May 31, 2013

Words of the Month - People and Persons Unknown

        As I child I never thought too much about why the plural of person is people.  It was just one of those quirky English things, like geese, or children.  Then I started hearing the word persons, and thought how pretentious and silly it sounded.  But an etymological search reveals a funny thing: person and people are etymologically totally unrelated.  I can't think of any other English word in which the singular and plural forms are actually not the same word at all.  Can you?
        Let's start with people.  The Latin word for humans in general was populus, from which we get popular, populate, and populationPublic, republic, and publish are also related, coming to us from another Latin form of the word.  We get the form people from alterations the Latin word experienced while coming to us by way of French.
        As for person, our word comes ultimately from the Latin word for an actor's mask, with the roots meaning "sound through," because of the way the actor spoke through the mouth hole.  Yep, it gives new meaning to the idea that we're all just actors wearing masks in the face of the world!  We also have the word persona, which is closer to that original idea, but which wasn't introduced until the twentieth century.  The same Latin (and possibly Etruscan) root gave us parson, and, more obviously, personality.
        Technically, going by the roots, people would be the correct plural for a group of humans when the emphasis is on the group, while persons would be the plural for a collection of specific individuals.  And some people do try to make this distinction in their rules on usage.  But in my experience people is simply the normal, everyday plural in any situation, while persons is the plural used in legal and official contexts.
        So that's taken care of - but if you think English's variety of person words ends there… oh no.  Of course not.  Just to round out our look at words for people, Latin had other words for humans.  The word meaning "being of earth" (as distinct from the gods) was humanus, from which (by way of Old French) we get human and such related words as humane and humanity.  The Latin word denoting the common people was plebs.  From this root we get, naturally, plebeian.  This may be related to the Greek word pléthos, meaning "multitude," from which derives our plethora.  And ancient Greek had another word for the people living in a particular district: demos.  When they participate in government we get a democracy, hopefully of the people, by the people, for the people.

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

May 28, 2013

Brown's Birds

        I've been enjoying my local birds this spring, especially the chickadees that are nesting in the little birdhouse I put up under the eave of the front porch.  I've also been enjoying the comments of the song sparrows who must be nesting somewhere very near my studio window and are always perched nearby, making their presence know.  Then yesterday I noticed two new birds, a lovely little yellow-breasted warbler in the bushes (Nashville warbler, I think), and a sudden swoop of barn swallows skimming past my window.  That made me think of the series of lovely wood engravings by Peter Brown.
        Peter Brown has been illustrating British birds for about fifteen years, in meticulous little wood engravings.  I like them very much and thought today would be a good day to share them with you, starting, of course, with the swallow.  Swallows embody the joy of flight the way dolphins swim.  They have such a magnificent combination of power and effortlessness, and Brown's swallow captures the wonderful curve of the swoosh.
        This little warbler is shaded all with long lines and I really admire how Brown has shown the dark and light areas with differing widths of black and white.  He's made the warbler look sleek while still giving it a pattern.  I love the tangle of leaves, too.  If you look closely you can see that the smaller sprigs in the background have been pressed with less pressure than the bird and foreground so that they are a little greyer and less distinct.  This keeps the focus on the bird.
        And for a third example I've picked this hobby, a small falcon we don't get in the Americas.  Brown's bird is eyeing the dragonflies hungrily.  I like the way the background has been suggested without outlines, but simply with areas of
different amounts of criss-crossing texture.  (I think of it as criss-crossed texture because that's the pattern that was carved.  In fact the black texture is more like a pattern of small squares or rectangles.  It's the white that makes the lines.)  I also really like the pattern on the falcon's wings and body, and I like the composition with the grass and dragonfly in the foreground.
        What birds do you enjoy where you are, and how would you capture their special qualities in art?

[Pictures: Swallow, wood engraving by Peter Brown;
Garden Warbler, wood engraving by P. Brown;
Hobby, wood engraving by P. Brown (All images from Little Brown Birds).]

May 24, 2013

Secret Doors

        Oh how I love secret doors.  It does occur to me how vital they are for sneaking from the conservatory to the lounge with your brass candlestick and lead pipe, and unfortunately crime just naturally goes with secret doors.  The sad truth seems to be that most secret rooms you hear about in real life are more creepy or depressing than cool.  After all, given that I never murder or torture anyone, I'm not a paranoid dictator, and I have yet to
amass a collection of stolen art masterpieces, what use do I really have for secret doors to secret vaults?  But nevertheless, the thought of secret doors is so very much more alluring than the dark reality.  They're essential in the fantasy genre, too, where they're generally less awful and more awesome.  Fantasy worlds from Narnia to Droon are discovered through secret doors.  (As for sci-fi, what is a worm hole, really, but a secret passageway?)  Without secret
doors how would Bilbo burgle Smaug's lair or Harry Potter reach Diagon Alley or Platform 9 3/4… or any number of other locations in the wizarding world?  How would Princess Celie save the day in Tuesdays at the Castle?  Even Alice's rabbit hole is a secret door of a sort.  Think of all the magic and adventure made possible by secret doors.  Now, don't you long for one of your own?  I know I do!  So I've collected a few possibilities.
        Several companies specialize in secret doors, including the hidden walk-through, the trap-door, the trick fireplace, and the slick opening staircase.  Doors can be disguised in panelled walls, or in brick or stone, behind appliances or grandfather clocks, or, of course, the ever-popular bookcase (hinged, sliding, or revolving).  I admit, the classic bookcase door is my all-time favorite and the one I'd most love to have in my house.  At the top is a classic example from the Admont Abbey Library, built in 1776 in Austria.  This one scores extra points for concealing a twisty staircase, but loses points for
being a mere facade instead of a real bookcase that holds real books.  So here's another gorgeous one, from another eighteenth century Austrian monastery.  Clearly secret bookcase doors were all the rage in eighteenth century Austrian monastic architecture.  Good times.  Please excuse me while I wipe up my drool.
        Now the problem is just to think of where I can put a secret door, and where it can lead…  Alas, my house's staircases are nested atop each other like the stairs in most houses, my walls are less than a foot thick, my attic and basement are already accessible by prosaically unsecret doors.  Sigh…  Maybe some day when money is no object and I build my magical library/cabinet of curiosities with the spiral staircase I'll be able to fit in a secret door somewhere… or maybe a couple… with a secret passageway between them…  Yes, I like the sound of that...
        But before I sink down completely into my happy reverie…  I don't have space here for all the cool stuff I spent my morning discovering, but here are a few links to some additional secret-entry-related coolness.  Check them out:
                Secret garage
                Secret subway access
                Secret basement

[Pictures:  Admont Abbey library door (Image from The Olympia Press);
Stone wall door;
Stairway door, (Images from Creative Home Engineering);
Fireplace door from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989);
St Florian library door (Image from dcuartielles);
Bookcase door, (Image from Creative Home Engineering).]

May 21, 2013

Rabel's "Teacher"

        Here's a beautiful woodcut by Fanny Rabel (born Fanny Rabinovich, 1922-2008).  By way of biography, Rabel was an assistant to Diego Rivera, and a student and friend of Frida Kahlo.
        I'd love to be able to see a bigger, more detailed view of this piece, but it looks to me like Rabel's made lots of use of a multiple line tool, a blade with a number of closely spaced points so that it cuts several parallel lines at once.  Normally used for engraving metal plates, not cutting wood blocks, these tools produce the precise shading and cross-hatching so characteristic of nineteenth-century engravings.  However, here Rabel has used it loosely, scratchily, to produce highlights much softer than you usually see in a woodcut.  I like the texture it gives the woman's hair and the softness it gives her face.  It also gives a look of delicacy to the lace of her dress.  But I like that Rabel has also used some bolder cuts with a regular gouge.  The contrast makes her solid whites really glow.
        I don't know whether this is a portrait of a particular real woman or not, but she looks kind, patient, determined, a little sad…  Her hands hold her book so tenderly, almost reverently, that I imagine she's had to work hard for her own learning and sees education as a true blessing that she can bestow on her students. 

[Picture: Teacher, woodcut by Fanny Rabel, 1953 (Image from the Cleveland Museum of Art).]

May 17, 2013

"The Secret of Kells"

        Back in March our family watched "The Secret of Kells," an animated movie that came out in 2009 but which I'd only heard of in 2011, and didn't get around to watching until now.  We're a little behind the times, I guess.  At any rate, we enjoyed it, and found it refreshingly different from some of the more typical commercial animated movies.
        The plot is the story of how Brendan, a young boy at the Abbey of Kells, helps an older illuminator complete the Book of Kells, under the threat of Viking attacks, a dark pagan god, and the overprotective wrath of his uncle the abbot.  It certainly falls under the category of fantasy, with the involvement not only of the aforementioned god Crom Cruach, but also a magical forest spirit named Aisling.  But it could also be called a fantasia on the theme of Celtic illumination.
        The most noteworthy aspect of the movie is its visual style.  Heavily influenced by eighth century Celtic art, the scenes include design elements not only from the incredible illuminated pages of the Book of Kells, but also from other Celtic sources
such as the Insular style Ardagh Chalice and the La Téne style carved Turoe stone.  Notice, for example, the interlacing of the branches in the forest and how the snowflakes are all little Celtic knots.  Backgrounds include patterns of swirling spirals and interlacing, characters are heavily stylized, and the entire layout is drawn in a flat, perpective-less style.  I think there were times when it was too heavily stylized, especially for the kids, so that it was actually a little difficult to tell what we were looking at.  Also, the Vikings were rendered as such simple, stylized shapes that we called them yaks instead of Vikings!  But there's no doubt that the whole thing is a visual delight, immersive and beautiful to look at.  Indeed, one of the high points of the entire movie comes at the very end when the designs from actual pages from the Book of Kells are shown coming to life and moving.
        Having lived in Ireland for a year as a child, I've retained a particular interest in Irish history and culture, and my parents and I enjoyed the movie even more because of our recognition of certain elements.  For example, remembering our visits to real round towers with their doors built high up in the walls for protection brought an anchor of reality to a story that must seem wholly dream-like to P and T.  Plus, it's always fun to listen to the Irish accents for an hour.
        Because this is a relatively short movie (75 minutes) and because it's so stylized instead of photo-realistic, it should be okay for children of 8, but it's not without some pretty tense moments.  Also, between the accents and the sometimes surreal storytelling, younger children might not get much out of it.  It's probably more enjoyable for 10 and up, and may be one of those things that adults are actually going to like better than children.  P and T enjoyed it, but my parents enjoyed it even more!  I definitely recommend it for anyone with an interest in Irish history, art, and mythology.
        (You can see the official trailer here.)

[Pictures: Brendan and Aisling in the forest;
Abbot Cellach in front of the round tower;
Brendan and Aidan of Iona in the scriptorium, stills from "The Secret of Kells," art director Ross Stewart (images from]

May 14, 2013

The Future of Albert Robida

        Today is the birthday of French sci-fi author and illustrator Albert Robida (1848-1926).  His novels about life in the twentieth century (written between 1883-1890) have apparently provided modern readers that irresistible combination of prescience and absurdity that we do so love in predictions.  But I've never read any of his works, so I won't just repeat the gossip.  If you're interested you can look up his work elsewhere.  What I do want to share today are a couple of examples of his illustrations, which are a lot of fun.  It's true they aren't block prints, but I forgive them.
        First up, a wonderfully atmospheric view of modern skies.  It looks like a Victorian "Blade Runner."  It's got the dark skyscrapers, the police floodlights, and the myriad flying vehicles of Coruscant, "The Fifth Element," and probably dozens of other sci-fi cities.  But it's also got the charming whimsey of fish-shaped vehicles and an elegantly respectable couple who have not forgotten their umbrella.  Unlike the airships in most sci-fi movies these are no speeders.  They look quite leisurely.
        Second is another view of twentieth-century skies over Paris.  This depicts people leaving the opera in all their finery.  These vehicles look a little faster, but you can still see a variety of types, from the policemen's scooters to the large bus or limo being loaded in the foreground.  I particularly like the styles of the nosecones with their different shapes and designs.  Some look more like fish and others more like birds, but they all have a distinct vibe of Northwest Pacific Coast art, which is unexpected but very cool.
        Finally, here's a modern house: an "aerial rotating house," to be specific.  It's not entirely clear to me why us modern types would want our houses to rotate, although I guess it would allow you to determine which rooms got the sunlight or the best view.  You can see the man turning the crank to spin the house, so it doesn't appear to be electric, which might be one of the first things this family should upgrade.  Also, the elevator is probably pretty unpleasant in bad weather.  However it's clearly a delightful house on the whole, with a large and busy family in residence.  I especially like the weathervane and the rooster-head ornament on the gable, and I'm pleased to see that they're growing plenty of plants up there.
        So the twentieth century came and went without personal flying vehicles, and as long as people are going to insist on talking on their cell phones while driving, that's really just as well.  But it's certainly fun to imagine.

[Pictures: Illustration by Albert Robida from Le Vingtieme Siecle, 1883 (Image from docarelle);
La Sortie de l'opéra en l'an 2000, illustration by A. Robida, c 1882;
Maison tournante aérienne, ink over graphite by A. Robida, c 1883 (Images from Wikimedia Commons).]

May 10, 2013

Autumn Clematis in Springtime

        Outside on my side fence my clematis vines are once again shooting up.  While they're still getting started I have to go out and train them along the fence where I want them to go, and their leaves are still tiny, delicate tendrils.  But inside, the autumn clematis is in full bloom in the block print I finished yesterday.
        This is another door.  Although the impetus for it came from my book in progress, I always figure there's no point going through the whole process of carving an actual block, and printing actual copies unless an image will be attractive in its own right, independent of its role as an illustration.  In my story this door will open a portal to the Cleveland Heights house of a wizard named Tobal Salceda, the owner of one copy of The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  As one of the other characters observes of the image, "This doorway doesn't look particularly evil, actually," and that was what I wanted to show: an ordinary doorway, a pretty doorway, a welcoming, attractive doorway.  And I wanted it to stand alone as a piece of art even for those people who never hear of Tobal Salceda and The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  (As if any such benighted people will exist once my story is finished.  Ha ha.)
        In my goal of making more Dog Art I first planned to feature an elderly dog snoozing on the front step.  But I felt that the right kind of dog for that would be too big in the picture and become a focus instead of a detail.  So I fell back on yet another
cat.  So much for branching out. 
        I did have fun carving each individual autumn clematis flower, bunching them closer and closer until I had carved out everything at the center of the froth of white.  I had a little more trouble with the leaves, trying to balance a mass of dark with the need for texture and detail.
        Now that the big spring show is over, perhaps I'll be able to focus a little more on the writing again.  Although I do have several more ideas for block prints rattling around in my head, too…

[Picture: Autumn Clematis Door, rubber block print by AEGN, 2013;
carved block, photo by AEGN.]

May 7, 2013

Birdsall's Cheetah

        This last weekend was an Open Studio, but I have nothing in particular to report.  The block I was carving isn't finished yet.  (Is that a good sign?  It implies I was too busy talking with people to get as much carving done.)  I'm still getting the bookkeeping finished and all the Stuff stowed back away, not to mention the need to catch up on the housework that didn't get done for the weekend… or indeed for the entire week before.  So that means today is a good day to share a piece I've been saving up for a day when I didn't have much time.
        This is a wood block print my parents have in their house.  It was a part of my landscape growing up and I've always loved it.  Is it pieces like this that planted the seeds of block printing in me?  Who knows.  At any rate, I admired it as a child and I still admire it now.
        The artist is Byron Birdsall, currently working in Alaska and Washington state.  I couldn't find much biographical information on him, and his current work is all watercolors and full-color prints that, I'm very sorry to say, do absolutely nothing for me.  So that just means that this cheetah can be left to speak for itself.
        I like all the speckles hanging around the dirt and sparse grass of the background.  They make the scene look dry, with a suggestion of bugs.  I like the abstract pattern in the upper left.  I've no idea exactly what that is - cloud, or brush, or what - but I don't need to know.  It looks just right without being as representational as the cheetah, which is the sort of boldness I've never been able to manage.  I like the low hills far away on a horizon that clearly show the vastness of these plains.  But most of all I love the cheetah: the alertness of its head combined with the relaxation of its body - the kind of relaxation possible only for a creature who goes full-out at 60mph when not relaxing.  The forelimbs are so delicate, the eyes so calm, and the hindquarters so powerful that the portrait really captures the essence of cheetah.
        As for the printing, the black is wonderfully rich and velvety, although obviously this photo doesn't do it justice.  In fact, whatever ink Birdsall used is so very rich that it's actually starting to react a little bit with the paper.  Unfortunately it must have some acid to it or something.  And that's just one more reminder that art, like the cheetah in the wild, has that strange, seemingly contradictory combination of power and fragility.

[Picture:  Cheetah, wood block print by Byron Birdsall (some time in the 1960's?).  (Photo by MJPG.)  More of Birdsall's work can be viewed here.]

May 3, 2013

Reading Alice Aloud

        Tomorrow is Alice's birthday, and the last read-aloud we completed was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, so this is clearly the time to post our reactions.  I don't remember how old I was when I first read Alice, and I've read it so many times as a high-schooler or older that my adult response has completely overlaid whatever reaction I might have had when I was younger.  I love the book, but I love it for its funny moments and clever quotations rather than for the plot or characters as such.  That's a distinction that was significant for P and T.  As I read, they laughed at the absurdity, enjoyed the poems and the convolutions of logic, and were entertained by the strange and original characters… but they did not find the story satisfying.
        First of all, they didn't like Alice.  They thought her rude and unsympathetic, and indeed when you think about it, she is self-centered, often short-tempered, and often unappealingly eager to make herself look smart.  (After all, the book is set on her birthday and she's only just turned seven!)  And they simply could not forgive her gratuitous unkindness to the poor, inoffensive lizard Bill.
        As for the plot, there really isn't any arc to it.  It's so episodic and so random that things don't really build up and there seems to be little cause and effect.  Then when the denouement arrives that the entire thing had been a dream -- well, that was the lamest thing ever!  And I really have to agree with them on that.  I don't know whether Carroll was the first to play the "It was all just a dream" card, in which case perhaps it seemed clever at the time.  But to us it just seems like a pathetic cop-out.  When I suggested we could read Through the Looking Glass next, P and T declined.
        Yes, I'm a bit disappointed that they weren't as enthusiastic about Alice in Wonderland as I am, but I have to admit that when I look at it through their point of view, I can't blame them.  My primary source of fantasy as a child was fairy tales, a genre that's full of stock cardboard characters, episodic plots, and people behaving in ways that would be odd,
to say the least, in the real world.  My children are lucky enough to have had a steady supply of books with fully developed, sympathetic characters, and intricately crafted plots in which the only ends left untied are those that will lead to the sequels.  Lucky them!  And yet, it is a little sad that they can't appreciate Alice.  Perhaps they'll read it again on their own when they're older and learn to love it as I do.

        PS. For anyone in the greater Boston area, this weekend is Needham Open Studios.  I'll be manning my display and carving a block, so come by tomorrow or Sunday, say hello, and see amazing art by artists all over town!

[Pictures:  Alice at the mad tea party;
Bill comes out the chimney;
The Cheshire Cat fades away, all illustrations by John Tenniel (reproduced as wood engravings for printing), 1865.  (Images from Wikimedia Commons.)]