February 27, 2018

Words of the Month - Prose Promotion

        Slang comprises the second-class words that live in ordinary, everyday conversations, but aren’t usually permitted past the velvet rope into the more respectable regions of serious speech and writing.  Slang words come and go, often appearing mysteriously, hanging around for a while, and then fading away unmourned.  Most slang has a high turnover rate, but some continues for centuries in a perpetual state of not-quite standard usage.  Here are a few examples:

beat it - used by Shakespeare with the meaning “go away,” the phrase has lasted over 400 years without either disappearing into the oblivion of so last year or becoming elevated to a standard usage.  It would sound equally plausible that it was coined in 1860, or 1920, or by Michael Jackson in 1982.
bones - from the late 14th century meaning “dice,” and from 1887 meaning “surgeon,” both these informal usages have stuck around in a perpetual state of slangdom.
duds - meaning “clothing” dates back to the 1560s, from a word meaning “cloak.”  It’s still listed as “Informal” in the 1991 Random House Webster’s.

        Some lucky slang words, however, do manage to bootstrap their way into polite society and become accepted, in time, as words in good standing, appropriate for even the most scholarly prose.  Here are a few of those successful lexical social climbers:

phone - telephone was first used of our modern device in 1876, shortened by 1884.  It was still labelled as “Colloq.” in Webster’s New International Dictionary of 1919 .  Now that we use primarily mobile phones, cell phones, iphones, and other devices that don’t include tele- in their names, it has become less a mere abbreviation and more a word in its own right.
bus - omnibus entered English in 1829, already abbreviated from French voiture omnibus meaning “carriage for all.”  By 1832 we see the colloquial abbreviation bus.  It was still defined as “short for Omnibus” in Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary in 1908, and listed as “Colloq.” in 1919.
        You can see the theme here: technical words are coined with their complicated Latinate derivations and then instantly subjected to the grinding down of everyday speech.  It’s hard to pin down when these slang abbreviations become truly accepted.  Phone and TV are still understood to be short forms of longer words that are also still current, but bus really is just the standard word for the vehicle.

fan - 188o’s, short for fanatic, originating with baseball.  Newspaper articles through the 1880s usually wrote the word in quotation marks, indicating that it was still new and non-standard.  Neither The Century Dictionary, published ten years later, nor Chambers’s ten years after that, so much as mentioned it, and Webster’s New International of 1919 included it labelled “Slang.”  By now, however, I think very few people are aware that it was ever a non-standard word.
mob - 1680’s, short for mobile or mobility, from Latin mobile vulgus meaning “fickle common people”.  In 1710 Jonathan Swift complained, “I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of mobb and banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers.”  By The Century Dictionary of 1889-91 it was treated as standard.
banter - 1670s, see above.  Swift said it came from London street slang.
zoo - c.1847, short for Zoological Gardens.  The Century Dictionary (1889-91) said of the word zoo, “From a mere vulgarism, this corruption has passed into wide colloquial use.”  The disapproval was clear.  It was still “Colloq.” in 1919.

blimp - 1916, of obscure origin, but certainly began as slang.  It was still not included in Webster’s New International Dictionary of 1919.
hot dog - c.1890  In 1900 it was considered college slang, and it was not in the regular dictionaries as of 1919.
jazz - as music, 1913, probably from Creole patois jass “strenuous activity” especially sex.  Presumably the word became respectable when the music became respectable.

        It would be easier to trace this if I could access mid-twentieth-century dictionaries on-line, but copyright keeps them from being digitized.  Still, it’s interesting to see how most slang disappears, but some persists, and some sheds its slang associations and goes standard.

[Pictures: Ex Libris Václav Grégr, wood engraving by Pavel Simon, mid-20th century (Image from Robin Prints);
London A-Z, color wood block print by Tobias Till, 2011-12;
London Zoo, color wood block print by Till, 2011-12 (Images from Tobias Till web site);
Miles Davis, resingrave engraving by Eric Hoffman, 2011 (Image from Spofford Press).]

The Century Dictionary of 1889-91 (on Internet Archive)
Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of 1908 (on Project Gutenberg)
Webster’s New International Collegiate Dictionary of 1919 (on Hathi Trust)

February 23, 2018

Burroughs and Other Beautiful Women

        Today I want to share a small sampling of work by Margaret Taylor Burroughs (U.S.A., 1915-2010), who serves to celebrate Black History Month in February and look forward to Women’s History Month in March.  I’m starting with this great Black Venus, who is surfing fishback like the funny sixteenth-century piece I featured last summer.  She certainly looks all Venus: beautiful, impassively snooty, totally in command of her situation as she pulls up out of the shimmering ocean light surrounded by cupids, like a movie star pulling up in a limo surrounded by paparazzi.  It was a powerful message to show a dark-skinned goddess of beauty.
        Burroughs has depicted another powerful black woman in Mother Africa - Mother of All Humanity, but her title shows one of the important points about Burroughs’s work.  While she celebrated her own background and her own people, she was not confined to a narrow view of people.  She said, “I wish my art to speak not
only for my people - but for all humanity,” and “The color of skin is a minor difference among men which has been stretched beyond its importance.”  One of the things I like about block printing is that black and white have equal importance and are necessary for each other’s impact, so that whether a person in a block print is depicted as black or white can be more about the needs of composition and aesthetics than any human construct of race.  Burroughs, however, made a number of lovely images of black and white people interacting together in simple coexistence and companionship.  She also did some pieces in which people’s faces are half black and half white, something else that looks really good in block printing, which Burroughs could use to explore the message that humanity includes all skin colors and individuals include diverse backgrounds.
        Today I was trying to focus on some of Burroughs’s beautiful women, and while I began with two mythic figures, most of her people are ordinary.  This last piece is a lovely example of a completely ordinary and completely beautiful mother and child.  The carving is quite simple, with lots of use of outlines, and even double outlines around many areas.  There’s also some use of tiny stippled marks for highlighting, a technique used with much more precision and detail in Mother Africa.  This mother is sweet and loving, with eyes only for her daughter, but the girl stares solemnly, even challengingly, out at the viewer.  This is a girl who will be strong.

[Black Venus, block print by Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs, 1957 (Image from 1stdibs);
Mother Africa - Mother of All Humanity, block print by Burroughs, 1968(?) (Image from Art Goddess);
Mother & Child, linocut by Burroughs, 1997 (Image from Paramour Fine Arts).]

February 20, 2018

Winter Olympics

        It’s winter Olympics time, and that means block prints (because doesn’t everything mean block prints?)  Here are a selection of prints depicting various winter sports, and you can see that there’s a definite strain of art and a few particular artists who obviously really have fun depicting the action and trying to capture the dynamism and excitement of sports.  There are also a few oddities here, just to add to the diversity.
        I’m starting with a great ski race by Lill Tschudi (Switzerland, 1911-2004), who wanted to be a printmaker from the time she was a child!  She is famous for her machine-age prints of dynamism, and she uses lots of broad, swooping shapes and smooth, curving lines. 
Also by Tschudi is this funny piece depicting an ice-skater spinning.  To me this skater looks more comic than graceful, crunched down into a tubby little shape as his wild twirling lines escape all over the page like a sprung watch spring.  This piece is definitely about depicting the action itself as much or more than the person doing the action.
        The other really famous printmaker of the same era and style is Cyril Power (U.K., 1872-1951), whose three skaters are smoother and more graceful than Tschudi’s twirler.  I suppose there’s no such Olympic sport as synchronized skating with teams of three, but I’ve chosen these to represent figure skating.  (Maybe it’s really just one skater?)  Their outstretched curves and the lines emanating around them all serve to evoke the power as well as the elegance of figure skating.
        The speed skaters are by Paul Cledan (U.K), a contemporary printmaker who lists Tschudi and Power among his influences.  Not that you would need him to say it, since it’s quite clear at first glance!  Like them he’s used simplified shapes in blocks of color to evoke
his moving athletes, and like them he’s got swoops and swirls making the motion visible.  I’ve included three of his pieces in today’s collection, since he has such a nice representation of winter sports.  (He has more, as well, but I do try to keep myself from going overboard.)  His hockey players depict yet another ice skating sport, with yet another vibe: this time the chaos of players converging on the puck, sticks swiping, shoulders down, ice sliced…
        And finally, getting off the skates and onto the bobsled track, you can see how the sled is stretched out behind like a blur or flash.  There’s something about this piece reminiscent of a graphic novel, with its heightened colors, dramatic point of view, and that comet trail of action like what you’d see behind Superman or the Flash.
        An older depiction of a bobsled looks less smooth and more bone-rattling to me.  It also reminds me of the villainous motorcyclists in A-ha’s “Take on Me” video!
        These artists all clearly exalt the athletes with their speed and power, so here’s a different take in an affectionately satirical print depicting one of the odder of winter Olympic sports: curling.  Ray Gloeckler (U.S., b.1928) has been a curler himself, so he knows whereof he carves.  His curler is neither graceful not swift, crouching over his stone in ridiculous concentration.
        And finally, another of the winter Olympics’s odd sports, the biathalon - or at least its predecessor.  If you’ve ever wondered why there's a seemingly random combination of skiing and target shooting, its origins are, of course, in hunting.  This print from Olaus Magnus’s History of the Nordic Peoples depicts Laplanders hunting with bows and skis.  This is, quite simply, a sixteenth-century biathalon.
        The 2018 Olympics will be over soon, but with the magic of art, the athletes race and twirl and clash and swoosh and curl on forever.

[Pictures: Slalom, linocut by Lill Tschudi, 1938 (Image from Masters Gallery Vancouver);
Eislauf (Ice Skating), color linocut by Tschudi;
Skaters, print from three blocks by Cyril Power, 1932 (Image from Pallant House Gallery);
Speed Skaters, lino multi-block print by Paul Cledan;
Ice Hockey, lino multi-block print by Cledan;
Bobsleigh, lino multi-block print by Cledan (Images from Bourneside Gallery);
Olympia Bob Run, linocut?, mid-20th century?, but I can’t track down any details;
Curl, wood block print by Ray Gloeckler (Image from Wisconsin Visual Art Achievement Awards);
On Hunting Tours of the Lapps, wood block print from Book 4, Chapter 12 of Historia de Gentibus Septrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1555 (Image from avrosys).]

February 16, 2018

Alphabet Transformations

        Here’s a series of doodles I set myself back in Dec. 2000 - Jan. 2001.  I drew one a day in my journal.  I’m not sure whether I got the idea from somewhere else or made it up myself, but the idea, obviously, is to transform each letter of the alphabet, in three intermediary steps, into an object that begins with that letter.  I had a lot of fun with it.  It was interesting to select a target object that had some sort of 
logical connection with the shape of the letter.  It was interesting to figure out the best view of it to take advantage of that connection.  It was interesting to figure out the intermediate steps, and of course it was fun to do all the drawing itself.
        I enjoyed it so much that later I assigned it to students who had finished their work early during a unit on Surrealism when we had talked about transformations.  Each student did only one or two letters as she had extra time, but eventually we ended up with a complete alphabet (plus lots of duplicates of the more exciting letters.)  I displayed the letters all around the top of the classroom.
        There’s really no need for deep analysis here - I was amused doing these doodles, and I thought you might be amused to see them.  (Remember that you can click on the pictures to see them bigger.)

        I’m off this afternoon to hang my art at the Boskone Art Show of the New England Science Fiction Association.  When that’s over I’ll be getting to work on preparations for teaching my printmaking classes in March.  (There are still spaces left.  If you’re interested in doing lots of fun rubber block printing, check it out here at Needham Community Education.)

        And finally, Happy Lunar New Year of the Dog!

[Pictures: Alphabet transformations, 26 sets of drawings by AEGN, 2000-2001.]

February 13, 2018

Valentine's Chapbooks

        Chapbooks were one of the primary sources of printed material and “literature" for the common people in England during the eighteenth century.  They were small pamphlets, usually 16 or 24 pages, with poems, ballads, stories, satires, or “instructive” material, often illustrated with wood block prints.  They ranged from nice little books well printed to crude pirated editions, and the block prints illustrating them had a similar range of quality and even a range of relevance.  In honor of Valentine’s Day I have selected a few of these woodcuts of a romantic nature.
        First up, an illustration of “the Pleasant History of fair Rosamond… Daughter to the Lord Arundel whose love was obtained by the Valour of Tommy Pots: who conquered the Lord Phenix, and wounded him, and after obtained her to be his wife.  Being very delightful to read.”  It’s a classic tale of the triumph of true love for a commoner, and is rather nice because in the end everyone acquiesces quite happily and helpfully to the marriage of Rosamond and Tommy.  Although it would be a mistake to assume that a woodcut accompanying a chapbook necessarily corresponds closely with the story, I propose that this is the point when Rosamond and Tommy meet in secret to declare their love.  I like the sun peeping up over the
hill, and all the gratuitous variety of birds.  Rosamond’s expression is rather nice, showing hope and trepidation, although Tommy looks a little glazed.
        The next piece is quite crude, making even Tommy’s glazed expression look sensitive.  Nevertheless, I like the spotted puppy, and I’m amused by the cupid.  This woodcut accompanied the tale of Ned’s courtship and subsequent remorse upon marrying a chamber-maid.  It isn’t exactly a romantic story, but take the woodcut on its own Valentine merits.
        And finally, a much more accomplished woodcut, with nicely depicted horses and plenty of good detail on the figures.  I don’t know what this story was about, but what could be a better Valentine toast than these riders’ cry of “For Love!  For Life!”

[Pictures: Tommy Potts or Cupid’s Triumph, Being the Pleasant and Delightful History of Fair Rosamond, c1675;
Ned and a chambermaid from A York Dialogue, both reproduced in Chap-Books of the Eighteenth Century, by John Ashton, 1882 (Images from Internet Archive);
For Love, For Life, wood block print from A Poste with a Packet of Mad Leters by Nicholas Breton, 1660 (Image from Yale University Library).]

February 9, 2018

Inclusivity vs Appropriation

        As I have previously mentioned, I’ve been working on a bestiary project.  For about ten years I’ve been slowly and unsteadily working my way towards making a block print of a mythical creature for every letter of the alphabet, and just in the past couple of years I’ve been dreaming of using those creatures in a bestiary with stories and writings to go with them.  I feel that it’s really important to include creatures from the legends of people all around the world, for a number of reasons.  1. I want to introduce some creatures that are lesser-known to English readers, as well as some of the universally-beloved classics.  2. I want to acknowledge some of the huge diversity of fantasy in our world.  3. I want to celebrate the fact that all cultures everywhere have wonderful stories that fire the imagination.
        On the other hand, there is a strain of thought I sometimes encounter, that demands that no writer or artist ever touch any mythology that doesn’t originate with the culture of their own ancestry.  And that would mean that as a person of primarily northern European ancestry, I am not to use anything other than northern European mythology.  To do otherwise would make me guilty of appropriation of other peoples’ cultures.
        Okay, so that’s a relatively extreme statement of sensitivity to appropriation.  Most people do not object to the mention of other cultures’ mythical creatures as long as it’s scrupulously researched, clearly attributed, and respectfully represented.  But that’s the thing - this bestiary project of mine is not a scholarly dictionary of legends of the world.  I do, in fact, want to use these creatures to tell my own stories.  In making my block prints, I always think about what I can bring to the depiction, and how I can shed some new light on an idea.  After all, if I’m just going to carefully and accurately copy what someone else has already done, what’s the point in my doing it at all?  In writing my stories, I want to be free to let my imagination loose and to tell the stories that these creatures suggest to me - stories that aren’t exactly the same stories that have been told before, or what’s the point in my doing it at all?  To be quite blunt about it, I do, in fact, want to make my own version of each of these creatures.  And that’s surely appropriation.  So, to feature only northern European creatures is Eurocentric and implies that European legends are the only ones worth celebrating and exploring, while to feature non-European creatures is privilege and appropriation.  Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.  What’s an artist to do?  What do you think?
        It is always my intention in my art and writing to bring people joy.  In my small way I want to prompt people to think, move them to smile, and inspire them to celebrate the ways in which people (all people!) can be wonderful, and the ways in which we can strive to make our often imperfect world more wonderful.  It is never my intention for anything I create to make anyone feel unvalued or disrespected or taken advantage of.  I can’t believe, however, that the solution to that danger is to ignore all cultures but my own.  So I continue to make block prints and tell stories about non-European creatures quite simply because I am inspired by them.  My desire to make stories and pictures comes out of my delight in the mythologies of all peoples, and my firm conviction that imagination belongs to everyone and is one of the things that can help bring us together instead of dividing us.  But I am nevertheless mindful that not everyone may see it that way, and that I risk angering someone who has seen their culture misappropriated too many times.  And so I ask again, what’s an artist to do?  What do you think?

[Baku Dreams, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

February 6, 2018

Unidentified Monsters

        In all my celebrations of mythical creatures, I always seem to write about the known species with set names and descriptions, but they’re not the only denizens of the imagination.  What about all the weird, unique, anomalous, unidentified critters out there?  Today I have a few to share.
        This first illustration comes from an 1899 translation of Lucian of Samosata’s True History, and it appears under the line “inhospitable folk with strange forms.”  Inhospitable monsters they may be, but they’re really quite charming in their own strange way.  There’s the reverse mermaid, the fierce fellow with lobster claws, the dachshund of the centaur world, and my favorite, the bloke with the head of either a monkfish or a space alien.  He really looks more sheepish than scary.  This is not a block print, but the white on black and the frieze-like composition give it a classic woodcut look.  If these monsters were given species names they could be right at home among the more commonly known mermaids and centaurs.
        This second group of strange creatures comes from a dream of Daniel’s in the Bible.  The King James version describes them as the first being “like a lion, and had eagle’s wings,” the second is “like to a bear” (not so interesting), but the third is “like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast also had four heads.”  It’s interesting that Hans Holbein has chosen to give it two bird legs instead of four leopard legs as I would have interpreted it.  I would think this would be the stuff that a Bible illustrator would really enjoy: the parts that are a little more open to creativity and artistic interpretation.  And the fourth monster is even more so, being described merely as “dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth… and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns.”  Holbein’s cloven fore-hoofs, shaggy shoulders, human ears, tusks, and pointy upper lip are all his own invention.  Perhaps being mere allegorical dream-beasts, these monsters don’t belong to mythical species, but wouldn’t it be fun if they did?

[Pictures: Illustration by A. Payne Garnett from Lucian’s Wonderland by St J. Basil Wynne Willson, 1899 (Image from Internet Archive);
Daniel’s vision of the four beasts (Daniel 7), wood block print by Hans Holbein, 15th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

February 2, 2018

Woodcuts by Campbell

        In honor of February being Black History Month, here’s a bit of black history in wood block prints.  These illustrations were done by E. Simms Campbell (USA, 1906-1971), the first black cartoonist published in mainstream national magazines.  I can’t find any of the brief biographies on-line mentioning anything about his non-cartoon art, but these woodcuts are graphic and powerful.  They show African American men and women in a wide range of experiences, from the elegantly dressed couple ready for a night on the town, to the more casual-looking banjo musician, to the men laboring so hard, perhaps on the railroad.  The dynamic style and superimposition of various picture elements make it hard for me to interpret exactly what’s going on, but Campbell’s people command these woodcuts, shoulders strong and heads held high.

        Actually, although these sure look like woodcuts, and although they are listed as such by Yale’s rare book library, which ought to know, they are called “drawings” on the title page of the book they illustrate.  I don’t know what’s up with that, except just to guess that some ignorant editor didn’t give it any thought.  Anyway, they are illustrations from a book of poetry by Sterling Brown, a professor at Howard University who studied the black culture and folklore of the Southern US.  Most of his poetry is written in dialect, attempting to show the power and rhythm of black speech, and I think these pieces have a great power and rhythm to go with that.

[Pictures: Untitled illustration of people at play, woodcut by E. Simms Campbell from Southern Road by Sterling Brown, 1932;
Untitled illustration of people at work, woodcut by Campbell from Southern Road, 1932 (Images from Yale University Library).]