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.)