September 28, 2012

Word of the Month - Cult of Personality

        I recently read Quiet, by Susan Cain, in which she says in passing that the word personality didn't come into the English language until the rise of what she calls the Extrovert Ideal.  Obviously I couldn't come across a linguistic assertion like that without becoming curious.  So, what is the history of personality in our language?
        Well, first of all, we've had the word since the late fourteenth century, but at that time it meant "the quality or fact of being a person," what we might now call "personhood."  The meaning we use now is "the visible aspect of one's character as it impresses others."  This sense  is first attested at the very end of the eighteenth century, and didn't become common until the mid-nineteenth century, precisely when the concept of "having a good personality" became valued.
It's hard to imagine a world in which people didn't talk about personality, but when you think about it it starts to make some sense.  In a world where everyone lives in the same village with the same people for their entire lives, everyone knows that Jane may be quiet but she's a real leader in a crisis, or that John never smiles but is generous to everyone, or that Jack smiles all the time and tells great jokes but is irresponsible and not to be trusted.  Now consider the changes caused by the Industrial Revolution, when people are moving to cities, coming and going, applying for jobs with people who haven't known them their entire lives…  Suddenly personality matters: that "visible aspect of one's character as it impresses others."  Now Jack, with his great personality, is the one who gets the job, while John, who has the better character, is considered dour and unimpressive.  At any rate, that's the gist of Cain's take on the phenomenon, and I'm pretty convinced.  But back to the words…
        The meaning of personality as a person's distinctive presentation to the world becomes stronger and stronger as time goes on.  By 1889 we have the usage of a personality being someone whose personality makes them stand out from that of others, as we now talk about "TV personalities."  In other words, the personality is no longer just an outward aspect of a larger inner character - it is the entire person.  And by the middle of the twentieth century we talk about the cult of personality.  Simultaneously, the word charisma, which originally had to do with divine talents bestowed by God, was moving by the mid-twentieth century toward our modern meaning of "personal charm," or "attractive or magnetic personality."
        Does this mean that there were no personality cults before that phrase was coined, or that no one was ever impressed by personality before the nineteenth century?  Of course not; people could use other words to describe the concept, or feel it without talking about it at all.  But it does give some interesting food for thought.  It tells us that personality may not be as vital a concept as we believe, and that there are modes of thought that look more toward substance than image.  It reminds us not to place too much faith in superficial charm, but to push ourselves to get to know other people in a deeper way.  It also shows us how the changes in words' meanings can sometimes point to much larger, deeper societal shifts.  So pay attention to the changing words around you and ask yourself what our words are telling us about ourselves.

[Picture: Six Masks, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999.]

September 25, 2012


        Transformations make a vital part of fantasy, from ancient mythologies of cultures all around the world, through Grimm's fairy tales, right up into plenty of modern fantasy novels.  The idea of transformation is so vital to our identity as humans - we go through so many transformations in our lives - that it's no wonder it shows up so explicitly in our fantasy stories.  Both the change from infant to adult and the internal changes of heart we experience can be explored through the metaphor of magical transformation.  But at the same time, the idea of having our very identity replaced is potentially terrifying - will our transformations bring us to something greater, like Beauty's Beast, or will they destroy all that we are, like Acteon's death as a stag?  In fantasy, transformations are sometimes punishments and sometimes
rewards, and every once in a while (especially in modern works) just for fun.  They're fun to read about, and they're fun to write, allowing an author full scope for imagination and creative description.
        But what about transformations in art?  It's not so easy to show a transformation in a still picture, since transformations necessarily involve an element of time, a before and an after.  Of course many illustrations of fantasy avoid the issue by depicting the before and the after in separate pictures, but I like seeing artists' attempts to show transformations in progress.
        Perhaps the most straightforward way to handle the problem is to show us the mid-transformation point, where our subject is partway between one state and another.  I particularly like this example of a hunter turning into a donkey, by H.J. Ford.  I love how the human legs are bending as if the man is going into a crawl, even
though of course the donkey is standing upright - I think Ford has really captured the feel of change in progress as opposed to a beast who's always half-man-half-donkey.  You can see how difficult that is when you compare it with the sixteenth century depiction of two people turning into snakes.  Just looking at the picture I don't think you'd know it was a transformation in progress.  The artist hasn't managed to give us any clues that the two creatures aren't always the way they appear at this moment: an ordinary (if large) snake and a snake-tailed person.  Of course, the picture is meant to appear together with the story, so you'd know perfectly well what it was depicting, but my point is how hard it is to get that feeling of magic in progress.  Ford used a halfway point again for his illustration of a comb magically growing into a forest.  You can see that the first row of vines is growing up from a comb-like formation.
        Another possible way to show transformation is with a sort of time-lapse.  Although this woodcut of nymphs turning into trees does in fact show seven nymphs, the anonymous artist has chosen to show each of them at a different stage of the transform-ation, so that we get a real sense of the change going on before our eyes.  Showing multiple stages of a transformation is also M.C. Escher's technique in many of his pieces.  In this example we see night turning into day as well as plowed fields turning into birds and birds turning into sky.  Escher depicted tons of transformations, as you probably know, but
I really need to restrain myself from posting half a dozen of my favorites!
        Space is running out, and I wanted to share an example of one more technique that gets used a lot for illustrations of those fairy tales where people are released from an enchantment.  The former appearance is shown as a skin which is shed, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.  John Batten has done this well in his image of Beauty helping the prince out of the skin of his Beast form.
        Transformations are an intriguing subject in both words and pictures. 

[Pictures: The Hunter is Transformed into a Donkey, woodcut from an ink drawing by Henry Justice Ford, from "The Donkey Cabbage" in The Yellow Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, 1894 (image from The Victorian Web);
Cadmus and Harmonia Become Snakes, woodcut by Vergilius Solis from Metamorphoses by Ovid, 1563 (image from University of Vermont);
The Comb Grows into a Forest, woodcut from an ink drawing by H.J. Ford, from "The Witch" in The Yellow Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, 1894 (image from The Victorian Web);
Nymphs turning into trees in the presence of Jupiter, woodcut by anonymous artist, from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna, 1499 (image from Wolfenb├╝tteler Digitale Bibliothek);
Dag en nacht, woodcut printed from two blocks by M.C. Escher, 1938 (image from M.C.Escher web site);
Beauty and the Beast, woodcut from an ink drawing by John Batten, from European Folk and Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs, 1916 (image from SurLaLune).]

September 21, 2012

Dotted Metal Relief Cuts

        Generally speaking, metal is used for intaglio techniques in which the ink prints from down in the little carved areas instead of printing from on top of the uncarved surfaces of the plate.  Common techniques on metal plates are engraving, where the lines are scratched into the metal with sharp points, and etching, where the lines are eaten into the metal with acid.  Relief printing, by contrast, is usually done with softer materials that are easier to carve - the usual wood, linoleum, and rubber I'm always featuring here.  But there's no intrinsic reason that any solid material can't work, from the classic potato to the Inuit stonecuts I wrote about a few weeks ago.  And today I've got some relief prints made from metal plates, and using a distinctive technique: dotted metalcuts.
        From the mid-fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth century metal plates were sometimes used instead of wood blocks and, when done with similar techniques, produced a very similar result.  But there was a technique unique to metal.  Craftsmen could hammer the level of the metal down instead of carving it away.  Sometimes this was used simply as another way to follow the lines of a drawing, but sometimes the craftsmen used punches to produce dense, repeating patterns to fill space and decorate areas of an image.  This technique gives a unique look to a print.  (Don't forget to click on these pictures so you can see the detail better.)
        The craftsmen who worked in this dotted metalcut technique are all (at least as far as I know) anonymous, but the speculation is that they were probably trained as goldsmiths, since the punches they used look like goldsmithing punches.  They worked on relatively large plates, compared with contemporary woodcuts, and it appears that many of the worked plates were kept as decorative plaques in their own right after printing.
        My favorite is the first up top, showing St Jerome removing a thorn from a lion's foot.  I love the variety of patterns the artist has used, from the wonderfully geometric floor to the sprinkling of dots across the grass and Jerome's sleeves.  There's a nice mix of carving and punching on the chunks of flowered grass on the lower left.  You can find a few different punch shapes in this one.  Plus, I really like the flock of birds in the sky.  (One note - apparently the design for this piece was copied at about third or fourth hand from earlier artists, as was quite common at the time.  I'd be curious to see how the dotted version differs from the original, but I couldn't track down the original source of the design.)
        In my second example here, Jesus's robe is absolutely beautiful with two sizes of dots.  I love the way all the wrinkles have been left black.  I also enjoy how the men taunting Jesus are portrayed in what was the height of trendiness when this piece was made in the 1470s.  It must have made a statement to the viewers to see such fashionable dandies cast in the role of villains.  (By the way, I scanned this image from a book with black and white photos, but the original must have been colored - hence the smudgy grey areas.)
        And one last example, once again with the lovely and inventive variety of textures that I like so much in these dotted metalcuts.  The artist has varied the size and spacing of the dots to create different areas, as well as using lots of the more usual carving to make such patterns as the leaves on the trees in the left, the tiles of the church roof, and the petals of all the wonderful flowers.
        I'd really love to try this technique, but alas, this isn't one that adapts to the materials I have to hand.  I once tried using leather punches on a wood block, but the grain means that nothing short of a sharp nail is able to make a clean cut.  I have successfully used nails and metal rings on wood, but even so the result is much rougher and less precise than on metal.  But these pieces show what the punching technique can achieve, and I'm sorry that it was in use for such a brief period.

[Pictures:  St Jerome and the Lion, dotted metal relief print by anonymous German artist, c. 1470-1480 (image from the British Museum);
Christ Crowned with Thorns, dotted metal relief cut, Netherlands, 1470s (image from Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor, 1971);
St Francis Receiving the Stigmata, dotted metal relief print by the "Master of Jesus at Bethany," c. 1470-1485 (image from the British Museum).]

September 18, 2012

The Microbe

        Here's a science fiction poem for you.  Originally published in 1898, it was a little behind the scientific times -- van Leeuwenhoek had already seen microorganisms 300 years earlier.  But if Hilaire Belloc's science is weak, his fiction is strong.  This is a microbe anyone would be excited to find under the lens of their microscope.

The Microbe

The Microbe is so very small
You cannot make him out at all,
But many sanguine people hope
To see him through a microscope.
His jointed tongue that lies beneath
A hundred curious rows of teeth;
His seven tufted tails with lots
Of lovely pink and purple spots,
On each of which a pattern stands,
Composed of forty separate bands;
His eyebrows of a tender green;
All these have never yet been seen --
But Scientists, who ought to know,
Assure us that they must be so…
Oh! let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about!

        Now, I've made the claim before that the difference between sci fi and fantasy is less about the setting and more about the themes and the role of technology in a story, so you might argue that this poem is really just fantasy…  But what is Belloc's cynical little moral if not a commentary on the role that science and "scientific experts" play in our lives?  What is it but an invitation to consider how we know what we know when we can't possibly know everything through our own experience?  (And it pleases me to imagine that today's hot science mystery, Dark Matter, might be composed of something equally fantastical!)

[Picture: The Microbe, drawing by an artist listed only as B.T.B.
The poem and its illustration come from More Beasts for Worse Children, by Hilaire Belloc, 1898.]

September 14, 2012

Woodcuts by Matsubara Naoko

        Today's block prints were done by Matsubara Naoko (b. 1937), an artist who was born in Japan, studied art in Japan and the USA, and currently lives in Canada.  She came to my attention because she did a series of wood block prints featuring Boston scenes.  Her style involves a nice balance of rough and detailed, and has a distinctly modern look without losing the subject in the style.  Besides, it's always fun to see familiar scenes.
        In some ways the most interesting one is this mostly black image of the Hatch Shell where free outdoor concerts of all sorts are performed in the summer.  The Hatch Shell is one of the things I love about Boston (despite the fact that I don't think we've made it to a single concert since the kids were born.)  Naoko has carved out only a few highlights here and there and the conductor is almost a scribble.  This is one of the most abstract of her Boston pieces that I've seen, and yet it captures that drama and excitement of an evening concert when you can't really see much but the light.
        This glimpse of ornate architectural details on Beacon Hill, by contrast, has an extremely different look and must have been a very different process to carve.  This time all the background is carved away, and the details are much more deliberate.  It's a pretty big-scale piece, too.  I love the way Naoko has done all those great patterns.
        You can see lots more of her work at her web site.

[Pictures: Boston Public Library, woodcut by Matsubara Naoko, 1969;
Hatch Shell, woodcut by Naoko, from Boston Impressions, Barre Publishing Co., 1970;
Beacon Hill, woodcut by Naoko, 1969 (image from Naoko's web site).]

September 11, 2012

The Last Three Read-Alouds

        As I've mentioned on numerous occasions, reading aloud with children is one of the best things in the world, a) because it's good for kids in a million academic, mental ways, b) because it's good for kids in a million emotional, social, moral ways,
c) because it's good for grown-ups in all those same ways that it's good for kids, and
d) because it's really fun.  I read aloud to P and T every night that all three of us are home at bedtime.  Most nights we read for about 20-30 minutes.  Not all our read-alouds are fantasy, but a goodly number of them are, including our last three, which I'm going to share with you today.  (Beware: I will discuss ends of books, so there are some spoilerish bits.)

The Robe of Skulls, by Vivian French - Actually, we're already on the third book of the series, The Heart of Glass, but for purposes of counting "the last three read-alouds" I'll consider the series in the aggregate.  (The series is called Tales from the Five Kingdoms.)
     We're all three of us really enjoying these.  Right from the start you get deliciously evil bad guys, delightfully endearing good guys, and a good dollop of silliness.  From the moment we met Marlon the street-wise bat we've been huge fans of him and his many relatives.  (Under Marlon's influence, T and P have added a suave and chipper "Ciao!" to their repertoire.)  One thing I appreciate is that although the books are not long and keep a light tone, still they have enough nuance not to seem overly simplistic.  For example, the troll Gubble is introduced as an extremely stupid and incompetent servant of an evil sorceress.  By the end of the first book he has decided to join the side of good and thenceforth, even though he's still just as stupid and keeps literally losing his head, his rock-solid loyalty makes him brave, heroic, and deeply loved by his friends (and us.)  In another nuanced twist, the wicked step-sister is taken in by the Ancient Crones, defenders of goodness, for reformation.  It's then revealed that the Ancient Crones themselves were women who were once wicked, too, and have been redeemed over many many years - food for thought for children who are used to reading that bad guys get punished in straightforward (and often merciless) ways.
     In these books neither the villains nor the heroes come one-size-fits-all.  Multiple personalities are given a chance to shine.  These books are also lots of fun to read out loud with different dramatic voices for all the different characters - just be warned: in the parts involving lots of witches and trolls my poor throat gets downright hoarse!

The Serial Garden, by Joan Aiken - This is a collection of short stories about the Armitage family to whom, because of a wish made by Mrs Armitage on her wedding day, interesting and magical things are always happening, especially on Mondays.
     We all liked the Armitage family a lot, especially the children Mark and Harriet.  We loved the incongruities and oddities that popped into their lives, and the way they encountered strange and random magic of all kinds with matter-of-fact aplomb.  We enjoyed the crazy situations they found themselves in -- but we did not always enjoy the resolutions to the situations.  Indeed, a number of the stories had too little resolution to satisfy us, especially P, who began to complain that the Armitages never did anything about all the things that happened to them.  This isn't true, but it is true that there are stories where they merely shrug off wrongs done to them, and stories where no one ends up getting what they wanted.  When Mark's mild-mannered music teacher, whom we were all fond of, was twice denied a reunion with the long-lost love of his life… once having joy snatched from him in the very last paragraph of the story after we had all been so confidently expecting the happily ever after… P developed a case of the "Jesus, Grandpa!" phenomenon.  Indeed, we were all pretty annoyed about that!  So although we liked the characters and enjoyed Aiken's quirky imagination, I think for a similar style but a more optimistic tone I'll try introducing T and P to some of the short stories by E. Nesbit.  We rank this book good, but not one of our favorites.

Mr and Mrs Bunny: Detectives Extraordinaire, by Polly Horvath - P and T were pretty dubious about this one at the beginning when the book describes Madeline's totally irresponsible hippy parents and her desire for a pair of white shoes.  At that point in the story no one seemed very likeable, and Horvath's satire of the parents, while funny, almost verges on mean-spirited.  But once we met Mr and Mrs Bunny, the book became a tremendous hit with all three of us.
     The characters are so over-the-top goofy, so mad-cap random and ridiculous, that T and P kept repeating phrases from the book and giggling all day long.  The running joke about "huge bottoms" had us all hysterical, and the personalities of the villainous foxes and marmots were wonderfully silly.  For weeks we continued to repeat Mr Bunny's "zuppity zuppity" attempt to make his car go… And there were many other brilliantly nutty lines.
     Although Madeline herself never became a character we truly loved, she served as a sympathetic "straight man" in a world of utter absurdity.  This was a fun, funny, silly, delightful adventure - and the scene with Prince Charles at the triumphant end was sheer genius.  I'll never be able to see Prince Charles on the news the same way again.

        So, what will we be reading next?  The fourth book in French's Tales from the Five Kingdoms series, of course.  And after that, perhaps those Nesbit stories.  I'll keep you posted as we discover more good stuff!

[Pictures: Marlon and Gubble, pen and ink by Ross Collins, from The Heart of Glass by Vivian French, 2010;
Mr and Mrs Bunny buying fedoras, watercolor by Sophie Blackall, from Mr and Mrs Bunny: Detectives Extraordinaire by Polly Horvath, 2012 (image via Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast).]

September 7, 2012

"Where Do You Get Your Ideas?"

        This is probably the number one question I get asked, whether it's at an art show or a book talk, whether I'm conversing with children or adults.  "Where do you get your ideas?"  And it's a hard question to answer.  That is, the answer is actually extremely simple: Anywhere and everywhere.  But that hardly seems adequate when I'm trying to give a helpful answer.  So I think about what more I can say in order to be more specific or more concrete.
        The thing about ideas is that they're not like the rubber I carve.  I can't say, "I order them online in big sheets and cut off what I need.  Here's the web site where you can get some, too!"  I think of ideas as more like birds - they're around all the time, but the trick is to notice them and learn to identify them.  Or perhaps a useful analogy is Sherlock Holmes's explanation of observation.  In "A Scandal in Bohemia" he says, "You see, but you do not observe.  The distinction is clear."  In "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" he specifies the difference, "You can see everything.  You fail, however, to reason from what you see."  Observation, therefore, is not simply seeing things but paying enough attention to them to note their significance.  A large part of getting ideas is similar: be observant enough, be aware enough, to notice those things that might make a beautiful piece of art or an interesting element of a story.  Take nothing for granted.
        A writing example I've shared with students comes from Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster.  Kate and Sam are helped multiple times in the story by beetles who have received news of the quest through the Beetle Bulletin.  The beetle Maximilian Athanasius Plunkett explains, “It is true that we are miniscule in comparison to you, but even if each of us travels only a tiny distance, we will always meet another beetle, and that beetle will always meet another, and so the Beetle Bulletin can be passed over the entire face of the earth in time.  Did you know that we beetles are the most numerous group of animals?  One quarter of all animals alive on earth today are beetles!”  The beetle struck a pose with one spiny foot on his chest.  His tiny hoarse voice rang out with pride…
        The idea for the Beetle Bulletin came from reading that factoid in a kids' science magazine.   I'd already put a minor beetle character in Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom, and when I read this staggering fact that nearly 25% of all life-forms on earth are beetles, I knew that the beetles needed a bigger role.  So, where did the idea come from?  Well, it was probably just about anywhere anyone could read about beetles - in that magazine, in the encyclopedia, in books, on television shows…  So in a way, I didn't come up with the idea, I just realized its potential.  (This is also a good example of the application of "What if?")
        This idea of gathering up potential ideas is what I explain to students as a "writer's piggy bank."  In a real piggy bank you throw in all your money, in any amounts large or small, and eventually when you need to buy something, you open it up and see what you've got.  In the same way if you save up all those little interesting tidbits that come into your mind - cool character names, intriguing settings, elements of plot, interesting facts, surprising situations, memories of feelings, catchy turns of phrase - you're bound to have at least a few great ideas to use when you start to put together a story.
        And of course art can work the same way: it isn't so much that inspiration occasionally strikes magically out of the blue, it's that inspiration is anywhere and everywhere if you can only learn to recognize it.  From moments in my life ("The Puddle"), to everyday sights ("Dandelion"), to poems I've read ("The Listeners"), to things I've seen in books ("Three at the Water Hole"), to quirky things that catch my attention ("Yapok"), to items I've found at the dump ("Underwood"), anything is a potential subject for art as long as I remember to consider it in that light.
        So keep your eyes and your heart open, and don't just see, but observe.  Then you're ready to welcome all those wonderful ideas that really are everywhere.

[Pictures:  Downy Woodpecker, rubber block print with red watercolor by AEGN, 2006 (sold out);
Rhinoceros Beetle, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997 (sold out).]

September 4, 2012

Artist's Best Friend

        I've done my share of Cat Art, but I'm afraid I've been very weak in the dog department.  As an artist I have two main problems with dogs.  First, I haven't got one, so there's no handy muse hanging around the house modeling charming poses for my inspiration.  Second, dogs don't all look the same.  When I make a portrait of my cat, it looks a lot like your cat, or anyone's cat, or your generic image of Cat, and all cat-lovers can relate to it.  But dogs don't look like Dogs; they look like pugs, or poodles, or labs, or chihuahuas, or dachshunds, or Saint Bernards, or whippets…
        Still, other artists have been better than I, and to get a sampling of dog block prints I've returned to my virtual collection of alphabet books and pulled out D is for Dog.  I've come up with five dogs for your enjoyment today.  Perhaps my favorite is from a new alphabet source I discovered on-line.  This dog represents D in The Ladder to Learning, published in 1852 by R.H. Pease, who advertises himself as an "Engraver on Wood."  (The author is given as Miss Lovechild, but with a name like that, I can't help suspecting that there is no such person!)
        Betsy Bowen and Mary Azarian have both painted their prints, although Mary Azarian has black and white versions of hers as well.  (Unfortunately, I couldn't find an uncolored version to post today.)  But despite any similarities of color, these two pieces show opposite ends of the dog spectrum, Bowen going with active working sled dogs, and Azarian with a lazy old hound snoozing in the armchair.  Azarian's looks ready for a snuggle, and of Bowen's huskies I like the one closest to the sled best because you can see its face the most clearly.
        Antonio Frasconi and Walter Anderson have both treated their dogs in a very graphic, decorative manner.  Frasconi's makes me think of the friendly, loyal mutt, and Anderson's seems almost medieval to me, taking part in a field of decorative motifs.  Both artists have clearly had fun with the graphic qualities of the medium.
        Recently I've been thinking it's time I tried some Dog Art of my own, but in the meantime I hope all you dog-lovers out there can find a puppy to love somewhere in this selection!

[Pictures: D stands for dog, wood block print by R.H. Pease, hand painted, from The Ladder to Learning by Miss Lovechild, 1852 (Image from International Children's Digital Library);
Dogsled, hand-colored woodblock print by Betsy Bowen from Antler, Bear, Canoe: A Northwoods Alphabet Year, 1991 (Image from Betsy Bowen Studio);
Dog, hand-colored wood block print by Mary Azarian from A Farmer's Alphabet, 1981 (Image from Mary Azarian's web site);
D, wood block print by Antonio Frasconi from Bestiary, 1965;
Dog, linoleum block print by Walter Inglis Anderson, 1930's (Image from The Walter Anderson Shop).]