December 28, 2018

Words of the Month - Presupposition Triggers

        In linguistics, a presupposition is something that a particular utterance implies or takes for granted as true.  For example, the classic “When did you stop beating your wife” presupposes that you have beaten your wife at some point.  “Would you like more tea?” presupposes that you have had some tea already.  The word more is a presupposition trigger, and that quality of the word is played with by Lewis Carrol in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
        “Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
        “I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
        “You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “It’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
        Another category of presupposition triggers is factives, which presuppose the truth of the phrase they apply to.  Examples include regret and realize.  It doesn’t matter whether “I regret going to the party” or “I don’t regret going to the party,” regret triggers the presupposition that I did, in fact, go to the party.
        The party, by the way, is a definite, which is its own presupposition trigger, because it assumes the truth that there was, in fact, a party for me to have gone to.  Another example of a definite is when I say that “My brother is coming to visit,” which presupposes that I have a brother.
        Implicative verbs presuppose a necessary precondition for the phrase they apply to.  Some examples are verbs of success or failure, such as, “I have never yet managed to juggle four balls at once.”  Manage presupposes that I have, in fact, tried to juggle four balls at once.  Change-of-state verbs are similar in presupposing that an earlier state existed before it changed.  That’s the famous “When did you stop beating your wife” or “Pandora opened the box,” which triggers the presupposition that the box was closed before her curiosity got the better of her.
        Okay, so this is kind of interesting, but so what?  The strange thing is that people accept the presuppositions they hear, but rarely remember where the knowledge came from.  Some time later you will have it in your head that I have a brother, but you are much less likely to remember how you know it.  Did I tell you?  Did someone else tell you?  Have you actually met him once, perhaps?  The vast majority of the time this works well for communication; it helps us impart information efficiently and interpret speech without excess confusion.  When people converse they follow the rules in good faith, happily triggering and accepting presuppositions that are, in fact, true.  But presuppositions can also be manipulated.  Carroll manipulated our presuppositions for humor, while shady lawyers can manipulate the jury’s presuppositions for dishonest purposes, and politicians and push-pollsters routinely manipulate presuppositions in order to spread lies while claiming that they never actually lied.  This is distressingly effective because of our brains’ oh-so-efficient presupposition shortcuts in absorbing information.
        There is one more place this mental characteristic can be manipulated, but for less nefarious purposes.  This is how writers of mysteries can lead us subtly astray without breaking the rules of Whodunnit Fair Play, thus setting us up to be surprised and delighted by the eventual denouement.  If false information is slipped to us in the form of characters’ presuppositions, we are extremely likely to accept it as true, but then also willing, when the real solution is eventually explained, to accept that we were tricked fair and square.  As a writer I’ve used these techniques all along, but it’s interesting to see it dissected and understand why it works.

[Pictures: A Mad Tea Party, illustration by John Tenniel, wood engraving by Thomas Dalziel from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865;
Nothing Could Be Better, illustration by Sidney Paget from The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1893.]

December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas!

        Here are a pair of block printed nativity scenes, pretty well spanning the history of block printed nativity scenes.  First is a wood or metal cut from a 1506 book of hours.  The borders at the bottom certainly look more like metal cuts with their background patterns of little white dots on black, but the borders wouldn’t be printed by the same block as the main picture anyway.  The picture looks more like a woodcut, except for the white-spotted black background of the star, so I don’t know.  I think the star is rather clever, incorporated on the architecture so that it can be shining over the Holy Family even while the entire scene is framed in elaborate Gothic architecture.  This particular scene is actually not Christmas night but the arrival of the Three Kings, and I like the way Jospeh has removed his hat and is looking humbly at the kings, while the first king has removed his crown and is humbly adoring the infant.



        Rick Beerhorst’s modern nativity has in common with the sixteenth century one that in both cases the Holy Family are dressed in contemporary clothes rather than attempting to depict the scene in an historical context.  For me, the modern setting, complete with bare lightbulb, serves as a reminder of the humanity of a poor family far from home, doing the best they can to care for their newborn - a story that is happening all over the world right now, every day.  It’s pretty clear that Jesus’s experiences influenced his teachings that we are to welcome the stranger, care for the poor and the lost, and celebrate children.  In honor of Christmas, let’s all try to do a little better at that this year!

[Picture: Three Kings, wood or metal cut print from a Book of Hours printed by Anthoine Verard, 1506 (Image from Les Enluminures);
Untitled nativity, wood block print by Rick Beerhorst (Image from Studio Beerhorst).]

December 20, 2018

Progress Achieved

        …And here are my last two blocks from the flurry of mythical creatures I began carving during the flurry of holiday sales.
        First, the yale/eale, a sort of antelope-like beast whose horns can swivel independently to be pointed wherever the yale deems best.   I framed it in a decorative doorway, since decorative doorways seem to be the yale’s native habitat, as they are primarily heraldic in nature.  The multiple colors were achieved by printing reductively, carving and printing first the gold layer, then carving further and printing again with black.  You can see the earlier stage here.
        Second, the pterippus/Pegasus.  (Pegasus is the most famous individual, whose name should not properly be the general term for all winged horses, but commonly is.  As for pterippus, the “proper” word for a winged horse in general, I suspect that it is a
modern coining, although I cannot find data to prove or disprove this.)  The multiple colors here were made by arranging multiple inks on the plate and rolling the block with an ombre mix of ink.  That’s what made it so dang difficult to print: to keep the colors arranged in order and not mix all the ink into one uniform mush, you can roll it out in one orientation only, horizontally and never vertically.  Normally you roll both horizontally and vertically in order to spread the ink more smoothly and evenly, and make sure every part of the block gets evenly inked.  Not being able to do that just means that the block is more likely to be inked unevenly and therefore not print well.  Moreover, my block was seven inches tall and my brayers are about 5.75 inches across, so I couldn’t ink with one swoosh.  I had to use two brayers and ink the bottom of the block with one and the top with the other, thus giving yet another opportunity for inking not to come out perfectly.  In the end I must have tried more than 40 times in order to get an edition of 12 with which I was satisfied.  (Earlier attempts mentioned here.)  I could have just given up and printed it a solid color, of course, but I really liked the look of the ombre suggesting moving from the earth up into the sky.  I hope you like it, too!

[Pictures: Yale, reduction print by AEGN, 2018;
First Flight, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]

December 14, 2018

Continuing Progress

        I finally got a chance for some printing today, and went a little crazy, printing four blocks.  I made the following progress on the pieces I introduced last week:
        1. second and final layer of the umbrellaphant.  I’m quite pleased with this one!  Previously I had identified two species of umbrellaphant, the tusk-umbelled and the trunk-umbelled.  This one is clearly a third species, the auricle-umbelled umbrellaphant.  I feel quite clever for the way in which the two layers of ink seem to work well together whether they are perfectly aligned or not.
        2. capybureau.  This one did not print well, so it’s lucky I planned to do only a small edition anyway.   I don’t know whether the problem was the rubber or the ink, but oddly, the ink didn’t seem to want to stick to the rubber, which was strange, mysterious, and frustrating.  I washed the block and started again three times, which seems like a lot of work for a creature that, while I happen to think it’s charming, I don’t expect to be a huge seller!
        3.  sloth.  As opposed to the capybureau, I think this one will be popular, and since it’s small and will be inexpensive, I made a large edition (of 14.  That’s large, for me!)  You can see it here.
        4. first layer of the eale/yale.  As opposed to the capybureau, this one printed cleanly and easily, although of course in the first round it’s always a little hard to tell whether everything is actually perfect.  I also started the second round of carving, so hopefully I’ll finish this one some time next week.
        Some time next week I will also try reprinting the pterippus/pegasus which I was so frustrated with last time.  And that may well finish up my printing for the year, because next I should probably turn to preparations for my exhibit that is to be hung on January 2.  (Not to mention my preparations for Christmas!)

[Pictures: Umbrellaphant, rubber reduction print by AEGN, 2018;
Capybureau, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018;
Yale, first state, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]

December 11, 2018

The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor

        “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” is the earliest known story of a castaway on a magical island, dating from some time around 2000-1800 BCE, during the Middle Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt.  It includes many of the elements that are very familiar from a host of legends and folktales of the same type: it is framed as a tale within a tale, related by one man to encourage another.  The man (whom the story itself never actually calls a sailor) is thrown off course by a storm, shipwrecked, and is the only one from the boat to survive.  On the island he finds every kind of food in superabundance.   After three days he encounters a monstrous, magical serpent, who takes him back to his (the serpent’s) palace and hears his adventure.  The serpent then recounts a short tale of his own.  The serpent foretells that another ship will arrive and the castaway will return home safely.  The castaway promises to send the serpent gifts fit for a god, but the serpent smiles and points out that he already has fantastic wealth, and besides, once the castaway departs, the island will disappear so that he will never see it again.  When the ship arrives as predicted, the serpent loads the castaway with precious gifts and sends him home to a life of honor.  All of these plot points and story elements are archetypal, and I’m sure the self-proclaimed cunning-fingered scribe Amny son of Amen wasn’t the first to tell a tale like this, but it is interesting to see in it the roots of so many of the elements that have comprised a good fantasy traveller’s tale ever since.
        You can read one translation of the story in its entirety here, and another here.  In addition to the archetypal story elements I related above, there are some interesting details in this particular story.  The arrival of the serpent is excellent: I heard a sound as of thunder, which I thought to be caused by a wave of the sea, and the trees rocked and the earth quaked, and I covered my face. And I found that a serpent was coming towards me. It was thirty cubits (45 feet) in length, and its beard was more than two cubits in length, and its body was covered with scales of gold, and the two ridges over its eyes were of pure lapis-lazuli; and it coiled its whole length up before me.  Also, the serpent’s own tale is quite strange, regarding the destruction of all his 75 siblings and children, including a mysterious girl brought to him by prayer or chance, by a falling star which burnt them all to death while the serpent was away.
        Keep in mind that translating ancient Egyptian is not without its controversies, and there are variations in the details of different versions.  Nevertheless, it is clear to see that four thousand years ago humans were telling some of the same stories with some of the same themes of adventure, mystery, and wonder.  Maybe there’s nothing new under the sun, but maybe there are reasons we keep coming back to the same themes.

[Pictures: The Inquiry, illustration by Tristram Ellis from Egyptian Tales, 1899 (Image - and yet another translation -  from Project Gutenberg);
A page of the original Hieratic text of The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, “Papyrus Leningrad 1115” (Image from here).]

December 7, 2018

In Progress

        To my dismay, Life has been Happening a little too urgently recently, and the blog is low enough down the list of priorities that it’s falling right off the bottom.  However, tomorrow I will be at the Needham Winter Arts Festival, so be sure to come check it out if you’re local!  Then Sunday is booked solid and double-booked, and Monday’s going to be pretty crazy, as well… but after that I very much hope that things will settle down!  In the meantime, I am making a steady crop of new blocks which I carve as I sit at all my shows in the past few weeks.  So here’s a little view of what’s been happening: mostly more and more fantasy creatures.
Top left - a design for a eale, aka yale, now finished sketching and transferred to rubber to carve tomorrow.  (At least, I will carve the first round, as it will be a two-layer reduction print.)
Top right - umbrellaphant block, which will also be a two-layer reduction.  I printed the first color yesterday so that I can carve the second round tomorrow.
Center - capybureau, carved but not yet printed.
Bottom left - pterippus, aka pegasus, carved and attempted to print.  I printed more than 20 and not a single one was really good, which was extremely frustrating.  I will have to try again later.
Bottom right - some first sketches of a possible bunyip.  I don’t know when or whether I’ll get to this guy.  I think he’s pretty cute, but what to do with him?  Is he just going to sit there?  Or does he need a background?  Or what will make him sufficiently interesting that anyone should care?
        In addition I have some ideas for two more possible small blocks which are not fantasy creatures.  One or both may even be mini blocks, which means they won’t provide me with an awful lot of carving.  Nevertheless, I plan to finish up the designs tonight to carve tomorrow.  I hope all this will be enough.  If I had more inspiration for the bunyip, I’d definitely do that one, too, but at the moment inspiration feels a little beyond my present capabilities, so I’ll have to stick with just getting to work!

[Picture: photo of various blocks and sketches by AEGN, 2018.]

November 26, 2018

Trumpet Joy

        Having featured the cello a couple of weeks ago, it is now the trumpet’s turn, to celebrate a successful audition by my son P (I'm so proud).  Once again we’ll start with my version, at rest.  If you can’t hear it anyway in a purely visual medium, you may as well just focus on the physical beauty of the shining brass tubes.
        Taking that further is this abstraction on the theme of the trumpet by D.S. Wade.  It’s a fairly large piece (30 inches) with a veritable rainbow of ink.  Like the trumpet itself, it’s bold, even brash.  Are the shapes around the sides valves, or quarter notes?
        To give ourselves a bit of historical depth, here’s a trumpeter by Jost Amman.  Clearly this trumpet is a somewhat different beast, much longer and without valves.  Some early trumpets were actually held together with cords, so while the flag hanging from this is obviously decorative, it may also be part of the cords holding the different segments together.  I would be greatly amused if the trumpets
in P’s band were adorned with flags… or if the trumpeters wore such fabulous hats!  (Though I can’t see P appreciating the fashion.)
        It appears that, unlike cellos, I have featured only one previous trumpet, a beautiful jazz one by Eric Hoffman, here.



[Pictures: Trumpet, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009;
A Mazing Trumpet, reduction woodcut by D.S. Wade (Image from DSWade Artist);
Trumpeter, woodcut by Jost Amman possibly from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568 (Image from here).]

November 20, 2018

Turkey Time

        We have a flock of wild turkeys in the neighborhood, “living dangerously” as D says of them this time of year, although in fact I doubt many people in our suburban town would have the slightest idea how to get from a flock of large, intimidating birds to a Thanksgiving feast.  But if they won’t be gracing our tables, the wild turkeys do provide a touch of seasonal decor to the landscape.  The truth is that turkey has never been one of my favorite foods, so I’m just as happy to see them at the end of the street as on my holiday table.  And of course I’m happy to see them as block prints, too.  Their feathers don’t have spectacular color, despite some rich iridescence, but they do have wonderful patterns, which means they make great block prints.
        We start with Thomas Bewick, whose fine engraved details show the patterns of the feathers wonderfully.  The second wood engraving looks the most like our neighborhood birds, quite skinny.  I don’t know how much meat they actually have on them, but they really look more like dinosaurs than fat, friendly cartoon turkeys.  The final piece, by Wiktorya Gorynska, may be domestic turkeys.  The white one in particular looks more like a dinner turkey.  These are presumably both males, with their tails up, wings out, and feathers puffed for maximum glory.  The one in the foreground is the closest to what generations of American children have drawn by tracing around their hands and coloring with brown and orange.
        There are a total of 7 turkeys in this post, which is a pretty paltry flock.  Our local turkeys are usually in groups of one to two dozen, scraggling over several properties at a time as they make their leisurely way up the street.  They are generally all females, or perhaps females and juveniles, and while they are certainly not much fussed by the presence of people or cars trying to get past, they are also not very aggressive or troublesome.  I’m grateful to have them around, adding a little interest to our local wildlife, and while I’m not a vegetarian and have no objection to eating one of their cousins on Thursday, I wish them all the best.  And Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!

[Pictures: Turkey, wood engraving by Thomas Bewick, presumably from A History of British Birds, 1797 (Image from Morris Library, SIUC);
The Turkey, wood engraving from The Illustrated Alphabet of Birds, 1851 (Image from Childrens Library);
Turkeys, wood block print by Wiktorya Gorynska, c 1929 (Image scanned from The New Woodcut, Malcolm C. Salaman, 1930).]

November 16, 2018

Upcoming Shows, Upcoming Prints

        Okay, it’s that time of year when, in lieu of creative thought, fascinating research, or deep philosophical wisdom, I just spend my time preparing for shows… so that’s what I’ll pass along to you today.
        Tomorrow:  the Village Fair at Needham Congregational Church.  On the plus side, in addition to artists, there’s a silent auction, a rummage sale with pretty nice stuff, and delicious home-made luncheon foods.  On the minus side, I have only one table and will be hard-pressed to display all my stuff.  But this is the place to get your holiday shopping done early!  More info here.
        December 1-2Gorse Mill Holiday Open Studios.  I’ll once again be in the most beautiful studio in the building (Maggie Schmidt’s), and will have a big display of all my stuff, open for two days.  There will also be a reception on Saturday evening.  This is the best place to see really amazing art of a variety of media.  More info here.
        December 8Winter Arts Festival at Needham Town Hall.  Thirty artists in the beautiful Powers Hall upstairs in the Town Hall, with music and dance performance for good measure.  You’ll still be in good time to score some great, unique Christmas gifts.  Shop local, support small businesses and the arts, and find one-of-a-kind treasures!  (Click on the flier for more details.)
        Also, even if you can’t make it to any of these shows, don’t hesitate to check out all the options on my web site and contact me for anything you Simply Must Have.
        Finally, lest you're worrying about my complete lack of creativity, I assure you that I have two blocks to carve this weekend, and they are the final two beasties for my alphabet of mythical creatures.  What do you think they’ll be?  Is the suspense killing you?  If the suspense doesn’t, the monsters might!  I never thought I’d actually complete this mythical alphabet, so I’m pretty excited.  You can see the progress so far here.  Plus, my mythical monster love is still not exhausted, and I’ve already started sketches for several more creatures to carve during my December shows.  So be sure to stay tuned — the block print and fantasy goodness is still going strong!

November 13, 2018

Cello Joy

        I had to take a cello in for minor repairs today, so I’ll make a virtue of it and share some cello relief block prints.  Most importantly the cello is beautiful to hear, but it’s beautiful to look at, too, so it’s easy to make lovely prints of such a lovely instrument.  First, my own, which I apparently haven’t posted before.  This is a portrait of a cello at rest, but only for a moment.  You don’t leave it propped on the chair like that unless you’re coming right back to play some more.
        Secondly, a design of the scrolls of a cello and a violin by Martha Briana.  This is a reduction print with lots of texture left in the various levels of inking.  There’s no denying that the scrolls of the entire violin family are very pleasing.


        And speaking of the entire family, this third piece is a four hundred year old wood block print of an early relative of the cello, from the book Syntagma Musicum by Michael Praetorius (Germany, 1571-1621).  Although it certainly looks a lot like a cello, it actually took a number of developments to get us from this instrument to the modern cello.  Perhaps the most evident difference in this image is that it has five strings!  It’s also got a lovely decorative tailpiece and endpin.
        Not until the final piece do we get to see someone playing.  Felix Vallotton (Switzerland/France, 1865-1925) has an amazing way of allowing all his shadowed areas to run together into vast areas of black.  I’m always suggesting to students (and myself) to consider that things show up best if they’re black on white or white on black, but here Vallotton has left his cello black on black with only minimal outlines.  I like how the lack of detail in most of the piece is
balanced by the detail of the small clock and decorative bureau handles.  I think the cellist looks like a proper intense Romantic, but his left hand’s fingers do look a little wobbly!
        Finally, if you still crave more relief block cello joy (and really, who wouldn’t?) you can revisit some previously-posted cello-themed pieces, notably these by Kunio Iizuka, Paul Beaver Arnold, Cyril Powers, and Ted Faiers.  Enjoy!

[Pictures: Cello, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009;
Violin and Cello Cuddle, reduction woodcut by Martha Briana (Image from Martha Briana’s web site);
Plate XXI from Syntagma Musicum by Michael Praetorius, 1618 (Image from International Music Score Library Project);
Le Violoncelle, woodcut by Felix Vallotton, 1896 (Image from the Van Gogh Museum).]

November 9, 2018

Moon-Griffin

        It’s fantasy poetry time, and here’s one by Vachel Lindsay (US, 1879-1931).  Lindsay was especially interested in poetry spoken and performed rather than read in silence off a still page, and this one is certainly written as if it records spoken, impromptu words.  Its subtitle is “What Grandpa told the Children.”
The moon?  It is a griffin’s egg,
Hatching tomorrow night.
And how the little boys will watch
With shouting and delight
To see him break the shell and stretch
And creep across the sky.
The boys will laugh.  The little girls,
I fear, may hide and cry.
Yet gentle will the griffin be,
Most decorous and fat,
And walk up to the milky way
And lap it like a cat.

        The gratuitous sexism jars me severely, but setting that aside as a product of its time, there are some really wonderful images in this piece.  I love the idea of the moon as some kind of mythical egg, but if I had thought of that myself, I wouldn’t have thought of a griffin, so that’s a bit of a twist in itself.  It’s also a griffin cub, really, and I picture the fat belly and overgrown paws of a puppy as it walks across the sky to lap up the spilled stars.  The last moon-griffin egg must have been laid yesterday, I guess, and won’t be ready to hatch until November 23.  Keep an eye out for it!

[Picture: Moon-griffin, photoshop design by AEGN from old, unidentified woodcuts.]

November 6, 2018

Working from Photographs (Part II)

        The most common way I use photographs is as research and reference, to check on the proportion of a head here, the shape of a leaf there, the curve of a shoulder, the pattern of a tile roof…  But sometimes I have a photograph that I want to turn directly into a block print, either because I really love the photograph, or because it is the direct inspiration for a block print idea.  My first point is that, unlike the photos I use just for reference, I use only my own photos for direct copying.  You can reread a previous post about Elizabeth Catlett’s use of a photo, where I discuss some of the issues involved in adapting someone else’s work.  What I want to discuss today are the aesthetic issues of transforming a photograph into a relief block print.
        Issue 1. In most cases I’m turning color into black and white.  So, black will probably be black, and white will probably be white, but what about all those other in-between colors?  Often their fate is determined not by their absolute value, but by how they compare to the colors around them.  A red flower against a yellow wall will be rendered as black, while the same red flower would be rendered as white if it were in front of a dark-leafed shrub.  Or take the case of the Eiffel Tower, where in fact the entire structure is painted the same color, but I’ve rendered some parts black and some parts white depending on their background, as suggested by my photograph.  The tricky part was the transition.
        Issue 2. I am not attempting photographic levels of detail in my block prints, so lots of a photograph’s details will need to be simplified.  The judgement is always which elements are essential and which are the bits that won’t be missed.  If there are ten of something, perhaps the image will be just as clear - or even clearer - with only six.  On the other hand, perhaps ten is an integral element, without which it just wouldn’t be right!  For my Boston Sand & Gravel Co., I’ve eliminated some of the structures in the foreground, and some of the words and signs.  Backgrounds especially can usually be simplified or even eliminated, and textures can often be simplified.  The ultimate goal is not to be faithful to the photo, but to make a good block print, which brings us to…
        Issue 3. I may be copying a photo, but that doesn’t mean I’m under any obligation to stick with elements I don’t want.  I get Artistic License to rearrange things, eliminate things, add things in, crop or expand, move things around or adjust their relative proportions, and so on.  Sometimes I leave everything pretty much just as the photo shows, as in the Stairway at the top, but other times I wield the artistic license and change things up.  In one of the pieces I carved during my last show, I worked from a photo I had taken back in 2000 in New York’s Chinatown.  You can see that my piece clearly copies the photo, but I did switch around some of the vegetables.  In the upper right I replaced some middling brown roots with pure black eggplants, and in the lower right I switched out some greens that were very similar to their neighbors for some nice dark spinach for greater variety.  I also changed a few prices, also for variety, and shifted the whole angle very slightly so that the vegetables showed their length a little more recognizably, instead of just their round ends.
        These Cormorants show some other types of editing from the original photo.  First, my piece is cropped in on just one area in the lower center of the photo.  I also cut some of the pilings right out, and moved others in from other parts of the photo.  And I added in two more cormorants lifted from other photos, because they weren’t present in this one.  Again, the goal is to make an appealing block print of cormorants, not to reproduce exactly a snapshot that in this case is not even a particularly good one. 
        So yes, I use photographs for many of my pieces, and find them very helpful indeed.  I also love taking photographs wherever I go, and you can revisit a previous post about how even if I never happen to use a photo directly for a block print, I think the practice helps keep the creative juices flowing.

[Pictures: Stairway in the Garden, wood block print by AEGN, 1998, photo by AEGN, 1995;
Eiffel Tower, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015, photo by AEGN, 2001;
February 15, 1999 - Boston Sand & Gravel, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999, photo by AEGN, 1999;
Market, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018, photo by AEGN, 2000;
Cormorants at the Old Pier, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011, photo by AEGN, 2001.]

November 3, 2018

Working from Photographs (Part I)

        At my last show someone asked me, “I hope you won’t be offended, but do you ever work from photographs?”  The idea that I might be offended by the suggestion is sort of a funny one.  I consider working with the aid of photographs to be essential research into my subject.  Yes, I know that there has been a certain snobbery that a true artist needs no such aids.  That must be related to the idea that Renaissance artists were somehow “cheating” if they used a camera obscura, as if bringing some ingenuity to bear on a problem is genius, but bringing all your ingenuity makes it too easy or something.  But I never went to art school and was never trained to be a “true artist” anyway, so I’m going to set any judgments aside and simply describe some of the ways in which I do use photographs.
        First of all, whenever I’m planning to make a print of a real plant or animal, I gather lots of reference photos that show my subject from the angle I’m thinking of depicting it, as well as lots of other angles.  For example, if I’m doing a cat I might have photos to help with the pose, and photos for inspiration with the fur pattern, and photos to help with the face, and maybe additional photos for a detail of a paw or some other specific element about which I’m not quite sure.  I use photos of my own whenever possible, and I do use sketches from life when my own cat cooperates, but I supplement with a variety of photos from the internet to add to the research.  In these cases I’m not copying any single photo, but I’m certainly using the photographs to teach me details of what my subject looks like in real life.  Otherwise, how could I possibly know the proportions, or the way the joints bend in a particular position, or any of the other details I crave for accuracy?  Block printing often simplifies elements, but that makes it all the more vital that I start with the way things really look so that I can decide what to modify.  In this picture of a woodpecker, for example, I had some photos of birds on my feeder, but found additional photos that showed the bits that were obscured in my photos, as well as pictures of tree trunks with interesting bark.
        Even when I’m making a fantasy scene, I collect photos to help.  After all, nothing is really entirely new; it’s always composed of elements or analogies with real things.  I collect photos of trees for the forest setting, or lions’ paws for the feet, or birds’ or bats’ wings, or flames, and so on.  When I’m depicting a mythical creature with a long history, I do lots of research into how it’s been portrayed before, so that I can find the right balance between making my version “accurate” to its roots, and yet not too boringly generic.  How could I possibly know whether I was doing something new, if I didn’t know what had been done before?  Again, the idea is not to copy any one photograph exactly, but rather to use the photographs as research.  In the picture of the hercinia, for example, I looked at photos of birds to help get the flight right (I believe I ended up using pictures of terns for the basic shape), and lots of pictures of old growth European forests to get ideas for trees, mushrooms, fallen branches, and so on.  (Those pictures were mostly of the Schwartzwald in Germany and Bialowieza National Park in Poland.)  If you were to go searching on the internet for photographs of those forests you could probably recognize a tree here and a branch there, but you would not find any scene exactly like the forest through which my hercinia, which is not exactly a tern, flies.
        So that’s one way of using photographs, but perhaps that’s not what people are thinking of when they say “working from photographs.”  Tune in next post to find out about when I do, in fact, copy a photograph directly.

[Pictures: Downy Woodpecker, rubber block print with watercolor by AEGN, 2006;
Feathers to Light the Way, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

October 31, 2018

Words of the Month - By Thomas Browne

        Thomas Browne (England, 1605-1682) was another of those incredible polymath thinkers at a time when individuals still strove to study everything.  A writer for whom science, mysticism, nature, philosophy, reason, melancholy, and humor were inextricably entwined, Browne needed lots and lots of words to work with, and when he didn’t have the word he wanted at hand, he made up his own.  His original lexicon and the popularity of his work meant that many of those words he coined have stuck with the language, making Browne the now-little-known originator of a whole host of well-known words.  The OED credits him with first usage of 775 words, and first usage of a specific meaning of 1596 words.  You can reread this post on word-coining for some brief caveats about the OED and attributions of words, but any way you figure it, Browne’s word-smithing is impressive.  Among the words for which Browne gets credit are:
analogous
ambidextrous
antediluvian
approximate (adj)
carnivorous
coexistence (also coexistancy, which obviously didn’t stick.  By the way, this was before the verb, making coexist a back-formation.)
coma
compensate (back-formed by Brown from the existing word compensation)
computer (meaning “a person who computes,” of course)
cylindrical
disruption
electricity (meaning “the property of substances that make static electricity through friction.”  Browne was not yet referring to the force itself.)
exhaustion
ferocious
hallucination
indigenous 
insecurity
literary
locomotion
medical (also medically)
migrant (adj.  Apparently migration was already in use, but migrate came later.)
prairie
precocious (precocity was just a few years earlier)
therapeutic
ulterior (meaning “coming later, future”)
veterinarian
        All but one of these words (prairie) first appeared in Browne’s most popular work, Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into Very many received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths, also known as Vulgar Errors, which was a pioneering work in popular science and scientific journalism.  If you begin reading at the preface of Pseudodoxia Epidemica, within the first 6 pages you find the words reminiscential, colourishing, radicated, paradoxologie, manuduction, dilucidate, ampliate, and desiderated, which makes it easy to see how Browne managed to give us so many words: throw around enough and some are bound to stick.
        I’ve only just discovered Browne, and am enjoying his rational takes on various mythical creatures, so you’ll probably be hearing more about him from me in the future.

[Picture: Title page of first edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646 (Image from Abe Books).]

October 28, 2018

Devil at Hallowe'en?

        This wonderful, strange little woodcut is thought to represent the Devil dressed as a bird catcher.  Perhaps the Devil decided to dress as a bird catcher for Hallowe’en in the year 1525?  Theologically it is presumably illustrating Satan’s stratagems for ensnaring souls, but setting that aside, I find this a wonderfully goofy image.  First of all, is that bird catcher get-up for real?  Did hunters really dress as a haystack with a bird decoy and thus successfully catch birds?  What kinds of birds?  In this case, clearly holy birds, as the Devil’s decoy has a halo.  Like most haystack costumes, it’s presumably more convincing if you crouch down and keep still, but with his horned head popping out the top and his clawed feet popping out the bottom, it’s pretty easy to see through the Devil’s disguise.  If he came trick-or-treating to your door, would you make him pick up a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup with his tongs, or would you give it to the bird?

[Picture: The devil as a bird catcher, wood block print perhaps designed by Hans Beham, from Beschwerung der alten Teüflischen Schlangen mit dem Götlichen wort, 1525 (Image from Penn Libraries).]

October 24, 2018

Childhood Is Not Simple

        I heard a pop song yesterday in which the lyrics celebrated the “simplicity” of childhood, and I was excessively irritated.  I hate songs like that!  The thing is, children don’t find their lives simple.  Condescending adults may think it’s not really a big deal to have an argument with your friend or family, or to have trouble understanding your homework, or even to be told (if you’re even younger) that you have to wait until you get home before you can have lunch.  But children’s difficulties are just as big a deal to children as adults’ problems are to adults.  If you want to wax nostalgic about how simple your life was as a child, that’s fine, but don’t expect any children to understand or agree.  Children experience all the same emotions as adults: grief, stubbornness, joy, rage, pride, hopelessness, love, irritability, aspiration…  Moreover, because time stretches longer for them, they are even less able than adults to see to the end of a crisis or understand that this, too, shall pass.  The younger a child is, the more difficulty she’ll have in modulating the intensity of her emotions, or knowing what to do with them, but that also shouldn’t be taken to mean that children themselves are simple.  Being human, they are creatures every bit as complex as adults, who have to be exceptionally creative and adaptable in coming up with strategies to deal with their complicated and often bewildering universe - which just so happens to be exactly the same universe that adults inhabit.  In short, every week in a child’s life may be full of drama, dragons, epic quests, victories, and defeats.
        So, why do I share this little dollop of pop psychology?  Simply to say that those people who romanticize the “simplicity” of childhood may be able to score hits writing sentimental pop songs for their fellow sentimental adults, but they absolutely should never attempt to write for children.  To write for children it is necessary to take children seriously, to acknowledge the reality and validity of the challenges they face, and to give them credit for being able to respond to challenges with courage, creativity, and resilience.  Sometimes it takes true heroism to hold it together until you get home for lunch.

[Picture: Children Playing, woodcut by Feliciano Peña, n.d. (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum).]

October 19, 2018

Art Show Checklist

        This weekend I’ll be at Roslindale Open Studios, so today is all about finishing preparations and packing up.  For most of my weekend shows I prefer to set up on Friday when possible, but Roslindale is not somewhere I want to drive at rush hour on a Friday, so for this one I don’t set up until early Saturday morning.  Moreover, it’s a far enough drive that having to rush back home for some forgotten item is at best a terrible, frantic, stressful inconvenience, and at worst simply impossible.  This makes it all the more important that I actually remember to pack everything I’ll need.  To that end, I have put together a checklist.  This one is personal to me, my work, and my display, and obviously each artist’s list will be a little different.  Nevertheless, I offer it in the hope that it may be of some help to anyone thinking about showing or showing for the first time or so.

Display Stuff                                                Other Stuff
- hanging racks                                            - block(s) to carve
- hardware                                                   - carving tools
- hooks                                                          - sample rubber
- binder clips                                               - stamp pad
- multitool                                                    - test paper
- long table                                                   - business cards
- medium table                                           - networking cards
- small table                                                 - cash box
- tablecloths                                                 - square reader
- print racks                                                 - change
- card rack                                                    - record-keeping notebook
- card display baskets                                - price list folder
- book rack                                                   - pens, pencil
- labels                                                          - tape
- signage                                                      - camera
- easels, stands                                            - cart
                                                                      - bags for purchases

Goods                                                            Last Minute Stuff
- framed work                                             - phone
- matted work                                             - lunch/snacks
- card/necklace/etc. box                            - water bottle
- holiday cards                                            - glasses
- books                                                         - sweater
- framed posters                                        - phone charge cord/battery  
- box of posters                                           - purse (which includes essentials such as
                                                                               chapstick, tylenol, pads, scissors,
                                                                               tape measure, etc.)

        The binder clips, by the way, are for hanging unframed signs, unframed prints, and similar stuff from my wire racks.  The stamp pad and test paper are for checking the progress of the block I’m carving, at the end of the day when I think I may be about done with it.  I never bother bringing lights, but many artists do, in which case they’d also need to remember extension cords and gaffer tape.  Some artists bring an entire toolbox.  I think I’ve only once been in a location that didn’t provide a chair, but some artists bring their own special stool or higher chair.  I’ve always found the other artists extremely generous with tools, tape, making change for a customer, and other necessities that apply to all of us, but of course it’s more convenient to remember your own - and nice to be the person who can be generous to someone else when needed.
        You’ll be substituting your own artwork for mine on this list, your own display system for mine, and so on.  But perhaps there might be something on my list you wouldn’t have thought of.  Certainly my list has been developed and refined over my 14 years of doing art shows, and I’ve learned the hard way how handy it is to have some of the less obvious items, and how easy it is to forget some of the smaller ones - or even large ones, if they happen to get shoved out of sight out of mind.  So I hope this checklist is helpful to some of you, and I hope it’s helpful to me this evening as I load the car!
        If you’re in this Bostonian neck of the woods this weekend, be sure to come by and introduce yourself at Roslindale House.  It’s always a wonderful show.

[Picture: ROS 2017, photo by a helpful neighboring artist, 2017.]

October 16, 2018

That's No Moon!

        A long time ago (about five hundred years) in a continent far far away (Europe) an Italian engineer produced a sketchbook of fantastic gadgets he claimed to have invented and was making available to rich and powerful patrons.  Among his distinctly medieval-style sketches are a wonderful variety of automatons, fountains, musical instruments, weapons, locks, special effects for stage plays and pageants, and… the Death Star.  I mean, just look at this!  What else could it possibly be?
        The engineer, Giovanni or Johannes de Fontana (Italy, c 1395- c1455), included among his vaunted inventions a mishmash of items that were physically impossible, as well as some that he could have actually built, and still others that might have been onto something plausible, but were probably ahead of the technology of the time.  It seems likely, therefore, that Fontana never actually built a
Death Star.  After all, we’d probably have heard about it if Venice had obliterated Milan instead of agreeing to the Peace of Lodi.  Plus, it looks like he’s got the firing pattern of its superlaser a little wrong.  Still, he clearly had the basic concept, and even included lots of star destroyers in the scene, too.  (I confess I don’t know what the thing at the bottom is, though.)


[Pictures: Death Star(?) illustration from Bellicorum instrumentorum liber by Johannes de Fontana, 1420 (Image from Public Domain Review);
Death Star, still from Star Wars, 1977.]



ANNOUNCEMENT for everyone in the Greater Boston Area... or maybe even all of New England!  This weekend is ROSLINDALE OPEN STUDIOS, a wonderful event and one of my biggest shows of the year.  There's always a great buzz and great art, so come on by!

October 12, 2018

Saito's Signals

        Saito Kiyoshi (Japan, 1907-1997) worked as a designer for a railway corporation before taking up printmaking.  Clearly it left him with an interest in the aesthetics of railways, and I really like these two woodblock prints depicting railway depots.  There are no trains here, just the skeleton of infrastructure without any movement or life.  There are tracks, girders, and signals: all manmade geometry.  The dark colors could be interpreted as baleful or ominous, but  for some reason they seem almost peaceful to me.  I guess it’s that everything is so strictly ordered, mathematical and under control .  I suppose they’re set at dusk, or just before dawn when no trains are running.
        I don’t know how many blocks went into each piece; I’m guessing three or maybe four if the red lights got their own separate block.  (The red and the skyline could have been done in a single block inked in two colors.)  The grey ink of the ground is rolled on lightly enough to show a lot of white speckles, which evokes gravel.  Against this gravelly grey, the solid black and red look particularly dramatic, and the shadowy skylines offer a fitting backdrop.



[Pictures: Signal (B), color woodblock print by Saito Kiyoshi, 1962 (Image from Our Sense of Place);
Signal (A), color woodblock print by Saito, 1962 (Image from invaluable).]