August 29, 2017

Words of the Month - The Fault in Our Salmon

        In the sixteenth century as the Renaissance crashed over England it seems to have hit grammarians especially hard.  In particular, they decided that what the English language really needed was to be more like Latin, the “perfect” language.  To that end they went about tinkering with all sorts of elements of the language, including spellings, which were just beginning to become somewhat standardized with the explosion of thousands of printed texts in English.  The scholars’ primary motivation in adjusting spellings was, again, to make them more like Latin.  Certainly lots of English words have Latin roots, and certainly those Latin roots are more easily discerned in the words the sixteenth century scholars “fixed,” but in pinning the words back to their Latin roots, the spellings were hacked loose from pronunciation.  The Latinization movement is one of the larger causes of English’s crazy spelling.  Consider some of the victims of re-Latinization:

debt, doubt, and subtle got b added in defiance of pronunciation, giving us an infamous “silent b”

receipt was saddled with a silent p

indict got served with an unnecessary c

salmon and solder received their Latin l

February got its silent r

fault had an l stuck in willy-nilly… But now in many dialects the l, which ought to be silent, can be heard after all, as pronunciation has obediently shifted to match the spelling.  Why has fault’s l gained a voice while receipt’s p continues to be silent?  I really don’t know.  It’s not that fault is a rarer word to say than indict, or that the l in fault is intrinsically easier to pronounce than the l in salmon.  It’s just a mystery.

island was given a wholly gratuitous s.  The funny thing about this one is that island is not a Latinate word; it comes right down from Old English.  But some of those same over-zealous sixteenth century scholars got it confused with isle, which is derived from Latin insulaIsle had been ile, until the -s- was “restored” first in French, then in English.  Island was just an innocent bystander caught in the pedantic Latinate crossfire.

[Picture: Salmon, woodcut by Tim Stampton (Image from]

August 25, 2017

Night and Day

        Here’s a fun surreal scene by Douglas Smith.  It’s scratchboard, which makes it easier to get fine details (and correct mistakes), and still have that wonderful black and white carved look.  The lighting is really great as the girl lifts the veil of night.  I like that she’s holding a stack of books.  I think it’s a nod to the power of books to spread light, reveal new worlds, and open our eyes.
        It’s clearly related to some of RenĂ© Magritte’s surrealist paintings in which curtains or other surfaces become intertwined with “the real world” such that it becomes impossible to know which is which.  Magritte said, “We are surrounded by curtains.  We only perceive the world behind a curtain of semblance.  At the same time, an object needs to be covered in order to be recognized at all.”  An interesting way to think about art and fiction altogether.
        I can’t help thinking also of a fantasy twist in which we are discovering an entirely new, magical world.  This piece reminds me of some of the descriptions in The King of Elfland’s Daughter, in which Lord Dunsany imagined the border of Fairyland as a sort of invisible curtain across the world we know.

[Picture: Night & Day, scratchboard by Douglas Smith (Image from]

August 22, 2017

Hirschfeld Mack's Desolation

        Here is a powerful and moving piece by Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack (Germany/Australia, 1893-1965).  Hirschfeld Mack was one of thousands of Germans and Italians deported from England and interned in camps in Australia during World War II.  (This is a page of history I knew nothing about, but considering that Hirschfeld Mack was a Quaker who had left Germany because of the Nazis and was working at a social program for elderly unemployed in Monmouthshire, it underscores once again the insanity of scapegoating innocent immigrants as “enemy aliens” and treating them as criminals.)  Hirschfeld Mack made this piece in a prison camp in New South Wales, and it’s wonderfully expressive.  The texture of the barbed wire, the height of the black sky, the light-etched silhouette of the prisoner, all combine into an image that is aching with desolation, yet simultaneously conveys dignity and hope.
        Hirschfeld Mack’s art had a practical result for him, as well.  He was released in 1942 to teach art at the request of the headmaster of Geelong Grammar School, who was recruiting teachers who were masters in their field.  Again, I don’t know how common it was for internees to be released before the end of the war, or whether the headmaster had difficulty or had to provide any guarantees to secure Hirschfeld Mack’s release, but Hirschfeld Mack was a successful and beloved teacher at the school until his retirement.
        You wouldn’t guess it from this piece, obviously, but Hirschfeld Mack was particularly interested in color.  Color's wonderful, but I think black and white is perfect for this image, which is an eloquent demonstration of the power of the medium of relief block prints.

[Picture: Desolation, Internment Camp, Orange, NSW, wood block print by Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, 1941 (Image from Art Gallery NSW).]

August 18, 2017

Valerian's Universe

        The movie “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” has not been a huge success, and it’s undoubtedly because the lead characters utterly fail to engage.  But to dismiss the movie entirely is to miss the incredible achievement that is the fascinating universe in which those disappointingly uncharismatic characters exist.  Luc Besson has shown us some really special places and beings in this movie, and for our family it was worth seeing for the universe alone.
        First, the opening sequence of the movie explains the City of a Thousand Planets by giving us a history of the International Space Station in a series of parallel vignettes.  First we see weightless human astronauts on the station welcoming new humans in 2020, followed by welcoming ever more diverse humans as time clearly moves farther into the future.  Before long the first alien species arrives.  The first aliens are followed by others, ever stranger and sometimes rather scary-looking, but each time, despite nervousness or uncertainty, the human leader of the ever-larger space station extends a hand and welcomes everyone.  I found this short montage quite moving, and I loved that it was a message of hope for the future: that we can coexist if we so choose.  We are told that the enormous space city that grew from its beginnings as the International Space Station has become a place where hundreds of species live together, sharing their knowledge.  I think it’s important to envision a possible future that is positive, and that is worth working toward.  (On the other hand, David Bowie’s “Ground Control to Major Tom” (aka “Space Oddity”) seemed an odd choice of music to pair with this sequence, as I think of the song as being quite depressing!)
        As for this world where hundreds of species live together, at some times more peacefully than others, it is stunningly beautiful.  With everything in CGI instead of actors in costumes, we can have a really wide variety of species, so much more than humans with funny head-bumps.  We get aquatic species, gaseous species, tiny species and huge species, robotic species, slimy species, beautiful species, hideous species…  We get species that insist on living sequestered in their own zones, and species that aggregate and co-mingle.  We see species that live in cities in the spirit of “Blade Runner”s LA or Besson’s previous NYC in “The Fifth Element,” but we also see a variety of other landscapes, from something that looks like the interior of a huge golden computer or library, to something that looks like narrow tunnels full of glowing translucent balls.  There’s an extended sequence in which we visit a city in another dimension, such that the action takes place in an empty desert and, simultaneously superimposed over it, in a huge bazaar reminiscent of something on Tatooine.  This is a new kind of setting I’ve never seen before, and exemplifies how Besson’s universe stretches us beyond previous visions of sci fi futures.
        Sadly, the main characters and basic plot don’t live up to the magic of their universe, and it’s a terrible disappointment thinking about what this movie could have been but wasn’t.  Still,  many of the secondary characters were excellent, and when it comes right down to it I did enjoy just being in that world for a couple of hours, even if I would have preferred more engaging company.

[Pictures: Various alien species, all images from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, written and directed by Luc Besson, 2017.]

August 15, 2017


        Raubdruckerin (“pirate printer”) is a project begun by Emma-France Raff in 2006.  Like the brass rubbings I featured in the last post, Raubdruckerin prints from textured plaques that were not designed to be printing blocks and that are set in public spaces rather than being in a studio.  Specifically, they choose surfaces in the urban landscape, especially manhole covers.  They look for textured surfaces that are unique and often iconic of their place, sometimes including images, sometimes abstract designs, and often text.  Unlike brass rubbings, Raubdruckerin actually does print as any other relief block, rolling ink onto the textured surface, and pressing.  (This means any text on the original is backwards on the print.)
        I have to confess that although I’ve thought of this idea myself - around here we have plaques near our storm drains with a great design of a fish - I had never seriously considered actually doing it!  Naturally it’s a bit of an undertaking to clean the selected surface, roll it with ink, and print on it, right there in the middle of the sidewalk or street of a busy city!  Raubdruckerin makes an event of it, so that the printing becomes a performance in its own right, inviting passers-by to notice so that they, too, can appreciate the beauty of something they may have walked over hundreds of times without noticing.
        I was quite delighted when I learned about this project, and would love to see the idea emulated in more cities, including the USA.  A quick search of manhole cover pictures on the internet turns up some really gorgeous ones around the world!  To see more of Raubdruckerin’s work (or buy some), check out their web site.

[Pictures: Printing a tote bag in Bruxelles;
T-shirt printed in Berlin;
T-shirts printed in Stavanger and Lisboa (All images from raubdruckerin);
Charles River storm drain (Image from Charles River Conservancy).]

August 11, 2017

Brass Rubbing

        Brass rubbing is a particular form of relief printing in which, instead of inking the raised surface and laying paper onto the ink, paper is laid on the clean surface, and the top of the paper is rubbed with a wax stick to pick up the raised texture beneath.  Unlike a traditional block print, the image on paper will not be reversed from the block, but it also has somewhat less detail.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brass rubbing became popular in Britain to reproduce the many monumental brass plaques that had been placed in churches in the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries, so another difference between brass rubbing and block printing is that in most cases the textured plate was never intended as a printing block or designed with that in mind.  However, repeated rubbing does eventually begin to wear down the brass plaques, so many originals now forbid rubbings… and reproductions of the brass plaques are created specifically to allow rubbing, thus making them true printing blocks of a sort after all.
        Even though the brasses were not intended for printing, they sometimes have really lovely designs and textures.  I particularly like this couple’s Gothic canopy, and the husband’s chain mail and belt.  The other fun details are the lion at his feet, and the little lap dog at hers.  The woman in the gorgeous brocade gown must have been spectacularly
fashionable in life, and saw no reason to stop in death.  A quite unusual amount of work went into patterning her dress all over.  The bust of a man is, by contrast, very simple and may even have been a stock design rather than made to commission as a portrait.  Nevertheless I find it exceptionally beautiful, with its expressive eyes and careworn brow.
        In my youth my jack-of-all-crafts mother dabbled in brass rubbing while we visited the UK, and I (at age 9) joined in with scrap paper and scrap crayons, and kept the results in my scrapbook.  Two years ago at the National Museum of Ireland we found small reproduction brass plaques provided for visitors to make rubbings, but we couldn’t do a very good job, as the provided paper and wax sticks were all
almost entirely used.  You can see in my two examples the shift in brass rubbing fashion: earlier rubbings were black on white, while nowadays people favor metallic on black.
        There’s no reason the rubbing plate has to be brass, of course.  In the United States it used to be not uncommon to make rubbings of colonial gravestone designs.  One difference between the monumental brasses and the colonial gravestones is that the former are, as far as I can tell, carved by anonymous artists, while the gravestones are often initialed by their creators and can be attributed to known carvers.  Of course, all forms of rubbings have become much less common with the ease of photography as a quicker, cheaper, less damaging, and (in some ways) more accurate method of reproduction.  But there is an artist using the equivalent of found brass plaques for interesting effects today, to be featured in the next post

[Pictures: Sir William and Alianora Burgate, brass effigies 1409, from Burgate, Suffolk;
Margaret Bernard Peyton, brass effigy 1484, from Isleham, Cambridgeshire;
Bust of a civilian (James de Holveston?), brass plaque c. 1360, from Blickling, Norfolk (Images from Hamline University);
Several rubbings from Brightlingsea, Essex and the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, by AEGN;
James Allen gravestone, slate carved by W.C. (William Custin?), 1714;
Jonathan Wyatt gravestone, slate carved by John Stevens III, 1775;
Joseph Fitch gravestone, granite carved by Obadiah Wheeler (decorations) and John Huntington (lettering), 1741;
Job Howland gravestone, slate carved by John Bull, 1785, all gravestone rubbings by Sue Kelly and Anne Williams (Images from the Farber Gravestone Collection).]

August 8, 2017

Here's Something Cool: Fenghuang

        I like mythical creatures, and I like sculptures made from found mechanical bits and pieces, and these phoenixes check both boxes on a massive scale.  I featured the artist Xu Bing earlier this year for his wood block prints, but these sculptures begin to give you an idea of the breadth and variety of his artwork.  The two phoenixes are made from materials collected from construction sites in China.  At 90 and 100 feet long, they’re almost more roc than phoenix!
        The Chinese phoenix is called "fenghuang," and originally feng was male and huang female, which is what Xu has named his two huge sculptures.  Although fenghuang is given the English translation “phoenix,” the only thing they really have in common is being magical, mythical birds.  The fenghuang lives on the Kunlun Mountains in northern China and appears only in places blessed with exceptional peace and happiness.  It became associated with the empress, to pair with the dragon representing the emperor, and now the paired dragon and phoenix are often used in wedding decorations to symbolize the perfect union between husband and wife.  (“Dragon and phoenix” is also a common item on Chinese menus.  In the USA it’s a dish that combines chicken with seafood.  Additional fun fact: my children P and T are “dragon and phoenix children,” i.e. boy-girl twins.)  In any case, the fenghuang represents all sorts of auspicious virtues.
        Xu’s Feng and Huang represent the cultural changes brought on by rapid development in China, and they’re a reaction to the terrible conditions experienced by migrant construction workers in China.  Xu said of his phoenixes, “They bear countless scars.  [They have] lived through great hardship, but they still have self-respect.  In general, the phoenix expresses unrealized hopes and dreams.”  You can see that they’re entirely composed of salvaged construction materials: rusty metal, battered hard hats, ductwork tubing, backhoe buckets, and so on.  I haven’t seen these sculptures in person, alas, but from the photos I’d say they don’t seem so grim to me.  They look quite powerful and transcendent.

[Pictures: Phoenix installation at MassMoCA, sculptures by Xu Bing, 2013 (Image from The Daily Gazette);
Feng at Cathedral of St John the Divine, sculpture by Xu, 2014 (Image from Bobby Zuco);
Huang at Mass MoCA, sculpture by Xu, 2013, (Image from Colossal).]

August 4, 2017

Afternoon through Midnight

        Here is the second half of my day of “hours.”  To compare with the earlier four (which you can revisit here), there is a little more reference to human homes here.  I always feel that part of the beauty of night is being able to go in from it when you want.  I especially love the look of lighted windows as the sky turns dark.  But it’s also comforting to remember that while I’m shut away from the night in my bed, the rest of the universe carries on: stars wheeling, animals of every kind living their lives, tides rising and falling, all without any reference to me and my concerns.
        As for the verses on these pieces, Noon is attributed to a traditional Jewish proverb; Dusk is mine; Evening is from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; and Midnight is a line from an Algonquin legend as recorded by Charles G. Leland in 1884.  Obviously music and singing are a recurring theme 
among all eight “hours”.  Sometimes music is a very clear, physical way to rejoice and celebrate, but phrases such as “my heart sang” and “the music of the spheres” show how deeply music symbolizes rightness and joy even when you’re outwardly silent.
        Obviously the other recurring theme here is nature.  Certainly I’m grateful for all manner of technology that makes my life comfortable, safe, and productive, not to mention interesting.  But the whole idea of a book of hours for me was to remember the natural rhythms of the day and use them as a basis for contemplation and awareness of the divine.  It’s best to treasure the fact that life comes in its seasons despite all our efforts to control it.  I’ve also made sure to choose some of my favorite unremarkable creatures for these pieces, including red-winged blackbirds, fireflies, and bats.  These are not the big 
and flashy animals like tigers or whales that everyone admires, or the cute ones that everybody loves.  Rather they’re the everyday, ordinary creatures that would be easy to overlook and forget, but which make my heart sing whenever I notice them.

        So here I am with a series of eight block prints, and a lot of thought about the idea behind a book of hours: a call to personal devotion that is also a thing of beauty.  That has led me to the idea of compiling an actual book, with words and images.  I’ve been collecting snippets of psalms and other poetry to assign to different times of day; I’ve been converting elements of these eight block prints into borders to decorate text; and I’ve been working on how this can become a book that might be really meaningful to people with a broad range of specific spiritual 
backgrounds.  We’ll see how it all comes together.

[Pictures: Afternoon, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017;
Dusk, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017;
Evening, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017;
Midnight, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

August 1, 2017

Wee Hours through Noon

        As previously mentioned, I’ve been working on a project inspired by the medieval Book of Hours, a genre that was simultaneously status symbol and aide to private devotion.  Because of the former, these books were often beautifully crafted and lavishly decorated with gorgeous illustrations and decorative borders.  Because of the latter, they included calendars of church celebrations, psalms and Bible excerpts, prayers and creeds to recite at different times of the day on different days of the week, litanies of saints to invoke, and so on.  Since I’m not Catholic (let alone medieval) I don’t care about the specific Saints’ Days or prayers traditionally included in medieval books of hours, but I do embrace the idea of spirituality throughout the day and the year.  I like the reminder that it’s always appropriate to be aware of the natural rhythms of the day, to be grateful for the gifts of each
part of the cycle, to maintain wonder and appreciation for the presence of the divine all the time.  So I began to think about a series of prints celebrating each of the traditional “hours” of the day.
        Again, I’m not necessarily adhering strictly to the monastic hours, which had a good deal of variation from order to order and century to century.  I simply chose to divide the day into eight more-or-less equal and important moments: wee hours, dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, dusk, evening, and midnight.  These would be equally spaced if dawn and dusk were exactly twelve hours apart, in which case you could think of the times as being 3am, 6am, 9am, 12 noon, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm, 12 midnight.  They roughly correspond to the traditional “hour” names vigils, matins/prime/lauds, terce, sext, none, vespers, compline, and getting some sleep for goodness sake.  (Again, the observation of
these “hours” and exactly when they fell varied a great deal historically.  See my post Time for Etymology for a quick summary of how one such monastic change gave us our word noon.)
        Today I share the first four “hours” in my series.  You can see that my inspiration from medieval books of hours gave me elaborate decorative borders, as well as the inclusion of text.  My texts are not all explicitly religious, but they are all definitely spiritual to me.  I composed the text for  Wee Hours using Dylan Thomas’s beautiful phrase “the close and holy darkness,” and Dawn’s line is from Shakespeare’s sonnet 29, my favorite.  Morning and Noon are simply my own.
        As far as design, Morning was the hardest because I couldn't figure out what to do that was different.  It seems a little too similar to Dawn and Noon.  But one
thing it does include that's different from these other three is signs of human activity.
        I’ll share the final four hours in the next post, along with my further ambitions…

[Pictures: Wee Hours, block print by AEGN, 2017;
Dawn, block print by AEGN, 2017;
Morning, block print by AEGN, 2017;
Noon, block print by AEGN, 2017.]