June 28, 2016

Words of the Month - Let Them Eat Cake

        Summer is birthday season in our house: not only this blog, but five of the six people living in our house have summer birthdays.  And lots of birthdays mean lots of cakes.  In honor of which, this month I’m serving up linguistic trivia relating to that most iconic of desserts.

cake - Entering English from Old Norse, the word originally denoted any sort of roundish cooked dough, usually more bready than sweet.  (We can still talk of crab cakes and cakes of soap, for example).  Only in the fifteenth century did sweetness become a standard part of the definition.  Although cake has cognates in the Germanic languages, the Romance languages don’t share cognate words.  French is gâteau, Italian is torta, and Spanish is pastel, the first two of which, at least, English has borrowed, because you can never have too many ways to talk about cake.

icing on the cake - The icing on the cake literally appeared in the eighteenth century with the growing of sugarcane in European colonies, but the idiom meaning "a crowning benefit added to something already good" is apparently from the mid-twentieth century.  In a touch of irony, no one in our family likes icing very much, and we often end up scraping the icing off the cake!  Or, of course, not putting it on our birthday cakes in the first place.  (We don’t much like maraschino cherries on top, either, ruining that synonymous dessert idiom, as well.)

a piece of cake - The OED lists the first use of this idiom to 1936 (coming after its synonymous dessert idiom easy as pie from 1913).  Our family have been enjoying “The Great British Bake Off” recently, which certainly aims to prove that making a piece of cake or a pie is not necessarily easy.  It’s the eating that’s no problem at all.

to have one’s cake and eat it, too - One of my most-used idioms (although I more commonly say “You can’t have it both ways”), this one is intended to indicate the impossibility of having and eating simultaneously rather than consecutively.  Its first recorded use in English is in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs from 1562.

Let them eat cake! - Popularly attributed to French queen Marie Antoinette as evidence of her cluelessness and insensitivity toward the common people’s troubles, the same words had also been attributed to various other princesses and nobility.  Most notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau mentioned this phrase as being spoken by “a great princess” at least a century before Marie Antoinette was to have said it.  (In the original French, by the way, it isn’t cake anyway but brioche.  But if you don’t have bread or brioche?  In that case, by all means eat cake!)

[Pictures: Birthday cake card, linocut by Heather Smith (Image from her Etsy shop Cosmikgoo);
Marie-Antoinette, engraving, I can’t figure out a date (Image from Bibliotheque nationale de France).]

June 24, 2016

Happy Birthday!

        This blog is now six years old and over 625 posts featuring gorgeous art, inspiring fantasy, and incredible wisdom and insight (or something like that.)  Six years of blogging may not be a particularly useful accomplishment, but it’s certainly an accomplishment of some sort, so I went looking for some relief block prints of celebrations.  I soon discovered that most depictions  of revelry in the history of art are not exactly my kind of party.  Exhibit 1: this fabulous woodcut of an appalling gang of drunk and disorderly party animals from the mid-seventeenth century.  Smoking, drinking, brawling, and barfing just aren't my idea of fun.

      So I looked for more festive images and found this charming group of revellers, also listed as a seventeenth century woodcut.  Frankly, I have my doubts.  I think the people look much more like the early twentieth century in style, and their clothes definitely aren't seventeenth-century.  The solid black banner in the middle would be quite unusual in an early wood block print, and the scalloped pattern on the ground seems more modern to me, too.  So I wish I could get more information on this.  (Oh, the frustration of the internet.)  Still, I find the image delightful, no matter when it was made.
        Perhaps I’d better just forget the party scheme.  Maybe this group of jesters and fools is more appropriate to illustrate six years of blogging - a foolish endeavor, no serious utility, but hopefully some entertainment value!

[Pictures: The Industrious Smith, wood block print from a ballad by Humphrey Crouch, 1833-52 (Image from Shaping Sense, and English Broadside Ballad Archive);
Villagers dancing around a maypole, woodcut, seventeenth century? (Image from Hidden Highgate);
Rural Recreations, wood block print from a ballad, 1641-1703 (Image from English Broadside Ballad Archive).]

June 21, 2016

Picasso's Garden

        June is bustin’ out all over, and I’ve been busy watering my real plants and sketching some art plants.  So here’s a funny plant by Pablo Picasso.  It looks like a reduction block print, although it could also be done with two blocks, but either way it’s got very little detail.  It has the look of a sketch or doodle more than a planned and polished piece.  Note, too, the dates in the upper corner, which are backwards.  Obviously Picasso didn’t plan these numbers, but carved straight into the block without remembering to work in reverse.  The printing, on the other hand, done by a professional printer rather than Picasso himself, is quite meticulous, richly black and perfectly registered.
        Pablo, Pablo, how does your garden grow?  I don’t know why these little bulls are climbing around on the flower stems like prancing caterpillars.  Picasso uses bulls frequently in his art, often to represent himself, but I won’t attempt a psychoanalysis here.  I simply enjoy the incongruity of the fierce, macho beasts transformed into cute little critters on the garden flowers.

[Picture: Plant with Little Bulls, linoleum cut by Pablo Picasso, 1959-60 (Image from The Met).]

June 17, 2016

Mythical U

        And now we enter those dark, inhospitable regions of the alphabet, where few words dwell.  From having to cull down long lists of possible beasts to feature, choosing only those exceptional stars that are most famous or most intriguing to me, I am now reduced to combing desperately through every cabinet of curiosities in the hope of discovering a few obscure creatures I’d never heard of before.  So here we are, with a pitiful handful of U’s.

undine - Elemental beings of water first named by alchemist Paracelsus, undines are always female, and usually to be found in pools and waterfalls.  Sometimes they are simply another kind of nymph.  They are humanoid, beautiful, and often with beautiful singing voices, but nevertheless, undines have no souls.  (European)

Unhcegila - Although a huge monster with a long scaly body, fiery eyes, iron-hard claws, and a fanged mouth obscured by smoke, Unhcegila didn’t need the claws or fangs to be lethal.  Anyone who saw her went blind, then insane, and then died on the fourth day.  The only way to kill her was to shoot her in the heart, which was a flashing red crystal under the seventh spot on her head.  Accounts of her demise vary, but you don’t need to worry any more - she’s dead now.  (Lakota)

umbrellaphant - Very much like an African elephant in size and general appearance, the umbrellaphant has evolved large umbrella-like structures, presumably of skin stretched over a skeletal framework, that function as parachutes and allow it to float downward safely from
great heights.  There are two species of umbrellaphant: the tusk-umbelled umbrellaphant, in which the parachute-like structures grow from the tips of each tusk, and the trunk-umbelled umbrellaphant, in which a single parachute grows from the end of the trunk.  Previously mentioned here.  (relatively recent discovery)

unicorn - Though sparsely populated, U does at least have the distinction of hosting one of the most famous and popular of all mythical creatures.  Previous post here.  (European)

[Pictures: Illustration by Arthur Rackham from Undine by De La Motte Fouqué and Courtney, 1912 (Image from Books Around the Table);
Young Unicorn, linoleum block print by AEGN, 2015 (sold out).]

June 14, 2016

The Watcher in the Woods

        It’s time for another fantasy poem, and this one just might psych you out.  Oh, the first verse sounds all pretty and sentimental, but what is lurking in the woods?

  Deep in the wood’s recesses cool
  I see the fairy dancers glide,
  In cloth of gold, in gown of green,
  My lord and lady side by side.

  But who has hung from leaf to leaf,
  From flower to flower, a silken twine –
  A cloud of grey that holds the dew
  In globes of clear enchanted wine?

  Or stretches far from branch to branch,
  From thorn to thorn, in diamond rain,
  Who caught the cup of crystal pure
  And hung so fair the shining chain?

  ‘Tis death, the spider, in his net,
  Who lures the dancers as they glide,
  In cloth of gold, in gown of green,
  My lord and lady side by side.

        The poet, Dora Sigerson Shorter (Irish, 1866-1918), was active in the Irish Literary Revival, and her poetry is heavy on the usual themes of the movement: Irish mythology and folklore, tragic romanticism, ghosts, broken hearts, angels and demons, and smatterings of Irish words and phrases.  If I sound a little condescending it’s because I think her poetry is distinctly second-rate when compared with, for example, Yeats.  But to give her her due, I was amused by the twist in this poem, and any modern cynic should be satisfied by the image of pretty, gliding fairies being caught and devoured by devious spiders.

[Picture: Red Cross poster, lithograph by Basilio Cascella, c 1920 (Image from Wellcome Images).]
Poem from The Story and Song of Black Roderick, 1906.

June 10, 2016


        Here’s the latest art, something I’d been imagining for quite some time but just completed and printed this week.  Traditionally blueprints are actually cyanoprints - sun prints just like the ones you may have made as a child by laying objects on the specially treated paper and leaving it in the sun to expose.  This method of reproduction was devised long before modern photocopying, and even longer before scanning and using digital reproductions, and was used to make accurate copies of architectural  and engineering designs.  Designs were drawn on relatively thin, translucent paper, and when the original drawing was laid over the blueprint paper, the ink or pencil of the drawing blocked the sun more than the plain paper.  The blueprint, therefore, is a negative of the original, where black shows up white and white shows up blue.
        I thought of carving a faux blueprint design because I love old architectural and engineering designs, and because I thought it would work really well to carve the white lines into a block and print in blue ink.  My design is based on old patent applications, which may not be historically accurate as the drawings that were most likely to be copied into blueprints in the nineteenth century, but it bundled into the mix another fun historical aspect.  There have been some pretty cool, wacky devices that applied for patents in the past few centuries!  Naturally I wanted my patent application blueprint to be for some sort of cool steampunk critter, and I invented this device for cleaning steam pipes.  It’s a lizard-type robot that can crawl through pipes and conduits under its own steam.  Different attachments are available to fasten onto its tail tip.  Fig. 1A shows the standard pipe-cleaning brush, but other pages of the design (alas, now missing) would have shown other possible attachments, such as different sized brushes, augers, a wire- or cable-laying spool, and so on.  Other pages also showed all the details of the device’s interior construction.  Some details worth noting on the design are the access panels in the head and body, the full range of motion and flexibility in the legs and tail allowing the device to maneuver through tight and crooked spaces, and the specially designed pads of the feet allowing the device to cling even to smooth surfaces for vertical ascension.  The patent was taken out by Cyril R. Twembly, but records show that he and his wife Henrietta E. Twembly were equal collaborators in invention.
        As for my carving, the design obviously was heavy on the words and numbers, which are always hard for me.  Mostly I’m pretty happy with it, although the date came out rather messy.  The filing words in the upper left corner didn’t transfer properly onto the rubber and had to be done without guidance, hence also being a little messier.  I also should have put in some scale measurements, which I forgot about until afterwards.  Not being a perfectionist, it wasn’t worth it to me to carve and reprint the whole edition.  Finally, a real blueprint would be unlikely to have so much white, since no one would color in the whole body black in their original drawing.  However, I thought it looked better to have a bit more balance of white, so once again “accuracy” gave way to aesthetics.
        So, if you’re ever in an old building and hear the faint, metallic clink and scuffle of something in the pipes, you never know…  you may be able to discover one of the few conduit-navigating saurians ever constructed by Twembly & Twembly.

[Picture: A Device for Cleaning Steam Pipes, rubber block print by AEGN, 2016.]

June 7, 2016

Eventful Weekend

        I had two events this weekend.  First, a Spring Arts Festival on Saturday.  At my shows I generally hang a certain number of framed pieces on my display grids, and bring everything else matted and unframed in racks.  The framed pieces are usually a representative variety, with an emphasis on my newest work that the regular visitors won’t have seen before.  However, for this show I tried something new: I framed and hung every piece that had only one or two impressions remaining, in the hope of culling down some of these orphans.  Plus it was kind of fun to see all these pieces together, representing the whole stretch of what I’ve been doing over the years.  I did sell the very last of three designs, which is never as many as I would have liked, but every little bit helps.  Of course, I also finished carving a new piece, so at this rate I won't run out of art any time soon.
        The second event was technically neither block printing nor fantasy, but it was a book launch party on Sunday for a book that I illustrated.  Approved! is a story designed to introduce children to the process of Quaker decision-making, a.k.a. meeting for worship with attention to business.  It’s written by Nancy Haines, who’s a bright light in leading workshops and teaching about Quaker business meetings.  As you might imagine, a book like this has a niche audience, but in Quaker religious education circles it’s getting a lot of great buzz, and I’m excited to be part of this project.  (You can see Nancy's blog post here.)
        I first thought of doing the illustrations with block prints, of course, but I couldn't make that work to my satisfaction, so instead I devised a mixture of collage and photoshop.  This turned out to work well, because the different papers give the illustrations such cheerful bright colors and patterns.  And just for fun, I made the title page a portrait of our meeting house, which then was photo-transferred onto the cake for the party!
        And now, after that last spring hurrah, the art show season goes into summer vacation.  Except for one Sunday at the farmer’s market in July, I have no more shows until the fall.  You’d think that would mean I’d have lots of time to get busy with new work, but we’ll see…

[Pictures: AEGN at the Needham Spring Arts Festival, 2016 (Photo by MJPG);
Nancy Haines and AEGN at the book launch party for Approved!, plus the cake, 2016 (Photos by David Haines).]

June 3, 2016

Mythical T

        Today I have a nice variety of creatures for you: some traditional favorites, and some more obscure discoveries, some with a long history, and some newly identified by scientists.  And when I say “scientists,” of course I mean those people who explore and describe the regions of fantasy in all their wonderful biodiversity.

troll - Large, strong, slow-witted humanoids, trolls generally dwell in mountains and caves, but the dark area under a bridge is apparently cave-like enough to satisfy some.  They often live in family groups, and are dangerous and unfriendly to humans.  They may turn to stone if they’re touched by sunlight, like those encountered by Bilbo Baggins, and they may be frightened off by lightning, or disturbed by the sound of church bells.  (Scandinavian)

tove - According to Humpty-Dumpty, toves are something like badgers, something like lizards, and something like corkscrews.  They make their nests under sundials and live on cheese.  But as we all know, Humpty-Dumpty has a tendency to play fast and loose with definitions, so it may be instead that a tove is a species of badger with smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag.  The cheese, diet, however, is confirmed.  (Looking-Glass World)

thunderbird - There are a variety of different traditions about thunderbirds, so I’ll take that to indicate different species.  Generally, thunderbirds are strong, powerful enemies of water monsters, and can create thunder and lightning by flapping their wings.  Some species live on a mountain that floats in the western sky.  Others live at the four directions.  (various North American Indian)

tatzelwurm - With the head and front paws of a cat, and the hind-end of a serpent, it's unclear whether this is a dragonoid or a mammal, although it does have scales.  It’s about 5-7 feet long and despite having no hind legs it can leap as far as 9 feet.  They live in burrows, hibernate in the winter, and have been known to attack livestock.  One account says they have green blood.  (Alpine European)

        And the ones I’ve posted about previously.  Follow the links for more information.
tarasque - a dragonoid with a lion’s head, six legs, a turtle shell, and a tail with a scorpion sting.  (French)

time fly - a family of insects with so far unexplored properties of affecting time and memory.    (probably European)

tsukumogami - a household object that becomes alive and self-aware.  (Japanese)

[Pictures: The slithy toves did gyre and gimble, illustration by John Tenniel from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, 1871 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Baby Thunderbird, by John A. Sharkey (Image from Winn Devon);
Tarasque, ink drawing from Antiquités de Lyon, etc., sixteenth century (Image from Bibliotheque nationale de France).]