December 29, 2017

Words of the Month - Incensed

        Some time ago it occurred to me to wonder how the word incense came to mean both “a fragrant substance for perfuming the air”, and “to enrage,” two concepts that seem to be about as unrelated as it’s possible to be.  But these two definitions of incense are indeed related, as a quick look at their etymology reveals.  The connection is the burning.  Incense is something you burn for its scented smoke, and to incense someone is to set them aflame with anger.  Compare with fuming, another word that can describe a smelly fire, a fragrant perfume, and a furious person.
        Incendere, “to set on fire” is the same Latin root that gives us incendiary, of course, but it’s also in the same family as candere, “to shine,” which gives us candle, chandelier (by way of Old French), and incandescent.  But candare goes still farther, and also gives us candid (as in “shining pure, white, and truthful”), and even candidate, not, alas, from the shining honesty of  politicians, but from the shining white togas worn by candidates in ancient Rome.
        Let me share one more interesting related word, which comes from a Latin borrowing from Greek, from the Sanskrit branch of the same Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to shine, glow.”  The sandal in sandalwood has nothing to do with footwear but comes from the burning of the wood for incense.

[Pictures: Welcome, rubber block print by AEGN, 2016;
Book and Candle, wood block print by AEGN, 2000.]

December 22, 2017

Merry Christmas

        Here are a couple of lovely Christmas block prints by Rita Corbin (USA, 1930-2011) who worked with Fritz Eichenberg and Ade Bethune with the Catholic Worker movement.  I can't find very good images of her work, or much information about their titles or dates, but I'll let a couple of them speak for themselves.  This first one is wonderfully tender, with Joseph caring for Mary and Mary embracing the baby.  It’s a nice reminder of what this whole holiday is supposed to be about: letting Love be born into the world anew.
        Unfortunately I can’t find a bigger picture of this second piece, which has a
particularly exuberant star filling the entire sky above the Holy Family, wise men, and shepherds.  However, it’s simple and bold enough to be appealing even in so small a thumbnail.
        To those who celebrate Christmas, may yours be full of love!

[Pictures: Block print by Rita Corbin;
Crazy Star, block print by Corbin, (Images from Rita Corbin Art).]

December 19, 2017


        The hourglass has probably been a symbol of time since its invention (which may have been in Alexandria, about 150 BCE).  However, it also came to symbolize mortality, and as such was used on everything from elaborate vanitas paintings to pirates’ flags to gravestones,  sometimes with wings added to show that time is fleeting.  It is interesting that, unlike a clock, an hourglass simultaneously shows the time passing at the present instant, the past that has already flowed through, and the future remaining in the top bulb.  And we can still see a little hourglass icon on our computers, flowing and flipping, flowing and flipping, while we wait for the computer to get something done.
        Before my last show, when I asked my family for suggestions of what block I should make to carve, my son P replied, “an hourglass,” no doubt inspired by the decorative one he keeps on his desk as a fidget toy.  Obviously I was far from the first person to think of doing interesting things with the image of an hourglass; I quickly found cool art depicting hourglasses full of day and night, castles and universes, water and earth, people becoming smothered in falling sand… There were broken bulbs with little worlds escaping, hourglasses showing polar icecaps melting, and more.  In fact, it appeared that all my first thoughts had already been done, so I cast about for something else to put inside an hourglass, and thought of birds.  They can circle around scenic ruins, which is cool, and they can fly upward from the future to the past, which is cool.  And as a bonus, they’re another play on “time flies.” So here it is.

[Picture: Flocks of Time, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017 (sold out).]

December 12, 2017

Happy Hanukkah

        Hanukkah begins tonight, in honor of which here are a couple of wonderful wood block prints from an eighteenth century book of customs.  As far as I can make out from confusing citations, these wood block prints are from the same book, printed in Amsterdam in Hebrew and/or Yiddish and Spanish.  First, a man lighting a truly epic Hanukkah menorah.  I certainly don’t know anyone with a menorah this big in their home!  Interestingly, this one seems to have only the eight daily lights, not a ninth “servant” light, but the man is using his spills or candles double-fisted, apparently for maximum menorah-lighting speed and power.  I like the way the checkerboard floor pattern sets the stage and gives some perspective and interest to the scene.
        Secondly, a very handsome illustration of a man blowing a shofar.  We have the same checkered floor and diamond-paned windows, which give some nice texture to the scene.  This time we have a small crowd of other people, and what looks like an open book.  The text or musical notation in the book is carved as simple zig-zagged lines.  Generally speaking, these wood block prints would be considered pretty crude, but I think they have an appealing vigor, and the first man in the crowd, behind the shofar-blower, has a quite nicely detailed face.
        For those who celebrate Hanukkah, may it be a happy one!

[Pictures: Man lighting a Hanukkah menorah, wood block print from Sefer HaMinhagim, 1768 (Image from LiveAuctioneers);
Man blowing a shofar, wood block print from Sefer HaMinhagim, 1767-8 (Image from Yale University Library).]

December 8, 2017

Don Quixote

        I’m going to see a performance of “Man of La Mancha” this weekend, so here are a collection of wood block prints illustrating the supremely famous Don Quixote.  “Man of La Mancha” is not just any old adventure; it’s about seeing the world not as it is, but as it ought to be.  Admittedly, Don Quixote is nuts, and his illusions about the world are certainly not always helpful or even inspiring.  Nevertheless, in the musical adaptation Don Quixote’s fantasies (with the sense of delusions) definitely have a lot in common with my sort of fantasy (with the sense of speculative fiction).  That is, by inviting people to think in new, unconventional ways, both fantasies provide hope, creativity, and the possibility of making the world a better place.
        Don Quixote has been an incredibly popular subject for artists, which is hardly surprising, given his status as a symbol of people who live in their
imaginations.  I’ve had a tough time winnowing down the possibilities to a manageable number, but here are some of my relief print favorites.  We begin with one especially suited to “Man of La Mancha,” with its story-within-a-story about Cervantes imagining his characters.  We follow up the image of the fictional characters in Cervantes’s imagination with an image of the fictional characters in Don Quixote’s imagination.  I love the dreamy look in his eyes and the way it’s the pages of the open book that illuminate the world.  Note, too, how Don Quixote holds the pages of the book with separate fingers, marking favorite passages to refer back to.  It’s a nice detail.
        And so Don Quixote sallies forth in two very different styles of wood block print.  The first, a very traditional wood block reproduction of a drawing, shows Quixote looking quite overwhelmed by the world, while the horse Rocinante just looks resigned.  It’s a fun, whimsical depiction, with lots of personality.  The second is too rough, and the figures too distant to have any facial expressions, but the carving itself is very expressive.  It looks like a hot, dry, rough land indeed, and you can sympathize with Sancho’s - and the horse’s - resignation about their master’s whims.
        I certainly couldn’t fail to include a couple of illustrations of the most famous episode of all: tilting at windmills.  This is one of the most popular scenes for artists to depict, and it’s obvious why it would be more interesting to
compose than a picture of a bloke just sitting on a horse.  The illustration by George Cruikshank has his characteristic humor, with Quixote and horse lifted right up in the air, while Sancho and the other bystanders watch in horrified amazement.    The next illustrations show the aftermath, Gustav Doré’s famous version continuing the comedy with all six victims’ legs ridiculously up in the air.  The other takes a more sober approach, in which knight and charger will soon be able to drag themselves to their feet and set off once more.
        Finally, I include a couple of bookplates featuring Don Quixote.  It turns out that Don Quixote was an incredibly popular theme for bookplates during the golden age of hand-carved exlibris, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  Again, what better symbol for book lovers than the man whose favorite books consumed his entire brain?  The first is a charming image of Don Quixote reading while driving, with some nice little touches, such as the flowers on his lance.  The second is an interesting modernist take in which the famous windmill looks more like a huge machine turbine and Don Quixote really looks quite strong and competent like one of Ferdinand Leger’s workers.
        There were plenty of pictures I had to leave out in order to keep this post to a manageable length, and while most were very traditional, a few took the imagery in some interesting - or strange - directions.  But however you picture Don Quixote, it’s worth considering: what is that balance between seeing the world as it is, and imagining it as it could be?  Between practicality and dreaming the impossible dream?

[Pictures: Cervantes imagining his characters, wood block print by Enric Cristófol Ricart, 1933 (Image from Texas A&M);
Don Quixote reading a romance, wood block print by Pavel Šimon, first half of 20th century (Image from TFSimon);
Quelle joie, illustration by Jean-Ignace-Isodore Gérard Grandville reproduced as wood engraving by Barbant, 1848 (Image from Texas A&M);
Don Quixote’s second sally, wood block print by Hans Alexander Mueller, 1923 (Image from Texas A&M);
Don Quixote and the windmill, illustration by George Cruikshank reproduced as wood engraving by Sears and William Hughes, 1824 (Image from Texas A&M);
Adventure of the windmills, illustration by Vicente Urrabieta Ortiz reproduced as wood engraving by Sierra, 1873 (Image from Texas A&M)
Miséricorde! illustration by Gustave Doré reproduced as wood engraving by Héliodore Joseph Pisan, 1863 (Image from Texas A&M);
Bookplate with Don Quixote reading, wood block print by Herbert S. Ott (Image from Art-Exlibris);
Bookplate with Don Quixote attacking a windmill, wood block print by Anatolij Kalaschnikow, 1967 (Image from Art-Exlibris).]

December 5, 2017

The Magic of Books

        Having mentioned last week the long, deep connection between writing and magic, this is a good time to share with you the inimitable Carl Sagan’s take on the matter.

        What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

        I am of the Carl Sagan “Cosmos” generation, a middle schooler when the show aired, watching it each week on PBS with my family.  (My children don’t even understand the concept of watching a television show when it airs!)  I confess that what I chiefly remember about “Cosmos” was how silly the dandelion spaceship looked, and Sagan counting like a whale: “Whoop!  Haw haw haw haw haw…”  So it would be disingenuous for me to claim that I remember and was inspired by this particular statement about books.  Still, I can’t imagine that it didn’t please me at the time, seeing what an avid lover of reading, writing, and books I was.
        At any rate, much of our reading nowadays is not done with paper books made from trees, but that doesn’t change the magic.  Indeed, is it not even a further height of magic that we can now send those funny dark squiggles instantaneously through the aether, to carry thoughts from mind to mind?  Never doubt that there is magic in the world!  Now let us be sure that we use the magic for good, not evil.

[Picture: Flights of Fancy, painting by James Gurney, 1996 (Image from Ideas Made of Light).]
Quotation from Carl Sagan, Cosmos episode 11, 1980.

December 1, 2017

Now Showing

        Everywhere I go, I keep my eyes open for beautiful scenes and interesting things.  When I’m close to home or in “ordinary” places, I try to find the beauty that might be overlooked because of familiarity, and when I’m in more popularly acclaimed places, I try to look for unique details or less common perspectives.  Yesterday I hung a solo show called “Around the World,” featuring twenty-five pieces depicting buildings, animals, scenes, and other details from ten states and eight countries.  The pieces represent things that appealed to me on my travels, so they are both personal records of my own treasured journeys and universal celebrations of iconic places around the world.  Each image is an invitation to visitors to the show to reminisce on their own travels, imagine new destinations, and notice and appreciate anew the places they visit every day.
        Today I started putting up my display for this weekend’s Mother Brook Open Studies.  I’ll have to finish setting up tomorrow morning because I’m working down to the wire completing my preparations this time.  It should be a great event, though, with a wide variety of really interesting work, and demonstrations and activities, all in a single convenient location, a former school building in Dedham, MA.
        If you stop by the Wellesley Free Library, be sure to leave me a comment in the visitor’s book, and if you can make it to Mother Brook Open Studios, be sure to say hello.  I’m in room 8 on the first floor.

[Pictures: Wellesley Free Library Lobby Gallery, 2017.]