March 31, 2015

Words of the Month - Unexpectedly Sweet

       The sap is rising and all around New England there are buckets on the maple trees.  So I thought I’d collect some sweet words to boil down and present to you today.  English has many words for sweetness and sweet things.  As usual, English derived these words from a variety of different sources.  We’ll start with the Proto-Indo-European word that meant “pleasant, sweet.”  English has several words that originated in this root and retain echoes of sweetness, but which came to us through different languages that evolved from Proto-Indo-European.  First, from Latin we get persuade, meaning “recommend as pleasant,” and assuage meaning “sweeten,” or “make more pleasant.”  From Latin we also get sweet itself.  From Greek we get hedonism, meaning “the sweet life.”  (It’s hard to see the phonetic connection in that one, but it’s there, through multiple sound shifts.)
        Sugar itself, however, comes to us from Sanskrit, from a root meaning “gravel, grit.”  We got the word sugar, just as we got the sugar itself, from India by way of Arabic, since Europeans didn’t have sugar cane and used honey as their sweetener until after the Crusades.  Our word honey is from a Germanic root and may have originally described the golden color.  However, from the Latin word for honey English has ended up with mellifluous (“honey sweet”), mildew (something sticky on plants like the “honeydew” exuded by aphids), and molasses (from Latin “resembling honey.”  Interestingly, the English word has a plural form despite being considered a singular noun.  You never hear people talking about multiple molasseses, but I actually have two different molasseses in my cupboard right now!)  Also from the Proto-Indo-European honey root, but at a longer stretch, comes amethyst, a gem that was believed to guard against intoxication.  The connection is the Greek word for wine, which came from the same root meaning honey.
        But back to our Sanskrit sugarSaccharine, meaning “sugary” is from Greek, but the Greeks got it from that Sanskrit word.  And my favorite word of the day: seersucker.  This comes directly from a Persian word meaning “milk and sugar,” presumably referring to the fabric’s alternating smooth and bumpy stripes.  Seersucker is sweeter than most people give it credit for.  One more funny etymological tidbit about sugar: the OED lists the word as a substitute swear-word from 1891, but not as a term of endearment until 1930.
        (And finally, for the source of syrup, see this previous post.)
        How sweet it is to learn etymologies!

[Picture: Maple Sugar, hand-painted wood block print by Mary Azarian, c 1978 (Image from Mary Azarian).]

March 27, 2015

Aerial View

        Today’s cool wood block print is an aerial view of Amsterdam.  I don’t know either Amsterdam or the artist well enough to know the vantage point from which this view was taken.  Is it the view from some extremely tall steeple?  Or from an airplane, which in 1935 would be quite an adventuresome artist, I would think.  Or is it constructed in the artist’s imagination based on views from a lower vantage point?  At any rate, I like it a lot.  It has the quality that aerial views often have, of being simultaneously detailed and realistic yet revealing the almost abstract shapes and lines of the landscape.
        The artist Arthur Bridgman Clark (USA, 1866-1948) was an architect, who ended up a professor of art as well as architecture.  After retiring from teaching he travelled in Europe, where he made the sketches for this wood engraving and others.  I think it’s easy to see that this piece was made by someone with an interest in architecture, city planning, and perspective - all of which topics Clark wrote books about.

[Picture: Amsterdam, Holland, wood engraving by Arthur Bridgman Clark, 1935 (Image from Annex Galleries).]

March 24, 2015

Alice, Irene, and Dorothy

        March being Women’s History Month, I thought I’d mention once again fantasy as a place where female characters have always had a chance to shine.  I think it’s remarkable that many of the earliest classic fantasy books for children feature strong, adventuresome, feisty girls as protagonists.  In an era when women had few legal rights, had to struggle to participate in higher education or non-menial jobs, were relegated to the home, and were supposed to be pure angels of heavenly light while being too weak and feeble-minded to take part in any important affairs, (male) writers of juvenile fantasy were portraying interesting, active, heroic girls who made a difference.
        Beginning with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865, we see a girl who is feisty, strong-willed, and definitely neither passive nor angelic.  Perhaps the secret here was that Lewis Carroll was basing his character not on a fictional ideal but on a real child, so that Alice has both the virtues and the flaws of an actual child rather than a stereotype.  (More on Alice in a previous post.)  Whatever the reason, we’re presented with a girl who goes on an adventure, asks questions, stands up for herself, and tries to make sense of her own world rather than just accepting everything she’s told.  She even stands up to a dictator and her corrupt court at the end.
        By contrast, Irene in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, 1872, is definitely an idealized character.  She’s always good, always determined to do her duty, always tries to be obedient.  It is sometimes popular these days to reject “being good” as a goal for girls (“Well-behaved women seldom make history”) but I think there’s a very important distinction to be made here.  Irene is obedient, but she’s obedient to a higher cause.  When true goodness requires her to break rules, she does so bravely and without hesitation.  She apologizes to her nurse for causing difficulties, and then staunchly goes out and does what she feels she needs to do.  Girls (and boys, of course) shouldn’t be taught that “being good” is bad.  Rather, they should be taught that being good isn’t the same as being passive or submissive, or never rocking the boat.  Irene is sweet, gentle, and selfless, but no one can doubt her strength, courage, enterprise, or leadership.  MacDonald also includes in many of his stories Wise Women: ancient women who are the representatives of true goodness, wisdom, and strength.  Let’s not get too smug about our modern representations of fighting teen girls when we compare how old women are usually portrayed nowadays with MacDonald’s beautiful goddess-like figures.  (A little more on George MacDonald in a previous post.)
        And finally, Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900.  Dorothy is noted for her common sense, practical kindness and problem-solving, adventuresome spirit, and pluckiness.  She speaks truth to power when she can, and makes the best of bad situations when she has to.  As a feminist I see no cause for complaint.  Not that Baum is uniformly a beacon of PC progressiveness, of course; the case of General Jinjur is particularly cringe-worthy.  My point here, though, is that even in a fictional world that was undoubtedly a product of its time our hero is a girl of admirable spirit who doesn’t let others define her or force her into narrowness or passivity.
        The last of the four most famous and enduring juvenile fantasy novels from the dawn of the genre is Peter Pan, first written by J.M. Barrie as a play in 1904 and then published as a novel in 1911.  Peter Pan stands in stark contrast to the others.  All of Barrie’s female characters represent male-defined stereotypes of different archetypal roles for women, and all his female characters exist merely to gratify in their various ways the juvenile male ego of Peter Pan.  No more than one might expect of something written over a hundred years ago, you might say, which is what makes it all the more remarkable that the others are so much more enlightened.  Indeed, this is yet more evidence for the role of juvenile fantasy in making the world a better place.  I’m not an expert on the literature of this period over all, so I’m sure there’s quite a variety of different portrayals of girls and women, but I’m guessing that the “realistic” fiction of the era wasn’t presenting nearly so many girls going on so many adventures, or being so self-directed.  So here in Women’s History Month it’s worth giving some thanks to the authors in the history of juvenile fantasy who gave us the stories of such admirably adventuresome girls.  (Fantasy picture books with strong female leads in a previous post here.)

[Pictures: Alice, wood block print by George A. Walker, 2011 (Image from the Globe and Mail);
Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch of the West, wood block print by Michael McCurdy, 1999 (Image from Living, Libraries and [Dead] Languages).]

March 20, 2015

Abstract Color 3 Ways

        Time for a punch of color.  Here are three relief block prints with an emphasis on color.  The first is done with the Provincetown white line technique which I keep intending to do a whole post on someday.  I haven’t done so yet because I keep thinking I’ll try it myself first.  I’ll get there eventually I’m sure, but for now, here’s a bright and wild piece by Judith Rothschild (USA 1921-1993).
        The second piece isn’t nearly so bright, and in fact it seems to have been inked only with two shades of grey and one gradient of blue.  The brighter, more varied colors are painted into the spaces 
with watercolor.  I suppose it isn’t wholly abstract as it’s representing a flower, but it certainly looks to me as if the artist, Steven Ford (USA b. 1964) was far more concerned with shapes and colors and design than any actual real-life botany.
        And finally a piece that looks like it was made with the kindergarten potato printing or rubber stamp technique.  That is, there are 8 individually carved smaller blocks (wood, not potato!) that are inked and printed separately on the same piece.  At a guess I’d say black, green and purple were first, overlaid with blue and red, then the left yellow, then orange, then the right yellow.  Presumably the artist Mitsuaki Sora (Japan b. 1933) could have made any number of variations using the same component blocks, but I don’t know 
whether he did.  He certainly made lots of similar stuff, but I can’t quite decide whether the individual pieces are being reused.
        In fact, one characteristic of white line woodcuts is that they were often inked in several different color versions, and presumably any artwork that’s hand painted will have variations in the edition, too.  So all these pieces could have a lot of variability within their edition, and this seems good to me.  I figure if you’re going to go for abstract anyway, you may as well play with it and try something new and different for every single piece.

[Pictures: Untitled (Composition), woodcut by Judith Rothschild, c. 1955;
Cleveland Flower, color linocut with watercolor by Steven Ford, 2009;
Untitled, woodcut by Mitsuaki Sora, 1970 (All images from The Cleveland Museum of Art).]

March 17, 2015


        Saint Patrick, as everyone knows, drove all the snakes from Ireland back in the fifth century.  As a snake-loving child living in Ireland I could never forgive him - and now I learn that he was even worse than I had realized.  Because of Saint Patrick, Ireland not only no longer has snakes, but also no longer has the Oilliphéist.  The Oilliphéist (meaning “great worm/beast/monster”) was a dragonish sort of creature who must have lived on Cuilcagh Mountain, because when it heard that Saint Patrick was driving out all members of the serpent family, its escape to the ocean carved out the path that became the River Shannon.
        Interestingly, the water that filled the channel the Oilliphéist carved comes from a spring called Shannon Pot, created when Sionna, a granddaughter of a sea deity, ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge there.  As she took a bite the waters of the pool welled up, pulled her in, and proceeded to flow away, obviously taking advantage of the convenient channel left by the Oilliphéist.  And this implies that the Oilliphéist must have been living in the vicinity of the Tree of Knowledge when it heard the bad news of Saint Patrick.
        I can’t help speculating that the dragon must have eaten some of that fruit of knowledge, maybe what had fallen onto the ground, if nothing else, and therefore it was presumably pretty wise.  And if it was indeed so wise, then I think there’s a good chance that when it heard Saint Pat was coming for it, and all its little brothers and sisters, it wouldn’t just flee blindly headlong into the ocean.  After all, if it had, it would surely have reached the sea at the nearest point, at Sligo not 25 miles away.  No, instead, the River Shannon flows 224 miles right down through the whole middle of Ireland to Limerick, and this can mean only one thing.  I believe that the Oilliphéist had a plan.  It must have deliberately raced through as much of the country as it could, gathering up all the snakes of Ireland as it went.  Only then did it slither into the sea, taking all the snakes safely with it.  I like to think that the Oilliphéist and Ireland’s snakes are happily living even now somewhere on one of the mysterious western isles with which Celtic mythology is so well stocked.
        There is one footnote to the story.  Apparently on its way the Oilliphéist accidentally swallowed a drunken piper named O’Rourke.  O’Rourke was either too drunk even to notice he’d been swallowed, or was too laid-back to mind, and he kept right on playing in the Oilliphéist’s stomach.  You can imagine that a drunken piper would be quite a belly-ache, so the Oilliphéist, once again demonstrating its wisdom, spat O’Rourke back out before leaving Ireland for paradise.

[Picture: Snake and river, woodcut from Sancti Epiphanii ad Physiologum, 1577 (Image from University of Victoria).]

March 13, 2015

The Cellist

        According to our local string instrument shop, March is Cello Month.  Presumably they just want to sell us cello paraphernalia, and of course cellos really ought to be celebrated every day of every month, seeing as they’re the most beautiful instrument in the world.  But whatever.  I’ll go along with it.  So today I'll celebrate Cello Month by sharing a fun wood block print of Gauche the Cellist.  This is the illustration of a story by Kenji Miyazawa, and it’s apparently a famous and much-loved tale in Japan.  In the story Gauche, a mediocre cellist, is visited by a series of animals as he practices for an upcoming concert.  The animals teach him that music has healing powers, thus helping him in his performance at the concert.  My daughter T hasn’t been very enthusiastic about her practicing lately, and I’m quite sure talking animals would help her, too.
        This wood block print was made by Kunio Iizuka (Japan, b. 1939) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Miyazawa’s birth.  You can see three of the visiting animals, a cuckoo, a cat, and a mouse.  In this image it looks like Gauche is playing outside under the stars, which is fun.  I like the expression on his face: maybe a bit tired and discouraged, but gently stubborn.  If you’re going to keep practicing and getting better at an instrument, you need to have both stubbornness and love of the music, and it looks like the Gauche in this woodcut probably has both.

[Picture: Kenji Miyazawa’s Gauche the Cellist, woodblock print by Kunio Iizuka, 1996 (Image from Lighten Up Your Life.)]

March 10, 2015

Blow, Bugle, Blow

        It’s been a while since I shared one of the Romantic Victorian poems about fairyland, so here’s a famous one by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (England, 1809-1892).

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

        Not only the echoes of the horns of Elfland roll from soul to soul, though.  I like the thought of poetry being the same.  Surely a poem can carry echoes of image and emotion from soul to soul, and grow for ever and for ever?  Surely there’s a beautiful, uncanny magic in the power of poetry above and beyond the power of mere ordinary sentences.

[Pictures: Loch Duich, color woodcut by Ian Cheyne, 1934;
Hell’s Glen, color woodcut by Cheyne, 1928 (Images from National Galleries Scotland).]

March 6, 2015

Plane and Simple

        (Yes, I know, I’m stretching it with the punny title.)
        Here’s my second vintage airplane.  This is based on the Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing of 1927, also in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  I wanted a biplane, since they’re indisputably the coolest and most iconic of early aircraft.  However, I also was loath to celebrate a machine created and used primarily for warfare.  That makes this airplane perfect.  The Mailwing was made, as its name implies, for the U.S. Postal Service.  You’d think it might have been painted red, white, and blue, like today’s postal delivery trucks, but it was actually black with yellow wings, tail, and  writing.  In adapting it to my block I considered making the wings and tail white, but initial sketches convinced me that wouldn’t look as clear and dramatic as all black.  I also toyed briefly with the idea of making the wings and tail yellow, with a second block or simply painting the spaces afterwards, but I decided that I wanted to keep the look of the block consistent with my other vehicles, all of which have a solid color and a fairly simple, flat style.  I do plan to mat one in a bright yellow mat, though.
        In other news, I have a show up now for the month of March in the Lee Road Library in Cleveland Heights.  You can see details here.

[Picture: Pitcairn Mailwing, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015 (sold out).]

March 3, 2015

Reading Aloud Again

        Tomorrow is World Read Aloud Day, and I certainly can’t let that go by without notice.  I will, of course, be reading aloud to P and T, as I do every evening that I’m home.  Our read-aloud book at the moment is Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer.  It’s an epistolary novel consisting of the correspondence of two young ladies, cousins and best friends, one of whom is in London for her first Season, and the other remaining at the country manor.  Imagine Jane Austen in an alternate reality with magic and you’ll have the picture.  It’s nothing deep, but it is charming and a lot of fun.  This isn’t a new book for me, and indeed T had read it before on her own, as well, although so long ago that she no longer remembers much about it.  I confess that I hadn’t suggested reading it aloud before because I thought it might be too girly to appeal to P, who states that he has no interest in romance, of which this book has a fair amount.  Our heroes, Cecelia and Kate, are pretty interested in fashion, too, while P’s idea of fashion is to wear the same increasingly shabby red sweatshirt every single day of his life.  But, as usual when making assumptions,  it seems that I wasn’t giving enough credit to P or to Wrede and Stevermer.  The magical mystery and adventure are plenty to keep both my children engaged, and both Kate and Cecy are smart, energetic, and likeable.  When we finish the book we’ll see whether P (and T) have enjoyed it enough to want to continue to the next book in the series (there are three), but so far, at least, this book is going over well.  And on a final note, it’s actually a pretty good candidate for reading aloud, because while the reading level is solidly middle grade, the historical setting and vocabulary mean that sometimes it’s nice that I can explain things as we go along.
        I also want to mention another book that I read aloud this week to an audience including people of all ages from a baby through elderly retirees.  It isn’t fantasy - indeed, it’s autobiographical - but it’s potentially mind-, heart-, and world-changing in just the ways I look for in the best fantasy.  It isn’t illustrated with block prints, either, but with wonderfully expressive, sympathetic full-color paintings.  But while it’s neither block printing nor juvenile fantasy, it is a beautiful book to read aloud with anyone.  It’s Desmond and the Very Mean Word, and tells an incident from the childhood of Desmond Tutu.  When some boys hurt him, Desmond tries running away, then he tries striking back, and finally he tries reconciliation.  It’s lovely - and on Sunday even a pair of squabbling siblings in my audience got the message!  Yes, books have power, and yes, their power is often amplified by reading aloud.  So pick a good book, find someone to share it with, and read aloud!

[Pictures: A Masquerade, woodcut by Joan Hassall, from Jack & Alice by Jane Austen, 1957-62 (Image and story at;
Desmond’s new bike, painting by A.G. Ford, from Desmond and the Very Mean Word by Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams, 2012.]