June 28, 2013

Words of the Month - Diminished Magic

        Today I have for your consideration some real animals that have descended to us from mythical counterparts.  Sometimes the real animal's traits were exaggerated or misunderstood to create the monster, and sometimes the real animal was named after an already-imagined monster it somewhat resembled.

        First the remora.  This weird fish definitely seems fantastical with its habit of sticking to larger fish with its bizarre sucker head.  Scientists have just recently confirmed that the sucker mechanism is actually adapted from a dorsal fin.  Another fun fact I learned while looking these guys up: it's possible to go fishing with a remora for a "hook"!  The fantasy connection comes from the ancient belief that these fish, small as they are, are capable of fastening to the hull of the largest ship under full sail, and stopping it dead in the water.  The word remora comes from the Latin root meaning "delay or hindrance," and the scientific genus name Echeneis comes from the Greek for "hold ship."

        Next up, the salamander.  The mythical salamander is able to extinguish fire with its internal coldness, and is so poisonous that if it climbs a tree, all the fruit becomes lethal to eat.  Salamanders are born of fire and get their sustenance from fire.  Their blood applied externally will render a person immune to harm from fire, while a cloak of salamander wool is also fireproof.  (By the way, salamandershearers
are rare, but the wool may be from the salamander's cocoon, like a silkworm.)  The most common idea to explain the origin of the myths is that people saw salamanders emerge from logs that they threw on the fire.  On the other hand, it may be that the mythical creature was invented earlier, and people then just associated it with the little amphibian they saw in the fire.

        The basilisk is a wholly magical creature, the king of serpents.  Its breath and gaze are lethal, it leaves a trail of venom, and it's born from a reptile egg hatched by a cockerel.  The word comes from the Greek "little king" because of the crest or spot on its head like a crown.   (The basilisk was also said to be the enemy of the weasel… see the ichneumon below!)  But there's also a real basilisk, the common basilisk lizard, apparently named after the mythical creature because of the crest on its head like a crown.  But the common basilisk does have a near-magical talent which gives it another common name: the Jesus lizard.  It can run across the surface of water, which is so much cooler than poisoning trees!

        In Latin a lemur is a "spirit of the dead."  Specifically, lemures are restless, vengeful, malignant spirits associated with darkness and night.  (They must be placated by casting black beans behind you at midnight on certain nights in May.)  Carl Linnaeus chose this for the name of the primate (originally for the loris) because, he said, they're nocturnal, sort of humanoid, and move slowly.  They also have ghostly eyes and ghostly cries, and in the mythology of some Malagasy people, lemurs are the souls of ancestors, so the name is even more appropriate than Linnaeus imagined, even if they're definitely not malignant!

        In medieval bestiaries the ichneumon is the enemy of dragons, crocodiles, and asps (and basilisks!)  It covers itself with several layers of dried mud to make itself armor, and then awaits its chance to go for the throat.  The Egyptian mongoose is also called ichneumon, and of course it also is an enemy of fearsome reptiles, eating crocodile eggs and venomous snakes.  Ichneumon mummies were found in various centers of worship in ancient Egypt, because Ra could turn into a giant ichneumon to fight the evil snake-god.  I'm guessing that the medieval Europeans got their mythical ichneumon from the Egyptians' mythologized accounts of the real mongoose.  The word ichneumon comes from Greek for "searcher, tracker."  (Aristotle also used the word to describe a species of wasp that hunts spiders, and we still have the ichneumon wasp today, too.)

        Finally, we have the vampire bat, which, like the mythical vampire, drinks blood; and the komodo dragon, which, like the mythical dragon, is an enormous, lethal reptile.  The etymology of vampire is uncertain, except that it comes from Hungarian.  The word dragon is from French, from Latin, from Greek for "serpent, sea monster."  The ultimate root is "to see clearly," so right from the beginning dragons were known for the power of their eyes.

        With each of these creatures, our real equivalent is certainly less magical than the mythical namesake, but I suppose it's all for the best.  Real monsters can be such pests, while these actual animals are still pretty special.

[Pictures: In facile a virtute desciscentes (Easily deflected from the right course - Remora holding a ship), woodcut from Emblemata by Alciatus, 1621 (Image from Glasgow University);
Detail from Minnesota Salamanders, multi-block woodcut by Beckie Prange (Image from Beckie Prange's web site).]

June 25, 2013

More by Dodds

        I discovered block print artist James Dodds (U.K. b. 1957) a few weeks ago through his small alphabet book of boats, and looked him up to see what else I could find.  What I found was lots more boats and nautical themes, but with much more detail and style.  I especially like his series of port towns and boatyards.  They're not photo-realistic, often with a fish-eye perspective and stylized textures in water and sky.  But the boats, Dodds's specialty, are wonderfully detailed and precise, each one unique as if it's a portrait of an actual individual boat.  I really like the
architecture of the towns, too, sometimes in rows like blocks, sometimes higgelty-piggelty.  The elevated viewpoint and curved perspective make it feel as if you're coming into port on the crows nest of a tall ship - or perhaps even swooping in on the wings of a gull.  It's certainly not the view you'd ever see while standing on the sidewalk or the dock.
        Another thing I like about these pieces is the balance of black and white and texture.  Unlike renaissance woodcuts, which tend to reproduce nothing but black lines, and Victorian woodcuts, which tend to be nothing but gradations of shading everywhere, Dodds uses plenty of pure black and pure white in a nice balance of
contrast.  I find this very pleasing.
        I was delighted to discover Dodds's block prints.  If you're delighted by his work, too, you can see more about him at his web site, but the images are all at his press web site, linked below.

[Pictures: Wivenhoe Past and Present, linocut by James Dodds, 1996 (Image from Jardine Press);
Memories of St Monans, linocut by Dodds (Image from The Colchester Circle Blog);
Southwold Beach, linocut by Dodds, 2001 (Image from Jardine Press).] 

June 21, 2013


        Alebrijes are those wonderful Mexican folk art creatures painted in bright colors and patterns.  They were originally invented in the 1930s by Pedro Linares, who made them out of cardboard and paper maché.  It wasn't until the 1980s that artists in the Oaxaca area, led by Manuel Jiménez, adapted their own ancient tradition of carving wooden figures to the more fantastical creatures.  Because the word "alebrije" spread to describe all the Oaxacan-style carvings, not just imaginary animals, sometimes the word "marciano" is now used to
specify the more fantastical creatures.  With both types - the papier maché sculptures of Mexico City and the wood carvings of Oaxaca - the work is mostly done in family workshops and is dominated by male artisans.  These sculptures are not considered an expression of cultural heritage, but are new inventions.
        I've never been to Oaxaca and the summary I've given above is pretty much all I know about it.  I do know that I get a kick out of these whimsical, one-of-a-kind monsters.  They're like wonderful doodles of the imagination, and no matter how fierce or macabre their shapes, the bright colors are so cheerful that you can't help but like
them.  My favorites tend to be the ones that are smaller rather than the big parade-float ones, and I prefer those that are not too humanoid.  But since every one is different, there are plenty to like in all shapes and sizes.
        The first two above are by Linares: a great bird-monster and something that reminds me of a dragon-basilisk hybrid.  Those are the ones that get put in museums, but the more commercial blue dragon is really quite fantastic, too.
        Although a classic dragon is always appreciated, the real fun of the alebrijes is that they aren't classic mythological creatures.  They're wacky, one-off, unique individual monsters that no one's ever seen before.  They're rich in tongues and tails, spikes and fins and wings and crests, bulging eyes and funny feet…  And of course the patterns turn even recognizable animal elements unfamiliar: spots, scales peacock-feather eyes, roses, spirals, zigzags, and more.  What fun!

[Pictures: Alebrije bird, paper maché by Pedro Linares, 1986 (Image from The Children's Museum of Indianapolis on Wikimedia Commons);
Alebrije, paper maché by Linares, (Image from a blog, from Museo del Arte Popular);
Mighty Dragon, wood by anonymous artist (Image from Naay Art);
Alebrije sapo-pez, paper maché by anon (Image from Pinterest from Museo del Arte Popular);
Alebrije, by Lee Custer and Stanley Sourelis (if I read the credits correctly), 2001 (Image from Mexconnect.)
Ocelotl, paper maché by anon (at least, I can't read the name.  Photo by Armando Aguayo Rivera, 2008).]

June 18, 2013

Pollinator Week

        Did you know that this is National Pollinator Week?  Every week is something, and I'm often amused by all the things somebody goes through the trouble of making official.  (I'm not about to lobby for a National Relief Block Print Week.)  As you may have noticed, whenever I hear of a Day or Week or Month that seems worthy of celebration, I like to use it as an excuse for a collection of block prints on the theme.  And pollinators are a cool thing to focus on, to be sure.  They've been getting more love recently, but many people remain unaware of their vital contributions to our food supply and all the other products we use that come from plants that require pollination.
        Over 200,000 different species of all kinds from crickets and wasps to lemurs and lizards have been discovered to be vital in pollinating certain plants.  Many plants and creatures have vey specific partnerships, too, which I find fascinating.  But perhaps the most important pollinators are bees, beetles, hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, and moths.
        To segue from last week, I began with some butterflies and moths by M.C. Escher, above.  Starting geometric and turning realistic, this piece shows Escher's ability to capture both the precise mathematical geometry of abstract patterns and the
detailed curves and patterns of realism.
        This bold alphabetic bee is quite pleasing, and her very black-and-white style makes a nice contrast to the detailed contours of the hummingbird.  Also detailed in that classic Victorian way is this lovely fruit bat.
        Just to add to the mix, here's an even older moth, from Maria Sybilla Merian, and a collage of assorted pollinators, printed and then hand-colored.
       Next time you eat a papaya, thank a moth.  Bananas are pollinated by bats, and for chocolate you have to thank a tiny midge.  Bees are responsible for the growth of at least a hundred commercial crops including apples,
almonds, and onions.  Now go out in your garden, or head to the nearest park, and appreciate all the work those busy pollinators are doing for us.

[Pictures: Butterflies, wood engraving by M.C. Escher, 1950 (Image from Saint Louis University);
B is for Bee, linocut by Steve Duffy (Image from his Etsy shop Steve Duffy Designs);
The Humming Bird, wood block print from The Illustrated Alphabet of Birds, 1851 (Image from International Children's Digital Library);
Bat, wood block print - found on-line with no information, alas;
Moth, wood block print reproduced from drawing by Maria Sybilla Merian, from Erucarum ortus, alimentum et paradoxa metamorphosis, 1717 (Image from Göttinger Digitalisierungszentrum);
Insect collage, linoleum block prints colored and collaged, by Amanda Coville (Image from her blog Mangle Prints, or visit her Etsy shop for more, including bees and moths.)]

June 14, 2013

More Escher

        In honor of M.C. Escher's upcoming one hundred fifteenth birthday (He was born June 17, 1898) it's time to feature another batch of his wood block prints.  This time I'm going to focus on a series of landmarks and views of Delft (plus a bonus scene from Corsica.)  There's nothing surreal here, no tessellations or optical illusions, none of the visual tricks for which Escher is so famous.  There's just incredibly beautiful carving of beautifully composed scenes.
        Perhaps my favorite is this first one, in which I like the balance of pure black, pure white, and intricate texture.  Plus, the scene itself, the Oostpoort, is so romantically charming with its bridge and towers.  Some interesting carving to note is the way the entire background is made less distinct simply by carving a series of thin lines right through everything.  I think if I tried that I'd only succeed in ruining all my carefully carved background details.  But Escher, of course, is all about control.  That's
particularly visible in the sky, which is composed of precisely gradated lines.  There's no impressionistic gouging for Escher.
        Compare the skies in the other pieces: all variations on carefully controlled lines, mostly straight, or this mathematically smooth curve.  Still, although the carving may be precise, the scene isn't.  This view of a canal includes cracked or stained plaster and some sort of peeling sign in the alley.  The plants in the pots look a little scraggly.  It definitely feels like a real place.  (And I have to confess that I like that many of these views have no people.  Contrary to findings about what art people like best, I tend to prefer my scenery without people.)

                I love the blacks and whites of this church, and how it dominates the smaller buildings in the background.  I like how Escher has made the largest tree show up crisply against both black and white behind it.
                       Although there's nothing fantastical about this view of the market in Delft, the unusual perspective definitely reminds me of some of Escher's more mind-twisting work.  The light feels like early morning to me, although I'm sure if I knew Delft I'd know whether we're looking north or south.  I love the roof tiles.  I like the roof tiles in all these pieces!
        And finally, your bonus view of Corsica, done eleven years earlier than the Delft series, and definitely a little more stylized.  It's so wonderfully dramatic.
        So, Happy Birthday, M.C., and thanks for all the wonderful woodcuts!

[Pictures: Delft: Oostpoort, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1939;
Delft: Voldersgracht, woodcut by Escher, 1939;
Delft: Nieuwe Kerk, woodcut by Escher, 1939;
Delft: Grote Markt, woodcut by Escher, 1939;
Citadel of Calvi, Corsica, woodcut by Escher, 1928 (Images from Saint Louis University).]

June 11, 2013

Benjamin Franklin, Dabbler in Magic

        I thought I'd feature Benjamin Franklin today because according to one source I found, tomorrow is the Day of Saint Benjamin Franklin - sort of.  After the French Revolution the new government came up with a new calendar which was to be metric, egalitarian, and secular.  (Too bad a ten day work week is a slog whether or not you want to go to church on Sunday.)  All the Saints' Days were eliminated and replaced with secular honorees - including, according to the one historian, Benjamin Franklin for June 12.  But further research implies that the suggestion of new people to honor was rejected in favor of giving each day a plant or animal or something, so that June 12 became the day of honeysuckle.  At any rate, today seemed as good a day as any to think about Benjamin Franklin and his possibility as a fantasy character.
        In my current work in progress our heroes are chasing down a series of clues to find a secret fund hidden by Benjamin Franklin.  As a minor point, it's mentioned that Franklin was something of a wizard, able to recognize and use certain magical objects, including The Extraordinary Book of Doors of my story.  I feel quite justified in putting Franklin in this role, and I'll share my evidence.
        1. We all know about Franklin's interest in electricity, but in Franklin's time electricity was mostly regarded as a novelty for parlor tricks, much as a magician might perform at a birthday party.  Indeed, many scientists, including Franklin, held electrical parties where they entertained - and shocked - their guests.  Along with the shocks and hair-on-end, Franklin also performed tricks where he relit candles and made an artificial spider move mysteriously.  (He also nearly killed himself while electrocuting a turkey for an all-electric dinner.)  The line between performing "magic" tricks and conducting scientific experiments was often thin or non-existent in Franklin's day.
        2. One of Franklin's hobbies was creating magic squares, those mathematical grids in which numbers add up to the same sum in every row and column (and sometimes in other patterns, too.)  He composed a number of magic squares so impressive that today's mathematicians have yet to explain what algorithm he could have used to do it.  I say, the answer's obvious… After all, Franklin himself stated that his 16x16 square was "the most magically magical of any square ever made by any magician."
        3. Franklin enjoyed being thought a wizard.  While walking by a wind-whipped stream with friends he announced that he could magically quiet the waves.  Thereupon he made some mystical passes, waved his cane three times over the water, and the waves sank and the water became mirror-smooth.  His trick was to keep a small vial of oil in his hollow cane, so that he could drip the oil onto the water and suppress the waves.  This trick was part of a series of experiments Franklin made on oil and water and wave theory.  Clearly Franklin was not only scientifically curious, but also delighted by the magical effects that he saw in nature.
        So I think it's fun to imagine that if there were magic in our world, Benjamin Franklin might well have been one of those who noticed it, became fascinated by it, studied it, and experimented with it.

[Pictures: Work and Industry from "Poor Richard Illustrated," engraving by O. Pelton, 1887 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Reverse of paper money printed by Benjamin Franklin, using his method of leaf imprints to foil counterfeiters, 1764 (Image from Library of Congress);
Illustration of letter from "Silence Dogood" by Franklin, woodcut from New England Courant, 1722 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

June 7, 2013

Fantasy Limericks

        My kids love their poetry units in school, but this year P was pretty aggrieved that they didn't get to write limericks as one of their poetry styles.  So one evening I sat down with him and we worked on writing limericks.  P decided to write a limerick about each of his family members; I decided to write mine about famous fantasy characters.  Here's what I was able to come up with…

There was a respectable hobbit
Who went to a wyrm-hoard to rob it.
His relations all said
He was wrong in the head,
Since with wizards and dwarves he'd hobnob it.

There was a poor orphan named Potter
Who overcame many a plotter.
He had quite a struggle,
Though he was no Muggle,
But he beat Voldemort, that old rotter.

There once was a girl from the prairie
Who killed wicked witches unwary.
One she fatally housed,
While the other she doused,
So they thought her a powerful fairy.

Sir Lancelot was a parágon
Who said, "Let us all raise a flagon:
The best knight ever seen -
We all know whom I mean."
How they wished he'd been et by a dragon.

        Are they works of genius?  Alas, no, though I claim the excuse that they had to be composed while I was also trying to help P find rhymes for assorted family names and characteristics.  But some of you out there must be able to do better than I.  Give it a try, and when you come up with a good one, post it in the comments.  I look forward to some comic fantasy gems of more sparkle and polish than mine!

[Picture:  King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, woodcut from William Stansby's edition of The most ancient and famous history of the renowned prince Arthur King of Britaine by Thomas Malory, 1634 (Image from Cardiff University).]

June 6, 2013

Ocean Alphabet

        This Saturday is World Oceans Day, and I couldn't let such an important occasion go by without a little block print celebration.  And having just discovered an appropriately nautical abecedary, what better way to celebrate the ocean than with some ocean images from block printed ABC books?  "Oh boy," I can hear you saying, "She's right!  There is no better way to celebrate than with block prints!"  I'm so glad we agree!
        Life began in the oceans, life continues to teem in the oceans, and new life forms are still being discovered in the oceans.  I don't have any block prints representing the bizarre and alien creatures from the deepest trenches or the boiling deep sea vents, or even a good old-fashioned coelacanth.  I also didn't want to repeat images I've posted here before,
including sea turtles, cormorants, flying fish and walrus…  Nevertheless, perhaps today's small sampling can still serve as a reminder of how much we stand to lose by failing to take care of our oceans.
        I begin with the ocean itself: S is for sea.  After that I've put the images in alphabetical order, in honor of their sources in alphabet books.  I include fish, crustacean, mammal, and cephalopod, plus the human-made craft for exploring the ocean (or, of course, exploiting it).  The printing blocks are carved from wood, linoleum, and rubber.
        As always, I'm admiring the range of different styles, and how each artist brings a different way of carving, resulting in a very different sort of look.  Compare the swirly doodling patterns of Anderson's sea with the straight lines of Robinson's xiphias
(swordfish).  Compare the textured detail of Pease's fish with the large solid areas of Dodds's schooner.  Compare the intense colors of Wormell's lobster and narwhal with the stark black and white of my nautilus.  Each so different, and each so interesting and beautiful.  Now isn't this a fun celebration?

[Pictures: Sea, linoleum block print by Walter Inglis Anderson, 1930's (Image from The Walter Anderson Shop);
F stands for fish, wood block print by R.H. Pease, hand painted, from The Ladder to Learning by Miss Lovechild, 1852 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
Lobster and Narwhal, linoleum block prints with multiple blocks by Christopher Wormell, from An Alphabet of Animals, 1990;
Nautilus, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009, from Amazing, Beguiling, Curious, 2010;
Schooner, linoleum block print by James Dodds, from Alphabet of Boats, 1998;
Xiphias, woodcut by Alan James Robinson, 1982, from An Odd Bestiary, 1986.]

June 4, 2013

Boats by Dodds

        Some friends of mine, upon hearing that I like block-printed alphabet books, lent me on Sunday Alphabet of Boats.  This is a charming little book, just under five inches square, featuring a bold, simple linoleum block print representing a sailing boat for every letter of the alphabet.  Now, I'm not much of a boat buff, but, like many people, I've always found sailboats beautiful.  Moreover, I think their lines and shapes make them great subjects for black and white block printing.
        The artist of this Alphabet of Boats is James Dodds (UK, b. 1957), who apprenticed as a shipwright before going to art school.  So, unlike me when I get an idea to go make a block print of some random thing, he really knows whereof he carves.  At the end of the book there's a very brief explanation of how the development of the different boats related to each other through history and geography.  This gives some context to the fact that some of the boats look very similar, while others have more obvious differences.
        All the pictures have the same strong, graphic format: the boat in silhouette against a textured sky, with a thick black border.  Does this make for visual consistency or for boredom?  I suppose that's a matter of opinion, but I like it.  I also really like the endpapers, with their grid of tiny black boats.
        Now, those of you with a mathematical bent might have noticed, as I did, that there are 32 little boats on the endpapers, and only 26 letters in the alphabet.  I set out comparing all the pictures to discover what the extras were - and I found to my surprise that only 22 of the illustrations from the alphabet are actually represented on the endpapers, while there are ten bonus boats.  Just a little extra nautical fun for those who want more!
        I also went looking up James Dodds on the internet, and I liked what I found so much that I plan to feature more of his work another day.  So stay tuned for Dodds's much more detailed work later.

[Pictures: Cutter and Dhow, linoleum block prints by James Dodds;
Wherry and Xebec, lino prints by Dodds;
Endpapers, lino prints by Dodds,
Yawl, lino print by Dodds, all from Alphabet of Boats by James Dodds, 1998.]