December 29, 2015

Words of the Month - Linguistics Jokes

        When it comes right down to it, most jokes are linguistics jokes, to the extent that they all use the medium of language, and rely on different meanings of words, "garden path" phrases (down which one may be led), and so on.  But I have a particular affection for jokes that play specifically with aspects of spelling, grammar, lexicography, and other linguistics topics.  Leaving out jokes that depend too heavily on knowledge of  linguist jargon, here are a few of my favorites that should be generally intelligible.  (Keep in mind that most are designed to be spoken aloud, and may be spoiled by seeing them spelled out instead of heard to begin with.)
        First, a few about spelling.
Why is the Panama Canal like the first U in cucumber?
Because it’s between two C’s.

What starts with a T, ends with a T, and is full of T?
A teapot.

It occurs twice in every moment, once in every minute, and yet it never occurs in a hundred thousand years.  What is it?
The letter M.

What word remains the same even when you take away all its letters?
The postman.

What cheese is made backwards?

        Then some jokes based on principles of grammar.
What’s the difference between a cat and a comma?
One marks with the claws at the ends of its paws, and the other marks a pause at the end of a clause.

Past, present, and future walk into a bar.
It was tense.
And a related pun: You can’t run in a campground.
You have to say “ran” because it’s past tents.

Let me tell you a little about myself.
It’s a reflexive pronoun that indicates me.

        And finally, one of my all-time favorites, not because it’s so uproariously funny, but just because it reflects what makes me happy.

Where can you always find comfort and sympathy?
In the dictionary.

[Pictures: Still Life II, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (sold out);
Cat Attack, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999.]

December 26, 2015


When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
      To find the lost,
      To heal the broken,
      To feed the hungry,
      To release the prisoner,
      To rebuild the nations,
      To bring peace among people,
      To make music in the heart.

        I wish you peace, joy, and hope in the new year.  May you share many stories with others, and feel how all our stories are unique, and all our stories intertwine.  Make your own life be a story of love!

[Picture: Hope, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015.]
Poem “Now the Work of Christmas Begins” by Howard Thurman.

December 22, 2015

Book Sculpture (Part III)

        Here is my last collection of book sculptures (at least for now!)  These are mostly back to the more typical approach to the medium: using a book as a base and the pages as a material for building shapes and figures.  There are still some interesting things going on, though.  In this first piece, by Thomas Wightman, the book is opened 90° and the train is driving right out of the tunnel in the pages.  The train itself is beautifully detailed.  I especially like the coal car’s cargo of little letters, that spill out as the train derails.  Although the sculpture is actually meant to illustrate the effects of OCD, it makes me imagine that letters or words are mined deep in the book mountains, and transported to writing markets by trains running day and night…
        Su Blackwell has made an incredible number of cool book sculptures in a variety of styles.  I’ve picked out a few of my favorites.  Although the tree house sculpture is simply placed atop the book without really using it as anything more than a base, this one is made exceptionally lovely by the use of light.  Blackwell includes light in many of her pieces, and I think it can add a wonderful magic, implying that there really is someone living in there.  The light is a major focus of the lighthouse, as well, and that sculpture also uses the book base a little more, as those pages have become the ocean with a lot of texture and rough cutting.  Blackwell also does a lot with the texture of her buildings, giving them individual roof tiles, or growing ivy, or other cool details.
        I love this entire street of narrow buildings with their steep front steps.  Notice the bird flying above.  It’s supported on a black wire that pokes up from below, and Blackwell uses this technique a lot.  She especially seems to favor owls, and you can see one in the beautifully eerie woods.  It illustrates one of the most atmospheric fairy tales I know, “Jorinde and Joringel.”  This one’s a little different by being built in a shadow box for a frame.  Note that Blackwell builds her structures from individual sheets of paper: flat sides for the flat sides of buildings, wrapped papier maché style for the twisty trunks and branches of the trees, cut into thin strips or fringes to make railings, grasses, feathers, and so on.
        Now compare that with the construction technique on my last picture.  Rather than being hollow shapes, made of rolled tubes, or flat sides of paper joined into cubes, all the thickness of the forms is multiple layers of stacked paper.  The hull of the ship is a solid block of paper, and the body of the octopus is solid layers of strips.  The suckers are little stacks of paper circles, enough to build up the desired thickness.  I also really like the way the book is open off-center, and the way the octopus pierces through the top pages.  Unfortunately, I can’t tell you the artist of this cool piece.  I found it on a web site that gave no attribution for any of its pictures, and despite lots of searching, I found the picture pinned several more times, but never with any
information.  (Have I ever mentioned before how much I hate Pinterest and its set-up scientifically designed to optimize the ease with which thoughtless people can steal other people’s artistic work?  Grrr…)
        Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this array of fantastic book sculptures, making the pages come alive in a different way from reading.

[Pictures: Derailing my train of thought, book sculpture by Thomas Wightman (Image from (where you can also see some photos of his construction process));
The House in the Oak Tree, book sculpture by Su Blackwell, 2015;
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage, book sculpture by Blackwell, 2014;
The Globe and Mail, Canada, book sculpture by Blackwell, 2010;
Jorinde and Joringel, book sculpture by Blackwell, 2010 (Images from;
Octopus or kraken, book sculpture by unknown artist (If anyone can identify this, I’d love to hear it!)]

December 18, 2015

Christmas Lights?

        This time of year I enjoy the holiday lights brightening houses in my neighborhood in the all-too-early dark.  So I thought this would be a good time to share this interesting wood block print by Zsigmond Walleshausen Von Cselény (Hungary, 1887 or 1888 - 1957?).  It shows floodlit buildings in Budapest seen from the river, with lights bright against the black night, and fainter reflected in the water.  I tried to check on how long Budapest had been electrified in 1928, the date of the piece, because I wondered if the whole idea of floodlit buildings, so standard for us today, might still have been a bit of a novelty at that time.  I couldn’t find the information, but I did discover that Budapest had one of the earliest subway systems, so they may have been early adopters of electricity, as well, and therefore this scene might not have been new to the artist.  Clearly, though, it’s one he appreciated!
        One of the most interesting things about this piece is the carving technique.  The larger white areas are carved out with very zig-zaggy lines as if Walleshausen rocked or jittered his tool as he cut.  (I haven’t seen something like this since Julius Griffith.)  The unlit objects are suggested with just the merest thin outlines, cut with a fine blade moving straight instead of rocking.  But the marks creating the reflected light are even more interesting.  It looks as if Walleshausen simply stabbed the wood over and over with the v-shaped tip of his gouge.  I did something like that on the hind leg of my Iguana at Uxmal.  For me it actually took two stabs, very close together, to take out just a tiny bit of wood and make the V’s show up.  I don’t know how Walleshausen actually created his marks, but clearly he was interested in the different effects that different ways of using his tools would have.  I think it works remarkably well for suggesting the twinkling of the lights in the water.
        I have no idea what time of year this scene represents, or whether it actually had anything to do with the winter holidays.  Still, I think it’s pretty cool, and I’m enjoying the way it evokes one of my favorite things about this time of year.  After all, don’t holiday illuminations carve light out of darkness just like relief block prints?

[Picture: A Kivilágitott Halászbástya (Floodlit Fisherman’s Bastion), woodcut by Zsigmond Walleshausen Von Cselény, 1928 (Image from Annex Galleries).]

December 15, 2015

Book Sculpture (Part II)

        Here are some more sculptures that use books in a different way.  In this first one, Jodi Harvey-Brown has used the book as a frame rather than a stage, so it could be hung on the wall.    The dove is not contained in the frame, but hovers in front of it.  In the second piece, the book has become a sort of plaque, and the butterflies have flown even farther from the pages.  Harvey-Brown has also added color to the cut paper instead of leaving it the black and white of the text.  It’s simpler than many of the others, with larger areas, fewer tiny details - simpler than most of Harvey’s other work, too - but I think that makes it look more like paper and the pages of books.  If the paper were too chopped up or smushed into papier maché it would be farther removed from its bookish roots.
        On the other hand, Guy Laramée uses books as if they were simply blocks of wood or stone and not anything readable at all, and yet his sculptures delight me, too.  He doesn’t fold paper, or build up shapes from pages, and there’s no text visible
anywhere.  I love the idea of burrowing into the books, spelunking in books, tunneling deep and discovering hidden landscapes.  Many of Laramée’s sculptures are pretty big because they aren’t built from single books but from entire shelves of books.  I don’t know whether they all represent real places, but some of them certainly do, and I’m particularly excited about a Petra carved from books - two great tastes that taste great together!
        Having gone on a search for book art, I kept finding more and more cool stuff, so I have one more installment for you, coming next week.  Stay tuned!  In the meantime, whether or not you love your Kindle or e-reader, take a moment to consider the magic of physical books as objects.  Perhaps it’s mere nostalgia, but it’s hard not to love the beauty of printed words bound together on paper.

[Pictures: Peace on Earth, book sculpture by Jodi Harvey-Brown (Image from Harvey’s Etsy shop WetCanvasArt); 
for Morphée Jewelry, book sculpture by Harvey-Brown (Image from;
from The Great Wall series, book sculpture by Guy Laramée;
Book People(?) from Biblios series, book sculpture by Laramée;
Petra from Biblios series, book sculpture by Laramée (Images from]

December 11, 2015

Three Cities

        Three relief prints from the first half of the twentieth century, depicting scenes from three US cities, by three artists.  From 1930, this view of Chicago by William Jacobs (USA, 1897-1973) is bold and blocky.  The buildings and trains are depicted mostly in solid blacks and whites without texture, with the sky’s rays for dynamic contrast.  Even the puffs of smoke from the trains look solid and muscular.  With its bold, clean cuts, the whole thing exemplifies an optimism about the bright future of progress.
        By contrast, this view of Beacon Hill in Boston, made by Thomas Nason (USA, 1889-1971) seems to show the city as old, staid, and tired.  This is a wood engraving, and the careful, tiny cuts that make up the piece emphasize the worn texture of the buildings, and the long shadow across the square.  Where Jacobs had smoke-puffing trains, Nason has a bent tree, and vines climbing the buildings.  The two pieces were made the same year by artists who were close contemporaries of each other, so it’s interesting to see how different were their styles, Jacobs embracing modern art movements, and Nason mastering traditional techniques.
        The third cityscape, from 1940-5 seems to emphasize neither the optimism of the future nor the shadow of the past, but the cluttered, busy, present.  It’s messier, or choppier than either of the other two, with shapes superimposed and sometimes askew.  The artist, Henry Kallem (USA 1912-1985) has gone a step less realistic than the other two.
        I like that all three artists have different styles, and show different moods of different cities.  While they all use the wood carving medium with its distinctive properties, they each emphasize different qualities of the medium and use it to different effect.

[Pictures: Chicago, woodcut by William Jacobs, 1930 (Image from;
Louisburg Square, Beacon Hill, Boston, wood engraving by Thomas Nason, 1930 (Image from William P Carl Fine Prints);
Manhattan, woodcut by Henry Kallem, 1940-45 (Image from William P Carl Fine Prints).]

December 8, 2015

Book Sculpture (Part I)

        This past weekend I began carving a block designed to keep me busy for a while: the largest block I’ve ever done, and full of tiny intricate details.  After some six hours of carving over the weekend, I’m still not halfway done.  The scene is a bookshelf on which the books are little houses and buildings, inhabited by tiny people, cats, dogs, a dragon…  The idea of the life and magic within books is one I’ve visited before, particularly in my piece The Open Book, and it’s an idea that is also illustrated by book sculptures.
        I admit to a bit of ambivalence about using books as the raw material for sculpture: cutting them up, destroying their content of words, seems like sacrilege.  On the other hand, lots of old books just end up getting thrown away, and it’s certainly far more respectful of them to transform them into a new form of art.  I’m quite tempted to try my hand at the medium myself!
        I won’t be sharing any purely abstract sculptures here.  Some of them are certainly incredible, but for me there’s something much richer about the intertwining of words and pictures, the turning of one storytelling medium into another.  In any case, there is no shortage of artists making cool sculptures out of books, such  that I’m going to have to break up the topic into more than one post.  So here’s a start…
        First, a ship at sea by Emma Taylor.  What I like particularly about this one is the wonderfully wavy pages on which the ship tosses.  Many book sculptures are simply placed atop a flat book surface, but in this one the book really is transforming into the scene, not simply supporting it.
        This scene of books within a book, by Karen Diot, is wonderfully self-referential.  Books, it turns out, make excellent bookshelves.  But I also like the idea of a book as a window, and in this example the light emphasizes the open window within the open book.
        Perhaps the coolest story about book sculptures is that of the eleven mysterious works of art left hidden around literary landmarks in Edinburgh in 2011.  The anonymous artist has never been discovered, and each sculpture was accompanied by a note “in support of libraries, books, words, ideas.”  Here’s an article outlining the whole mysterious, magical story.  This ferocious dinosaur shredding out of a book is one of those eleven mystery gifts.
        This Saturday I’ll be participating in the Needham Winter Arts Fest, continuing to carve my big, ambitious block, and continuing to dream about the magic of books and art.

[Pictures: A Ship Sets Sail, book sculpture by Emma Taylor, 2013 (Image from From Within a Book);
The Paper House, book sculpture by Karen Diot (Image from Architecture and Design);
The Lost World, book sculpture by anonymous artist, 2011.]

December 4, 2015

Upcoming Events

        It’s been a rather trying day, so I will simply share three things.
        First, this interesting woodcut by Edgar Dorsey Taylor (USA, 1904-1978).  It’s entitled Erosion, Punta Baja, and I’m not sure how representational the spiky shapes are meant to be.  In any case, it certainly evokes spiky, harsh landforms under a parching, relentless sun.  It also evokes the feeling of my frayed temper and frazzled mood!
        The other two things to share are my upcoming holiday sales.  This weekend - tomorrow and Sunday - I’ll be joining the artists of Gorse Mill Studios for their holiday sale.  Maggie Schmidt, who does gorgeous soft-focus oil paintings of flowers (check out her work here), is generously letting me show my work in her big, beautiful, sunny studio.  Much of today’s
frustration was occasioned by the fact that while setting up I stupidly locked myself out of her studio - with her keys, my purse, cell phone, wallet, and all on the inside.  Aaargh!  Luckily the door was eventually unlocked, and everything will be serene again by tomorrow at 10:00, when I’ll be sitting there with a smile, carving the biggest rubber block I’ve yet attempted!
        Exactly one week later, on December 12, the town of Needham will be hosting a Winter Arts Fest upstairs in Town Hall, and I’ll be participating in that, as well.  I’ll have a smaller display there, but will almost certainly still be working on the same huge, intricately detailed block.
        Please come by to check out my work, and the work of all the other artists who will be showing at these two events.  It’s a great opportunity to find unique, handmade, local, very special gifts for everyone on your list  (except, of course, any soulless people on your list who like nothing but boring, mass-produced generic stuff!)

[Picture: Erosion, Punta Baja, woodcut by Edgar Dorsey Taylor, 1969 (Image from The Annex Galleries).]

November 30, 2015

Words of the Month - What Does the Heifer Say?

        Onomatopoeia - the word itself is a source of such pleasure to children learning poetic terms!  But I’ve always found additional pleasure in the fact that although onomatopoeia is supposed to represent the real-world sounds of things, it varies so widely between different languages.  Spanish dogs really do speak a different language from English ones, at least according to their people.  Dogs, indeed, have a wide variety of dialects, including
Albanian - hum hum
Arabic - haw haw                                     Polish - chau
Catalan - bub                                             Russian - gav gav
Cantonese - wong                                     Spanish - guau
Hindi - bho bho                                         Thai - hong hong
Indonesian - guk or gong
Japanese - (small dog) kian kian, (larger dog) wan wan

        Interestingly, although the barking of dogs varies widely, most of the world seems to hear the mewing of cats in pretty much the same way.  A few, including Japanese, begin with n, and  Korean cats apparently say yaong, which must be more of a yowl.  But the Korean dogs make up for it by mewing meong meong!
        At Thanksgiving every year I start thinking about animals in different countries around the world, because every year we donate farm animals through Heifer International.  So this year I thought I’d look up what some of those animals will be saying.  At first I really tried to match up the animals and the languages of the countries to which Heifer sends them, but that turned out to be too difficult.  So while I certainly have some of those pairings here, I’ve also included other languages for which I could find interesting data.

        First, the heifers themselves.  Cows, like cats, seem to speak a pretty similar language around the world.  English-speaking cows in Uganda say moo, while Russian-speaking cows say mu-u-u, and Spanish-speaking cows in Honduras say muuu.  But Urdu-speaking cows break the trend with baeh, and Bengali-speaking cows say hambaa!
        Goats and sheep sound fairly similar to each other.  In English the difference is generally perceived to be that sheep bleat with a b, while goats bleat with an m, and this is also true in Russian and Thai, but in Spanish and French both sheep and goats start their words with b, and in German both start with m.
        Ducks, unlike cows or sheep, have a lot of fun variation around the world.
Vietnamese - cạp                                      Danish - rap
Russian - krya                                           Romanian - mac
Spanish - cua                                             Estonian - prääks
Urdu - quak                                               Turkish - vak
Hungarian - háp                                       Thai - kab or kap or gâap
French - coin                                              Bulgarian - paa

        So do pigs.
French (don’t forget this includes countries such as Senegal and Cameroon) - groin-groin
Thai - khrok (or uut)                              Cantonese - heng
Vietnamese -  ụt                                      Japanese - boo boo
Russian - hrgu-hrgu                              Dutch - knor knor
Spanish - oinc                                          Danish - øf

        And finally, bees.  Languages in which bees sound like buzzz or bzzz include English, Armenian, Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Hebrew, Hungarian, Latvian, Polish, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish, and Urdu.  Clearly we’re onto something, here!  Turkish is a very close vzzz, while Italian, Marathi, and Tagalog are simply zzzz and Russian is zh-zh-zh.  Finnish bees sound like surr, and German and Greek go with a zumm sound, perhaps a cross between the buzz and a hum.  But Asian bees tend to take a wholly different tack, with humming nasal sounds instead.  What fun!
Mandarin - wēng wēng                         Korean - boong
Indonesian - nguing                               Thai - hung hung
Japanese - bun

        I feel the need to add the caveat that I have personal experience of very few of these languages and words.  I’ve gathered most of them from around the internet, and for many of them I found variations in spelling and in form.  Keep in mind that these are the sort of word that tends to be much less “official” and “correct” than many words, and thus allows for much greater latitude.  Consider the possibilities in English: cows invariably say moo, but dogs can say woof, arf, bow wow, yip, yap, and ruff ruff, which is quite a range even just within one language.  No wonder there’s such a range around the whole world!
        Does thinking about these animal sounds in different languages make you happy?  If they please you, just imagine how happy they would make someone for whom the sound of a cow or ducks in the yard might mean the difference between malnutrition and health, between poverty and sufficiency, or between keeping their children at chores all day or sending them to school.  Consider sharing these happy animal noises around the world this holiday season by donating to Heifer International.

[Pictures: Holstein, wood engraving by Thomas Bewick from A General History of Quadrupeds, 1790 (Image from Biodiversity Heritage Library);
cover illustration, wood block print by Mary Azarian from A Farmer’s Alphabet, 1981;
Vrow Zittend naar Rechts, een koe Melkend (Woman seated facing right, Milking a Cow), woodcut by Jan Mankes, 1914 (Image from William P Carl Fine Prints).]

November 24, 2015

Everyday Printmaking Supplies

        One of the things that really allowed me to get going with rubber block printing some twenty years ago is the fact that it can be done in a small space, is relatively easy to interrupt and clean away as needed, and doesn’t require much expensive equipment.  Indeed, these are exactly the qualities that made linoleum block printing take off as a popular medium at the beginning of the twentieth century.  So I prefer to use proper cutting tools for carving and a proper brayer for rolling the ink, but all the other equipment I use is ordinary, everyday objects repurposed for printmaking.  Here are some of those homemade, cheap tools.
        glass - The plate on which I roll out my ink is the glass from a broken picture frame.  You could just as easily use a mirror without a frame, and both picture frames and mirrors are often available for small change at yard sales, or for free in other people’s trash.  Not only is the plain glass just as good as any fancy ink plate you might buy, but it’s actually better than the metal ones you may see for sale, which simply aren’t smooth enough to work well.  (I’ll note that I bought plexiglass plates for my students, to eliminate the risk of breaking or of cuts from the edge of the glass, but for myself, I just have to be a little careful when handling the edge.)
        wooden spoon - Instead of a press or a baren I use this beautiful wooden paddle/spoon.  I bought it at one of those stores that sells cheap overstocks, cut off the long handle, and sanded the stump a little.  If you go this route, the important qualities to look for are smoothness and flatness.  A spoon with a curved bowl may push too far down into carved out areas, and may also distort the rubber more when pressing.
        thumb tack - Very small circles are almost impossible to carve well, but a thumb tack makes quite nice tiny round dots on a print.  If you merely push in and pull out, the hole will be too small even to show up, but if you push down quite deep and wiggle the thumbtack around in a circular motion, you get a good dot.  (Now I just need to figure out an easy way to carve small circles just one size up.)
        toothbrush - The best tool there is for cleaning blocks.  The rubber blocks have to be cleaned both before and after printing.  Before printing the toothbrush helps scrub off any little clinging threads of rubber that didn’t quite get carved free.  Your fingers alone don’t knock off the bits that are still slightly attached.  (Cleaning also removes grease, the powder that keeps the rubber sheets from sticking to each other, dust, cat hair, graphite, or anything else that might flaw the inking.)  After printing, the toothbrush scrubs ink out of even the tightest crevices.
        daubers - I made these to add small areas of different colors of ink to printing blocks.  I don’t guarantee that they’re the best possible tool, but they’re the best thing I’ve tried.  They consist simply of a small bit of polyester fiber stuffing wrapped in flannel and secured with a rubber band.  (I have two sizes, but of course even the smaller can’t be incredibly accurate in inking, so I don’t expect to be too precise.)  They can be washed out with soap and water in the sink - just squeeze them a lot under the water to make sure they’re thoroughly rinsed - reshape if necessary, and allow to dry.
        The thing about relief printmaking is that it’s a poor artist’s medium, and a busy-with-other-things-in-life artist’s medium.  If you wanted to you could use an ordinary fine knife blade to carve ordinary household objects such as erasers or potatoes, and ink them with an ordinary paintbrush.  You might not have to buy any supplies at all.  So don’t think you need to get a fancy professional setup in order to get started.  Use your imagination and see what you can come up with.

[Picture: some printmaking supplies, photo by AEGN, 2015.]

November 20, 2015

Fantasy Picture Books that are Poetry

        There’s a genre of fantasy poetry that’s often overlooked, which is picture books written in verse.  Admittedly, much of the poetry isn’t very good poetry from a scholarly perspective.  It’s usually doggerel, and almost always a simple AA BB rhyme pattern.  It’s all too common to find filler words or other dilutions of power in order to force the words into the rhythm or rhyme scheme, and sometimes the rhythm is a bit sketchy anyway.  These picture book poems seldom pierce the heart with their clarity or insight, their way of distilling the essence of a moment in life.  Still, let’s think about what, at its most basic, a poem is called upon to do: to catch in our minds, to paint pictures and draw emotions, to make us happy or satisfy us with its Rightness.  I suspect that, despite their limitations of poetic style,  for their intended audiences many of the best verse-form picture books do just that.  Finally, for children there’s the added benefit that poetry builds verbal skills in a special way and encourages the focus on language elements and the playing with language that are essential for true literacy.  So this month I’ve collected a handful of fantasy picture books written in rhyme.

The Duchess Bakes a Cake written and illustrated by Virginia Kahl - This is one from my childhood.  With its line illustrations that are printed with only three colors (black, red, and green) this one might not seem very prepossessing to today’s children.  The fact is, though, that I’ve remembered it fondly all this time, so it must have something!  The Duchess tries to make “a lovely light luscious delectable cake,” adds far too much leavening, and rises, atop the dough, up up and away into the sky, out of reach of her family.  It’s a silly story with silly details (some of them appropriately medieval), and a pleasingly rollicking rhythm.  

The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg written and illustrated by Bill Peet - One of my favorites from my childhood, a dove hatches a large egg which turns out to contain a baby griffin.  With that time-honored theme of so many children’s stories, the other birds are suspicious of the strange beast, until he saves the day and changes everyone’s minds.  The animals in Peet’s illustrations always have lots of wonderful expressions that are immediately recognizable and understandable to children, and his verse, with relatively long lines and varied vocabulary, manages not to sound babyish.  Peet has written some other books in verse, too.

Horton Hears a Who! written and illustrated by Dr Seuss - Another one from my childhood, of course, but unlike some older books, Dr Seuss never goes out of style.  With its classic moral “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” Horton the elephant protects the dust-speck sized world of the Whos from gratuitously nasty jungle creatures, and it’s only when every single last Who, no matter how small, does his part that they are able to save their world.  No, it isn’t ecologically accurate that elephants and kangaroos live in the same jungle, nor does it really make sense that Horton goes through all the trouble to find the Who dust speck when it presumably would have been perfectly safe left in the huge field of clover, but we don’t care.  Everyone loves Horton and the Whos anyway, with Seuss’s classic style that uses words appropriate to early readers, but manages to stretch them, with the addition of a few pleasing nonsense-words of his own, miraculously far.

Dr Seuss of course has many many fantastical books in verse, which I’d place into two categories: those which tell stories with a full plot, including Horton, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Lorax, The Sneeches, and many others, and those which simply embroider imaginatively on a theme, including And To Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street, McElligot’s Pool, and Scrambled Eggs Super.  One of my favorites in this latter category is

If I Ran the Circus written and illustrated by Dr Seuss - Like Seuss’s other books in this style, this one simply describes a wide variety of imaginary places, actions, and creatures.  What makes me especially fond of this one is the character of mild-mannered Sneelock, who becomes the unwitting hero in so many of the circus’s most outrageous acts, all without blinking an eye or losing his un-PC but contemplative ever-smoking pipe.

A Gold Star for Zog written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler - A new take on the classic dragon, princess, knight relationship, Zog is learning how to be a proper dragon, with a little help from a girl who turns out to be a princess.  There are repeated refrains in the poetry, which children generally find very satisfying.  The Donaldson/Scheffler team has created many rhyming books with fantasyish themes, including Superworm, Charlie Cook’s Favorite Book, and their most famous The Gruffalo.

Mrs. Biddlebox written by Linda Smith and illustrated by Marla Frazee - A grumpy witch decides to bake the day.  In some ways this book is the most sophisticated poetry with its series of really interesting similes and images: she twirls up the fog like spaghetti, unravels the sun by pulling on a ray, and rolls up the sky like a carpet.  Unlike many of the other books featured today, there’s no moral or message.  She makes the day into a cake, eats it, and goes to bed.  That’s it.  It could spark some fun creative discussions - especially to head off grumpiness on tiresome days! - for children and parents to brainstorm together how they might deal with a bad day, or celebrate a good one.

        Finally, here are a few other books I came across in my search, that I don’t have room to go on about in greater detail.
The Magic Hat by Mem Fox
Hubble Bubble Granny Trouble by Tracey Corderoy
If I Built a Car by Chris van Dusen
I’m sure there are many, many more, and I’m sure I’m missing some real treasures, but as I don’t know of a way to search the library catalogue for fantasy and verse in picture books, these were just a sampling of those that I’ve come across.

[Pictures: Then by holding his long lion tail in her beak,
Myrtle supported the last half of Zeke
And the griffin went gliding along on the breeze
While the dove gently steered him around through the trees.
                illustration by Bill Peet from The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg, 1963;
And now Here! In this cage
Is a beast most ferocious
Who’s known far and wide
As the spotted atrocious…
But the great Colonel Sneelock is just the right kind
Of a man who can tame him.  I’m sure he won’t mind.
                illustration by Dr Seuss from If I Ran the Circus, 1956;
When the fog gave her the whiffles,
She held her broomstick steady,
Stabbed the dreary lot of it,
And twirled it like spaghetti!
                illustration by Marla Frazee from Mrs. Biddlebox by Linda Smith, 2002.]

November 17, 2015

Finishing Up Autumn

        My latest print is a four-block effort.  (I’m getting to be doing so many prints with color I’ll have to change the name of this blog!)  Knowing that registration is always a problem, I deliberately designed something with wiggle room.  I was picturing something much bolder and less detailed than my usual style.  The result certainly is different, and not quite how I envisioned it in my head before starting, which always makes it hard for me to figure out whether or not I like it!
        The first job was a sketch of the complete design with all four elements together.  I then made copies of the sketch and cut out a single element from each one, and transferred the four elements to separate pieces of rubber.  The carving went very quickly as none of the single blocks is very detailed.  The harder, more time-consuming part was the printing.
        Step 1 was to prepare some paper with a colored layer.  I cut and adhered the paper, and waited for it to dry.  I made a batch of prints with this chine collé layer, and another batch without, to see which came out better.  (In the end, I’ve decided to keep a mixed edition with some of each.  The subtly colored paper isn't very visible in the finished print anyway.)
        Step 2 was to print the first block, the red leaves in the background.  This was perfectly straightforward, although the texture of the colored paper made it a little harder to get strong, smooth color.  Then they had to dry.
        Step 3 was the second block, the black trunks.  After a few initial fumbles, I figured out that the best way to get the second block in the right place was to lay the printed paper face
up and then set the inked block down onto it face down, lining up with one side.  I then flipped the paper and block over to press.  Then they had to dry.
        Step 4 was the third block, the yellow-orange layer of leaves.  This brought me the problem I’ve had before with printing light ink over dark: it simply isn’t as opaque as I’d like.  Stupid me for forgetting about that little issue!  I definitely need to track down some more opaque yellow ink one of these days.  Still, the design of the block is such that it’s kind of okay to have the colors blend a little instead of being entirely sharply defined.  Then they had to dry.
        Step 5 was the fourth block, the paler trunks in the foreground.  This is the only block for which registration really mattered, because the single red leaf needed to line up with a blank area in the trunks.  That meant I had to make sure the grey block was lined up with the red block, which meant that I couldn’t line it up with the yellow block at the bottom.  Having the trunks float above the leaves doesn’t make as a much sense from a photographic perspective, and bothers my simple, literal mind somewhat.  On the other hand, it isn’t as if this was ever intended to look like “real life.”  It was really just intended to capture the glimpse of color and shape I saw framed by a window several weeks ago when the leaves were at their peak.  And then they had to dry.
        So here I am at the end of my autumnal block.  I have a plan to print these four blocks again with a summer color scheme, but I don’t feel like it just now.  All the leaves are gone now anyway, except some oaks, and it’s time to be planning new blocks to carve during my upcoming holiday sales.

[Pictures: first block of Autumn Maples;
two blocks of Autumn Maples;
three blocks of Autumn Maples;
Autumn Maples, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015 (sold out).]

November 13, 2015

Just Doing My Job

        I like to think that writing is my calling.  Perhaps that sounds like a grandiose statement, as if I’m claiming to be some sort of prophet or chosen one, but I just mean it in the ordinary, everyday sense that we all have a right and proper job to do with our lives (or, more accurately, a variety of right and proper jobs, at different times and places through our lives.)  There’s an argument to be made that giving the writing a serious name and crediting it with a serious purpose might take the fun out of it, that it would be better to do it for joy and to consider the joy of it reason enough.  I don’t think these two ideas are contradictory - indeed, one of the main reasons I suspect that the writing is a true calling is that I find it such a source of joy.  However, naming something as a calling does have certain implications.
        There is an important right that comes from naming writing as my calling, with claiming that it’s not merely my hobby to string together sentences in text, but  my true and proper job to tell stories and share them.  It’s a matter of prioritization.  There are many things I should do every day or every week, and many competing claims for my time and energy.  Some things have to be done no matter what my mood or inclination, like making sure dinner is on the table every evening, paying the bills, and listening when a child really needs to talk.  Some things have more wiggle room, like whether I can put off mending that sweater for another week, how dirty I’m willing to let the bathroom get before I clean it properly, and listening when a child is bored and wants entertainment.  Somewhere in this prioritization of things to do, I slot in my hobbies: do I have time to read a fun book for a while?  Shall I take a break for a word game between laundry and dinner?  Do I have a great idea for some entertaining project that I want to spend the afternoon on?  If writing stories is a hobby, it gets fit in, perhaps a little guiltily, when I feel that I’ve given proper attention to the jobs I really ought to be doing.  But if writing is one of my right and proper jobs, if writing is one of the things I really ought to be doing, I have the right (indeed the responsibility) to prioritize it differently.  Instead of setting it aside when someone or something else wants my attention, I need to make time and space for it.  Instead of dropping the writing when something else comes up, I get to say, “Not now.  I’m working.”
        Always rights come with responsibilities, and along with this right to make writing a priority, if I name it my job, I also have the responsibility to do it properly.  If writing is my calling, that means it’s my contribution to the world, and I have to do it to the best of my ability.  I can’t be doing it just for my own amusement or self-gratification.  Rather, I have to push myself to learn and develop, I have to try to discern and follow leadings, and I have to do my best to use this job to make the world a better place.  But, and this is the wonderful thing about a calling, that responsibility doesn’t sound like a chore; it sounds like a joy.
        Admittedly, it feels sometimes like a daunting joy.  I wonder whether I’m heading the right direction, or doing all I can.  When I was a kid I’d have sleepovers with my friend Jennie, and sometimes we’d play a game with our sleeping bags.  We’d crawl headfirst into the sleeping bags and stand up, completely blind, without much use of our arms, and half-suffocated.  Then we’d spin around a few times until we’d lost all sense of direction, and set off shuffling across the bedroom until we ran into something and had to guess what it was.  The bed?  The bureau?  The radiator?  Each other?  Sometimes writing as a calling feels like that.  I’m blind, insensitive, dizzy, stumbling in the dark, wondering where I’m going and whether I’ll run into something painful or breakable at any moment.  Maybe I’m lost, maybe I’m just wasting my time, and maybe I’m not even very good at this…  but also like our childhood sleeping bag game, I’m smiling the whole time at the sheer ridiculous, miraculous fun of it.

[Picture: Writing, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009.]

November 10, 2015

Fiery Salamanders

        This weekend I was at Roslindale Open Studios, and I had brought several small simple blocks to work on.  This turned out not to be enough - for my next show, in December, I’m determined to bring something ridiculously huge and detailed to be sure to keep me busy!  (It was a great weekend, though, so I’m willing to overlook the inconvenience of not having enough carving.  The absolute star of the show was the steampunk bat!)  And now that I’m back home in my studio, I’ve been printing the blocks I carved.
        Here’s the first one I’ll share, the mythical salamander.  For the details on this creature, you can read my earlier post about it.  In the design I had the idea to give it a border, and I tried to make the border set off from the center of the block, but simultaneously growing naturally out of it.   I also worked on making the salamander himself fiery, to make it very clear that this isn’t just an ordinary real-life salamander!
        As you can see, I tried two different experiments with printing my block.  For the top variant I painted the paper with watercolor, then printed with black ink on top of the color.  For the bottom variant I inked the block with black, then rolled the edges of the block with red ink all the way around before printing.  I do like the brighter, more fiery one better, but I think the other is pretty cool, too, in a more smoldering sort of way.

[Pictures: Fiery Salamander, two variations, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015.]

November 6, 2015

Get to Work

        I’ll be at Roslindale Open Studios this weekend, so I’ve been making up new calendars and note cards, matting and framing original prints, and preparing blocks to carve.  I had a meeting to go to last night and I have another tonight.  So am I in the mood to spend my time today writing a deep and substantive blog post?  No, I am not.  What better time, therefore, to share some of the things creative people through the ages have said about getting the inspiration to create something.

Inspiration is for amateurs - the rest of us just show up and get to work.
                Chuck Close, artist  (I’ve also seen something similar attributed to Stephen King.)

Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.
                Isabelle Allende, writer

A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.
Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.
                Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, composer

Don’t wait for moods.  You accomplish nothing if you do that.  Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.
                Pearl S. Buck, writer

To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.
                Pablo Picasso, artist

The desire to write grows with writing.
                Desiderius Erasmus, writer

You fail only if you stop writing [or, more broadly, creating].
                Ray Bradbury, writer

[Picture: Painter and His Canvas, linoleum cut by Pablo Picasso, 1963 (Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art).]

November 3, 2015

Dale DeArmond's Prints

        Dale DeArmond (USA, 1914-2006) lived most of her life in Alaska, where she was a librarian and an artist.  Her wood block prints and wood engravings are very much rooted in Alaska, depicting mostly animals, scenes, and traditional native stories.  Her animals have lots of accurate details, but are definitely stylized.  They often look pretty friendly, especially the ones I’ve chosen to share here.  Many of DeArmond’s prints have multiple colors, but of course I’ve mostly picked out black and white.
        DeArmond is one of those artists whose work has a definite sense of place.  She comes back to similar themes, people, and animals over and over.  Although some of her animals, such as the chickadees, could be seen anywhere, many of her prints are instantly recognizable as being from only one possible region of the world.  It isn’t just the subjects, but the style as well.  Although I don’t believe that DeArmond
was of Native Alaskan ancestry, much of her work has a definite flavor of the aesthetic style of native Alaskan peoples.  This is more evident in the illustrations of folktales which I haven’t included, but you can certainly see it not only in the mask-like face of the moon in the last image, but also the shapes and contours in the glowing sky.

        I’d love to see more of DeArmond’s illustration work, but unfortunately very few of her books are available in my library system.  Still, there’s much to enjoy in the images here.  I love the wood grain background of the duck, the patterns of its feathers, and the shape of its face and beak.  I love the huge halibut and the tiny fishing boat, like my leviathan, except that it seems more like a sort of icon of Halibutness, rather than a picture of an actual monster fish.  I like the single red swirl of the sun, too.  I love all the light in the night scene, the glowing creatures in the teeming ocean, and the light surrounding the people and the kayak.  Despite the awfully big waves, they seem protected by the night.
        It’s obvious that DeArmond loved Alaska and celebrated it with her art, and that’s exactly why I make art, too: to celebrate the things I love and share them with others.

[Pictures: Duck on a Rock, wood block print from multiple blocks by Dale DeArmond;
Eskimo Village, wood block print by DeArmond, before 1986;
Halibut, wood block print by DeArmond, 1973;
Chickadees, wood engraving by DeArmond, 1958(?) (Images from Ahgupuk Art);
Cover image, wood relief print by De Armond for Tales from the Four Winds of the North, 1996.]

October 30, 2015

Words of the Month - Weird Etymologies

        If there’s something strange in your neighborhood…
        If there’s something weird and it don’t look good
        Who you gonna call?  Ghostbusters!
        Yeah, it’s that time of year when strange things may be seen in your neighborhood, but instead of calling Ghostbusters, I will, of course, pin my faith on etymology.  Here are a handful of interesting origins for some of English’s many ways of referring to the strange and uncanny…

strange - The different meanings of strange in the English language continue to coexist (as illustrated by the Doors’ “People are strange when you’re a stranger…”)  We can still talk about strange meaning “foreign or unfamiliar” (our original, late 13th century meaning, from French, from Latin) while about a century later we gained the meaning “queer, surprising.”  The shift from one meaning to the other is pretty straightforward, too.  Think of the word outlandish, by way of comparison.  But some of our other odd words are a little odder.

odd - In Old Norse the word oddi began as a triangle, shifted to refer to the unmatched point of an isosceles triangle, and the points of other things, such as spearheads and promontories, and also the extra number or object in excess of an even set.  For example, the odd man breaks a tie in voting.  English borrowed the word with this meaning around 1300, where it took around a century to gain the sense of “rare, special.”  Think of the similar two senses of singular, by way of comparison.  The concept of the “odd one out” led eventually to our “strange, peculiar” meaning around 1580.

weird - In Old English wyrd was a noun meaning “fate, destiny.”  By Shakespeare’s time the word was pretty much extinct, having been replaced by Latinate words.  It did remain, however, in Scots dialects, meaning a witch (one who controls people’s fates), and appearing most commonly in the phrase “the weird sisters,” meaning the Fates in the classical sense, but generally thought of as hideous, uncanny witches.  That’s how Shakespeare found the word when he was raiding Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande for plots.  From the strange spellings in the First Folio of Macbeth, it’s actually unclear whether Shakespeare understood the word’s real meaning or just borrowed it willy-nilly.  At any rate, as time went on and the only place English speakers ever encountered this uncommon word was to describe the three ghastly, deformed, supernatural witches in productions of Shakespeare’s play, they interpreted it accordingly.  Thus by the early 19th century the word had gained new life and currency, but with the meaning “strange (adj),” instead of “fate (n).”

bizarre - A more recent addition to English (around 1640), borrowed from French, which borrowed it from Italian.  The Italian bizarro meant “irascible, tending to quick flashes of anger,” which shifted toward “unpredictable” and thence to “strange.”

peculiar - A prime example of an Inkhorn Term, English gained this word in the mid 15th century from Latin “private property,” literally “property in cattle.”  In English it first meant “belonging exclusively to one person,” but it wasn’t long before it gained the sense of “special,” and from there shifted to “unusual.”

        What’s kind of fun about these words is that they all began in different places, and converged over the centuries on the sense of… well, weird.  It’s interesting that we seem to keep adapting new words to try to get at that meaning from all different directions.  After all, isn’t weird almost by definition the stuff that’s hard to describe or explain?  But the beauty of language and its essentially social nature is that no matter how hard it is to talk about something, we never stop trying.

[Pictures: Macbeth and Banquo meet the Weird Sisters, woodcut from Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed, 1577 (Image from the Folger Shakespeare Library);
Choleric Men Drinking (i.e. bizarro), woodcut by Erhard Schön, c. 1530 (Image from Quadriformisration).]