January 30, 2018

Words of the Month - Dr. Murray, Oxford

        James Augustus Henry Murray (UK, 1837-1915) was born 181 years ago on February 7, in honor of which I’m going to use this month’s “Words of the Month” slot to talk not about specific words, but about one of the most influential people in our modern, scholarly understanding of English words.  Murray was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, which also has an anniversary in February, as the very first section, with words A-Ant, was published on February 1, 1884.  A poor Scottish boy who dropped out of school at age 14 because his family couldn’t afford it, Murray was soon teaching others and by 21 had been made headmaster of the same kind of school he’d been unable to attend as a student.  He taught himself well over a dozen languages, as well as botany, geology, and archaeology, and he gave a 14-year-old Alexander Graham Bell his first lesson on electricity.  Murray earned himself a BA degree at the age of 36, and a year later he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University, thus making him “Dr. Murray.”  He was not just a prodigy of learning, but a prodigy of working, as well.  He regularly worked 80 or 90 hours a week on the OED, and kept up this pace into his 7os.  But he had a life, too, including a wife and family of 11 children, a church community, and a number of other Oxford societies.  (Fun fact: his children earned pocket money sorting quotation slips in Murray’s office, one son went on to be a major contributor of quotations, and three daughters became official members of the OED staff.)  With all that, Murray certainly makes me feel stupid and lazy!
        Okay, but we’re not here to discuss his hard work.  Lots of people in this world work incredibly hard.  We’re here to talk about Murray’s impact on the English language, through his editorial choices on the OED.  He personally edited more of the first edition of the OED than anyone else - about half of the dictionary - and he also set most of the practices and policies that defined the rest.
        Murray set the policy that the different senses of a word should be placed in the chronological order in which they had entered the language, as demonstrated by the citations on file, except when it seemed more logical that a later-attested sense must really have been earlier.  This was reasonable, since Murray knew the collected quotations couldn’t possibly be comprehensive and earlier uses might well be missing from the record, but it also means that for the third edition the OED is now reassessing some of those assumptions - and is also choosing to stick strictly with the chronology of their citations this time around.
        Murray began the prejudice toward literary sources and “print” which placed more weight, for example, on Shakespeare than on a personal letter from an earlier writer.
        Murray set the tone of the OED with the Victorian prudery which kept “bad words” out of the OED until 1972.
        Murray was conservative in adopting new words, especially slang, but he even held back on scientific words before he felt they were sufficiently commonly used throughout the language.  For example, the word radium, coined in 1899, was denied entry into the OED in 1902.
        Murray worked hard to eliminate ghost words from the OED, evidence again of his scrupulous scholarship.
        Murray wrote of “exotic” words such as khaki that “it would have been easy to double their number, if every such word occurring in English books, or current in the English colonies and dependencies, had been admitted; our constant effort has been to keep down, rather than to exaggerate, this part of ‘the white man’s burden.’”  Khaki, by the way, was admitted readily enough in 1901, though it was marked as “alien or not fully naturalized.”  It took WWI to truly integrate the word into English.
        Yet it was also Murray who put out the call to the entire English-reading world to send in citations.  It was Murray who chose to include “alien or not fully naturalized” words, rather than leave them out altogether.  It was Murray who so excited the English public about this dictionary project that when newspapers published the story of the Oxford University Press harassing Murray and second editor Henry Bradley to keep costs down and hurry up, public opinion supported the editors in taking their time and doing it right.  The university changed their tune.  Murray became such a celebrity, and involved so many people in the work of collecting citations (about 2,000 people sending in about 5 million quotations - that’s crowdsourcing) that he had a postbox installed outside his house, and anything addressed simply to “Dr Murray, Oxford,” would reach him.  This as much as anything else illustrates the success of the man who was born without his two middle names - he had added them himself as a young man when he first moved to a larger town and needed to differentiate himself from the other James Murrays there.
        It was also Murray who formed the relationship with one of the greatest single contributors to the OED, Dr William Chester Minor, who, Murray eventually discovered, was a criminally insane inmate of Broadmoor Asylum.  February also marks the anniversary of the murder for which Minor was incarcerated, which of course gave him plenty of time to read and develop his highly organized system of citations which was of so much use to the OED.  The relationship between Murray and Minor was the subject of a 1998 book, and was due to come out as a movie, “The Professor and the Madman,” some time this year.  (To quibble, Murray was a teacher and recipient of a doctorate degree, but never a professor.)  Murray will be played by Mel Gibson, which is a little hard to imagine, but apparently the movie is now mired in controversy and legal issues, so who knows when, if ever, it will reach theaters.
        Finally, a few words in which Murray had a direct hand:
nonce word - a word coined to serve an immediate specific communication need.  It may eventually become an established word (at which point it is no longer a nonce word), or it may simply be a one-shot deal.  Murray coined this word himself.
anamorphose - to represent by anamorphosis, a distorted projection or perspective in art.  This is hardly a common word, and Murray used as an OED citation for it an article written by himself in the magazine of the school where he taught.  It must have been a bit of an in-joke between himself and the dozens of colleagues and former students who eventually helped with the OED in various ways.
connexion and rime - Murray was avidly interested in spelling reform and while he would never change the spellings as they appeared in quotations, he did allow himself these two spelling variants of connection and rhyme in the definitions, etymologies, etc. which he himself wrote for the OED.  Eventually he relaxed his views, but not until the 1990s did the OED revisit those spelling decisions, and connexion, at least, has become quite common in British English.

        So, Happy Birthday, Dr Murray.  I would like to end this blog post as Murray ended the section on D at 11pm on November 24, 1896, with the most excellent, and yes, exotic, word dziggetai.  (It’s a Mongolian equine.)  He then added “Here endeth D” and, in Greek, “To God alone be the glory.”

[Pictures: Murray riding a sand-monster on the beach in Wales (Image from Oxford University Press Archives);
Denholm, The Birth Place of Dr. John Leyden [and Dr. James Murray], from a drawing by Murray, 1858 (Image from Oxford Dictionaries blog);
Dziggetai, wood engraving from Nouveau dictionaire encyclopédique universel illustré, 1885-1891 (Image from Old Book Illustrations).]

January 26, 2018

Ursula LeGuin Says It Right

        Ursula K. LeGuin (1929-2018) died on Tuesday, and I have long admired her as a masterful maker of worlds, a soaringly beautiful writer, and a fierce intellect of probing questions and uncompromising logic.  While I definitely don’t agree with her on every statement she’s ever made, she undoubtedly had a way of declaring many of the ideas I’ve been working with, and of expressing them better than I do, too.  So in tribute to one who never failed to write as if her gift for writing was the tool she had for making the world a better place, let me just give you some of LeGuin’s own words.

        To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.  Fantasy and science fiction in their very conception offer alternatives to the reader’s present, actual world. Young people in general welcome this kind of story because in their vigor and eagerness for experience they welcome alternatives, possibilities, change. Having come to fear even the imagination of true change, many adults refuse all imaginative literature, priding themselves on seeing nothing beyond what they already know, or think they know.
The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.

[Picture: Prólogo, woodcut by Erasto Cortés Juárez, 1955 (Image from Colección Blaisten).]
(Quotations from the essay “A War Without End” in The Wave in the Mind, 2004.)

January 23, 2018

Laurence's Towns

        I recently discovered some work by Anita Laurence (Australia), and I just love her linoleum block prints of cities.  These are not cities that I know well myself, so I can’t look at them with an eye to picking out familiar landmarks or recognizing beloved quirks, but I still find them absolutely charming.  You can see that they all share a very similar style, with the buildings arranged in tiers going up the paper.  Some have horizontal rows, while others have  a zigzag layout.  Three have a body of water across the bottom; two are backed by mountains; they all have a variety of architecture and a variety of textures.
        The first piece, Cork, Ireland, is the one of these cities I have visited, but I’m pretty sure you can’t get a view like this.  In other words, this is schematic rather than landscapey; it’s a conceptual portrait of the city rather than a photographic view.  I love
the balance between stylization and detail, not only just in the buildings but also in the trees and background textures of earth, water, and hills.  I like the simplification of the solid black buildings in the background.
        Most stylized of all is Wangaratta, Australia, with a sky full of pattern, a river full of fish, and neatly geometric trees.  Except for the fish, I see no people or animals in any of these pieces, but they still seem busily active.  I like the lampposts with the carved lines around them, and the variety of textures on all the buildings.  This whole piece is just so much fun!
        The next piece is listed as being in Ireland, I assume Cork again with the Shandon bell tower in the upper left.  That would explain the two rows of river.  This piece seems more serious and monumental, with its dark sky and dramatic clouds, more sober lines, and more realistic trees.
        And finally, Mount Stuart, Australia, with a lot more landscape interwoven with its buildings.  Here Laurence has made a wider variety of patterns for trees and shrubs, and textures of grass and ground.  It certainly looks more like it could be an actual view, but I don’t know whether it is.  I like how the hills fade to black against the sky.
        These pieces please me so much.  I love finding all their little details, and I love their overall impression of busyness.  I shared something with a similar concept in Rudolph’s Winnipeg Neighborhood years ago, so obviously these stylized collections of buildings are something that appeals to me.   It really makes me want to depict my town this way, although reflection leads me to the unfortunate conclusion that neither my town nor my own printmaking style would be very conducive to it.  So for now I’ll just continue to enjoy the work of others.

[Pictures: Corcaigh, linocut by Anita Laurence, 2009;
Wangajazzaratta, linocut by Laurence;
Holy Trinity, linocut by Laurence, c 2009;
Mt. Stuart, linocut by Laurence, c 2009-2016 (All images from anitalaurence.com).]

January 19, 2018

Here's Something Cool: Arisia Art

        Here are a couple of my fellow artists from the Arisia Art Show this past weekend, whose work particularly tickled my fancy.  (They weren’t the only ones I liked - not by a long stretch, but if you want to see everyone who was involved, here’s the list of artists who showed at Arisia this year.)
        So, first the papier maché critters of Kimberly’s Creatures.  Their exterior is fabric, which makes them feel a little sturdier and more finished than just the newspaper interior construction.  Some are quite traditional dragons, and some are strange and wonderful variants of fish, birds,  insects, and who-knows-what.  Most are scaled, with plenty of horns and teeth.   They are definitely in the same family as Mexican folk art alebrijes.
        My daughter T and I each voted for a creature (although not the same one) as our favorite 3D work at Arisia.  These critters have such a nice whimsy: cute but not too cutesy.  Although there are certainly plenty that are similar to each other, each one is unique, and they have a bit of personality that makes them especially fun.  If there were any really small ones, I might have adopted one, but alas I really can’t take on the care of something so big (even the smallest are about a foot long).  So I simply admire them from afar, and share them with you.
        Second, an artist with a completely different medium, style, and content: Drew Merger of The Corey Press and his “traditional” block prints of aliens, cthulhu, and other weirdness.  Rather than cuteness, he celebrates the dark and grotesque.  In truth, much of his work is a little too dark and grotesque for me!  But what I do really enjoy is the way he plays with all those same traditional wood block prints that I’ve featured here in the past: Holbein’s Totentanz, Magnus’s History of the Nordic Peoples, Wolgemut’s Nuremberg Chronicle, Alciato’s Emblemata, and any number of broadsides and other early prints.  Some of his pieces are copied quite closely from old prints, with just the small matter of adding aliens or
monsters.  Others are more entirely new, but still in the style of early woodcuts.  My husband D especially enjoyed them.  Merger appears to carve in linoleum, but he prints on wood instead of paper, which is an interesting reversal of the traditional medium.
        And next month I’ll be on to the art show at Boskone 55.  I don’t know how many of the same fantasy artists will be there, but you can see that I’ll be in good company!

[Pictures: Larry, cloth and papier maché sculpture by Kimberly’s Creatures;
Haloisi (Sea Storm), cloth and papier maché sculpture by Kimberly’s Creatures;
Buck Toothed Merloc SunFish, cloth and papier maché sculpture by Kimberly’s Creatures (Images from Kimberly’s Creatures);
The Doom that Came to Westport, block print on wood by Drew Merger;
Ego Quid Videret (I Could See), block print on wood by Drew Merger (Images from The Corey Press).]

January 16, 2018

Printmaking Mini-Workshops

        This weekend I once again ran two printmaking mini-workshops at the Arisia sci-fi/fantasy/fandom convention in Boston.  You may be asking whether there’s any intrinsic connection between relief block printmaking and sci-fi/fantasy, and I have to answer that no, there really isn’t.  But I did my best to make one with the following blurb: Relief block printmaking is a magical, sci-fi art form: it’s like carving with light into darkness, and then cloning the result.
        Of course, the disadvantage of actually being busy is that I don’t have much chance to photograph the participants’ work, and this year I didn’t get any pictures at all from my second session, but I do have just a few pieces to share.
        The charming moon rabbit at the top was actually not done during a workshop.  It was made by a woman who participated in my workshops in 2016 and '17, and this year gave me this card she had made at home, having gone out and gotten supplies of her own.  Yay!  I’m spreading the good news about printmaking!  It’s a really lovely little piece, and it was really lovely of her to share it with me.
        The other pieces here are a small sampling from this year and I think they show a nice array of styles, all quite successful.
        Meanwhile, my own display in the art show was also very successful.  Because I don’t sit with my exhibit all weekend like at an open studios show, I usually don’t know who buys my work at Arisia.  But this year I was really delighted that I just happened to see my Young Unicorn, framed in a special gilt filigree frame I found, going home with a young girl in a purple princess dress.  I feel sure that my unicorn will be extremely happy in its new home!

        Thank you to everyone who bought my work, or took part in my workshops.  I hope the good news about block printing is making you happy, too!  If you want more, I will be running a 4-evening printmaking workshop in March through Needham Community Education.  I’d love to have you join me.  You can see the details and sign up here.

[Pictures: Rabbit in the Moon, rubber block print by Alyse;
Rubber block print by Annalise?, 2018 (photo by someone on Arisia staff);
Demon Elk, rubber block print by Angela, 2018;
Cthulhu symbol, rubber block print, 2018.
(Anyone who would like their work credited differently, please just let me know!)]

January 12, 2018

Mapping the Fantastic

        This weekend I’ll be at the Arisia sci fi/fantasy/fandom convention where I will be exhibiting in the art show, presenting on a couple of panels, running a couple of block printing mini-workshops, and doing a reading from The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  I think I’ve got everything prepared and packed for all these various activities, although with a wide variety of events from both the art and writing sides of things, there’s a lot to keep track of and I hope I’m not forgetting anything vital!
        At any rate, the one event that really does tie together both the art and writing is a panel on the use of maps in fantasy.  Our panel members have been putting together a Pinterest board of map pictures to share with the audience, and it looks like there should be lots of interesting ideas about both larger concepts of cartography in world creation, and nitty gritty art tips about making cool-looking maps.  Here’s the link to the Pinterest board.  I’ve written a bit about my thoughts on fantasy maps previously here (or click the "maps" label in the sidebar),  but for this panel I also put together a simple graphic about the way I’ve broken down my thinking on fantasy maps.
        Roughly, the breakdown is that there are 1) the maps the writer/creator has for her own use in keeping things straight and visualizing a world in accurate, consistent detail, and then there are 2) maps that are intended for the reader/viewer/audience.  The maps intended for the audience can be divided further into A) the category of maps that reproduce a map within the story that the fictional characters see or use, and B) the category of maps that exist outside the story purely for the benefit of the reader.  Maps for the characters need to be consistent with the world in which they exist: What is the map for?  What kind of technology and materials exist in this world to gather information and depict it?  What kind of world view or religion would be reflected in a map made by this culture?  What priorities or agenda would it convey?  On the other hand, those maps that exist outside the story don’t need to worry about anachronistic style or accuracy.  They are often made to look as “realistic” as possible, in order to help the reader navigate or keep up with the story, and to help with the illusion that this world is indeed a real physical place that can be surveyed and mapped just like any place on the Earth we know.
        In case you don’t recognize them, the maps illustrating my graphic are, from left to right, top to bottom: a selection of my own notes for the Otherworld Series, the map from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, map of LeGuin’s Earthsea, map accompanying Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and a map of Gurney’s Dinotopia.
          Of course, I won’t know how the conversation with the panel goes until we get there and start talking, and hear what questions and ideas we all bring.  I certainly look forward to it!

[Picture: graphic by AEGN, 2018, using the maps noted above.]

January 9, 2018

Cat + Night + Magic

        There’s a long, deep, connection between cats, night, and magic, well captured in this poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth (USA, 1893-1986).
     On a Night of Snow

Cat, if you go outdoors, you must walk in the snow.
You will come back with little white shoes on your feet,
little white shoes of snow that have heels of sleet.
Stay by the fire, my Cat. Lie still, do not go.
See how the flames are leaping and hissing low,
I will bring you a saucer of milk like a marguerite,
so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet —
stay with me, Cat. Outdoors the wild winds blow.

Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night,
strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore,
and more than cats move, lit by our eyes’ green light,
on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar —
Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might,
and things that are yet to be done. Open the door!

        My cat is not allowed outdoors, but I suspect that she is not particularly attuned to magic anyway.  She’s not the most mystical of creatures.  Still, cats aside, it is easy to imagine elemental spirits abroad and magic strong on a dark, whirling night of snow.

[Picture: Old Town on a Wintry Night (guzhen xueye), woodcut by An Bin, 1998 (Image from Art Institute Chicago).]

January 5, 2018

Snow Day!

        Every winter when we have a big snowstorm I share a few relief block prints of snowy scenes.  There are plenty to choose from because snowy scenes are a natural for black and white, so I think a lot of printmakers must be inspired by a snow-covered world.  So let’s begin with white snow under a black sky: the still, clear aftermath of the snowstorm.  That’s what I expect here tonight, when we’ll be experiencing frigid cold under clear skies.  I like the big branches in the foreground balanced with the details of the trees in the background, and the natural world of frozen trees and water balanced with the human fence and church.  I also like the touch of the shooting star for just a hint of movement in a still world.
        Here’s another snowy church among trees, but this time with four colors: not just black and white, but also grey and beige.  The golden beige along with the shadows on the snow in the foreground capture a low, slanting sunlight coming in under the edge of the heavy, grey skies.  There’s actually very little white in this block, considering that it’s a snowscape.

        There’s plenty of snow in the next piece, where simple, rounded snow is heaped on the hills and roofs like puffy bonnets.  It’s almost cartoonishly adorable.  I like the simple sawteeth of trees atop the hills of this winter wonderland.
        Finally, a second piece by Sue Cave, with a particularly interesting pattern.  It’s too cold here for icicles - no water is melting enough to start them, despite the sunny afternoon - but I love how Cave has distorted the wintry scene behind in order to evoke the wet, shiny ice.  This one makes me think of a window, and today is definitely a good day to be inside looking out through a window (preferably double-glazed and insulated!) at the beautiful snow.

[Pictures: Drift, wood engraving by Sue Cave, 2009;
Kostelík v Nudvojovicích u Turnova, wood block print with multiple blocks by Karel Vik, 1929 (Image from Galerie09);
Houses in Winter, wood block print by Carl Schaefer, 1930 (Image from Masters Gallery);
Icicle, wood engraving by Sue Cave, 2011 (Images from SueCave.com).]

January 2, 2018

Orpheus and the Animals

        If you recall the story of Orpheus from Greek mythology, you will remember that there are a number of chapters, but the one I’m looking at today is Orpheus’s ability to charm all who heard his music.  The son of the muse Calliope, Orpheus lived with his mother and the other eight muses, so clearly he had plenty of inspiration around.  Apollo gave him a lyre and taught him to play it, while his mother taught him to compose lyrics.  He’s credited with inventing other musical instruments, as well.  And so beautiful was his music that animals were tamed, trees crept near, and even rivers might bend their courses to flow closer to his voice.  What artist wouldn’t wish for that level of mastery?  So it isn’t surprising that artists of all media - music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction…- should be inspired by Orpheus.
        Printmakers are no different, so here are a few relief block prints of Orpheus and the animals.  This first one has a wonderful variety of animals, from the monkey in the tree to the ducks in the water, a turtle, and even a giraffe.  Also interesting is his instrument, which is held and bowed like a fiddle, but fretted and with a head more like a guitar.  This is probably something he invented, since it isn’t the lyre Apollo gave him.  Older prints often show Orpheus with a bowed instrument rather than a lyre.
        There are two interesting elements in this second image.  For one thing, among the members of Orpheus’s audience is a unicorn.  This was not uncommon in the renaissance, but I don’t know whether it was just for fun, or whether there was a particular significance to it.  Oddly, what seems more unusual than the unicorn is that Orpheus’s mouth is actually open.  Despite the fact that he’s supposed to be singing, artists seldom seem to show him with open mouth.  I guess it’s just too difficult not to have him look silly that way!
        Jumping forward three and a half centuries, here’s an art deco extravaganza, complete with geometric palm fronds, chiselled wildcats, and full sized harp.  I love the foliage, the antelope, and the birds to the upper right, but Orpheus himself is looking a little too emo for my taste.  It seems a little odd that none of the animals in the foreground is looking at him, and the bear in particular looks very worried about something.  Maybe they’re all mourning Euridyce?
        In my final portrait of Orpheus there aren’t very many animals - just a cat, a deer, and a couple pigeons.  Lest you fear at first glance that this is a dead cat with the hunter’s foot on its neck, just observe that feline smile.  You can almost hear it purr.  I’m absolutely tickled by the way Orpheus is petting the cat with his foot, something that doesn’t seem very high-brow artistic, and yet we do it all the time in our house.  I suspect that the artist, Gerhard Marcks, must have had a cat himself.  And while I may dream, with all the other artists, of being able to enchant all of creation with the beauty and wisdom of my artistic work, at least I know that pleasing my own cat is an achievable goal (though she probably likes my fairly uninspiring singing better than even my most inspiring art or writing).

[Pictures: Orpheus serenading animals, woodcut designed by Matteo da Treviso from Convivio delle Belle Donna, 1532 (Image from The Met);
Orpheus cythara ludens, woodcut by Virgil Solis from Metamorphoses Illustratae, 1563 (Image from University of Virginia);
Orpheus Playing for the Animals, woodcut by Henri van der Stok, c 1920-5 (Image from William P. Carl Fine Prints);
Singender Orpheus, woodcut by Gerhard Marcks, 1948 (Image from Luther College).]