May 29, 2012

Words of the Month - Vegetables

        Around here, Memorial Day weekend is the time when gardeners get the All Clear and Full Steam Ahead to plant out the veggies.  I planted my tomatoes this weekend, and prepared the bed for planting zucchini yesterday.  The peas, which I planted earlier, are blooming beautifully.  So it seems like a good month to put the spotlight on vegetable words.  Here are some Fun Facts about the names we call a few of our vegetable friends.

artichoke - English adapted this word from Italian, which borrowed it from Spanish, which got it from Arabic.  The artichoke (and its name) was introduced to England during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47).  By the way, the "Jerusalem" of Jerusalem artichokes has nothing to do with the city.  It was adapted by folk etymology from the Italian girasole, meaning "sunflower," since the Jerusalem artichoke is of the sunflower family.

carrot - This word comes from an Indo-European root (KER) meaning "horn."  It shares this root with such diverse horned things as hornets, unicorns, rhinoceroses and cornets.  And yes, it actually is distantly related to the carat measurement of gold, originally the weight of a carob bean from its horn-shaped pod.

corn - The word corn comes from the Germanic descendants of an Indo-European root (GREN-NO-), while from the Latin descendants of the same root comes grain.  The two words are synonyms in British English, but here in the US corn specifically refers to the maize family.  As for the word maize, English got it from Spanish, which got it from the Carib language of Haiti.

peas - The word, spelled pease, was originally singular and collective (like rice), as in "Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold."  But it sounded so much like a plural that by the middle of the seventeenth century speakers reinterpreted it that way, and invented a new singular form: pea, by back-formation.

squash - This word comes from Narraganset askutasquash meaning "green things eaten green or raw."  The -ash at the end was actually the plural suffix.  You can also see it in succotash, which comes from Narragansett for "ears of corn."
        And speaking of squash, that most rampant of summer squash, the zucchini, didn't join the language until around 1925!  It entered American English from Italian, while the British English speakers were about five years behind… and going with the French courgette instead.  The oldest English word for summer squash seems to be marrow.

tomato - English got this word from Spanish, which adapted it from Nahuatl.  Apparently an 1753 encyclopaedia said that tomatoes were eaten "by the Spaniards and Italians and by the Jew families of England," so it took a while to go mainstream among English speakers.  Now, in case you're thinking of quibbling that tomatoes aren't really vegetables, that may be true botanically, but it isn't true legally.  In 1893 the US Supreme Court ruled that since tomatoes are usually eaten with the main course, they count as vegetables.

[Picture: Squash Blossom, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006;
Tomato vine, colored pencil on paper from Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom by AEGN, 2009.]

May 25, 2012


        I thought the aspidochelone would be an appropriate creature to feature in the neighbor-hood of World Turtle Day.  The aspidochelone is an enormous sea turtle, big enough to be mistaken for an island.  According to medieval bestiaries, when sailors land on it, it sinks under their feet, drowning them.  The aspidochelone is one of a whole family of mythical beasts with the same habit of tricking sailors by their island appearance.  Some of the aspidochelone's relatives include 
     pristis - a giant fish upon which sailors mistakenly land, described by Pliny the Elder in about 78 CE.  (This may be the same species of fish upon which Sinbad the sailor landed on his very first voyage, toward the end of the eighth century.)
     Jasconius - a giant fish encountered by St Brendan and his sailors on their voyage in the sixth century.  They celebrated Easter on its back, but woke it by lighting a fire.  According to Brendan, Jasconius has the additional trait of constantly trying yet failing to catch its tail in its mouth.
     Fastitocalon - an island-like whale described in a tenth century Old English poem.  Like many traditional descriptions of these island creatures, the moral is stated, "Such is the way of demons, the wont of devils: they spend their lives in outwitting men by their secret power, inciting them to the corruption of good deeds…"
     Hafgufa and Lyngbakr - two fish or whales found in the Greenland Sea in the thirteenth century.  The former poked its nose above the water like two rocks, while the latter's back was covered with heather.
     kraken - a giant cephalopod described in Norwegian scientific works since at least the 13th century.  According to the Natural History of Norway (1752) the real danger to sailors is not the creature itself but the whirlpool caused when it submerges beneath them.
     leviathan - In Paradise Lost (1667) John Milton attributes the same island trick to the leviathan, the Biblical giant sea monster.
        As I mentioned, many medieval accounts equate such sea monsters with Satan, and all accounts see them as dangerous to man and therefore evil.  But, as usual, I prefer to think the best of such a wondrous creature, so I've imagined that the aspidochelone might live in harmony with humans.  In my new block print I've shown them living together in partnership, providing each other with food, protection, and companionship.  Besides, wouldn't a giant sea turtle island be cool?

[Pictures: Aspidochelone, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012 (sold out);
Whale, ink and pigment on vellum, anonymous illustrator from the Harley Bestiary, c 1235.]

May 22, 2012

World Turtle Day

        That's right, tomorrow is World Turtle Day!
        I do love turtles, and as usual, what better way to celebrate than with a selection of block print turtle art?  Land tortoises, sea turtles… I love them all.  So take a moment to appreciate these amazing creatures, so wonderfully prehistoric, so charmingly unique, so incredibly armored, and yet so sadly vulnerable to environmental issues.

        I've collected five turtles here for your enjoyment today.  Which one is your favorite?  Oh, come on, you know you love them all!

[Pictures: Turtle, linoleum block print by Walter Inglis Anderson, 1930's;
Sea Turtle, wood block print by AEGN, 1997 (sold out);
Tortoise, woodcut by Alan James Robinson from An Odd Bestiary, 1982;
Sea Turtle, reduction wood block print by Lisa Studier, 2006;
Turtle, woodcut by Jacques Hnizdovsky, 1962.]

May 18, 2012

The Bad Review

        One of my books recently received a bad review on Goodreads (two stars out of five), and it makes me feel glum.  It also got me thinking about some of the strange issues associated with this most ancient of causes of glumness.  After all, bad reviews must date back to the very invention of writing -- and art, too, for that matter.  I'm sure someone back in the caves in Lascaux thought the bison didn't really capture the right spirit.
        Let me start by saying that the reviewer who didn't care for my book was in no way mean-spirited or nasty.  She received the book through the Goodreads giveaway program and posted the review because I had most earnestly entreated her to.  I was being honest when I said I wanted her review, and I really do appreciate that she was honest in her posting of it.  So I am not in any way bitter… but I am still bummed.  And this brings me to the first big question: why does one negative review seem to bring me down farther than any number of positive reviews can buoy me up?  Clearly reviews do not follow the rules of simple arithmetic.  This equation seems to be something like 6 - 1 = 0.
        Secondly, how come I have no difficulty accepting that various readers happen to disagree in their assessments of any other books, yet it seems so hard to accept that various readers are bound to disagree about my books, too?  I mean, I'd obviously be delighted if everyone in the universe thought my writing was perfect, but I certainly have never had the faintest delusion that this would be so.  Indeed, I'm sure the only books ever written that nobody disliked are the ones that nobody ever read.  So why the glumness when I happen to encounter someone with a different opinion that I already knew must surely exist?
        Presumably armchair psychologists can point to some deeply lurking fear that no one will ever love my work, so that any bad review seems to confirm what I already suspect, while all the good reviews are less convincing.  Feelgood life coaches can admonish me to ignore the negative and stop feeding my inner critic so that I can feel wonderful about myself all the time.  My ever-loyal children can gasp with utter disbelief that anyone could possibly be so incredibly wrong about their dear mother's genius work.  There's a certain value to all those responses, no doubt, but I'm not sure how useful any of them really are.
        So I think there can really be only one truly constructive response to a bad review: read it through carefully and non-defensively to pull from it any criticisms that might provide me with instruction not for that book, which is already out there in the world, but for things I might improve upon in my current and future writing… and then use it, if there's anything applicable, as I move on from what's already finished and get back to work on the next story.  Come to think of it, that's really the only appropriate response to a good review, too!

        (It sounds so wise… but I'm still just a little glum!)

[Picture: Weeping Willow, wood block print with chine collé by AEGN, 2007.]

May 15, 2012

Emily Trueblood's Block Prints

        Here's an artist with an eye for industrial and urban beauty.  Emily Trueblood (b. 1942) makes wood and linoleum block prints using multiple blocks and colors, yet retaining the simplification of form that relief prints do so well.  I particularly like the geometry of her work.  Some pieces, such as "Icy Night," (to the right) are almost stark in their lines and shapes, while in others, such as "City Morning," (below) the geometry of the carving contrasts with the soft gradations of the inking.

        Trueblood uses an interesting technique, which she describes in detail here.  Essentially, after she carves a block she paints on proof prints in order to experiment with colors.  Then she prints the first block onto additional blocks as a guide for carving them so they all match up.  The finished prints are then made from multiple blocks with different inks.  The ink schemes give the images their sense of time and weather, and Trueblood is constantly
drawn to dusky conditions: sunrise and sunset, moonlight and snowfall.  The greys and gradations work really well for all these times when you don't take the light for granted.
        I love the dignity and beauty Trueblood brings to corners of the urban world that might not always be considered very beautiful.  She does make images of other scenes, too, by the way, but these are the ones that I like best.  This is one of the things art is for, after all - to catch beauty wherever it's hiding and to remind us that it might be anywhere.

[Pictures: Icy Night #1, two-block woodcut by Emily Trueblood, 2010;
City Morning, linoleum cut by Trueblood, c. 1996;
Night Towers at Union Square, two-block woodcut by Trueblood, 1998;
Snowy Dusk, three-color woodcut by Trueblood, 2007.

May 11, 2012

Shel Silverstein's Invitation

        I have a confession to make.  As a child I never particularly liked Shel Silverstein's poetry.  I think what I most disliked was the very colloquialism that was always touted as making his poetry so accessible to children.  I didn't want poems that sounded like slangy normal speech.  I had no use for poems without proper rhyme and rhythm, and moreover, as you'll have guessed by now, I had a taste for romance, drama, high fantasy, and unabashedly lyrical language.
        I still prefer my poetry to be beautifully, soaringly different from prose with enjambment; however, as an adult I've come to appreciate Shel Silverstein a little more.  Some of his poems have sly messages of more depth and thoughtfulness than I originally gave him credit for.  Some are clever, some fun to recite, and many celebrate unbound imagination in just the sort of way that I'm always going on about.
        Moreover, I'm trying to represent some of the vast variety of fantasy poems here, not just my same old favorites all the time.  In that spirit, therefore, here are two of Silverstein's poems, one each: silly and thoughtful.

When singing songs of scariness,
Of bloodiness and hairyness,
I feel obligated at this moment to remind you
Of the most ferocious beast of all:
Three thousand pounds and nine feet tall --
The Glurpy Slurpy Skakagrall --
Who's standing right behind you.

If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

[Picture: Deserted House, ink drawing by Shel Silverstein from Where the Sidewalk Ends, Harper and Row, 1974.]
(Poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, Harper and Row, 1974.)

May 8, 2012

Self-Referential Block Prints

        There are lots of movies about actors, right?  Well, sometimes block printmakers make block prints about block printmaking, too.  Here are a few that illustrate the relief print carving experience.
        The first is Der Formschneider (the Woodcutter) by Jost Amman from 1568.  According to Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor, 1971, this is a self-portrait of Amman cutting his own design.  That means that although in his illustration he's identifying himself as the carver only, he's also the artist, which makes him much more comparable to later relief print artists who design and cut their own blocks.
        Compare Amman's self-portrait to this one by Frans Masereel from 1927.  While Amman looks
intent, absorbed, and hard at work, Masereel seems to be in a slump.  It looks to me like he's feeling stumped by the blank paper that's fallen to the floor at his feet and the blank wood block in front of him.  This block tells a full story because it shows us not just the artist's lack of inspiration that's directly portrayed, but also the solution he eventually came up with: to illustrate his own situation.  It doesn't get more self-referential than that.  (Actually, I don't know whether this is a self-portrait or an illustration of a different character, but I'd be very surprised if it wasn't autobiographical in spirit!)
        In his picture Amman carves a woodcut (with the grain on planks) while Masereel shows himself working on a wood engraving (on end-grain).  Here's a much more detailed wood engraving of wood engraving, by Howard Phipps.  It illustrates all the elements of the process, from the chunks of wood, to the tools, and the block resting on its sandbag, detailed carving nearly finished.
        A different selection of tools are shown by Mary Azarian in her series of small woodcuts.  Compare the mushroom-handled wood engraving tools in Phipps and Masereel's pictures to the long-handled woodcutting tools used by Azarian and Amman.
        I suppose everyone finds the tools of their trade beautiful, and perhaps especially so when they're portrayed in their own medium.  I enjoy
these, even if I have no plans to do any self-referential block prints myself.

[Pictures:  Der Formschneider, woodcut by Jost Amman in Panoplia, 1568;
Untitled? woodcut by Frans Masereel in Die Sonne, 1927 (image from Art of the Print);
Wood Engraving, wood engraving by Howard Phipps (image from Rowley Gallery);
Carving tools, Brayer, Ink, and Printing press, woodcuts by Mary Azarian from The Four Seasons of Mary Azarian, (pub. by David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 2000).]

May 4, 2012

May the Fourth Be With You

        Today is Star Wars Day, and it also happens to be a day in which I've been setting up and preparing for this weekend's Open Studios show and therefore too busy to think about anything else much.  (If you're local, stop by and say hello!  And check out this article in our local newspaper.)  Anyway, between the date and the lack of time, I celebrate today with a Star Wars themed Etsy treasury.  (And for an explanation of the rather unexpected origins of "May the Fourth Be With You," see this post at The Mary Sue.)

Star Wars art Millenniu...

PATTERNS for all 12 Sta...

Darth Vader is Riding I...

Star Wars Droid Poster ...

R2D2 Star Wars EarFlap...

Star Wars Clock Starshi...

Star Wars -Yoda door ma...

STAR WARS - Judge Me By...

C3P0 Tshirt - Brown on ...

Dont anger the wookiee ...

Star Wars Inspired Alph...

Star Wars Inspired Hat

Handmade Star Wars Chew...

Darth Vader Woodcut / W...

Star Wars Print - May t...

C-3PO Art Doll - OOAK S...
Treasury tool by Red Row Studio

May 1, 2012

Sandzen's Nailhead Woodcuts

        Today is a very busy day, including an interview with the local paper and an author talk at an elementary school, in addition to the dentist appointment, the continued preparation for this weekend's open studio show, and the usual schedule of children's activities in the afternoon.  So that makes it a good day just to feature an interesting little thing I came across.  These pieces are by Birger Sandzen (1871-1954), who was born in Sweden and emigrated to Kansas in 1894.  Among other things, Sandzen studied pointillism in Paris, which influenced his painting deeply.  It also apparently influenced his printmaking.  Who would have thought that pointillism would translate to relief printing?
        These are called nailhead woodcuts, and, as far as I can tell, it means just that: the image was created not by carving, but by making the pattern entirely with the dots of nail holes.  I don't know whether Sandzen invented this technique, or whether he's the only one who used it to this extent.  I've used nail holes for texture myself in some of my wood block prints.  But I've never seen any other artist's work made entirely from nail dots.  I think they're cool!

[Pictures: Crystal Lake, nailhead woodcut by Birger Sandzen, 1928 (image from Legend Fine Arts);
The Sentinels, nailhead woodcut by Sandzen, 1918 (image from Live Auctioneers);
A Mountain Lake, nailhead woodcut by Sandzen, 1928 (image from Diverse Ayres).]