December 31, 2013

Words of the Month - Cheers!

        It’s New Year’s Eve and tonight at midnight millions of people around the world will be raising a glass of something involving alcohol, and toasting stuff.  So let’s take a closer linguistic look at where this all comes from…

        First, the alcohol itself - Our word comes from Arabic al-kuhl, which means “the kohl.”  Yes, we’re talking about antimony sulfide in a very fine powder form used as makeup, especially eye-liner, alá Cleopatra.  When the word first entered English in the sixteenth century it meant “powdered cosmetic.”  However, this fine powder was made by sublimation, or essentially distillation, which meant that soon other things made by distillation, including liquids, came to share the name.  “Alcohol of wine” was the intoxicating ingredient in that beverage, and not until the mid eighteenth century did plain “alcohol” refer to this.  (A hundred years later the word’s meaning was expanded back out to include the entire class of chemical compounds.)

The most popular drink at the New Year is probably Champagne, which of course is named for the region in France whence it originates, but some might choose other poisons (after all, intoxicate means quite simply “to poison” from Latin).  Some possibilities include

rum - short for rumbullion and rombostion, though where either of those words came from is unclear.  They’re possibly related to the adjective rum originally meaning “good, valuable,” though by the end of the eighteenth century it had shifted to its modern sense of “strange, bad, spurious” perhaps because of how dubious were the people and things to which the slang rum was so often applied.

gin - short for geneva, which has nothing to do with the Swiss city, but rather with the Dutch word for juniper, with which berries the drink is flavored.

whisky/whiskey - from Irish uisge beatha “water of life.”  This is on an analogy with Latin aqua vitae (from which also French eau de vie for brandy.)

hooch - short for Hoochinoo, from the name of a native Alaskan tribe whose liquor was popular with miners in the Klondike during the gold rush.  (The tribe’s name, from Tlingit Hutsnuwu, is supposed to mean “grizzly bear fort.”)

        But whatever booze you pick (booze was originally a verb meaning “to drink a lot” but was helped along linguistically by a nineteenth century Philadelphia distiller named Edmund G. Booz.) chances are you’ll make a toast, so called because of the actual slices of toast the Romans put in their communal cups of wine.  Then call out: Cheers (British)
Prosit (German, from Latin “may it be good for you”)
Skoal (Danish, literally “bowl, cup”)
Salud (Spanish, “health”)
Sláinte (Irish “to your health”)
L’chaim (Hebrew “to life”)
Chin chin (European, onomatopoeic for the clinking of glasses)
Here’s looking at you, kid (famous from “Casablanca”)

        Personally, although I’m happy to join in toasts, I won’t be drinking any alcohol because I’m a teetotaller.  This word was coined in 1833 by English abstinence campaigner Richard Turner.  The word has nothing to do with tea (although I certainly do prefer tea to alcohol!).  Rather it’s a stutter for emphasis.  I’d probably have spelled it 
t-total.  Apparently tee-totally was a common slang adverb in some areas with an Irish dialect influence, including parts of North America, but Turner seems to have been the one to apply it to t-total abstinence.  At any rate, so determined was he to claim credit that he actually has “Author of the Word TEETOTAL” carved on his gravestone.

         But whatever you drink tonight, be it water, whisky, ginger ale, gin, or tea, I wish you a healthy and happy new year!

[Pictures: Men raising a toast, woodcut from Every Body’s Toast Book, and Convivial Companion “by an Adept,” 1851 (Image from The Butcher’s Floor);
Still Life II, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (sold out).]

December 27, 2013

More Bold

        Ten days ago I shared some fantasy wood block prints by the mysterious Alan Bold.  Today I want to share a few more of his scenes that aren’t particularly fantastical.  (These illustrations do also come from a book of stories by Walter de la Mare, so they may be set in fantasy worlds; I don’t know.)  All three share a certain similarity in composition, with clear framing.  The first two especially share the trick of showing a glimpse of some bright scene through the framing of a dark area.  The dark foregrounds look lush and close with their layers of foliage.  The images place us deep in the natural world of woodland creatures, while the human world is only glimpsed in the distance, like some forbidden heaven.  The deer and huge flowers in the first one look almost Oriental, like a Persian or Mughal miniature, perhaps.  The creatures in the second have more personality - is
that a rabbit with its funny too-big head, and a squirrel with leafy ears?  I particularly like their bright eyes and enjoy that Bold has made me, the viewer, part of the animals’ conference.
        The third piece has another little bright-eyed creature, but I have no idea what it’s supposed to be.  And this time the framing is in reverse: the little beast is perched on the windowsill at the edge of the human world, looking back out toward the natural world.  It looks to be pretty high up, too, unlike the low vantage point of the others.  I find the leaves on the left that look like horse chestnut leaves to be especially pleasing, for some reason.

        All in all I’ve been quite delighted by all these woodcuts by Bold, and I’m sorry not to be able to find out anything more about him or what other work he might have done.

[Pictures: three wood block prints by Alan Bold, from Broomsticks and Other Tales by Walter de la Mare, 1925. (Images from 50 Watts)]

December 24, 2013

A Christmas Carol

        Today I’m thinking about Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as a fantasy tale.  It’s got a ghost, it’s got supernatural spirits, it’s got time travel and alternate realities…  It’s so mainstream that most people would never consider it speculative fiction or “genre,” but of course it is.  And like any good fantasy, the story isn’t merely about ghosts or time travel because they’re nifty; it uses the fantasy elements to tell a story about much more basic and important things: love, how our choices affect the world and our own hearts, what it means to be human…  And the story explores these issues in ways that a purely “realistic” setting might not allow.  Just as it takes the unearthly spirits to break through Ebenezer Scrooge’s world-wise shell, so it sometimes takes a story that asks us to suspend our disbelief before we can break through our own world-wise shells.
        So if you celebrate Christmas, let me wish you a Merry one that breaks through and goes a little deeper than the “reality” of commercials and busy parking lots and malls.  And whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I wish you a clear-eyed imagination that’s willing to see beneath surface appearances to the magic beneath.

[Pictures: Marley’s Ghost, wood engraving by Sol Eytinge,
In the Churchyard, wood engraving by Eytinge, both from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 1869.(Images photographed by Philip V. Allingham at The Victorian Web)]

December 20, 2013

Los Pastores

        My mother just brought me a rather strange little book that was being deacquisitioned from a library she works with.  It had come to the library in the first place from the sister of the artist who carved the linoleum blocks that illustrate the book.  I hesitated to use the word “illustrate” because in fact the linocuts don’t just provide the book with pictures but with all the text, too, copyright page and all.  The book is Los Pastores: Excerpts from an old Christmas play of the Southwest, as given annually by the Griego Family, Santa Fe, New Mexico.  And excerpts it is, indeed.  There is no actual plot to this “play;” it’s more of a seemingly random collection of unrelated lines without progression or coherence.  Very odd altogether!  But the block printing is cool.
        My favorites are the little southwestern scenes - rough, not detailed, but very pleasing with their clean-lined adobe architecture and textured hills.  The scene on the bottom I take to be a view of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe.  Built shortly after 1610, it became three centuries later the home of the School of American Research (now the School for
Advanced Research on the Human Experience), an institute for archaeology and anthropology.  Our book Los Pastores came out of that school, the author Mary R. Van Stone presumably collecting and recording local cultural traditions.
        I’ve included here also a two page spread showing how the artist, Louise Morris (U.S. 1896-1971), carved blocks of text and also blocks of music.  They make a nice composition, reminiscent of fifteenth century block books, but with a twentieth century arts-and-crafts flair of their own.  The extra designs filling all available space are fun.
        Finally, since this is supposed to be a Christmas story, and a Christmas-time blog post, I include the nativity scene.  Actually, this isn’t the classic scene, since it’s missing most of the usual characters.  But the baby Jesus is there, so it’s good!  I like that there are lots of stars scintillating in the stable, and I really admire how the animals are so accurately detailed with such simple, basic gouges.
        This book is an interesting piece of cultural and art history, and I enjoyed seeing how Morris chose to carve and illustrate her material.

[Pictures: Linoleum block prints by Louise Morris from Los Pastores, recorded and translated by Mary R. Van Stone, 1933.]

December 17, 2013

Bold Fantasy Illustrations

        I came across these charming woodcuts some time ago on a blog about book illustration and design.  The illustrations come from two books of poetry and stories by Walter de la Mare, which list the illustrator as “Bold,” and that’s all I know.  Another site gives the name Alan Bold, but still no further information.  So let’s look at these wood block prints purely on their own.
        First, my favorite, a wonderfully strange bird in the smiling moonlight.  Is the bird perched there on the smooth trunk, or poised mid-leap?  Is it chasing the man, does the man flee it, or is there something else in the distance from which the man is running so frantically that he’s lost his hat?
        I think the bird-creature has a benign look, but there’s no doubt that this little imp means trouble.  Camouflaged among the leaves, he’s plotting his next mischievous move.  It could be anything from pinching the baby to slitting the throats and drinking the blood of the entire family.  The malice is unmistakeable.
        Though perhaps not quite so evil, I definitely wouldn’t trust this sprite.  I have the feeling that he doesn’t strike a bargain without being quite sure he’ll be getting the better end of the deal.  Oh, he’ll flatter you and make you feel clever, but don’t underestimate him.  He may be no larger than a tulip, but he has magic, never doubt it.
        The carving of this witch is particularly interesting.  Lurking in the shadows, her form is pulled into the light by hundreds of sharp, skinny strokes.  The only large areas of white are the light from the doorway where a man peers into the dark hut, and the cat’s huge, glowing eyes staring, not at the intruding man or the mistress witch, but at YOU!  (I like the owl up in the rafters, too.)
        And finally, a strange fish gliding through the underwater gloom.  Is it a human in fish form, or a fish in human form, or some sort of merperson?  I suppose I’d know the answers if I read the poem by de la Mare, but it’s kind of fun just wondering.  I especially like the fish’s ear, as well as the fish-face swimming toward us - not an easy view to depict.
        I really like these wood block prints and think they’re perfect evocations of strangeness and mystery.  I’m sorry not to know anything about the artist.  But I will be sharing a few more images by Bold on another day, so that’s something to look forward to.

[Pictures: Four woodcuts by Alan Bold from Stuff and Nonsense, and So On by Walter de la Mare, 1927;
Witch, woodcut by Bold from Broomsticks and Other Tales by de la Mare, 1925
(Images from 50 Watts).]

December 13, 2013

Reverso Fairy Tales

        Reverso poems are those which can be read down the page for one message, and then read with the order of the lines reversed to make a different message.  According to the “rules” propounded by Marilyn Singer, you can change only punctuation and capitalization between the two versions.  Singer claims to have invented the form, which I find dubious, but I believe she did invent the name.  She’s also popularized the idea with her books of reverso poems on traditional fairy tales.  As she points out, reverso poems are particularly well suited to telling two sides to a story, and fairy tales are always interesting to explore from a second point of view.
        Mirror, Mirror contains fourteen such poems, along with bright two-sided illustrations.  In some the change in word order doesn’t really seem to add much new understanding, but in others there’s a surprising twist of perspective that can make you think about the story in a new way.  This would be particularly intriguing and exciting to lower elementary-aged children who are just beginning to learn about the concept that different people have different points of view.  There’s a poem telling Goldilocks’s story, for example, which reverses to tell the story as the Three Bears see it.  Another set of poems pairs the importance of Rumpelstiltskin’s name with the apparent unimportance of the miller’s daughter’s name.  I think Singer’s second book of fairy tale reversos, Follow, Follow, is even better.
        Here’s a fun one: Birthday Suit

Behold his glorious majesty:
Who dares say he drained the treasury
This emperor has
sublime taste in finery!
Only a fool could fail to see.

Only a fool could fail to see.
Sublime taste in finery?
This emperor has -
ha! -
Who dares say he drained the treasury?
Behold his glorious majesty.

        Inasmuch as poetry is supposed to immerse us in language more intense than everyday prose, evoking images with the power to pierce and draw forth emotion, these lines just don’t have it.  But poetry’s other job, to show us the world in a new way and to invite us to consider magic we might otherwise not have noticed, is admirably served by these collections.  The poems also demonstrate for children the wonderful concept that language can be played with, that words can be juggled for multiple meanings, and that how you tell a story makes all the difference.

[Picture: Cover illustration by Josée Masse, Mirror Mirror by Marilyn Singer, Dutton, 2010.]
Poem by Marilyn Singer from Follow Follow, Dial, 2013.

December 10, 2013

Block Print a Day 7

        And back again to black and white.  This apple has a Matisse-like feel, with its flat planes of ink, simple outlines, and background arabesques.  I think it’s lovely!
        There are more than 7,500 varieties of apples in the world, which means you could eat an apple a day for more than twenty years without ever repeating varieties!  (That’s assuming you could actually get a hold of them all, of course.  The US apple industry grows fewer than 100 varieties commercially, and there are more of the top three varieties grown than all the others combined.)  It sounds rather like art, really, when you think about it… I could keep going, offering you a block print a day for years and years.  Some would be more appealing than others, some would be industry favorites and others unknown.  There are some artists who are superstars for a reason, but it’s also fun to keep poking around looking for some of those lesser-known, small-time artists who just might have created some undiscovered treasures.  So never forget to get your daily dose of art by keeping your eyes and heart open as you go through your day.

[Picture: Apples: Still Life with Patterning, linocut by Morgan Rose Hansen (Image from Etsy shop MorganRoseHansen)]

December 9, 2013

Block Print a Day 6

        In trying to find a variety of relief print techniques I couldn’t do without Japanese moku hanga.  This sure looks incredibly different from Saturday’s bold, rough, spontaneous black and white!  It looks more like a delicate watercolor painting -- and it is indeed the technique of inking the block with watercolor glazes that allows the subtle gradations of color.  However, unlike a watercolor painting, everything about a Japanese woodblock print is minutely and meticulously planned.  This particular piece, a still life, is rather unusual, as prewar Japanese printmakers tended to concentrate on people and landscapes.  (You can see one of Kawase Hasui’s landscapes here.)  These may be the yummiest-looking apples of the week.

[Picture: Budo to Ringo (Grapes and Apples), Japanese color wood block print by Kawase Hasui, 1940 (Image from Ukiyoe-Gallery)]

December 7, 2013

Block Print a Day 5

        A is for Apple - such a classic phrase.  Despite all the alphabet books around now, covering every theme and style, A is still for apple.  Yet this alphabet offering hardly looks like a boring textbook.  It looks more like a magnificent brocade doodle.  I wonder how much Walter Anderson planned his block and how much he just set to with a blade, trusting in the medium to produce something with interest and impact.

[Picture: A for Apple, linoleum block print by Walter Inglis Anderson, 1930s (Image from]

December 6, 2013

Block Print a Day 4

        For those times when an apple is not just an apple, here’s one of Albrecht Dürer’s riffs on
the theme of the first temptation.  It’s another story scene, but hardly a slice of everyday life.  This apple-picking is no innocent country pastime, and not a miracle but a curse.  I must say these apples don’t look as tempting as yesterday’s, but the feather-crowned serpent looks suitably disreputable, rather like the Grinch who stole Christmas, another villain who “slithered and slunk” and lied to an innocent girl.

[Picture: Detail from The Fall of Man, woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1509/10 (Image from wikimedia commons)]

December 5, 2013

Block Print a Day 3

        Here’s another shift, from high-priced gallery art world to something more like the craft of wood block printing - an image in which the marks of carving are not hidden and the style looks homespun instead of slick and professional.  It’s also a shift from seeing the apple as its own subject to seeing it as part of a story, an everyday object in the lives of everyday people.  And isn’t that a miraculous thing?

[Picture: A for Apple, woodblock print by Mary Azarian from A Farmer’s Alphabet, 1981 (Image from artslice)]

December 4, 2013

Block Print a Day 2

        Is a block print better when it’s trying to look like a sloppy paint job instead?  Is an apple better when it isn’t so dagnab representational?  I dared to be bored by yesterday’s traditional apple, and art is taking its revenge with Roy Lichtenstein!  I may prefer my apples and my relief block prints less scribbly, but I have to admire the technique that turns the staid medium of wood block printing into something that looks so spontaneous.

[Picture: Two Apples from Seven Apples Woodcuts, woodcut in colors by Roy Lichtenstein, 1983 (Image from Christie’s)]

December 3, 2013

A Block Print a Day

        I got looking at assorted relief block prints of apples, and decided to spread them out for you, one a day for your good health.  I hope you enjoy the wide range of styles and techniques.
        I begin with this most traditional wood block print, in the style of those utilitarian Victorian pictures made for illustration.  It’s beautifully done - precise, accurate… dare I say a little boring?  Perhaps, but I do like the way the lines create the shape and give it three-dimensionality.

[Picture: Apple, woodcut by Steven Noble (Image from]

November 30, 2013

Words of the Month - Hospitality

        This Thanksgiving did you host relatives?  Or were you a guest?  Is your family hospitable, or do family dynamics get hostile?  Did anyone end up in the hospital?  The origin of these assorted words in English sheds an interesting light on how we think about them.  They all spring from a common root in ancient Proto-Indo-European, ghos-ti, and the connection between them all is the concept of the stranger.
        Guest and host represent the two sides of the reciprocal duty of hospitality.  Hospitality to the stranger was an important part of many of the cultures that descended from the Proto-Indo-European-speaking people.  You can see it in stories from Greek mythology, from the Bible, from Germanic folklore…  In Proto-Indo-European (as with Latin hospes) the same word was used for both roles in the relationship, but English is never content with one word when two will do.  Guest came to us by way of our ancient native Germanic branch, while host arrived in the thirteenth century from Latin through French.
        The bulk of our French-derived words arrived in English, as you may recall, along with the swords of a very large number of strangers — a host, in fact, of rather hostile strangers.  It isn’t really so surprising that English should have acquired words from that stranger root with a more bellicose connotation.
        Still, the Old French derivations from that same PIE root also gave us the names of a variety of different places where strangers can go for care: hospital (13th century meaning “inn”, and “a place for the sick” not until the 16th century), hotel (first “public official residence” in the 17th century and “inn” in the 18th), and hostel and hostelry (13th century “inn.”  These words had become obsolete by the 17th century but were revived by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th, and the “youth hostel” meaning is from the 20th century.)
        Finally, the host in a church communion service comes from Latin hostia, “sacrifice,” but is probably ultimately related to the root “stranger” in its more inimical connotation. Another unwilling guest, a hostage, is less clear.  Linguists are undecided on whether it’s derived from the same root or another.  And then there’s the possibility of a visitation from another plane, from a ghost, which looks and sounds like it ought to derive from that Proto-Indo-European root ghos-ti-, but is in fact completely unrelated.
        Ghosts aside, we’re still left with the fact that almost any situation your Thanksgiving celebration presented probably included at least one word from that same ancient root.

[Picture: Family Dinner, woodcut by Max-Karl Winkler, from a Cookie Recipe book, 1977 (Image from DCimPRINT).]

November 26, 2013

A Harvest of Woodcuts

        Thanksgiving is always billed as a harvest festival, although I must say there’s never a lot of harvesting going on in my garden after the first hard frost.  Still, in thankful honor of the feast of “harvest home,” I’ve found a selection of wood block prints showing different views of harvest.
        Chronological being as a good an order as any other, this first is the oldest, showing the traditional aspect of harvest - that everyone joins in to get the job done.  Old and young, men and women, all have to pitch in and work together to bring in the crops when they’re ready, and then everyone’s ready to celebrate together, too, when the work is done.  In this woodcut it looks as if the strong men do the reaping, while the women and children gather it into sheaves, and, apparently, the old men get to stand around
telling them how to do it right!  The dog and the sun get to look on, too.  I like the sweep of the line of tall grain, and the perspective of the smaller figures and trees in the background.
        Wharton Esherick’s early twentieth-century harvesters, by contrast, are clearly professional, well-trained workers, not a random village-worth of able bodies.  Esherick has depicted them with such drilled geometry that the image looks almost abstract.  His woodcut is not a portrait of people but a study in large sweeps of shape and contrasting details of texture.
        For a completely different take on harvest, my next focusses on the delight of individuals.  These two girls are actually enjoying the harvest of spring, not autumn - perhaps the first blooms after winter - but I think their air of festivity is very fitting for this week.  They look genuinely thankful for their simple bounty, and overflowing with gratitude for their ability to share the moment of abundance together.
        Around here things definitely look most like the last of these woodcuts, brown and sere (although we don’t yet have that dusting of snow to collect between the rows).  Still, the fields are large and an ear still hangs on the stalk, indicating that the harvest was not meager.  It’s interesting that this reduction print, the only one of today’s selections featuring color, yet manages to look austere.
        I often think that the enforced simplicity of relief block prints can serve to draw attention to something so that I look more closely, stop taking it for granted, and give thanks.  If you’re celebrating Thanksgiving this week (or really, even if you aren’t!) I hope you have an opportunity to count your blessings and enjoy what bounty you have.

[Pictures: A Harvest Scene, wood block print from The… Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed, 1577 (Image from Windows on Warwickshire);
Harvesting, wood block print by Wharton Esherick, 1927 (Image from;
Spring Harvest 1969, woodcut by Els Noordhof(f), 1969 (Image from invaluable);
Remnants of the Harvest, reduction woodcut by Emily Gray Koehler, 2011 (Image from her Etsy shop studioegk).]

November 22, 2013

Bait-and-Switch Books

        This post is an odd sort of book review, because it’s about three series of which I’ve read only one.  These books represent one series each for me, my son P, and my daughter T, and they’re each a series that we loved… until we didn’t.
        I’ll start with my own series, because it’s the easiest to deal with.  The Hitchhiker’s Guide “Trilogy” by Douglas Adams is one of my favorites.  Particularly in high school and college I read it many times, shared it with friends, knew it practically by heart, and quoted it constantly.  By way of making this more of a review I’ll add that, in the spirit of P.G. Wodehouse, most of the fun is the combination of ridiculous situations and brilliant turns of phrase.  The humor is often a bit dark and cynical, but always, well, humorous.  Until the fifth book, published eight years after the fourth, when suddenly everything stops being funny and concentrates on being dark, cynical, and depressing.  I dislike that book, Mostly Harmless, for a number of reasons, but my point today is two of those reasons in particular.  The first is that it renders all the previous story, which I had so much enjoyed, essentially pointless, and the second is that I consider it something of a betrayal by the author.  More on both those points later, after my other examples.  As for The Hitchhiker’s Guide, I retain my love of the series by the simple expedient of pretending that the fifth book doesn’t exist.  I’ve never reread it, it isn’t on my bookshelf, and as far as I’m concerned it was never written!  (A sixth book was recently written for the series by Eoin Colfer, but I haven’t read it.  I’m too afraid.)
        Next up is T’s contribution to this topic, The Hunger Games trilogy.  Neither dystopias nor graphically violent gladiatorial combat are up my alley at all, so I let D and T read this trilogy without me, and this “review” comes therefore from their reports.  T loved the first book and D agreed that it was very good.  T plunged into the subsequent books with zeal, read like crazy, and emerged at the end of the third much disappointed.  Now, I can’t guess what was going on in author Suzanne Collins’s head - Did she imagine the first book as a stand-alone and then find herself unable to resist her publisher’s urging to spin out its success?  Did she plan the depressing ending right from the start on the theory that darkness and dysfunctionality  are the sure sign of Serious Literature?  Did she honestly think that readers
would find that ending Right and Satisfying?  I don’t know, but I do know that both D and T found the ending very disappointing, and while T rates The Hunger Games among her favorite books,  Catching Fire and Mockingjay don’t even make the list.  Why is this a betrayal by the author?  Think about it this way - if you’re a company that has built up a huge and loyal following of customers who love your uniquely comfortable sweatpants, then reinventing yourself as a company that sells fashionably constraining evening wear instead is probably not going to please that loyal fan base.  If readers loved The Hunger Games because Katniss was strong, brave, resourceful and overcame the odds, then giving those readers a sequel in which she ends up sick, unstable, and unable to cope with her failures is nothing more than a bait-and-switch.  (It would be equally wrong for the author of a deep, heart-felt, touching tragedy to follow up with a frivolous farce in which it turned out that the first book was all a big joke.)
        Finally, P’s series, starting with Tunnels by Brian Williams and Roderick Gordon.  He loved the series, devouring all the books and then waiting extremely impatiently for the release of the final book, Terminal, which just came out at the end of October.  Well, apparently the very end of the last book (Spoiler Alert) is the surprise twist that Our Hero turns into a Bad Guy.  Psych!  P says, “The series was one of my favorites.  Every book was a ten, and then the last one was a two.  It would be even lower, except that you could kind of ignore the final chapter.”
        Yes, authors should try new things and not merely stick to a successful formula, but if they want to go a radically different direction they should start a new story with new characters, not switch horses mid-stream.  Authors and readers build a relationship through the shared story, and authors, however much they may be entitled to write whatever they please, have a responsibility to that relationship, as to any other.  You don’t win fans with one thing and then snatch it away from them to smack them with something else - especially something that’s not merely different but which makes a lie of everything that they loved in the first place.  That’s betrayal.

[Pictures: Letterpress wood type 42 (From PreserveCottage);
Letterpress metal type question marks (From ReminiscencePapers).]

November 19, 2013


        Last week T performed in a cello recital.  (She played the waltz from Tchaikowsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” and did a great job.  I’m so proud!)  So this seemed like a perfect time to share a block print of a cellist playing a recital.
        This piece by Paul Beaver Arnold (USA 1918-2012) is at the Cleveland Museum of Art, but they don’t give any extra information about it.  For example, how many blocks went into it - as many as 4 perhaps, for the 4 colors?  Or maybe two blocks, one inked with black, and the other inked with all the the other colors?  Or perhaps it was a reduction print using only one block in multiple stages?  I don’t know for sure, but the fact that the black end of the piano sticks slightly beyond the brown background on the right edge without appearing at all offset at the edge of the cellist’s sleeve leads me to guess that black and brown, at least, are separate blocks.
        I think it’s cool how all the black is one lump, without outlines between the edges of black clothing, black music stand, black piano, black chairs.  I can’t seem to do that.  I always feel the need to put in outlines.  Also, the cello has no strings.  It probably makes sense visually, since they wouldn’t be bright white or sharp black or particularly conspicuous at all.  Still, I would have felt the need to put them in.
        One artist said of Arnold, “His work shows terrific observation of life’s complexity yet he manages to reduce it to a compelling simplicity.”  I think that’s one of the things that block printing does so wonderfully well.

[Picture: Recital, color woodcut by Paul Beaver Arnold, 1994 (Image from Cleveland Museum of Art).]
(Quotation from John Pearson as cited in Arnold obituary by Grant Segall,

November 15, 2013

How to Know that Jim Hates Spiders

        Yesterday I visited a group of fourth graders to talk to them about writing well-rounded characters.  One of the big points I try to make is the ever-popular “show, don’t tell” - that they need to let their readers get to know the characters in their stories the way you get to know real people in real life.  For this point I start by introducing myself to the kids.
I say, “We’re just meeting each other now.  What would you think if I introduced myself like this:  Hello; I’m 43 years old, and my favorite colors are yellow, green, and red; I don’t really like cooking but I do like to bake; I play the cello but I’m kind of out of practice; I don’t like scary or violent movies; I have two parents, two brothers, two children, a husband, and a cat; I’m a bit shy; I’m 5 feet 4 inches tall and I never wear high heels; and I love potato soup, big words, and daffodils.  It’s nice to meet you!”
        That always makes them laugh.  That would be pretty weird, they agree.  But that’s what it’s like if they start their stories with a big lump of telling the reader all about their character.  I go on to say, “When you meet someone in real life, that’s not how you learn what kind of person they are, is it?  So, how do you get to know a person in real life?”  Together we come up with ideas… What they look like, What they say, What they do, What other people say about them…  And it all happens over time, not all at once.  I read an excerpt from one of my books and ask them what they know about the characters from that passage.  I point out that I never actually told them that Sam likes to do research or that Kate sticks up for her friends, but they figure it out for themselves because I showed them the children doing it.
        Then I give them an example to try themselves.  In the story you’re writing, your character is going to have to pick up a tarantula.  What can you do instead of waiting until he sees the tarantula then telling the reader, “Ever since he was little, he’d always really hated spiders”?  The kids are full of good ideas: have him scream when he sees it, or describe how his hand is shaking, or say he feels knots in his stomach, or have another character say something about it, or…  Those are all great ideas, but I keep pushing them, and eventually one of those kids will realize - You don’t have to wait until he sees the tarantula and then tell the reader.  You can find an opportunity to show the reader earlier in the story so that by the time the tarantula incident comes along the reader already knows how scary and hard this is going to be for our character.  Then the kids get really excited, because this opens up all sorts of new possibilities.  At some point in the story our character could refuse to go into the basement because there are too many spiders there!  He could find a spider in his bed and freak out!  He could ask a friend to get rid of a spider for him because he doesn’t want to touch it!
        It’s a lot of fun, and I hope the children will remember some of this and start to view their characters as people instead of puppets, and their writing as an interesting puzzle and an exciting adventure instead of a dull, compulsory chore.

[Pictures: L’étranger (The Stranger), woodcut by Félix Vallotton, 1894 (Image from Art Tattler);
Little Miss Muffet, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002.]

November 12, 2013

Bronze Dancer

        It must have been some 25 years ago that I saw an exhibit of ancient Greek and Roman miniature bronzes.  There were assorted gods and warriors, athletes, politicians, and satyrs, and there was an elaborately dressed Hellenistic dancer only 8.5 inches tall.  I fell in love.  Around 17 years ago I encountered the dancer again, this time in a book about art forgery.  The author (whose name I couldn’t determine in a quick search today) claimed this little bronze dancer was a renaissance forgery.  His argument was that forgeries reveal themselves after a certain amount of time, when their ideals of beauty can be seen to conform to the styles of the period in which they were made.  Certainly my dancer’s dress looks to my amateur eye more renaissance than classical, although I’m no expert on ancient Alexandrine dance costumes.  (It’s undoubtedly these charges that account for the Metropolitan Museum of
Art’s wording in their description of the bronze: that she’s been “convincingly identified.”)  But I don’t really care when she was made or by whom.  The artist, whether Greek or Italian, whether 3rd century BCE or 16th century CE, has created a masterpiece of incredible beauty.  Its value to me is exactly the same either way.
        I had sketched the statuette at some point, and in looking through some folders of old sketches it occurred to me that all those folds and draperies might make an interesting subject for transformation to black and white - in other words, for a block print.  So I used my drawing as the design for another block to carve a week ago at Roslindale Open Studios.  I’m fairly pleased with how it came out.  It does, of course, raise that age-old thorny issue of originality.  I
don’t want to rehash what I’ve already said about this issue (visit this post for my primary discussion).  But it once again raises all those questions: Is this copying?  Have I made something sufficiently new and different?  Is this work truly mine?  What makes anything original when all art, all human endeavor, is influenced by what came before?
        I certainly won’t solve those problems, and there will always be differences of opinion and interpretation, not to mention legal issues of copyright, etc.  All I can say is that I saw something beautiful and wanted to make a piece of art to celebrate it.  Here it is.

[Pictures: Bronze Dancer, rubber block print by AEGN, 2013;
Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer, anonymous, 3rd-2nd century BCE Greek (Images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art).]

November 8, 2013


        A little while ago my radio station of choice played music from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya.”  Invisible city?  That sounded interesting, so I looked it up and discovered the legend of Kitezh.  The basic facts seem to be these: In the thirteenth century the Mongol Horde advanced upon Little Kitezh, conquering and pillaging it and forcing the survivors to flee to Big Kitezh on the shore of Lake Svetloyar.  The Mongols forced a prisoner to betray the path to Kitezh, and when the Horde reached the lake shore they saw the city apparently undefended.  The citizens were simply praying.  When the Mongols rushed to attack, however, fountains miraculously burst up around Kitezh and the city sank into the lake.  The last thing to disappear was the dome of the cathedral with its cross, and to this day you can sometimes hear the ringing of the bells from beneath the water…
        Kitezh is apparently sometimes called “the Russian Atlantis,” but that’s an ignorant comparison as Atlantis was sunken and destroyed in punishment, while Kitezh was sunken and preserved in reward for piety.  The two legends give very different messages and serve very different roles.
        In Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera the city, rather than sinking, is surrounded by a golden mist that makes it invisible to the Mongols.  Also, this occurs in answer to the specific prayers of the wise nature maiden Fevroniya, rather than the populace at large.  And it’s an opera, so everyone dies, but it's okay because they all go to Heaven.  Yeah, operas are silly.  But wonderful.
        Anyway, the legend of Kitezh was new to me, and it’s always a pleasure to add new territory to my map of the fantasy universe.  It was also fun to discover this territory through beautiful music.  Not only was the legend new, but I don’t think I’d ever heard Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece before, either.  If you’d like to hear it, try this by the Prague Symphony Orchestra.  Enjoy!
        (My A-to-Z post on Kitezh, with lots of pretty pictures, here.)

[Pictures: Invisible Kitezh, stage-set design by Victor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov, 1907 (Image from;
Kitezh Transformed, stage-set design by Ivan Bilibin, 1929 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

November 5, 2013

M is for Sirrush

        If you’ve been following this blog long, you know that I love alphabets and I love imaginary animals.  (To get an idea how much, click the links for “ABC” and “mythical creatures” under the Labels in the side bar!)  So it will come as no surprise that the possibility of an alphabet of mythical animals has crossed my mind.  Repeatedly.  It’s actually pretty unlikely that I’ll ever finish such a collection, but in the past few weeks while searching for ideas for blocks to carve at all my shows, I looked to my list of creatures for inspiration.  And on Saturday I carved this marvelous monster.
        This beast hails from Babylon, where it can be seen on the famous Ishtar Gate, among many places.  It’s often called a sirrush, but it turns out that that word derives from a mistransliteration of the Sumerian, and the proper word is mushussu.  (Mushussu ought to have assorted marks over the s’s and under the h so that its pronunciation would be something like mush-choo-shu-shoo, but I can’t make my computer do it.)  On the Ishtar Gate the beast stands regal, stately, and stiff, but I didn’t want to simply copy an image that the Babylonian artists had already made.  I wanted to imagine this animal as less heraldic and more alive.  And I thought that his big, round eye made him look, unlike most monsters who guard kingly gates, rather happy and almost puppyish.  So I decided to show my mushussu playfully chasing his own tail.  After all, everyone needs a break from standing at attention through the millenia.
        As for this particular species, some cryptozoologists suggest that it is (or was) in fact a real animal.  Their arguments are based primarily on two facts.  Firstly, the other two animals depicted on the the Ishtar gate, the lion and the aurochs, were real.  Moreover, they’re portrayed very realistically, not stylized as if they were meant to be merely symbolic.  Secondly, the depiction of the mushussu, like that of the lions and other real animals, stayed consistent over centuries, while the Babylonian/Sumerian depictions of frankly mythological creatures changed over time.  Cryptozoologists have therefore proposed a number of candidates for the real animal the Babylonians were dealing with.  These include the ornithopod iguanadon and the sauropod mokele-mbembe, a giant monitor lizard, and the sivatherium, an extinct giraffid like a large okapi.
        Alas, dearly as I’d love to believe that the world really has (or had) mushussus roaming its Mesopotamian landscapes, there’s a serious lack of logic in these claims.  After all, if your evidence that the creature is real is based on the exactitude of its depiction, then you can’t turn around and claim that it’s some sort of animal that looks only vaguely like those same detailed depictions.  No, if the mushussu were to be real, it would really have to be a creature with a snakelike head, feline front paws, avian back talons, and scales.  It would really have to have long, lean proportions, a thin, lithe neck, horns both straight and curled, and a tail that’s skinny its entire length.  So far we know of no other animal that’s ever lived on Earth that combines these traits.  But if we ever do discover actual evidence of such a beast, I will most certainly bake a cake and join the celebration!

[Pictures: Mushussu, rubber block print by AEGN, 2013 (sold out);
Ishtar Gate (reconstruction), Babylon, 6th century BCE (Image from Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).]

November 1, 2013

Sea Creatures

        I’m a little busy right now - I spent the morning hanging a show at the Dover library, and I’ll spend the rest of the day finishing up preparations for Roslindale Open Studios this weekend (see below).  I still need to frame a few things, plan the hanging arrangement, make a carrying box for posters, cut business cards (I print up my own), possibly design a second block to carve, and, with whatever time remains, make up additional packets of note cards.  Not to mention that I’ll have to pick up P after ultimate frisbee and come up with something to feed myself and my family!  So no, I’m not going to write up some long, thoughtful blog post today.  What I do have for you, however, is just one most excellent block print.
        This woodcut shows St Brendan afloat upon the deep, over an impressive density of magnificent sea life.  As you probably know, Brendan was a sixth century Irish explorer who may have been the first European to reach North America and whose travel accounts, fantastical episodes included, certainly influenced later European explorers.  This piece illustrates an episode when sea creatures gathered to hear St Brendan’s celebration of the Mass.  Brendan’s fellow monks were afraid of the monsters, but Brendan just spoke louder so that they could hear better, whereupon they danced joyously all around the boat.
        The artist, Robert Gibbings (Ireland, 1889-1958) was one of the founders of the Society of Wood Engravers, and illustrated and published many books.  This piece was an illustration for a book called Beasts and Saints by Helen Waddell.  I love the enormous swoop and swirl of the fish, and the tiny little men on the surface of the water, aware of the creatures in the water, but surely unaware of the sheer depth and immensity of life below them.

[Picture: St Brendan and the Sea Monsters, woodcut by Robert Gibbings, 1934 (Image from Christchurch Art Gallery.)]


Tomorrow and Sunday I’ll be at Roslindale Open Studios, among a huge variety of artists.  If you’re in the greater Boston area, be sure to come out and explore.  (And get some unique, handmade, local holiday gifts while you have this splendid opportunity.)

October 29, 2013

Words of the Month - Time for Etymology

        Time may march on inexorably, but the words we use to talk about it can be surprisingly unsteady.  Here’s a little background on a few of our more interesting words for time.

hour - The Proto-Indo-European root for year came down through the Germanic branch of the family to become our word year.  But in the Greek to Latin to French branch it shifted meaning and ultimately became our word hour.  Slight difference!  An hour was a variable period of time for centuries, and even when it was first applied to the twelfth part of a day (sunrise to sunset), it wasn’t a fixed amount of time, because the amount of daylight sunrise to sunset wasn’t a fixed amount of time.  Fixed-length hours were invented in the fourth century, but right up until the sixteenth century people sometimes referred to “temporary hours,” meaning the division of the day that changed with the seasons.

morning - Morning got its -ing from hanging around too much with evening.  The original word was simply morn, which was a contraction of Middle English morwen.  Also, it originally referred more specifically to dawn, whereas now it can stretch from midnight to noon.

noon - Noon used to come at about 3pm, and derives from Latin for the number nine.  In Old English non meant “the ninth hour,” and the ninth canonical hour fell at 3:00 in the afternoon.  (Except it wasn’t after noon then!)  The shift in meaning happened over the twelfth to fourteenth centuries when the time of church prayers shifted, and/or the time of the midday meal shifted.

October - October is another word that came loose from its etymological moorings.  As most people recognize, its Latin root means the number eight.  That’s because it was the eighth month in the old Roman calendar, which began in March.  (You can still see the seven in September, the nine in November, and the ten in December, too.)  The switch to the Julian calendar in 46-5BCE moved the start of the new year back two months, leaving the month names looking a little silly.

season - Originally meaning “the act of sowing,” the word shifted to name the time of sowing, i.e. spring, and then eventually spread to the other periods of the year.

        Where I am we’ll be resetting our clocks to “fall back” this coming Sunday, and as the time changes, I’ll be thinking about how our language does, too.

[Pictures: Astronomical clock in Uppsala Cathedral, wood block print from History of the Nordic Peoples by Olaus Magnus, 1555 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
October, woodcut pictures and metalcut text (?) by Jean Perreal, from a Book of Hours by the printer Simon Vostre, 1513 (Image from Griffon’s).]

This weekend I'll be at Roslindale Open Studios, the biggest show I do each year.  Come out and see a huge variety of art!