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.]