April 29, 2014

Words of the Month - Poetry on the Hoof

        Do you know what dibitag means?  Do you know what a tamaraw is?  These are English words which were new to me, and they certainly sound marvelously strange.  They come from a whole herd of rare and exotic English words - the names of different kinds of antelope and other hoofed mammals.  There are 91 species of antelope alone, so it’s hardly surprising that most of us don’t know all their names.  And since many of their English names are simply 
borrowed from the languages spoken in their native habitats, many of these words have every excuse to sound strange and exotic.  Some of these animals even have more than one name, and you’ve probably never heard of either of them.  Just to read this vocabulary list aloud is like an incantation, a poem of  magnificent magical syllables summoning the unknown.
        Rather than merely list these words, I’ve included a bit of basic information for each.  Here’s your chance to add a few choice words to your vocabulary - then you just need to figure out how to work them into conversation.  (“My brother is strong as a tembadau.  But sometimes stubborn as a kiang.”)  And of course a few are bound to be useful in crossword puzzles and Scrabble, so I hope you appreciate them.

anoa (or sapiutan) - water buffalo from Indonesia
banteng (or tembadau) - cattle from Southeast Asia (word from Malay from Javanese)
dibatag - antelope from Ethiopia and Somalia (word means erect tail in Somali)
gerenuk - antelope from East Africa (word from Somali gáránúug)
hirola - antelope from Kenya and Somalia
kiang (or gorkhar) - wild ass from the Tibetan Plateau (word from Tibetan)
korrigum (or tiang) - antelope from Senegal
lechwe - antelope from central southern Africa (word from Tswana)  These guys have water-repellant legs so that they can run fast through knee-deep water!
nilgai - antelope from India (word means blue cow in Hindi) 
oribi - antelope from sub-Saharan Africa (word from Afrikaans from Khoikhoi)
puku - antelope from Tanzania
saiga - antelope from the Eurasian steppes (word from Russian from a Turkic language)
tamaraw - water buffalo from Mindoro in the Philippines (word from Tagalog)
topi - antelope from sub-Saharan Africa
tsessebe (or sassaby) - antelope from southern Africa (word probably from Tswana)
zeren - antelope from central Asia (word from Russian from Mongolian zeer’)  One of the most numerous large animals in the world, and I’d never heard of it!

[Pictures: An Antelope, wood engraving by Neave Parker (Image from Campbell Fine Art);
Mhorr’s Gazelles, rubber block print by AEGN.]

April 25, 2014

Mammals by Moser

        Barry Moser (USA, b. 1940) is one of the best known printmakers at work today, since his work appears as illustrations in many high-profile books, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Moby-Dick, and The Bible.  He does “wood” engraving, but often uses resingrave, a synthetic substitute for the hard end-grain wood.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have made an alphabet book, but I did find a book of animals, written by his daughter, with relief print illustrations by Moser.  Ever Heard of an Aardwolf? gives a handful of interesting facts about an assortment of unusual animals (that all happen to be mammals.)  Each creature gets a big, beautiful relief print portrait by Moser, all with his signature dark, shadowy look.
        In the main body of the book the illustrations have been colored with watercolor, which doesn’t actually add a lot of color, as most of the creatures are fairly dull, brownish shades anyway.  To my pleasure, each animal is listed again at the end of the book, with a little more information, and with a plain black and white version of its portrait.  These black and white images are much smaller, but still enough for me to savor their beautiful color-free contrast.
        I’ve chosen four of my favorites to share today.  Yes, I confess to liking the cute ones, and the bush baby above is certainly cute.  Bush babies are also part of the inspiration for the “leaf babies” in the Otherworld (introduced in Vision Revealed) and I’ve always liked them.  The loris, on the other hand, is like a weird, uglier bush baby, and Moser has captured this one’s shy, befuddled look.
        The flying fox is one of my favorite animals, and works well with Moser’s meticulous, dark style.  So much plain black is an unusual compositional choice, but works well with this nighttime creature peeking out from within its shadowy wings.  Moser may have lots of solid black areas in his prints, but he almost never has solid white areas.  Everything’s modeled and shaded with fine lines.
        And finally, the pangolin, a creature made for a medium that emphasizes texture and pattern over color.  A scaled mammal, the pangolin is surely related somehow to dragons!  The claws could do a dragon proud, too, but it has no teeth at all.  In this piece Moser’s done that trick I always find so fascinating: revealing the form without any outlines.  As usual, his technique and skill are astonishing.

[Pictures: Bush baby;
Flying fox;
Pangolin, all relief engravings by Barry Moser from Ever Heard of an Aardwolf? by Madeline Moser, 1996.]

April 22, 2014

Fun Fan Merchandise

        We all know that, for better or worse, merchandising is a big deal for the most popular science fiction and fantasy worlds (especially those that have been movies or television shows.)  I’m not immune to the temptation to savor my favorite imaginary worlds through merchandise, but if I’m going to get a fan T-shirt, I don’t want one that says “Harry Potter” across the front with a photo of Daniel Radcliffe.  No, I prefer merchandise with a little more subtlety, and the things I like best are those that encourage an illusion that the fantasy world is real.  Particularly effective and satisfying are T-shirts celebrating imaginary schools.  Hogwarts, of course, but I’ve also seen and appreciated Starfleet Academy, 
University of Gallifrey, Imperial Academy of Coruscant, and Unseen University.  Fictional companies and institutions also make good candidates for logos, such as Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, the Thieves Guild of Ankh-Morpork, Aperture Laboratories, Order of the White Lotus, and the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Professional Thinking Persons.  Sports teams are good, too, as are political campaigns promoting everyone from Mrs Wiggins of Bean’s Farm to Admiral Ackbar.  (Just make sure you don’t sport a sticker of a candidate you wouldn’t really support - no Beeblebrox bumper stickers for me!)
        Along the same lines, I like T-shirts (or posters, mugs, or other products) made to look like travel souvenirs.  Planets, countries, cities, restaurants and inns, and special events like the Quidditch World Cup all work well for this.  After all, I’m clearly not a Jedi, but I can still pretend that I’ve visited Tatooine as a tourist.  Not that tourists would want to visit Tatooine, of course.  Milliways and Fhloston Paradise are more popular destinations.
        All these things tend to work better for sci fi universes than pre-industrial fantasy worlds.  For those the best bet may be a simple coat of arms, like the White Tree of Gondor or the gate of Moria.  Whatever it is, though, I like it just a little subtle, so that other fans recognize it and smile, but it isn’t a screaming billboard for a product.  After all, the purpose isn’t to advertise, but to remind me of something I love.
        (Full disclosure: I think the only fan merchandise along these lines that I actually own is a mug with the Hogwarts coat of arms.  But I’ve certainly discovered a few things today that I might have to add to my gift list!)

[Pictures: Hogsmeade poster from 716designs;
AUPSLOPTP T-shirt on cafepress.co.uk;
Mos Eisley T-shirt on starwars.com;
Milliways T-shirt on redbubble.com;
Fhloston Paradise poster on allposters.com;
Gates of Moria T-shirt on redbubble.com;
Ba Sing Se Bears T-shirt on redbubble.com.]

April 18, 2014

Young and Old

        For my solo shows I always choose a theme so that I display a different variety of pieces at each show.  It’s fun to pick themes and then consider how different pieces fit into the idea.  It occurred to me that I could also share with you some of the different themes I’ve worked with over the years.  For the show that’s currently up at the Sherborn Library until the end of the month, my theme is “Young and Old.”  Here’s my little blurb:
        Young and old, old and new, there’s a special beauty in the people and things that have lasted a long time, and those that are just starting out.  From the half-timbered buildings that have stood for centuries to the fern fiddlehead about to unfurl in the spring, I find myself drawn to new beginnings and ancient survivors.  For this show I selected a variety of relief block prints that relate to this idea of new and old.  I hope they invite viewers to appreciate the magic in sometimes unregarded places, and the wonder of our world where young and old, old and new share their beauty with each other.
        I picked pieces with people of all ages and generations, I picked animal families, and I also picked some objects that particularly seemed to illustrate great age or new growth.  Most of the pieces have already been shared in this blog at various times, so today I’m just posting three from the show that you may not have seen already.  First is a portrait of an ancestor of mine, based on a very old photo.  Sarah was born in 1812 and died in 1903.  Next, the tree fern fiddlehead unfurling, a symbol of new life and new beginnings.  And finally, P and T at age 4 or so - but meant to be quite universal: the new joy of young children first discovering one of the oldest sources of wonder since the dawn of humanity.

[Pictures: This is One of My Grandmothers (Sarah), rubber block print by AEGN, 1998;
New Zealand Fern, rubber block print by AEGN, 2000;
The Puddle, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006 (sold out).]

April 15, 2014

Not a Word!

        Today’s theme is fantasy books that tell their stories entirely without words.  There are a lot more wordless picture books these days than I had realized, and a lot of them include fantasy themes, perhaps because just about all of them emphasize the power of imagination.  I’ve picked out some of my favorites, and arranged them into some different categories.

With Thanks to the Purple Crayon
        Yes, Crockett Johnson’s classic has words (charming words, at that), but its premise of drawing things that come true is a very popular one in wordless picture books.
   Journey by Aaron Becker - (The front flap calls it a red marker, but it looks more like a crayon to me.)  The story has a lonely child entering a fantasy world (a theme shared by many of today’s featured books), having some adventures, and then returning home having made a friend.  Quite simply it’s the illustrations that make the book, and earned it a Caldecott honor this year.  They’re absolutely gorgeous, with wonderful atmosphere paired with intricate detail so they’re a pleasure to look at and an invitation to imagination.  Favorite pictures: the scenes with cross sections.
   Chalk by Bill Thomson - (sidewalk chalk) The illustrations are a little too slick and shiny for my taste, but their hyperrealism works well for showing things coming to life.  The punch line of the story could be that unleashed imagination is dangerous and best left alone, or perhaps that kids can solve their own problems with creativity.  Either way, a fun invitation to “What if?”  P liked this one a lot.  Favorite picture: butterflies everywhere!
   Magpie Magic by April Wilson - (colored pencils)  A pair of anonymous hands draw a magpie that comes to life - and then wants to join in the magical sketching.  This book reminds me not only of Harold’s purple crayon, but also of the classic cartoon “Duck Amuck,” as artist and art jockey against each other.  There may not be a lot of scope for imagination beyond what the story shows, but it’s still a fun riff on drawing.  Favorite picture: human and magpie drawing a landscape together.

David Wiesner
        Wiesner is the king of wordless books, having “written” many, won three Caldecotts, and earned lots of other accolades.
   Sector 7 - A story about a boy who befriends a cloud and is taken on a visit to the clouds’ headquarters, this is a fun daydream of a book.  The boy is thrown out of Sector 7 for encouraging the clouds to form other shapes (mostly fish).  Favorite pictures: front facade of Sector 7 or sky full of fish clouds over the city.
   Flotsam - Less a linear story than Sector 7, and more of an open-ended musing, Flotsam posits a mysterious camera that reveals some of the varied magic going on in the ocean, and connects a line of children through the (20th) century and around the world who have found the camera.  Favorite pictures: octopus living room or turtle town.
        Wiesner’s illustrations are always beautiful, with realism and detail to bring  the fantastical images into the realm of plausibility.  He has a cinematic flair, often showing scenes from interesting angles or playing with different viewpoints.  Other wordless fantasy books by Wiesner include Tuesday, Free Fall, Mr Wuffles!, and probably more I’m missing.

Creepy Castle by John S. Goodall - This is one I remember from my childhood.  It tells a simple, linear story of a medieval mouse couple entering and then escaping from a castle.  The clever twist is that every other page is only half the width of the book, so that when you turn the half pages, instead of getting an entirely new picture, one small element changes.  This speeds up the action and enhances the suspense as you wonder what will happen behind each turn of the page.  Unlike many of the others, this one is a traditional story, even without words, rather than an open-ended fantasy.  Favorite pictures: I like all the views of the castle.

Sea of Dreams by Dennis Nolan - A lovely, suggestive book in which the adventure is experienced not by the normal human child, but behind her back after she’s walked away.  It encourages that classic field for imagination: what happens in our world when we’re not looking?  Beautiful illustrations in the skilled style, like Wiesner’s, that works well by making magical scenes look plausibly real.  Favorite picture: the light coming on in the sand castle.

Printmaking Connections
   Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman - A boy has secret adventures in art - art that looks like it could be wood block prints, no less.  Clearly I’m going to like this.  Lehman’s style is simple, almost cartoonish, without any unnecessary details.  But all the necessary details are there, and the pictures are very pleasing to look at.  Fun details in this story include several mazes that readers can work through, and references to the work of lots of real artists, including Van Gogh, Rousseau, Calder, Miro, Klee, Picasso, and more.  Favorite pictures: view of the central hall of the museum or side view of the boy in the maze with the tree.  Other wordless books by Lehman include Trainstop, The Red Book (which earned a Caldecott honor), and Rainstorm (which has perhaps the most attractive pictures).
   The Tree House by Marije Tolman and Ronald Tolman - Maybe not quite fantasy, but certainly dream-like, this book has no plot, just lots of assorted animals playing in a treehouse over the course of a day.  The image of the treehouse looks like it’s a lithograph, and then the different animals are painted onto it on each page.  Favorite picture: the arrival of rhino with flamingos.
   Hogwash by Arthur Geisert - There’s no story line to this book; it simply shows, in intricate detail, all the steps in the Rube-Goldbergian contraption that cleans a town full of muddy little piglets.  Favorite picture: The view of the whole machine.  Geisert’s books are all illustrated with detailed etchings, they’re all about pigs, and a number of them are wordless.  Perhaps the most fantastical is The Giant Seed, in which pigs escape from a volcano on enormous dandelion seeds, but the ones with intricate and ridiculous machinery might count as sci-fi.  P and I found Oops a little too macabre, but liked Lights Out a lot (especially P).

        Also worth mentioning, Polo and Polo and the Dragon by Régis Faller and
The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard by Gregory Rogers - These were too much like comic books for me to count them, but they are wordless.  The Polo books show varied adventures, always cheerful.  They include lots of fantasy and sci fi tropes in very simplified forms suitable for young children, although 11-year-old P, who was helping me with reviews, enjoyed them.  The Boy is a chase through Elizabethan London when a boy travels through time in the Globe Theatre.  But watch out, purists: for some reason Shakespeare is the villain of the piece!

[Pictures: Computer, pen and ink, and watercolor illustration by Aaron Becker from Journey, 2013;
Watercolor illustration by David Wiesner from Sector 7, 1999;
Pen and ink and watercolor illustration by Barbara Lehman from Museum Trip, 2006.]

April 11, 2014

Kent Ambler's Woodcuts

        Kent Ambler is an artist working in South Carolina.  He does lots of woodcuts, with a special emphasis on birds, although lots of other themes also crop up through his work.  Most of his woodcuts are done with multiple colors on multiple blocks: often rather muted, earthy colors, but sometimes with pops of brightness.  He has a distinctive style that leaves lots of shallowly carved background.  No area is ever completely solid or smooth.  You can really see this in the sky of this first piece.  Ambler has used black, and two shades of greenish grey, and all three of these contribute their mottled marks to the twilit sky.  (There’s also the yellow of the lit windows.  I’ve always loved the look of lit windows at dusk.  I don’t know whether Ambler used a whole ‘nother block for the yellow, or simply hand-colored the 9 small rectangles.)
        I wanted to include a couple of single block black and white pieces, too, of course, and this terapin has plenty of personality.  The block is fairly large, 10x14, so you can see that the carving is very rough and bold.  No fiddly little details here.  However there are a few interesting carving marks visible, such as the little lines of dots along the edges of the shell at the back.  I’m guessing they’re made by pressing in the tip of a multi-line tool.  There are deep cuts and shallow scoops, and areas that look more
like abrasions than actual carving.  An image like this could never be anything but a wood block print.
        In this one I love the contrast of the very black silhouetted birds against the complex tapestry of the tree behind.  Once again there are some interesting different sorts of marks making up the texture of the tree and background.  Ambler says “Mark making is the main focus of my woodcut prints,” and you can certainly see that he experiments with the wood.  Ambler has lots and lots of images of birds perched among branches, but most of them use multiple color blocks.  I like how this plain black and white one almost seems to have more complexity in its simplicity. 
        This final example makes great use of the colored blocks to show that moment when the sky is still bright but the earth is almost wholly dark.  
There are lots and lots of individually carved little birds, but there are also all those scrappy, ink-smudged bits of shallowly-carved background filling the sky with even more motion.
        To see loads more work by Kent Ambler, visit his web site.

[Pictures: Quiet Night, color woodcut with multiple blocks by Kent Ambler;
Terapin, woodcut by Ambler;
Spring Sassafras, woodcut by Ambler;
Migration, color woodcut with multiple blocks by Ambler (Images from kentambler.net).]

April 8, 2014


Sometimes, when a bird calls,
Or a wind moves through the brush,
Or a dog barks in a distant farmyard,
I must listen a long time, and hush.

My soul flies back to where,
Before a thousand forgotten years 
The bird and the waving wind
Were like me, and were my kin.

My soul becomes a tree, an animal,
A cloud woven across the sky.
Changed and unfamiliar it turns back
And questions me.  How shall I reply?

        Hermann Hesse (Germany, 1877-1962) is probably best known in English for his novels that became popular during the 60’s for their themes of the quest for enlightenment.  I wanted to share this poem because, while perhaps not strictly fantasy, it still evokes the speculative themes of mystery, of communication with animals and nature, of transformation, of experiencing the world of the Other…  Although I’d seen it before, it was brought to my attention again recently when (somewhat to my surprise) my son P selected it to write about in a paragraph for his poetry unit at school.
        This is my own translation.  The original rhymes, but the standard English translation I found does not, so I thought I’d try my hand at a rhyming version.  I admit I'm not entirely happy with the middle verse, but you can see the original German here, or the translation by Robert Bly here.

[Picture: Moonlight on Backside, wood block print by Tom Killion, 1973/74 (Image from earthisland.)]

April 4, 2014


        Normally I don’t have a lot of pieces all framed at once - just enough for the current show, and when it’s over, I switch out which pieces are in frames for the next show.  But somehow as the winter snow disappears I’ve gotten myself completely snowed under with frames.  First, a solo show at the beautiful art gallery of a local private elementary school.  With about 50 pieces on display, this is the most I’ve ever hung at once.  I had to 
go out and buy some more frames to fit all the pieces I wanted to show.  That exhibit went up on March 25 and will stay up through the month of April.  And of course that means that I couldn’t use any of the same frames for another solo show that had to be hung April 1 at a library two towns over.  I had to buy another batch of frames to accommodate about 20 pieces there, plus start scavenging frames from the art hanging on our own walls here in the house!  Meanwhile, I also have a half dozen pieces up in a couple of group shows for Needham Open Studios right here in town, and they needed to be framed for display, too.  I feel like I’ve been framing non-stop for three weeks now!
        Some artists get their pieces professionally framed, but I never do.  Let me explain why:
1.  The framing would cost more than the art, which is just silly!
2.  Lots of people want to buy the pieces unframed to keep the cost down or so that they can get it framed themselves to their own taste.  For that reason I mat my pieces whenever possible to fit standard off-the-shelf frame sizes.
3.  I always do everything myself.  It’s just the way I like to work.  Drawing, carving, printing, matting, and framing, too.  (Same goes for my books.)
4.  I don’t want to have to store a million framed items.  Better to store most of my work flat and simply frame what I need for each show.  Each given frame can be reused until it sells.
        It’s true that my work may look a little less high-end professional this way, but I have no intention of being high-end.  (For more explanation of this, you can read my thoughts about the Price of Art.)  Besides, most of my frames look very nice indeed, and normally my system works just fine.  I only run into trouble when I have 4 shows up at once!  (Well, maybe 2 and 2 fractions.)  Anyway, thank goodness the two big exhibits will come down at the end of April, just in time for me to reuse their frames immediately and frame up everything to be shown at Needham Open Studios first thing in May.  And until then, I have a brief and welcome respite from the frames.

[Pictures: Tenacre solo show;
Sherborn Library solo show;
Town Hall group show;
Needham Library group show, photos by AEGN, 2014.]

April 1, 2014

Flying Penguins and Bigons

        Happy April Fools’ Day!  I confess to being rather ambivalent about hoaxes and tricks since I can’t help worrying about all the people who get hurt by “harmless” pranks.  Still, many hoaxes through the ages have undoubtedly been cleverly done, and sci fi and fantasy topics are among the most popular subjects to feed to a gullible public.  Here are a few fabulous creatures and inventions that we first learned about on April 1.
        The hotheaded naked ice borer is about six inches long and lives in labyrinthine tunnels in the Antarctic ice.  Its body temperature is very high, and extra blood vessels line the skin of a bony plate on its forehead, allowing it to melt ice in its path.  It travels in packs, hunting penguins by melting the ice out below their feet so that they sink down into the feeding frenzy.  The hotheaded naked ice borer was discovered in 1995 by Dr April Pazzo.  (Read the full Discover article here.)
        Of course, hotheaded naked ice borers don’t manage to catch many of the rare flying penguins.  These flying Adélie penguins were discovered by camera crews filming the BBC’s natural history series “Miracles of Evolution” in 2008.  Watch the video!
        The Tasmanian mock walrus was a popular housepet in Florida in the early 80’s.  Four inches long with the temperament of a hamster, it purrs, it can be litter trained, and it eats enough cockroaches to clean out a house.  Unfortunately, Dean Johnson reported in The Orlando Sentinel in 1984, the pest-control lobby was pressuring the government to ban these lovable pets.  They must have succeeded, because that was the last anyone heard of the Tasmanian mock walrus.  (See the article here.)
         Unfortunately, many wonderful creatures aren’t discovered until they’re dead, like the Derbyshire fairy photographed by Dan Baines in 2007.  The small mummified remains had been found by an old man walking his dog.  (I assume that means the dog is actually the one who found it, old men and dogs being what they are.)  No living fairies of this species have ever been documented.  (Hear from Dan Baines here.)
        Also discovered dead - and presumably long extinct - was a winged theropod dinosaur.  The journal Nature reported in 1999 that the near-complete skeleton of this flying monster was  found by Randy Sepulchrave of the University of Southern North Dakota.  In addition to having membranous wings, the Velociraptor-like dinosaur had neck vertebrae showing signs of extensive and repeated exposure to flame.  Its scientific name is Smaugia volans.  (Read the full article here.)
        And here’s one that I’m happy to report was a complete hoax.  The Loch Ness Monster that was discovered dead by a team of Yorkshire scientists in 1972 was not, I repeat not, an actual Loch Ness Monster.  It was in fact a bull elephant seal that had died and been frozen, transported to the lake, and left to bob mysteriously under the noses of the scientists.  And that can mean only one thing: the real Nessie is still alive!  (Details here.)
        In addition to discoveries, April 1 is also an auspicious date for technological innovations.  In 1878 the New York Graphic unveiled Thomas Edison’s Food Creator, which could manufacture “biscuit, meat, vegetables and wine out of air, water and common earth.”
        In 1934 engineer Ottfried Koycher demonstrated a new machine allowing him to fly with lung power.  The apparatus used the carbon dioxide in his breath to power a small motor.  (The story was first carried in the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, and unfortunately many US newspapers which covered the story got the details of both his name and his technology wrong.)
        In 1981 the Guardian reported that scientists had developed a machine to control the weather.  Dr Chisholm-Downright explained that Britain would henceforth have “long summers, with rainfall only at night, and the Continent will have whatever [the research lab in] Pershore decides to send it.”
        In 1996 Discover announced Dr Albert Manque’s discovery of a new fundamental particle of matter.  The Bigon materializes for mere millionths of a second, but is as big as a bowling ball.  It may be responsible for many mysterious phenomena including spontaneous human combustion.
        These are just a few highlights.  Many of the greatest scientific discoveries of the past two centuries have occurred on or been reported on the first of April.  What are the odds?  It just goes to show how badly we want to believe that incredible, magical, fantastical things really do happen.

[Pictures: Mummified fairy, photo by Dan Baines, 2007;
The First Human-powered Flight Succeeds, from Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, April 1, 1934 (Image from The Museum of Hoaxes.)]