom of Norton Juster

        Ten days ago I was delivering some art to the venue of a show, and I arrived before the woman I was to meet.  So I picked up the free copy of the Parents Paper magazine that was sitting out, and was delighted to discover therein an interview with Norton Juster, author of The Phantom Tollbooth.  It turns out this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Phantom Tollbooth, and a musical production of the story is also coming to town.  (There was a contest/drawing to receive tickets to the show and both P and T eagerly wrote up paragraphs to submit.  I'll report back if we end up winning some tickets… but don't anyone hold your breath.)
        The Phantom Tollbooth, as everyone knows, is its own species, not really like any other book.  But it does share with many of my favorite books certain characteristics, such as likeable, decent characters, a happy ending, a sense of fun and wonder, and narration and vocabulary that don't talk down to children.  I was really delighted to read about some of Juster's ideas behind the writing of the book.
        First of all, he said The Phantom Tollbooth "did everything wrong.  The general theory at the time was that no child should ever pick up a book and find in it anything he didn't already know about, so they tended to discourage any kind of interesting plots or stories or conflicts.  To top it off, they said fantasy was bad for children because it disorients them."  I still see this attitude, as when T's first grade teacher kept trying to encourage her to read something "more realistic."  But I am by no means convinced that realistic fiction is more realistic in any respect other than the decor of the story.  (I've said more about this in my post How Juvenile Fantasy Will Save the Earth.)  Or, as Juster said of Baum's Oz books, "They started me thinking in a wonderful, imaginative way and made things possible that you knew were not possible - but then again, they were."  He went on to say of The Phantom Tollbooth - but I think it's equally true of all good juvenile fantasy - "Certain things don't change.  What [the book] deals with are still the basic issues for kids in life."  In other words, fantasy is about what's real and important, and it gives kids a way to explore those issues that supposedly realistic fiction often does not.
        When asked what advice Juster had for parents on reading, he replied, "One thing that bothers me now is the constant pressure for kids to read earlier and earlier.  A lot of people want to get their 3-year-old kids into perfect pre-kindergarten, then the perfect kindergarten, up the line to Yale and Harvard, and it's just a very mistaken idea.  What you want to do with your kids is to let them roam around not only in the world, but around their own head, and not immediately tie them into a patterned, structured way of doing things."  He went on to praise the effect of word play, but again I would argue that it isn't just word play (much as I love that) but all of fantasy with its impossible possibilities.  "Word play is wonderful because it changes language, changes your understanding, and opens up the way you perceive things in a completely different way."  This does not disorient kids - On the contrary, it frees their minds, their hearts, and their imaginations.

       If you want to read more of Juster's thoughts on writing, childhood, The Phantom Tollbooth, and more, here are a couple more interviews:

       The quotations from Norton Juster in this post were taken from: McGregor, Amanda, "The Real Power of Imagination," Boston Parents Paper, October 2011: 30-32.

[Picture: "The Phantom Tollbooth Map Quilt," squares made by Westminster Middle School students, assembled by AEGN, 1994.  This quilt is huge, about 10 x 8 feet.  Each of the 20 squares was made by a group of 3 or 4 seventh grade students as part of a unit integrating English, math, and art.]

October 7, 2011

Maria Sibylla Merian

        for Ada Lovelace Day

        First of all, who's Ada Lovelace and why does she have a Day?  Briefly, Lovelace (1815-1852) was the first (theoretical) computer programmer - even before there were computers!  She was an incredibly smart, gifted mathematician at a time when women didn't generally have the option of a career in science or technology.  Ada Lovelace Day was started  as a way to celebrate female role models in scientific fields.  You can find out more about Lovelace here and about the Day named after her at its official site.  One part of the day is for people to blog about a woman in the sciences, and I thought I'd join this noble cause.
        Now, technically I am not a woman in the sciences.  I have no degrees in any scientific field, no one pays me for my research or inventions or my work in technology…  But I've always been interested in science, especially natural history.
And, of course, I am a mother of a couple of curious kids, and that means there's always scientific research and observation going on at our house.  One of the chief areas of our scientific studies is the natural world: birds, plants, insects…  And that brings me to Maria Sibylla Merian.  After all, this is not a science blog.  This is a blog about art (oh, and fantasy, but that's another story!)  And while we tend to think that women "couldn't" be scientists before the twentieth century, in fact there have always been loads of women naturalists -- and many of them were artists, too.  Observing and sketching the natural world was one of the more conventionally acceptable ways for scientifically-inclined women to work.  But conventional Maria Sibylla Merian most definitely was not.
        Merian (1647-1717) was the daughter of an engraver and printer, and the step-daughter of a still life painter, who encouraged her artistic talents.  The subjects she chose to draw and paint as a child were specimens of insects and plants that she collected in her neighborhood.  Some artists would have been content to draw pretty pictures, but Merian was a scientist as well as an artist, and she carefully studied those insects, especially caterpillars, moths and butterflies.  (Only a true scientist could appreciate the bugs eating her roses!)  She was the first to study how the life cycle of moths and butterflies really worked, and to observe all the stages and the plants associated with the stages.  And she made beautiful, detailed drawings in her sketch books.
        She married a painter, but twenty years later, at the age of 38, she left him and lived with her mother and two daughters.  (Some years after that they were officially divorced.)  In 1699 Merian and her unmarried daughter travelled to Surinam.  She stayed for two years, studying the plants and insects there.  During her life she published a number of gorgeously illustrated books of her observations, and her classifications of many insects are still in use today.  Her books were not embraced at first by scholars of the day because most were not written in Latin (and presumably because she was a woman), but they were much valued by the wealthy for their beautiful block printed illustrations.  (Most of her books were self-published, too.  Just saying.)
        Merian was among the first to study insects seriously, she was the first to describe accurately the relationships between certain insects and plants, she was the first to identify many of the insects and plants of the Surinam area, she was among the first to pay attention to the effects of one organism on others in its environment, and she was among the few who could mix serious science and truly masterful art.  The wood block prints of her drawings (usually hand-colored) are celebrated as a unique blending of scientific accuracy with beauty of composition and execution.  She's an inspiration to anyone with an interest in art or science, but especially those of us who love both.
        (And just imagine what Merian would have done had she discovered any of my time flies in her travels!)

[Pictures: "American cherry," wood block print with watercolor from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium by Maria Sibylla Merian, 1705;
Lily, wood block print from Erucarum ortus, alimentum et paradoxa metamorphosis by Merian, 1717;
Rose, wood block print from Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung by Merian, 1679;
Cassava, wood block print with watercolor from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium by Merian, 1705;
Grossularia Hortensis, wood block print from Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung by Merian, 1679.
Pictures are taken (with much appreciation) from the Center for Retrospective Digitalization, Göttingen (GDZ).]

October 4, 2011

Time Flies

        You know the old saying, "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."  I always enjoy that sort of linguistic shenanigans.  So two weeks ago, as I was heading upstairs to bed, I had a vision: time flies.  I pictured an antique entomological plate illustrating an array of clockwork insects…  Of course it took me ages to fall asleep that night as I kept jotting new ideas on the pad of paper by my bedside.  The next day I started in sketching.  What a blast!  I was having a wonderful time thinking up all different ways to incorporate clocks or time-telling or clockwork into steampunky bugs.  It amused me to make twelve of them, and although some are obviously modeled on various different sorts of insects, they each have a single set of wings, that being a characteristic of the true order of flies.  (Of course, these insects are not order diptera; they're in the order tempusfugita.)
        As it always does, real life interfered a bit, in the form of the usual family responsibilities, as well as a commission that I really had to knuckle down and spend some serious time on…  But whenever I got a chance I sketched more time flies.  When I had twelve I cut them all out and arranged them on a single sheet of paper, and put in the captions and numbers.  I guess the steampunk vibe would be more consistent with a Victorian style, but in fact there's no steam here.  What I was really picturing were the woodcuts illustrating some of the earlier volumes of natural history.  I enjoyed picturing some seventeenth century naturalist discovering these strange flies and sketching them as marvelous curiosities.  Were they glimpsed in some never-before explored meteor crater?  Or perhaps in the lost world of a jungle cave?  Or do they breed in the dry dust of long-abandoned bell-towers?
        Once I had arranged my final composition, I transferred the pencil sketch onto my rubber block and began to carve.  I carved out a few flies a day, figuring out the black and white as I went along.  I generally aim for a nice balance of white with black lines and black with white lines.  (As usual, I didn't do much in the way of texture.  I always admire block prints with lots of detailed gradations in texture, but although occasionally I make an effort to stretch in that direction, it just doesn't seem to be my natural style.)
        And finally I was able to ink it up, tweak the carving a bit more here and there, and print my run.  (Twelve, of course!)  I used cream paper for a suggestion of antiquity.  I matted up two of them, but ran out of cream colored mat board, so I guess I'll have to deal with that soon, since I need to be preparing for my next Open Studios show.  (Natick Artists Open Studios, Oct. 15 -16.  Come say hello if you're local!)
        I really enjoyed this entire block, sketching, carving, printing, and all.  Of course only time and a few shows will tell whether the art-buying public shares my sense of humor on this one, but I've been quite delighted with the whole thing.  (I added this design to my CafePress collection, too!)  It just goes to prove that time flies lead to having fun!

[Pictures: Time Flies, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011 (sold out);
carving, pressing, and pulling the print, photos by Tom Grundy, 2011.  (Thanks, Tom!)]