August 31, 2012

Words of the Month - They Singular

        English is my all-time favorite language, but the sad truth is, it's got a problem.  It is painfully lacking in a good gender-neutral third person singular pronoun.  We've got it, but we can't use that when referring to people because it is only supposed to refer to things or the occasional animal, and sounds rude and demeaning applied to humans.  Some people try to tell us that he can include both male and female, but speakers have never really believed that.  The use of he to apply to a person of unknown or generic gender was not advocated in grammars until the nineteenth century and was seldom used colloquially.  Then there's he and she and he/she and s/he and other constructions that get points for inclusivity but are awkward and unsatisfactory for anything but legalese.  So what's a poor speaker of English to do?
Everyone should love their neighbor!
        Well, the speakers have spoken and, like it or not, the solution is here: they singular.  Now, one might get the impression from listening to grammarians that this they singular usage is a modern butchery of our fair tongue, and yet more evidence of the language going down the tubes.  You'll hear some complain that it's a product of all this ridiculous political correctness the feminists have foisted upon us.  But both those charges are untrue.  For my senior essay in linguistics in college I studied the use of they singular (as well as a number of other grammatical constructions) through time, and here's what I discovered…
        First of all, use of they with such singular general nouns as each, anyone, everyone, etc., has been part of the English language since at least the fifteenth century.  (Caxton wrote, around 1489, "Each of them should… make themself ready.")  It has been used by writers from Shakespeare to Jane Austen and up through the present.  I studied its use in personal letters and diaries dating from 1526 to 1937 and found it in steady and constant use throughout that period.  Indeed, in my data sample they was always the pronoun used with antecedents such as "everyman," "each," "everyone," "anyone," "one," "every Relation," "every mortal," and so on.  So it isn't modern, it isn't a product of feminism, and it isn't a sign of immanent degeneration.  It is simply an aspect of the grammar of the English language that "singular" nouns denoting unspecified members of a general group may be used with the "plural" pronoun.
        But the usage was not all I studied.  I compared colloquial usage of they singular with its assessment in prescriptive grammars, and I found some very interesting things.  English grammar was not taught in English schools until 1650, and for they singular I have examples from grammars from 1654 through 1990.  The first grammar didn't even mention the construction to make a judgement on it, but the author's own writing included examples of generic singular (eg. everyone) used once with he, and four times with they.  In 1712 a grammarian stated that "the common gender is he or she" but in his own writing invariably used they.  A grammar written in 1795 railed against "any one… they" but still contained that exact usage in its own text…  You get the idea.  Grammarians' arbitrary notions of logic and propriety told them to condemn they singular, but their own internal native-born rules of grammar told them that they singular was just fine, as it had been for centuries before them.
        There are many different directions I could go further with this topic...
- how English has already once turned a plural pronoun singular (you)
- how it was the Victorians who really pushed he as "including" females as well as males
- how they is now sometimes used even in cases where the gender of the antecedent is known, as in "Every bride should enjoy their wedding day"
- how there have never been any particular qualifications considered necessary to be a grammar-writer
                … but I think this post is already long enough for now!

[Pictures: Intertwined, rubber block print by AEGN, 2003 (sold out).]

August 28, 2012

What's New in the Studio

        On Sunday Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman rained on my parade.  Who could have known back in the spring when I signed up to show at the Farmers Market on August 26 that August 26 would be declared Aly Raisman Day and everyone in town would be at the rally and parade in her honor instead of at the Farmers Market?  Oh well,
there's always an excuse for why sales aren't as good as I'd like - it might be the weather, it might be the economy, it might be the local Olympic gold-medalist…  But still, I made some sales, and we had a gorgeous day to be sitting outdoors under the shade of a tent, and I got some carving done.
        The book I'm sort of working on right now (though it's hard to get much writing done with kids home) is about a magical book of doors.  I've got a scheme to illustrate it lavishly with all the magical doors through which the characters go, and that means I've got plenty of work cut out for me!  The first few doors will be adaptations of doors that appear in Sebastiano Serlio's book which gave me the idea for this whole thing, but others will be original.  It's the first of these that I carved on Sunday and finished up on Monday.
        When you think about it, there's always something magical about even the most ordinary doors, portals through which you cross borders from one place to another.  On Sunday one of the people who stopped to look at my work and chat told me that she'd read an article about some study of how the brain treats doorways.  She said when you go through a door your brain takes it as a cue to pack up all the thoughts and memories that belong to the first space, and start fresh for the new space -- which is why it's so easy to forget what you came for when you go into another room to fetch something.  I don't know any details about this study, of course, having heard it reported at third or fourth hand, I suppose, but I do know that doors have the potential for much magic.
        But sometimes a door isn't a portal until you have the key.  That's why I also recently made a print of the key which, in my story, is required to turn the pages of the Extraordinary Book into actual doorways.  I experimented with black ink on white paper, gold ink on white paper, and gold ink on black paper, just for fun.  But I guess it's no surprise that I think I like black on white best!

[Pictures: The Summer Door, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012 (sold out);
Key, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012 (sold out).]

August 24, 2012

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

        Mythical creatures through the ages have been endowed with all sorts of magical abilities that mark them out as creatures of fantasy, impossible in the real world.  And yet, when you look at these abilities, it turns out that they aren't nearly as impossible as you might imagine.  The natural world also endows its creatures with plenty of fantastical abilities.  Check out the real-world counterparts of some of the most popular fantasy animal traits.

        Flight - A good way to make a fantasy creature is to add wings to some non-flying beast.  A giant lizard with wings makes a dragon, a horse with wings makes Pegasus, and so on.  But of course there are plenty of flying creatures in real life, including birds, mammals, insects, and even fish, so the natural world is quite capable of developing flying critters.  The biggest flying creature ever is thought to have been a pterosaur with a 36 foot wingspan weighing up to 550 pounds, which would not disgrace a dragon.

        Breathing fire - No, no non-magical animals breathe fire, but there are some pretty amazing abilities out there that come close.  There are electric eels and other animals that can produce electric shocks.  There are fireflies and other animals that can produce light.  There are bombardier beetles that can shoot heat in the form of a boiling liquid.  Any one of these abilities would seem mythical if we weren't already familiar with it.

        Hoarding treasure - From dragons to leprechauns, many mythical creatures seem to collect gold that they don't necessarily have any use for.  This seems like the sort of thing that would have no place in the natural world, existing in stories merely to give adventurers something to search for…  but in fact there are a number of real animals that exhibit such behavior.  Crows, pack rats, ferrets, and bower birds are among those creatures that will collect and hoard shiny or colorful objects.

        Giantism - Some mythical monsters are just normal things at giant size - giant humans, giant rats, giant spiders, giant snakes…  Perhaps such giants are only in our imaginations now, but don't think that real life couldn't produce them.  It has - millions of years ago.  About 2 to 4 million years ago there was a rodent (Josephoartigasia monesi) that weighed around 2,200 pounds.  About 60 million years ago there was a snake (Titanoboa cerrejonensis) around 40 to 50 feet long.  Not to mention your basic tyranosaurs and sauropods.  There's nothing mythical about these monsters!

        Pygmyism - Some mythical creatures are magical by virtue of their tininess.  While tiny flying humanoids may not really exist, however, there are some real creatures so small it's hard to believe no magic is involved.  The bee hummingbird can weigh less than 0.06 ounces.  (Plus, it's got the fairy wings and beautiful colors going.)  The smallest known vertebrate is a frog (Paedophryne amauensis) only 0.30 inches in length.  To add to its magic, it has no tadpole stage but is born as an even tinier miniature adult, and it's capable of jumping thirty times its body length.

        Regeneration - The Lernaean hydra was famous for growing new heads whenever one was cut off.  Pretty magical!  But of course many lizards can grown a new tail, and salamanders and newts are able to regenerate not only tails but limbs, jaws, eyes, and assorted internal organs.  True, it's not going to happen instantaneously during a battle, but it's still pretty magical.

        Shape-shifting - Perhaps it's true that there are no creatures with the magical ability to mimic any appearance, human or animal.  But there are some pretty amazing shape-shiftings that occur in nature.  First and foremost, consider your butterflies and frogs.  They may go through the shape change only once in their life, but what an extraordinary change it is.  If you didn't know, would you ever guess that a caterpillar and a butterfly were the same animal?  But consider also the octopus and squid family, members of which can shape-shift in a truly astonishing manner.  Unencumbered by a skeleton, they can squish themselves into all sorts of shapes.  They can also change the
texture of their skin from smooth to covered in wiggly bumps.  And add to the changes in shape and texture the ability to change color to mimic the surrounding terrain, or to create psychedelic waves of rippling moving colors, and you have something that can only be called a shape-shifter.  Octopuses can look like anything from a sandy seafloor to a branch of coral, from a forest of waving seaweed to a fierce-eyed monster.  Magic!

        Granting wishes - Okay, as far as I know, there are no real-life animals who can grant wishes… unless your wish happens to be for something fluffy to curl up next to you and purr.

[Pictures: Watchful Dragon, rubber block print by AEGN, 2008 (sold out);
Hummingbird Nest, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012 (sold out);
Octopus, wood block print by AEGN, 1998 (sold out).]

August 21, 2012

Helen West Heller

        I recently heard from a colleague of mine, one of my fellow art teachers pre-kids.  He's the champion of block print artist Helen West Heller, so hearing from him has inspired me to bump Heller to the top of the list of artists I've been meaning to feature.  Scattergood-Moore is the man who knows all there is to know about Heller, so be sure to visit his web site about her to learn lots more about her life and more examples of her work.  For my purposes, a quick summary will have to do.
        Helen West Heller (1872-1955) has a slightly mysterious biography.  It seems that at least some accounts of her life were romanticized, if not downright fictionalized.  But one thing that's in no doubt is that she had a clear and unwavering determination to be an artist.  Born on a farm, when she was twenty she went to Chicago with the intention of becoming an artist.  She had little formal training at art schools, and was the proverbial starving artist, struggling
to gain recognition and to make ends meet.  She worked in a variety of media, including poetry as well as painting, fresco, embroidery, and more, and eventually (in 1923) tried her hand at relief block printing, at least in part because the materials were inexpensive.  She came to view relief block printing as her favored medium.
        Heller was involved with radical movements in both art and social causes.  Although her work can fairly be called Modernist, she preferred not to be categorized.  She thought of herself as expressing emotional and psychological states, rather than realistic scenes, but her work is never wholly abstract.  You can also see that she was concerned with texture, pattern, and movement.  I really enjoy her use of pattern, both when it's a realistic part of the image, as in the first image above, and when it's purely decorative as in the middle image.  (A portrait, by the way, of one of my favorite people, George Washington Carver, portrayed in my favorite medium - Double Score!)
        Even in this relatively representational image of ducks you can see Heller doing some interesting things with more abstract shapes and lines.  Look at the sky/background in particular.  But I like the way she integrates representational and abstract in her work so that neither looks like an afterthought or a gimmick attached to the other.  They balance to make images of unique style.
        Helen West Heller was a prolific printmaker, with a strong personal vision, and a determination to produce her art according to her vision.  She's definitely an artist who deserves recognition as one of the outstanding printmakers of the twentieth century.

[Pictures: Razorbacks, woodcut by Helen West Heller, 1932 (Image from Abigail Furey Fine Prints);
Alabama Bio-Chemist, wood engraving by Heller, 1947 (Image from Illinois Women Artists Project, from the collection of Scattergood-Moore).
Ducks at Night, woodcut by Heller, 1929 (Image from LSD Art).]

August 18, 2012

Jenny Haniver

        You might think that any Jenny Haniver featured in this blog must be an artist, or perhaps a character in a fantasy book -- but she's not.  In fact, she isn't really a she.  Jenny Haniver is actually the word for a fantastical creature made out of bits and parts of real animals.  Most specifically, Jenny Hanivers are made from the bodies of rays or skates which, when cut a little here, molded a little there, and dried, can be made to resemble all manner of weird little demons and dragons.  These freakish creatures can then be sold to the credulous on the docks.
        Sailors began making these hoax creatures for fun and profit centuries ago.  Indeed, a manipulated skate may be the origin of the mythical Bishop Fish that was first reported in 1433.  (Another common explanation of the Bishop Fish is that it's some sort of squid.)  Certainly Konrad Gesner knew of these faux dragons and warned the unwary about them in his Historiae Animalium in 1558.  Truth to tell, skates and rays just naturally look pretty bizarre, so you don't really have to do too much to one to make it look totally fantastical.  On the other hand, you have to admit that upon seeing some of these Jenny Hanivers, a skate is definitely not the creature that springs to mind.  I admit that I wouldn't know what to think of them if I didn't already know.
        Sometimes the word is used more broadly, to refer to any sort of taxidermy mythical creature, including Feejee mermaids, jackalopes, and such.  But where did such a strange term come from?  The most commonly accepted explanation is that it's an Anglicization of the French phrase jeune d'Anvers, meaning "young [person] of Antwerp," that presumably being the port city where sailors famously supplemented their income by providing the creatures for collectors.  (Gesner, however, mentioned Venice, not Antwerp, as the source of the fraudulent basilisk he pictured.)  But the fact is that no one really knows the origins of such a weird word for such a weird thing.  In
any case, however, I'm pretty darn sure that as long as there have been humans there have been Jenny Hanivers, whether made for fraud or for honest entertainment, because we have way too strong a desire for the strange and wonderful to wait passively for it to come to us!

[Pictures: Jenny Haniver, photo by M. Violante (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Basilisk formed from the body of a ray, woodcut from Historiae Animalium Book 4 by Konrad Gesner, 1598 (Image from Keio University);
Ray in the shape of a dragon, engraving from De Piscibus Book 5 by Ulyssis Aldrovandi, 1613 (Image from AMS Historica).]

August 14, 2012

Inuit Stone Block Prints

        In Quebec back in June we went to the Musée de la Civilisation, where I saw an interesting exhibit of Inuit stone block prints.  (The museum blurbs sometimes call them engravings, but in fact they are relief prints, not intaglio prints, so for clarity I'm calling them stone block prints.)  These prints were made by Inuit artists in a cooperative workshop founded in Nunavik in 1961.  I suppose due to the physical difficulty of carving stone, but perhaps also due to traditional divisions of labor, the carving was mostly done by men and the printing mostly done by women, although designs were invented by each.  For those who are interested, you can read a bit more about the exhibition on the museum's web site, and the exhibition will be up until September 30.
        These owls are probably my favorite piece in the exhibition.  There's some interesting stuff going on here.  To begin with, the artist, Joe Talirunnilik (1893-1976), has left the perimeter of the matrix visible around the edge so we can see the shape of the original stone block.  Most of the stone block prints in the exhibition retain the basic shape of the block, but this one seems strange in that the block's shape is neither used in the image, nor carved away.  It's just left there.  The title of the piece is "Owl," not "Owls," so it may be that this image represents the same owl twice rather than two separate animals.  I don't know the significance of the rabbit, though I can't help
suspecting that it will soon be owlfood!  I really love the beautiful pattern of the feathers on the wings.
        The second piece shows two scenes in one, rather than a single scene with two hunters, a common technique in the prints in the exhibit.  In this case, it's representing the differences between hunting on land (at the top) and hunting by kayak (in the middle.)  Again, you can see that the stone block was left in its natural shape around the edges.  I like the use of texture for the water and to add details to the caribou.
        The label on this third piece specifies that the artist, Leah Nuvalinga Qumaluk (b. 1965), inks and prints her own works.  Of course this begs the question whether she also carved it, or what parts of the process the other artists did for their work.  At any rate, Qumaluk chose to ink the border in a different color, again emphasizing the stone's edge.
        I enjoyed seeing a different way of thinking about and executing relief block prints.  Although the Inuit artists could import wood blocks along with their ink, paper, and other supplies, they favor soapstone because it's native to the region.  Relief printing was not a traditional art, but carving designs onto bone is, so it wasn't a huge stretch to adapt that tradition to flat blocks for receiving ink.  Finally, for more information about the art market side of the Inuit prints, you can read this article by R.V. Denenberg.

[Pictures: Owl, stone block print by Joe Talirunnilik, 1963;
Hunting Caribou by Kayak, stone block print by Juanasialuk Irqumia (1912-1977);
Family of Birds, stone block print by Leah Nuvalinga Qumaluk, 1965.
(All images from Musée de la Civilisation.)]

August 10, 2012

Telling A Story that No One Hears?

Stephen Grellet - from this (yikes!)...
        Today I'm going to tell you a story.  This is a true story, but one of my favorites anyway.  It's about a French nobleman, born in 1773.  When he was seventeen he joined the bodyguard of Louis XVI.  As you can imagine, this did not make him popular when the French Revolution came.  He was sentenced to death, but escaped and fled to the United States.  All that, and the most intriguing part of his story hasn't even started yet!  In the US he became a Quaker and began a life of work trying to ameliorate all kinds of social problems.  He was especially concerned about slavery, bad conditions in prisons and hospitals, treatment of Native American Indians, and the poor.  He travelled widely all over the USA, Canada, and Europe preaching.  He took the name Stephen Grellet, as a plain version of the long, aristocratic name of his birth.
        Once, while Grellet was travelling in the woods of Pennsylvania which were at that time wilderness, he passed through a camp of lumbermen.  These men were notorious for their lawlessness and dishonesty, yet when Grellet reached home, he felt that he should return and preach to them.  All the way back he rode, three days through the wild forest from the nearest town, moved to share with these rough and rude lumberjacks the message that he knew from his own experience: how completely God's love could change a person's life.  But when he reached the lumber camp, he found it deserted.  The men had moved on, deeper into the forest.  So there he was, with a story to tell and no one to hear it, after all his conscientious, joyful effort to do what he was supposed to do to the best of his ability.
        Let me stop there for a moment and mention that when I think about writing my stories and having no one read them, the analogy that always comes to me is talking on the telephone after the other person has already hung up.  It's just so pathetic.  Isn't it better when no one's listening just to salvage your dignity as best you can by gently shutting up and putting down the telephone?  But remember the Parable of the Sower?  Remember that you can't make a seed grow, but you can certainly be sure that if you don't plant it, it won't grow.
... to this.  (Much better!)
        So, back to Stephen Grellet, standing all alone in a deserted lumber camp deep in the wilderness, with a story to tell.  He did what no self-respecting man would do.  He stood in the middle of the clearing and, like a doofus, preached to the empty space, or perhaps to the trees and the squirrels.  And when he had finished telling his story, he turned around and rode back home again, having done all he could do.
        It takes a lot of certainty to do that, a lot of confidence that you know what you're supposed to be doing.  That's a confidence that I seldom, if ever, have.  How can you tell the difference between a setback you need to push through and a sign that you're on the wrong path altogether?  Nevertheless, I'm beginning to feel that I should go ahead and tell my stories, even when it seems that no one is reading them.  Because the story about Grellet doesn't end there.
        Six years later, Grellet was in England, bringing his message to prisons, hospitals, and slums in London.  One evening, as he was crossing London Bridge, he was seized by a strange man who began shouting, "I've found you at last!"  It turned out that he was one of the lumberjacks from the camp.  On the day Grellet preached to the empty camp, that one man had returned to fetch some tools, and he had heard the whole message.  It inspired him so much that he repeated it to all the other lumbermen, so that many of them were inspired, too, and the whole camp changed its atmosphere.
        I used the message of this story in my book Ruin of Ancient Powers, where one of the big themes I was exploring was doing your job even when it doesn't seem to be accomplishing anything.  And the moral is clear: keep planting those seeds, keep telling those stories, because you never know whom you'll touch, and you never know what might grow.

        (By the way, although you've probably never heard of Stephen Grellet before, you probably have heard a quotation attributed to him: “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good things, therefore, that I can do, any kindness that I can show a fellow being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”)

[Pictures: Fashion plate, copper engraving hand painted, from Magasin des Modes Nouvelles, June 1789 (Image from EK Duncan);
Detail of a portrait of Stephen Grellet, copper engraving, no information on artist or date, alas. (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

August 7, 2012

A Story is a Seed

        (Warning: I'm waxing philosophical about writing today, so anyone with no interest in that can just admire today's selection of block prints and then get on with their day!)
        For any of you out there with a Sunday School upbringing, remember the Parable of the Sower?  There's a farmer sowing seeds, but some of the seeds fall on the path and get eaten by birds before they can germinate.  Some fall on rocky soil and don't have roots deep enough to withstand drought.  Some fall among weeds and grow for a while but are eventually choked out.  But some seeds fall in good soil and grow, and produce abundant harvest.  In the New Testament the seeds represent the word of God, but this same sort of metaphor has been in my mind recently with the sower representing the storyteller and the seeds the stories.
        It isn't a new idea to say that writers and artists are creators and therefore analogous to gods.  (For a really dense, thought-provoking consideration of how a writer is like God, and how God is like a writer, try The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers.)  But that isn't my purpose here.  I'm just borrowing the imagery of the parable for a purely secular exploration of what it means to put a story out into the world.  After all, like the sower, the writer can't really control how the world treats her seeds.  Presumably marketing might be analogous to watering the garden or something, but a farmer can't make a seed grow, and a writer can't make people read, or control their reaction if they do.  You can simply sow your stories and hope that some of them fall in the good soil of readers who will take them to heart.
        I have a tendency to think of my stories as my babies, and feel nervous about sending them out alone into the world without protection.  But if I use a seed metaphor instead, maybe it's easier to think about the neccessity of letting them spread out onto the earth.  After all, until it gets down onto the soil, a seed is only a potential plant.  A seed needs to fall onto the ground to sprout into a plant, and I think perhaps a story needs to fall onto the soil of reader before it can sprout, too.  As long as it stays in the seed packet it's just one tiny grain, but if it can germinate and grow, the eventual harvest might be thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold…
        Of course metaphors always fall apart eventually, and mine falls apart when I realize that I'm just no sower.  Where some people seem able to broadcast their stories over vast acreages, I seem able to plant little more than a short row in my backyard garden.  And how can my stories find their proper soil if I can't seem to get them sown anywhere beyond my own feet?  Still, I've found it helpful to think of myself as a sower and know that my only job is to get the very best seed I can, and plant it as well as I can.  But after that… it's the work of the sun and the rain, and let's just hope there aren't too many rocks and weeds.  And in the meantime, let me see what more seeds I might have in me.

[Pictures: The Parable of the Sower, woodcut from Kirchen Postilla by Martin Luther, 1554 (Image from Pitts Theology Library);
Parable of the Sower, woodcut by Christoffel van Sichem from Het Niewe Testament, 1646 (Image from Pitts Theology Library);
Harvest scene from The Chronicles of England by Raphael Holinshed, 1577 (Image from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.)]

August 3, 2012

Christopher Hutsul's Cityscapes

        Here are some block prints I came across that make quite a contrast from Hiroshige's birds.  These are jam-packed with movement, texture, and stuff going on.  The artist, Christopher Hutsul, is better known (I gather) as a cartoonist and a director of TV commercials, and I think you can see both of those sensibilities at work in these linoleum block prints.  (You can find a brief biography of Hutsul here.)  His people particularly have a very cartoonish style with their simplified shapes and exaggerated postures.  But at the same time there's a cinematic quality to the size, detail, and elevated viewpoints of these scenes.
        These are quite large pieces, around 18 x 24 inches, giving Hutsul lots of room to adorn every inch with carving.  Nothing is left plain, and while normally I tend to prefer some areas of solid black and solid white, I like the way all the myriad
textures contribute to the busy feel of these images.  Hutsul uses strong black and white outlines to make sure that each person or object is distinctly visible and the scene doesn't become a mushy jumble despite the lack of space for the eyes to rest.  They're somewhat reminiscent of the work of Red Grooms - except without all that garish color.
        In comparison with the other two I've shown here, King's College Circle is downright peaceful and serene.  Perhaps it's early morning with only a few people out and the emphasis is on the buildings and landscape instead of the action.  I really love the architecture and the wonderful variety of patterns.
                Hutsul's linoleum block prints are quirky, wild, and full of details to discover and enjoy.

[Pictures:  Kensington Market, linocut by Christopher Hutsul;
King's College Circle, University of Toronto, linocut by Hutsul;
Chinatown Cold Snap, linocut by Hutsul.
(All images from The Beguiling.)]