December 28, 2012

Words of the Month - The Game is Afoot!

        Coming up soon on January 6 is Sherlock Holmes's birthday.  If this were a blog about detective fiction instead of fantasy I could compare some of the many versions of
Holmes that have come out as movies and television shows in the past few years.  But although this is not supposed to be a detective blog and I'll try not to wander too far off-topic, I can at least offer Holmes the tribute of a few vital words from his genre.

detect - Detect comes from the Latin for "uncovered, exposed," so a detective is one who uncovers hidden things.  And what do Sherlock Holmes and a stegosaurus have in common?  The Latin tegere "to cover" from which detect derives is the same as that in stegosaurus, which means "lizard that is covered by a roof," from its back plates that look like roof tiles.

murder - A word that goes right back to Old English, murder was "secret or unlawful killing," as opposed to killing someone right out in the open, which was perfectly fine.
(The victim's family might still exact vengeance or compensation, but the killer's honor was unsullied as long as he was up-front about it all.)  But it's because murder is hidden that it needs to be uncovered - detected.

victim - Originally a victim was a "living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to a deity or supernatural power" (making the phrase "sacrificial victim" redundant).  By the 1650's, over a century later, the meaning of a "person who is hurt or killed by another" was found (making it thereafter necessary to specify when a victim is sacrificial).

alibi - This is quite simply the Latin for "elsewhere" or "another place," so an alibi is when the detective asks "Where were you on the night of July 19, 1953?" and you reply triumphantly, "Elsewhere!"  You might hear the word alibi used for a proof of innocence that doesn't involve being "elsewhere," but that isn't correct.

culprit - The abbreviation cul. prit was short for Culpable: prest (d'averrer nostre bille) meaning "Guilty: ready (to prove our case)"  These were the Anglo-French opening words said by a prosecutor to open a trial.  Apparently the phrase cul prit was mistakenly interpreted by English speakers as an address or reference to the defendent.

        Actually, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never tells us Sherlock's birthday, but if it was January 6, 1854, as Christopher Morley claims, Sherlock will soon be 159!  Laurie R. King, on the other hand, places his birth year as 1861.  And of course you could argue that he was really born in 1887, the year of the publication of A Study in Scarlet.
  Happy New Year!

[Pictures: "This money is not upon the list, is it?" woodcut from Bucholz and the Detectives by Allan Pinkerton, 1880 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
"He was lying in bed with froth about his mouth and a ghastly look on his face," woodcut from The Poisoner and the Detectives by Pinkerton, 1879 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
"The audacity of a professional thief," woodcut from Professional Thieves and the Detective by Pinkerton, 1880 (Image from Criminal Minds at Work and Internet Archive).]

December 21, 2012

Happy Birthday, Fairy Tales!

        Yesterday, December 20, was the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of the first edition of the Brothers Grimm's Kinder und Hausmärchen, Children's and Household Tales.  This volume included most of the most famous Grimm tales, although not all in their current forms.  The original edition of the Grimms' collection was criticized as being inappropriate for children, both because of the content, and because of the scholarly notes the brothers included.  Later editions were adjusted to remove some sexuality and violence, and in some cases, to increase the violence of the villains' punishments!
        Whatever their flaws, either as literature or as moral models, the fairy tales indisputably hold an immensely powerful and influential place in our culture - and tales with many similar tropes exist in cultures around the world, too.  The ideas they embody - of virtue triumphant and evil punished; of patience, bravery, and loyalty saving the day; of kindness to strangers and  willingness to take people (and animals) as they come - these ideas are some of the most basic building blocks of human culture, necessary to forge community.  That people like the Nazis have manipulated them to teach racist and xenophobic lessons just goes to show the power of these deceptively simple stories; a power that can be abused, as power so often is.
        More recently there has been a veritable explosion of fairy tale expansions, in which the stock players are made into three-dimensional characters and the often random and bizarre actions are given more sophisticated motive and rationale.  These new fairy tale retellings range from fairly traditional takes, such as Robin McKinley's Beauty, to use for serious moral explorations of their own, such as Jane Yolen's Briar Rose, to fractured versions or those played for laughs, such as The Princess Tales series by Gail Carson Levine.  There's also been a recent spate of stories based on the idea of classic fairy tale characters being real people, as in Michael Buckley's Sisters Grimm series and the television series "Once Upon a Time."  The fact that we keep reusing and reinventing these stories reflects not only their initial power, but the additional power that they gain by being so universally known as to be common cultural property.
        I'll conclude by mentioning the woman who asked Albert Einstein what she should be giving her son to read in order to prepare him for a future career as a brilliant scientist.  Einstein allegedly replied, "Fairy tales and more fairy tales," explaining that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist.  (The snappier version frequently attributed to Einstein, "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.  If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales," is, alas, nowhere attested.)

        And on a final, unrelated note, if you're wondering about the End of the World today, you can read up on it in my post from the last time the world was predicted to end, back in May.

[Picture: Portrait of Dorothea Viehmann, a primary source of many of the tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, pen and ink by Emil Ludwig Grimm, the third Grimm brother, before 1815.  (Image from Wikimedia commons)]
(Einstein quotation from wikiquote.)

December 18, 2012

Diatomaceous Art

        Here's my most recent piece, representing diatoms.  Diatoms are a type of algae that build themselves intricate cell walls from silica.  These structures are amazingly complex and beautiful.  Like snowflakes, you can't appreciate their unique beauty without magnification, but unlike snowflakes they come in a wide variety of basic shapes and forms.  If you search on-line you can find lots of amazing photographs of these tiny natural masterpieces, which are called frustules.
        My version isn't scientifically field-guide-accurate, but I did use many of the shapes and patterns I found in the photographs to design my own interpretation of diatoms.  In addition to the standard carving techniques I also made ample use of a thumbtack to make all the tiny dots that are so prevalent in these designs.  I printed a version in grey on white as well, but found the white on black more fun.  Besides, I think that the silica forms would naturally be white, so if what I left uncarved was the forms of the diatoms, those are the forms that should be white.
        I had fun with this one.  Its final look is much more abstract than my usual stuff, and I have no idea how it will sell compared with pretty scenery, fun fantasy, or cats.  But then, the whole point of art is to follow your curiosity, explore your interests, push your ideas a little further, and celebrate beauty no matter what its source or form.  Perhaps I won't be the only one who finds these diatoms entrancing, and if I can connect with someone else in that way, then Art has done its job again.

[Picture: Diatomaceous Art, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012.]

December 14, 2012

Cabinets of Curiosities

        One of the ways people during the Renaissance tried to make sense of their world was through amassing collections of objects that were intended to represent all knowledge.  These collections were called cabinets of curiosities or cabinets of wonders, the original meaning of cabinet being a chamber or room.  However there were also smaller versions made to be contained in a piece of furniture closer to what we would call a cabinet nowadays.  Either way, these collections might include specimens representing natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religion, and art, depending on the collectors' interests, and they demonstrated their owners' learning, power, and wealth.
        Much like the Renaissance books of science that include references to mythical creatures, these cabinets of curiosities often included a mix of what we would consider truth and fiction, art and kitsch, and they represent that fascinating era when the lines between different modes of knowledge were still blurred.  This makes them fertile ground for the imagination, and cabinets of curiosities are fashionable these days in fields as diverse as interior design and, of course, juvenile fantasy.  It isn't hard to see why: the mix of wondrous, beautiful, mysterious, and sinister; priceless treasures side by side with all manner of hoaxes; tangible symbols of every realm of human and natural study…  The possibility of magic is high indeed.
       It's been noted that nowadays we can collect virtual cabinets of curiosities - some people use Pinterest in almost that way, or have blogs that they think of as cabinets of curiosities, collecting interesting tidbits from all different fields of knowledge.  Indeed, my favorite magazine, Smithsonian, is very much a cabinet of wonders when you think of it in that broader sense.
        However, the original cabinets of curiosities were not just collections of knowledge, but also of Things - often, rare, expensive, valuable Things that brought their owners tremendous bragging rights.  Naturally, the owners of these cabinets of wonders liked to make records of their magnificent collections, and catalogues remain for many of them.  There are also images of some of these proto-museums that I find wonderfully enticing.  Most of these are engravings, which allows a high level of detail the better to show off all the fabulous Stuff that's been collected.  My favorites of these prints are the ones with all the specimens visible higgelty-piggelty.  They seem like the most fun to explore, like the first picture above, showing the sixteenth century collection of apothecary Francesco Calzeolari from Verona.
        By contrast, the cabinet of curiosities depicted by Jacob von der Schley in the eighteenth century is so precisely arranged as to be almost mathematically abstract - no doubt why Schley felt the need to sprinkle about cherubic tots to add a little baroque interest.  And in the opposite direction, the piece by Saint-Aubin seems downright Romantic.  I'm surprised it has so early a date as it looks reminiscent of William Blake, to me.  In this cabinet the curiosities loom mysteriously out of the haze.  (But it has its gratuitous cherubs, too!)
        Here's a really magnificent collection - not the sort of building anyone less than royalty is capable of providing for their hobbies.  But I think my very favorite image is also the earliest, the cabinet of curiosities of Ferrante Imperato in Naples.  (Ferrante's son Francesco is the one pointing out a specimen to some visitors, below.)  I just love the big crocodile hanging from the ceiling, but if you look closely you'll notice some even more wonderful creatures, including a cross between a walrus and a platypus to the upper right and a couple of fluffy little lapdogs to the lower left.
        Here are also links to two web sites with detailed tours of some furniture cabinets that reveal amazing craftsmanship: an Augsburg Display Cabinet (c. 1630) at the J. Paul Getty Museum
        an Augsburg Art Cabinet (1625-1631) at Uppsala University  (Just be warned, these inter-active sites do take a long time to load.)
        I long to have a cabinet of curiosities of my own.  I keep teasing D that we'll have to poke through the ceiling into the crawl space under the roof, add a balcony and a spiral staircase, and fill it with a library and cabinet of wonders.  Well, I can dream, can't I?

[Pictures: Musaeum Calceolarianum, woodcut or engraving by G. Viscardi, 1622 (Image from Lexicon M);
Rariteitenkabinet, engraving by Jacob von der Schley, c. 1779;
Frontspiece from the Almanac Historico-physique, engraving by Gabriel Jacques de Saint-Aubin, 1762 (Images from the Rijksmuseum);
Frontspiece from Wondertooneel der natuur by Levinus Vincent, 1715 (Image from BibliOdyssey, alas, without any info);
Del Museo di Ferrant Imperato, woodcut from Dell'Historia Naturale by Ferrante Imperato, 1599 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

December 11, 2012

Herald Angels

        Probably I should be working on the family holiday newsletter right now, instead of writing a blog post, but that reminds me that my earliest block prints were linoleum cut Christmas cards made in high school and college.  Yes, it's that Christmas card time of year, so here's one of those early block prints by me, and a few other angels to keep it company.

        I've chosen angels of totally different styles (but all the result of printmaking, of course.)  First, the standard: Albrecht Dürer's elaborate Renaissance angels.  With their swirling robes and stern features, this is probably how most people picture angels to this day.  The only major change is that in Dürer's time angels were definitely male, whereas since the Victorian era they're much more likely to look feminine.
        On the opposite end of the angel spectrum from winged men with holy swords are, of course, the cherubs.  (Technically, putti.)  They must buzz around like bumblebees with those tiny wings, and apparently they spend all their time bobbing about on clouds looking, well… cherubic.
        An interesting style of angel is this multiwinged character, which represents one of the (technical) cherubim.  It's pretty much all wing.  I like the words on the feathers, too.  It would really be fascinating to see a host of these angels in flight.  Its hard to imagine how the wings would all flap without getting tangled, but assuming it worked it would certainly be spectacular - a whirling, pulsating, feathery glory, with words coming down all around!
        And finally, representing the most basic kind of relief printing of all, this cute craft you can make from the hand and footprints of your adorable small tot.  My own tots are no longer tiny enough for this to be adorable - and to tell the truth, I've never been a fan of angels in my decor anyway - but I thought it was a rather
clever idea for a Christmas card… which is back to where we started.  And that reminds me, I suppose I ought to get back to work on that newsletter!

[Pictures: Hark the Herald Angels Sing, linoleum block print by AEGN, 1991;
detail from The Seven Trumpets are Given to the Angels, woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, 1497-8 (image from WikiPaintings);
Concert of cherubs in the clouds, engraving by Wenceslas Hollar, c1625-75 (image from Wikimedia Commons);
Angel from Patrologia Latina vol. 201, collected by Jacques-Paul Migne, either around 1850-5, or from a new version from the 1880's (image from Wikimedia Commons, photo by P. Vasiliadis);
handprint angel, from Motherhood on a Dime.]

December 7, 2012

Creature Collections: For Young and Old

        It's high time for more reviews of books of mythical creatures.  Here's an assortment that includes introductory books for the youngest fantasy fans, through books for scholarly adults.  None of these books made it into our top tier of beloved favorites, but all have some fun or interesting traits to recommend them.  Perhaps one will be just what you were looking for!

        Magical Creatures, by Man-eating Meg and Loch Ness Lucy - With those authors, how could I resist?  The paragraphs about each creature are entertaining introductions, and the illustrations are very bright and primitive.  I wasn't crazy about the "messiness" of most of them, but a few were quite pleasing, and they had lots of details that would be fun for little kids to notice.  This is probably a great introduction for younger children.

       The Creature Catalog, Michael Berenstain - Yes, this is one of the Berenstain family of Berenstain Bears fame, and you can definitely see it in some of the illustrations, especially the werewolf, chimera, and Bigfoot.  The pictures are printed with black and white plus only one color per page, which gives the book a really dated look.  P wasn't very impressed, although oddly, one of his complaints was that it had too many "strange" creatures, which I see as a plus.  I also like the inclusion of space aliens, which most books on fantasy creatures seem to ignore.  But on the whole, I didn't find myself getting excited about either the illustrations or the written paragraphs describing the creatures.

        The Monstrous Book of Monsters, Hamilton, Bitskoff, Duddle, and Mansfield.  This is a large book in the style of the -ology books, lavish in the matter of pop-ups, fold-outs, and flaps.  Unfortunately it is also lavish in fart humor and poop jokes.  Although it was not without some clever ideas (I liked the idea of the flow chart for disposal of captured monsters), for the most part I felt that this book was counting on gross-out laughs to substitute for creativity.  My captive nine-year-old boy, presumably well in the target audience, liked it better than I did, but not as well as he's liked others.

        The Magic of Mythical Creatures, Colleayn Mastin, illustrated by Jan Sovak - On the plus side, some different creatures such as the Iceworm and Qallupilluk, and detailed traditional-style illustrations with interesting watercolor backgrounds.  On the minus side, I don't get the impression this book was very well proofread.  The punctuation and grammar make it a bit hard to read in places.  Fun fact: only female griffins have wings; males have spikes on each side instead.

        The Mythic Bestiary, by Tony Allan - Not for young kids, this volume includes the sexual aspect of many monsters and assorted nudity (the mermaid doesn't have the seashell bikini or carefully placed tresses, for example).  For young adults or adults, however, it's a really nice reference work with a pretty comprehensive selection from world myths and legends, and lots of illustrations from different sources.

        The Book of Imaginary Beings, by Jorge Luis Borges, illustrated by Peter Sís - This is not a book intended for children, and it's unlikely to interest them.  There are 116 entries in which Borges allows his erudition and lit-speak free rein to the point of stream-of-consciousness.  The Cheshire Cat and the Kilkenny Cats are lumped together in a single entry without benefit of segue, and proper monsters like harpies and hippogriffs share space with a "metaphysical animal" that's a thought experiment from a philosophical treatise.  I really enjoy the breadth of the creatures' origins, and that they're culled from modern literature as well as classical mythologies, but…  when it comes right down to it, a number of these "imaginary beings" really don't qualify as proper mythical creatures at all.  The illustrations by Sís are not plentiful.  (The front cover flap calls them drawings, but they look like stippled etchings to me.)  But fans of Borges's style and his wonderful free-range musings will get a kick out of his sly humor, including a few inventions of his own slipped in amongst the classical references.

[Pictures: cover of Magical Creatures, paintings by Lucy Clibbon, written by Meg Clibbon, 2006;
cover of Monstrous Book of Monsters, by Hamilton, Duddle, and Bitskoff, 2011;
Western Dragon, etching(?) by Peter Sís, from The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, 2005.]

December 4, 2012

Angie Lewin's Relief Prints

        A friend sent me the link to Angie Lewin's web site and I thought I'd feature her block printing today.  Lewin works in a variety of printmaking techniques, but of course I'm most interested in her linocuts and wood engravings.  Interestingly, she often does prints that combine those two techniques.  Her work always includes multiple blocks and multiple colors, and sometimes the different blocks are done with different techniques, for example in this dandelion.  I assume that the black is a wood engraving, while the blue and yellow blocks were carved in linoleum.  And when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to do it that way when you're combining a very detailed block with blocks of very simple shapes.
        Among other things, Lewin is also a textile designer, and I think you can really see that in her aesthetic.  There's a definite flavor of 5o's Scandinavian design in much of her work, for example in this piece with Queen Anne's lace seed heads.  Both her shapes and colors evoke that retro Swedish cheerfulness.  Admittedly I don't always love the colors - after
all, this is a blog called "Black and White" - but I like what Lewin does with the patterns, and this tiny dandelion is an example of how effective the layering of different patterns in different colors can be.  Very pleasing.

        Perhaps my favorite is this little arrangement of plant material.  I love the shapes and textures of the different plants, the stylization without becoming divorced from nature, and the balance of black with the paler colors.  It has a lovely depth while still retaining its boldness.
        It's always fun to see how differently different artists can interpret the same themes and the same media, and each come up with something so distinctive and unique.

[Pictures: Dandelion III, wood engraving and linocut by Angie Lewin;
Blue Meadow, linocut by Lewin;
Dandelion IV, wood engraving by Lewin;
Teabowl and Bracken, wood engraving by Lewin.]
(And thanks to Nan Daly for the tip!)

November 30, 2012

Words of the Month - Heifer Project

        As I've mentioned before, our family has a holiday tradition of supporting Heifer International by buying animals for all our relatives.  Of course the Heifer Project animals are all the sorts that can be used to improve people's lives by providing food, income, labor, and so on.  But I thought it made as good an excuse as any to give this month's Words of the Month an animal theme.  So here are some animals whose names in English have interesting stories.

otter - A water-creature, the otter's name goes all the way back to Old English, and comes from the same root as our word water.  You can also see (or perhaps you can better hear) the relationship with the Greek hydra.

bear - Literally meaning "brown one," this is a textbook illustration of a linguistic taboo at work.    Because hunters would not speak the names of certain animals (notably bears and wolves), the words for those beasts died out of their languages, replaced by euphemisms.  Most of the northern European languages have words for bear that were originally euphemistic, such as the Russian medved "honey-eater."   Apparently in rural areas of Finland it's still taboo to refer to bears directly.

ostrich - from Old French, from Latin, from Greek, ostrich meant "big sparrow"!

squirrel - The word ultimately derives from Greek skia "shadow" + oura "tail", thus a creature that can shade itself with its tail, an idea that pleases me greatly.  But before English acquired that name from French in the early fourteenth century, the Old English word for the critter was acweorna, which is related to acquire.  So the squirrel was the animal that acquires nuts.

kangaroo - You may have heard the story that when Captain Cook asked the natives in Australia what they called the jumping beast, they replied "I don't understand you," which phrase in their language Cook took to be the name of the creature.  This is a marvelous story and I'm very sorry to say that it's false.  The only misunderstanding was that the word gangurru in the Guugu Yimithirr language referred only to that specific species, while English has adopted it to apply to an entire group of species.

caterpillar - ultimately from Latin roots meaning "hairy cat."

turkey - We call this bird a turkey because it comes from Turkey.  Of course it doesn't, being a New World bird, but both African guinea fowl and later American turkeys were distributed through Europe primarily by way of North Africa and Turkey, and the two kinds of fowl were considered related, and shared the name of their perceived point of origin.  Funnily enough, however, the Turkish word for turkey is hindi "Indian," for the same reason the native people of the New World were called Indians.  The Hindi word for turkey is nasamajha.  I wish I knew the etymology of that!

heifer - I thought I really ought to include heifer as one of my words, seeing as it's my whole excuse for the theme, and all…  But the only interesting thing about the etymology of heifer is that, in a way, there's nothing to say about it.  That is, it's one of those handful of words that dates back to Old English, but seems to have no relatives in any other languages, so its ultimate origins are a mystery.  Its original sense is a mystery, too.  Theories include that its roots meant "high-stepper," that it came from words for "large bull," and that it originally meant "enclosure dweller."  But in any case, consider giving one this holiday season to help make the world a better place!  You can find information about Heifer International here.

[Pictures: Bear, wood block print with watercolor by Betsy Bowen, from Antler, Bear, Canoe: A Northwoods Alphabet, 1991;
Squirrels, multi-block color woodcut by Norbertine von Bresslern-Roth, c1925 (image from Josef Lebovic Gallery);
Cow, linoleum block print by Sharon Lorenz (image from her Etsy shop LorenzKraft).]

November 27, 2012

Five Figures in a Building

        Here's an oddity.  This woodcut by Erhard Schön was published in 1538 in a book about the principles of proportion.  Presumably this funny image was not intended to be Art in its own right, but was rather intended to assist others in the creation of the Real Art.  And yet I get such a kick out of it.  These five people - are they robots perhaps?  or constructed from cardboard boxes? - look so disgruntled with their lot.  Are they just waking up?  Or was there an earthquake that knocked them all over?  And what sort of room are they in, anyway, with two walls smooth and precise but one looking bumpy?  And with that rich molding and curved ceiling it must be a fairly elegant building, despite being unfurnished and windowless.
        As for the carving, it was clearly not done with the same precision or care that might be lavished on a proper piece.  You can see a number of places where the lines got cut away by mistake, especially along the bottom frame of the piece.  This is definitely a reproduction of a sketch, and intended to represent a sketch, rather than a finished piece.  After all, this might be the sort of framework an artist would draw to start a scene.  Myself, I always sketch "sausage people" rather than "cardboard box people" when I'm getting started on a picture, but I have to admit that these rectangular figures are a lot more fun in their own right than my sausage people.  I especially like their feet!

[Picture: Five figures in a building, woodcut by Erhard Schön in Underweissung der proportzion, 1538 (image from Universalmuseum Joanneum.)]

November 23, 2012

The Importance of Fantasy (I)

        Alison Gopnik, a leading researcher in the field of cognitive development, has been studying the importance of play for children.  Lest anyone doubt that fantasy is good for kids, here's what she has to say:
        Where does pretending come in? It relates to what philosophers call “counterfactual” thinking, like Einstein wondering what would happen if a train went at the speed of light.
        We found children who were better at pretending could reason better about counterfactuals—they were better at thinking about different possibilities. And thinking about possibilities plays a crucial role in the latest understanding about how children learn. The idea is that children at play are like pint-sized scientists testing theories. They imagine ways the world could work and predict the pattern of data that would follow if their theories were true, and then compare that pattern with the pattern they actually see. Even toddlers turn out to be smarter than we would have thought if we ask them the right questions in the right way.
        Play is under pressure right now, as parents and policymakers try to make preschools more like schools. But pretend play is not only important for kids; it’s a crucial part of what makes all humans so smart.

        You can read more about her studies at Smithsonian Magazine.
        And you'll notice that she referred to Albert Einstein, that icon of intelligence.  So here's what Einstein himself had to say on the matter:
        When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.

[Picture: Frontspiece by Florence Wyman Ivins, from This Singing World edited by Louis Untermeyer, 1935.]

November 20, 2012

Potato Prints

        Potato printing used to be a staple of the preschool classroom, but in the current generation it seems to have been replaced by pre-made foam and rubber stamps.  If the children aren't doing the carving anyway, that probably makes more sense, but the use of potatoes as a viable printing block has not been entirely forgotten.  The best champion of potato printing is probably Diana Pomeroy, who has done two gorgeous books illustrated with potatoes.  I love the way she arranges the repeated stamps in such a way that they don't look repetitious, as in this illustration of radishes.  She

also does some interesting mixes of intaglio and relief, where her incised lines carry ink of their own.  You can see this in the veins of the leaves.  These are no preschool potato prints.
        I thought I'd fool around a little with potatoes just to illustrate the process, and P helped me out.  (T preferred to keep reading her book - fantasy, of course.)  Really the method is basically the same as with any relief print, but potatoes do have a couple of advantages.  They're easy and inexpensive to obtain, and if you mess
up you can always get more to try again.  You can use shaped cookie cutters to give yourself a basic shape to work in, as I did with my hexagonal block (though this would be more useful with a more complicated shape.)  They're soft and easy to cut
with a knife, incise with a wooden skewer, or carve with lino cutters, as P is doing in the photo above.  And when you're all done, you can use anything that didn't get inked for mashed potatoes for dinner, as we did last night!
        After you've carved, you'll need to blot the potato surface dry before you ink.  I didn't feel like getting out the good ink and brayers for this, so we tried inking with a paintbrush.  This is more prone to uneven inking
and ink in the lines, but works very quickly and easily if you don't have a brayer or plate to roll ink on.  It might also have been interesting to try with an ink pad, but I think you'd have to devote that pad to potatoes only, because it would get starchy.
        A book with excellent instructions for a variety of potato printing projects is Potato Printing by Helen R. Haddad.  Potato Printing looks rather dated with its two-color printing instead of the glossy full-color photos we're used to nowadays, but it includes all kinds of great tips and techniques, arranged from the most basic to the more advanced.  (One Potato by Pomeroy also includes some very basic instructions at the end.)
        Potatoes are an excellent illustration of the principle that anything that can be carved can be used for relief printing.  And the more relief printing the merrier!

[Pictures: Radishes, potato prints by Diana Pomeroy from One Potato: A Counting Book of Potato Prints, 1996;
P carving; Using a knife; Carved potato blocks, photos by AEGN, 2012;
P inking; P printing; AEGN printing, photos by AEGN, 2012;
Fish and whale, potato prints by Helen R. Haddad from Potato Printing, 1981;
Potato print by AEGN; Potato print by PGN, 2012.]

November 16, 2012

History in Fantasy

        I could have titled this post another "What's new in the studio," because it's about the issue I'm struggling with in my current writing work in progress.  The problem is how much actual history to incorporate into the back-story of the fantasy plot.  It's not so much a matter of letting truth get in the way of a good story, though.  It's more a matter of how much explaining the truth gets in the way of narrating the story.  See, The Extraordinary Book of Doors is based on a real book by a real sixteenth century architect, whom I'm casting as a wizard.  I've done a tremendous amount of research on his milieu - his patrons, his colleagues, the buildings he worked on and the places he lived, and all kinds of fascinating historical interconnections to explain why he made his magical books.  But none of that is strictly relevant to the plot taking place in the present, and I can't imagine that my readers would actually care about it.
        Then there's the history of how these magical Books get into the hands of characters in the present.  So I did a tremendous amount of research on connections between real historical figures, and how books might actually have been passed down among them and ended up in the cities where I'm basing my story.  But none of that is strictly relevant to the plot taking place in the present, and I can't imagine that readers would care about it.
        And then there's the treasure hunt devised by Benjamin Franklin with clues hidden in the copy of the magical Book that was his.  I've done a tremendous amount of research into Franklin's life, and places he spent time, and buildings (and their doors) that were built in time for the Book's publishing in the sixteenth century, would have been familiar to Franklin in the eighteenth century, and are still standing now in the twenty-first century.  There are actually more of those than you might expect, and I'm finding out all sorts of fascinating things… but none of that is strictly relevant to the plot taking place in the present, and I can't imagine that readers would care about it.
        I've been thinking about Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, which is the kind of fun, roller-coaster adventure I'm aiming for, but which disintegrates into sheer idiocy if you actually engage your brain at any point in the reading.  I definitely don't want to treat my historical elements that way!  I'm thinking about Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost, which was critically acclaimed by practically everyone, but which just didn't work for me, in part because of some historical errors in his portrayal of Quakers, about which most readers wouldn't know or care particularly.  And then I'm thinking about Marie Rutkoski's Kronos Chronicles (first book The Cabinet of Wonders), which incorporate real historical figures, such as John Dee and Queen Elizabeth I, but happily make complete fiction of others, such as the Prince of Bohemia.  Rutkoski manages a blend of history and fantasy that works pretty well, in part because she is very clear about what she's doing - not pretending to total historical accuracy, but using just enough to give a flavor and atmosphere of real times and places; enough facts to engage the mind in fantastical "what if"s about history.
        So the issue is this: if I mention history, I can't have it inaccurate.  If I explain all the history, I bore my readers and slow down the story, which is meant to be a fun, exciting romp, not a deep, scholarly drama.  But if I don't mention any history, I lose half my plot and all the reason for the magical books' existence.   And I can't stand when stories are built on inaccuracies of fact and history so that as soon as you notice the error the whole edifice becomes unstable and you just can't suspend your disbelief about it any more.
        After several frustrating days earlier this week of wondering whether I could even salvage a story with such a contradiction between fact and fun, logic and adventure, I think I've found a path that traces the balance.  I'm writing a few introductory incidents that illustrate the historical background and then, having established the rationale for the state of affairs, I'll let the facts go, as the adventures pick up speed and the characters (and readers) no longer have the time or the inclination for research and scholarship along the way.  I'll assuage my tendencies toward historical scholarship by including at the end (as Rutkoski, Brian Selznick, and some other authors do) a note on what's a fact in the real world and what's made up for purposes of the story in my fantasy world.  So, that settled, now back to the writing!
        What do you think of the use of facts intermingled with fantasy?  How much of a stickler are you for accuracy, and in what instances do you not mind a little fudging?  Does it make a difference if the author acknowledges where she departs from factual truth?  What are your pet peeves, or what stories succeed in mixing history and fantasy most effectively and enjoyably?

[Pictures: Stately Door, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012;
Rustic Door I, woodcut by Sebastiano Serlio from Libro Estraordinario, 1566 edition (image from Open Library).]