October 30, 2012

Words of the Month - Hallowe'en Treat

        Everyone deserves a treat on Hallowe'en, and today I treat you to a handful of etymologies of words we tend to encounter this time of year.  Go ahead, take them all - they're calorie-free!

     pumpkin - A mid-seventeenth century American variation of the mid-sixteenth century pumpion, we get our word from a French word pompon.  I got all excited - pumpkin and pom-pom come from the same root?  Well, apparently not.  Pumpkin's pompon derives ultimately from the Greek pépon - "melon" (still apparent in the scientific name), while pom-poms come from pomp, from the Latin word for display or procession.  So although they are both round, decorative, and festive at this time of year, the "pompon" connection is a trick.

     jack-o-lantern - This word entered English at the same time as pumpkin but had nothing to do with pumpkins at first.  It was the name of a will-o-the-wisp in southwestern England.  From there people began to carve hollowed-out turnips to
keep spirits at bay, and it wasn't until immigrants brought that tradition to the USA that we got our traditional Hallowe'en jack-o-lanterns.  I've never tried to hollow out a turnip, but I can imagine that once you got to work with a pumpkin, you'd never go back!

     mask - English adopted this word in the 1530s from French, which got it from Italian, which got it from Latin.  From there the source is uncertain, perhaps Arabic maskharah "buffoon, mockery."  It also clearly seems to be related to a pre-Indo-European root meaning "black," hence mascara.  So whether you go for the Freddy Krueger mask or the French Maid mascara, you're making use of the same disguising root.

     chocolate - From the Nahuatl language, this word first came to Spain with cocoa beans from the New World, and reached England and English around 1600.  The Fry's Chocolate Factory in Bristol, England seems to have made the first commercial chocolate bars, and the Hershey Company made the first individually wrapped chocolate bars suitable for handing out to trick-or-treating children.

     treat - Its first sense, from about 1300, was "to negotiate, deal with," as in treaty.  The transition to candy began around 1500, when we had "to entertain with food and drink (presumably by way of bargaining)."  The noun meaning "anything that gives pleasure" dates to about 1770.  So that whole "trick or treat" thing sounds like bribery in more ways than one.  (But I must confess that as a child it never even crossed my mind that there was a threat implicit in my cheerful Hallowe'en greeting, and I'm happy to say that the kids in our neighborhood now don't view it that way either.)

        Happy Hallowe'en!

[Picture: Cat-o-lantern, by AEGN, 2011;
Jack-o-mustache, by PGN, 2011;
Jack-o-grin, by TPN, 2008.]

October 26, 2012

Wood Blocks in the Fairbanks Museum

        On our family vacation this summer we stopped at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.  What a fun little museum!  Between the Victorian architecture and the quirky collection it really is more like an antique cabinet of curiosities than a modern museum.  I liked the random "little bit of everything" assortment of Stuff.  Among the collections was a case describing the traditional process of making wool cloth.  There were various old implements used in the craft, and the process was illustrated by a series of carved wooden panels.  I perked right up - wood blocks!
        But although these carved wooden boards looked just like wood blocks for relief printing, there were a couple of mysteries.  First of all, it was the blocks that were being displayed, not prints on paper.  Were these carvings first made as relief printing blocks, or were they originally intended as carved illustrations?
        And secondly, who made them?  I searched and searched in the case and saw no note anywhere mentioning the artist.  They look like they could be the work of Mary Azarian (I see it especially in the face of the woman at the tub), who hails from a neighboring town in Vermont and takes a particular interest in traditional rural skills and handicrafts.  But if they are by Azarian, why no acknowledgement of the famous local artist?
        If anyone knows more about these pieces, I'd be happy to hear it.  But whoever carved these wood blocks, and for whatever purpose, I was quite pleased and delighted to find them in a quirky, out of the way museum.  It just goes to show that you never know when you might come across something special.

[Pictures: Sheep, wood block by anonymous artist, Fairbanks Museum;
Woman washing wool, wood block by anonymous artist, Fairbanks Museum (both images are photos by AEGN, 2012).]

October 23, 2012

Creation's Birthday

        Join me in wishing Happy Birthday to Earth and all the Creation!  According to James Ussher, an Irish scholar, theologian, and bishop, (1581-1656), the Creation was created at nightfall on the evening before October 23 in the year 4004 BC, thus making it Sweet Six Thousand Sixteen this year.
        It's easy to ridicule a statement like this because there's so much wrong with it both scientifically and theologically.  Nevertheless, it's not without interest.  First of all, Ussher was a formidable scholar and was joined in this endeavor to calculate the earth's exact age by such still-respected scientists as Johannes Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton.  In Ussher's day it was considered an important and serious topic of study, and what made Ussher's calculation so notable is that he brought together the most up-to-date scholarship, the cutting edge of scientific knowledge, and a rigorous
intellect.  His example should serve as a reminder that the state of knowledge shifts, and what we believe today, even if takes into account our best scientific (and theological) understandings, may well seem absurd four hundred years from now.  We must never believe that we have a monopoly on the Whole Truth.
        Secondly, Ussher lived in an age when it was believed that we might know everything.  This gave way to an era of specialization when it was understood that no one could possibly have a comprehensive knowledge, and the best one could hope for was to know as much as possible in one narrow topic.  Recently we've begun to shift again to a realization that specialized subjects do not exist in isolation, and that even to understand some specific topic requires an understanding of neighboring fields.  Perhaps those Renaissance scholars, with their broad generalizations and their dabblings in all subjects, have something to teach us after all about the interconnectedness of knowledge.
        And finally, this idea of accounting for the entire history of the universe strikes a chord with me as a creator.  Like many writers of speculative fiction, I am a Creator of Worlds, and as such I veer between two extremes of viewing my Creation.  I have such a deep and intimate love of my universe that I think I can know everything there is to know, account for every twist of history in every year, name every fantastical species of plant or animal, set every breeze in motion…  But at the same time I realize that fictional universes, just like our own real Earth, are far too complex, far too broad, far too deep, ever to be known in their fulness.  But I don't need to know everything, just as my readers don't need to know everything.  In fantasy as on Earth, the mystery is okay, especially if it inspires in us a sense of wonder that draws us toward the search for Truth and a willingness to be surprised by what we might discover.

[Pictures: The Fourth Day, woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, from Die Bibel in Bildern, 1860 (image from Wikimedia Commons);
Creation of the Universe, woodcut by Michael Lotte, 1554 (image from Freemasonry & Esoterica);
God creating the World, woodcut by anonymous artist, from a 1527 Latin Vulgate Bible (image from Folger Shakespeare Library);
Creation of Light, wood engraving by Gustave Doré, 1866 (image from Wikimedia Commons).]

October 19, 2012

Wizards for Hallowe'en

        Most years P and T know what they want to be for Halloween from about November 2 of the previous year.  Oh, they change their minds a few times, of course, but they've always had thoughts on the matter.  I guess they're getting older because this year come October 1 they didn't really know.  First they both thought they might like to be Gubble the troll from The Tales from the Five Kingdoms series.  But they refused to have their faces painted green and we didn't have green pants or tights or turtlenecks for skin, and it just seemed awfully hard to put together a set of distinctive traits to make a recognizeable troll.  Then just last week inspiration struck.  P declared that he would be Gandalf, and T claimed Dumbledore.  So we bought a bit of white furry material, and at some point in the next 11 days I'll be making wizardly beards!
        As for Gandalf and Dumbledore, I got looking at the way they've been depicted by various illustrators through the years.  Gandalf will have a wooden staff and a grey robe, while Dumbledore will have his half-moon glasses and a wand.  Hats?  Well, I already got grey felt before I refreshed my memory and saw that Gandalf's hat is blue.  Oh well.  And Dumbledore?  In the movies he seems to favor funny embroidered fez-shaped things, though I think he's described as having a more classic tall pointed hat at least once.  As for his robe, it could be turquoise or something bright, but since I already made T a dark blue robe for a former costume, that will have to do for her again.
        I've topped the page with an illustration of Gandalf by Maurice Sendak, who was proposed as an illustrator for The Hobbit in the US, though it was not to be.  I really like this one, and I think it's especially appropriate for The Hobbit, as opposed to the more serious Lord of the Rings Gandalf.  A less whimsical Gandalf appears in the painting by Alan Lee, who was a concept artist for the Lord of the Rings movies.  There have also been some pretty goofy portrayals of Gandalf through the years, and here are two I get a kick out of.
        As for Dumbledore, here's a U.K. version from Thomas Taylor, although not the first.  The original cover picture depicted a youngish wizard, which the fans objected to.  So it was replaced with this properly white-bearded Dumbledore in subsequent editions.  It does get at his delightful eccentricity.  But in my opinion the right and proper version of Dumbledore is that by Mary GrandPré, seen below, sadder and tireder than usual, in a picture from the US edition of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
        The versions that will be presented by P and T on Hallowe'en will be pretty sketchy, I imagine, especially as I can't even think about starting work on costumes until after this weekend's Natick Artists Open Studios.  (Come by if you can!)  But if everyone has fun, then as far as I'm concerned they'll be perfect.

[Pictures: "Gandalf meets Bilbo," ink on paper by Maurice Sendak, 1967 (image from SciFi Mafia);
"Gandalf and Bilbo," watercolor by Alan Lee, featured on a 1993 calendar, but I can't track down its original source (image from here);
"Gandalf meets Bilbo," scratchboard by Mikhail Belomlinsky for the Russian translation of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1976 (image from MB web site);
"Gandalf," I don't know the artist, but this is from the Rumanian translation of The Hobbit, 1975 (image from Power of Babel); 
"Dumbledore," color on paper by Thomas Taylor, from back cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling, after 1997 (image from The Harry Potter Journey);
"Dumbledore," pastel on paper by Mary GrandPré, from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003.]

October 16, 2012

Letitia Byrne, Engraver

        Today's prodigy is Letitia Byrne, born in 1779.  The daughter of an engraver, all of her five siblings also became artists, including three sisters, at least one of whom was a successful watercolorist.  Letitia was exhibiting at the Royal Academy at the age of twenty, but reached real success when she engraved a whole series of scenes for an 1810 book entitled A Description of Tunbridge Wells and Its Neighborhood.
        The original artist who drew the scenes was the author of the book, Paul Amsinck, and Letitia Byrne converted the images into engravings.  I've tried to find out more about Letitia, but without much success.  Did she draw any scenes for engravings herself?  Was she the only woman successfully making a living as an engraver at the time?  Did she remain part of her father's studio or strike out on her own?  Did she marry?  And if so, how did career and family mix?  I just don't know.  Sources do say that she died in 1849, having made lots more engravings beyond her first Tunbridge Wells hit.
        These pieces of Byrne's are intaglio, presumably copper plate, putting them outside my usual zone of interest.  (Also, the title page calls them engravings, but they're individually labelled as etchings.  I'm not sure what to make of that.)  Intaglio images never look carved - to me, they're just like pen drawings with lots of skritchy little lines.  Still, they share with my beloved relief prints the carving of a hard surface, as well as the translation of a full-color, infinitely gradated universe into black and white: ink and no ink.
        Plus, I'm always interested in people who are able to follow their talents in a world that may not encourage them.  Byrne, of course, had a father to shepherd her talent, and an encouraging father, brother, or husband was pretty much essential for a woman to become a serious artist in the eighteenth/nineteenth century.  Still, it's a good reminder that in any age children's talents can be either valued or squelched.  That's why I think it's so important to spread the joy about art.  It's so easy for children (and adults?) to receive the message that what they create isn't good enough, and it's so important to remind them over and over that there's joy here for all of us.  Maybe we can't all engrave like Letitia Byrne (I'm sure I can't!), but whatever form of art we love, we can always keep working at it.

[Pictures: Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst, engraving or etching by Letitia Byrne from a drawing by Paul Amsinck, 1809;
House at Pounds Bridge, Penshurst, engraving or etching by Byrne from drawing by Amsinck, 1809.  (Images from The Weald of Kent, Surrey & Sussex.)]

October 12, 2012

Lovable Supervillains

        A good villain can be so hard to find.  There are villains that I love for their delicious pure evil, such as Darth Vader in "A New Hope" and Maleficent in Disney's "Sleeping Beauty," but today I'm talking about villains that are actually our heroes.  With all my goody-goody speeches about heroic heroes, you'd probably expect that I'd purse my lips disapprovingly at the very idea of books or movies about supervillains.  And it's true that I have a very limited tolerance for anti-heroes, or "heroes" who do all the same evil things as the bad guys but are lauded because they do it for our team.  But I confess to as much fondness as anyone for a solidly comedic supervillain, especially, of course, one that turns out to have a heart of gold after all.  Here are a few I've enjoyed.
        Gru of "Despicable Me" - Sure it was predictable, but the point wasn't where we would end up; it was how we'd get there, and our whole family got a kick out of all the supervillainous fun.  We especially liked when Gru punched the shark, and of course the minions.
        Artemis Fowl of the series by Eoin Colfer - Colfer did a nice job with Artemis's transition from pure villain to heart of gold, and of course I liked Butler the bodyguard, proving once again that a supervillain needs super sidekicks.  And both Artemis and his opponents always have the most excellent selection of technological and magical toys.  But [Spoiler Alert!] I'm sorry to say that I lost it at the end of the third book when Artemis lost his memory and turned completely evil again.  That's when I gave up.  (But I am assured by one of T's friends that I should have kept going because he gets his memory back and the whole series is awesome.)
        Bartimaeus of The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud (Book One is The Amulet of Samarkand) - Bartimaeus is a true demon, introduced as a villain, and certainly looking out for himself.  But his sense of perspective, and most of all his sense of humor, end up making him the hero of the series.  (There's another book about the character, The Ring of Solomon, that's still on my list of books I'd like to read.)
        Demon Kid of St Viper's School for Super Villains, by Kim Donovan - I received a review copy of this one, and my real regret is that it wasn't around three years ago.  Unfortunately, P is really out the top end of its target reading level, so he and I both thought it was cute, but slight.  In some ways almost a parody of Harry Potter, Demon Kid begins a new school, runs into immediate rivals, makes friends, and has to prove his worth to the teachers and himself.  There were lots of fun jokes and references to supervillain tropes, a few twists, and exciting chases and battles.  I think the toughest thing in the series will be that perpetual problem for supervillain heroes: the balance between believable badness and likeable goodness.  If Demon Kid were really to be a supervillain, wouldn't he happily kill all his enemies and backstab all his allies at the first convenient opportunity?  And if he's to show mercy and loyalty instead, how to keep up the plot device of his desire to be the most nefarious villain of them all?  Still, such meta considerations aside, I think this would be a fun, light romp for the seven or eight year old who likes super heroes and lots of sound effects.  What's not to love about invisible invisibility guns, classes in diabolical laughter, and the International Space Station?
        Finally, what about two more characters riding that thin line between lovable and hateable: Dexter of the cartoon "Dexter's Lab," and Calvin of the comic Calvin and Hobbes.  Both veer wildly between noble impulses and plans for world domination.  Both endear themselves to us with their quirky imaginations and ridiculous escapades.  Both would be nightmares in real life, but are treasures in the world of fiction.
        So let's join the minions in cheering for our favorite supervillain's latest plans to take over the Earth.  And may the most absurdly villainous villain win!

[Pictures: "Chill vs Demon Kid," computer artwork by Petherick Button from St Viper's School for Super Villains: the Riotous Rocket Ship Robbery by Kim Donovan, 2011;
"Calvin as tyrant," pen and ink from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, May 11, 1992.]

October 9, 2012

Artists Talk

        Last week I participated in a "Creative Connections" Artist Talk series at a local library.  There were three of us presenting that afternoon, and there were some interesting themes that came up between us.  The first woman to present is a potter who makes what she calls "multi-component interactive sculptures" out of porcelain.  Next spoke a metalsmith who mostly makes silver jewelry.  The examples he brought
used a lot of filigree.  And third was me.  There were definitely some differences between us - the ceramicist has been featured in all sorts of national and international juried shows, the metalsmith is a full-time professional, the sculptures and jewelry are largely abstract as opposed to my representational-ism…  Usually it seems that any group of artists is composed primarily of painters, and I'm often the odd one out because my medium involves the three-dimensional stage of carving the block.  But this time I was the odd one out for making 2-D works on paper!
        But what really interested me about participating in this program were the common themes that emerged despite the obvious differences in our finished work.  The first of these themes was the desire to follow our own curiosity, as opposed to designing things specifically with an eye to commercial popularity.  We all spoke about the joy in seeing something, getting an idea, and following it to see where it might lead.  We all mentioned that we don't like to repeat the exact same thing over and over but want to try something a little different each time.
        We also all mentioned nature as a major source of inspiration.  With all my prints of plants and animals, that's presumably pretty obvious in my work, but I certainly wouldn't have guessed it in the work of the silversmith (although perhaps it would be more obvious in some of his other work that I didn't see).  And the ceramic sculptures were even more interesting in this regard because the potter showed some photos of natural objects followed by a piece inspired by each one.  In some cases it was clear: a pitcher and mugs modeled with the shape and color of bamboo, for example.  But in other cases the connection appeared very slight, and this illustrated a point that was really interesting to me.  That is, inspiration and ideas come from all sorts of places, but they get transformed in each person, and they come out different from each person's own way of thinking, feeling, and creating.  Isn't it amazing and wonderful how the human imagination can be sparked by something, and flame up, and twirl away in any one of a million unique directions?
        Plus, I had to smile when the potter mentioned her excitement about diatoms, and showed the sculpture inspired by their forms… at that very moment I had at home a collection of photos of microscopic organisms and a couple of first sketches of an idea for a print inspired by them.  But if I ever do make that print, won't it be wonderful to see how completely different our two pieces of art will be, though both inspired by the same wonder at this same amazing detail of nature?

        This Creative Connections talk was one of the events connected with Natick Artists Open Studios, which will be held this year on October 20 and 21.  If you're anywhere in the neighborhood, stop by and visit us!  (The other artists who spoke with me were Suzanne Stumpf and John Harwood, if you want to look them up.)

[Pictures: A Couple of Hats, rubber block print by AEGN, 2008.]

October 5, 2012

Frank 'n' Stan 'n' More

        Back in January I wrote about some forms of artificial life, and listed books featuring androids, golems, and more.  But I couldn't recommend any particular books to illustrate "Frankenstein monsters" or zombies in juvenile fantasy.  Until now.  I recently received a review copy of a new picture book entitled Frank'n' Stan, and that was my cue that it was time to do a little digging (in the graveyard?) and revisit some of the artificial life-forms that weren't well represented last time around.  Plus, it's a good time to start getting in the mood for Hallowe'en.  

        Frank'n' Stan, by M.P. Robertson - I enjoyed this book about a boy who tries to build himself a "little brother."  Unlike Shelley's version, the new creature is built of metal and electronics rather than dead body parts, so he's actually a robot.  Also, unlike the original Frankenstein monster, he's a force of pure goodness - just what humans have wished for every time they try to create artificial life: unwavering loyalty combined with a willingness to do unpleasant jobs (in this case, changing diapers).  But despite these significant differences in philosophical tone, Robertson obviously had a lot of fun tying his book back to the original Frankenstein.  The boy scientist's last name is Shelley, and when his little sister is born, her name is Mary…  He finds materials at Byron's Scrap Metal yard…  The climax involves our young hero chasing his creation into a snowy wilderness…  These points may be lost on kids, but they give it a little extra layer of interest for adults.  And it's the pictures that make the book.  They're a lot of fun to look at, with plenty of details that reward careful looking and multiple readings.  Elementary-age children with fantasies of robot playmates (and of being tinkering geniuses themselves) will enjoy this book.  I also appreciate that its message is one of love and acceptance - which may not have much to do with the original conception of Frankenstein, but is much more fun for the entire family.

        [Now, before I go any farther I need to state a caveat.  Normally I don't post negative reviews.  I reckon that this blog is about sharing stuff I love, not about trashing stuff that other people no doubt love.  As an author I hate to talk down anyone else's work, and as a reader I am very well aware that taste is personal and varies widely -- just because I wasn't too keen on something doesn't mean you won't adore it.  But in order to find books on this particular topic I ended up reading a lot of stuff I was pretty lukewarm about.  I wanted to share what I'd found for anyone interested in the topic, but although each of these books had aspects that I liked, I am not raving about any of them.  So I apologize for the somewhat unenthusiastic reviews, and hope that they'll still be useful to you.]

Do Not Build a Frankenstein, by Neil Numberman - This book covers a lot of similar ground to Frank'n'Stan, but with a very different feel.  The illustrations are more cartoon than graphic novel, and the creator more mad scientist than boy genius.  In a nutshell, the message is, "You might think an artificially created friend would be perfect, but it won't be as much fun as you think… oh wait, yes it will!"

Frankenstein, by Ludworst Bemonster - This parody of Ludwig Bemelman's Madeline is definitely a novelty book.  I imagine it has relatively little appeal to kids in its own right, but is amusing if you're very familiar with Madeline and, I suppose, either hate her, or love both her and monsters.  Some of the illustrations were very clever, and I did laugh at Frankenstein's ability to frighten rocks, but I would recommend this one only to the true aficionado of campy monsters (which I am not, so feel free to get a second opinion from someone who is!)

Zombie in Love, by Kelly DiPucchio - I picked this up at the library because I hadn't had any zombie books to mention back in January.  Of course I was looking for zombies as a form of artificial life - beings created from corpses to be slaves of their masters - but the zombie in this book is no one's slave.  This story is of the "zombies are people, too" school.  But although it's a picture book it's definitely another one aimed to appeal primarily (if not exclusively) to grown-ups.  I assume there must be some zombie-mad children out there who would like it, but all the jokes seem calculated to amuse adults.  So yes, cute, with the same sense of humor as Tom Lehrer's "I hold your hand in mine, dear," but what can I say?  I still don't care for zombies.

Konrad, by Christine Nostlinger (translated from German by Anthea Bell.)  There's also an edition entitled Conrad, The Factory-Made Boy - Another take on age-old ideas about artificial life and perfection, this short novel is about a child built by a corporation and programmed for perfection.  The book raises all sorts of interesting issues, about bullying, about what's "natural" or "normal," about goodness, about conformity…  Issues that are central to the development of children's social selves.  I like that Nostlinger lays these issues out for children with an invitation to think about them.  But I found somewhat troubling her portrayal of "normal" child behavior as what I would consider quite appalling, and her apparent double standard that conformity to an ideal of dull perfection is bad, but conformity to this rude "normal" behavior is desirable and indeed necessary.  I guess it's just my good-little-girl soul objecting!  (For a lot more discussion of this book - and people who mostly did not agree with my objections - you can read the discussion thread at Goodreads.)

Doctor Illuminatus, by Martin Booth - Here's another book featuring a homunculus, although in this case it makes only a cameo appearance at the climax.  Most of the plot is an attempt to stop the evil alchemist from creating it in the first place.  I did like the premise of the old house with its alchemical past.  However, I found this novel to have a disconnect between, on the one hand, the short length and lack of complexity of the plot (both of which seem suited to younger readers) and, on the other hand, the scholarly asides and fairly graphic depiction of horrors (both of which seem suited to more mature readers.)  Unfortunately, neither P nor I feels a need to read any further in the series.

[Pictures: He would build his own, art by M.P. Robertson, from Frank'n'Stan © Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2012 (Reproduced with permission by the publisher);
They yelled, art by Nathan Hale, from Frankenstein by Ludworst Bemonster, 2012.]

October 3, 2012

Bearded Man

        Here's another German Expressionist: Erich Heckel.  I'm not always a big fan of German Expressionism in general, but they were a group doing lots of experimentation with woodcuts and they were important in bringing the woodcut to respect as an artistic medium (as opposed to the view that it was merely an old-fashioned method for reproducing images cheaply.)  And here and there I find pieces that please me, like this portrait of a bearded man by Heckel.
        I like the use of the border to crop the edges slightly.  I like how the roughness of the carving translates to texture on the skin.  I like the simplicity of the image: not much detail, but every detail that's necessary.

[Picture: Bärtiger Mann, woodcut by Erich Heckel, 1908 (image from Rex Irwin Art Dealer).]