May 29, 2018

Words of the Month - The Incredible Shrinking Shrank

        I first noticed it in 1989 with the release of the Disney movie “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”  But that’s wrong, I objected to a heedless world.  It should be “Honey, I Shrank the Kids.”  Nevertheless, since then I’ve been witnessing the steady demise of the simple past tense of shrink.  What’s going on here?
        First of all, shrink is a good Old English verb, and its past tense forms have come down to us from the earliest forms of the language.  Shrunk is (or was) the past participle, as in “Honey, I have shrunk the kids.”  It’s also the form found in the adjective shrunkenShrank, as the simple past tense, doesn’t appear in any other forms, so perhaps that leaves it weaker, sounding stranger to the average ear.  When speaking one’s native language, one doesn’t look things up in grammar books, except possibly when writing an essay for school; one simply goes by ear.  If it sounds right, it’s right; if it sounds wrong, it’s wrong.  So the more you hear shrunk, the more that sounds right, and the less you hear shrank, the weirder it sounds.
        Words don’t live by themselves, however; they associate with each other, reinforcing what sounds right and wrong.  Other Old English verbs that form their past tenses to the same pattern as shrink include sink, stink, drink, sing, and spin.  So let’s see what’s been happening to them.
        “Honey, I sank the boat,” has been correct for the past thousand years, but I have begun to see (or hear) sunk creeping in as the simple past tense. (Actually, in the interests of full accuracy, “The boat sank” has been correct forever, but “I sank the boat” only since the mid thirteenth century, when sink came to be used transitively.)  In October 2017 the Boston Globe reported “A 65-foot boat loaded with diesel fuel sunk in Boston Harbor early Tuesday morning.”  Probably helping to confuse the issue is the fact that sunk is also an adjective so that you can get perfectly correct sentences like “The boat sunk in Boston Harbor has not been salvaged.”  Again, the ear can begin to think that “the boat sunk” sounds better than “the boat sank.”
        It’s my impression that as of 2018 sank is still stronger than shrank, but span is a past tense that seems to be farther along the road to extinction.  The correct grammar is (or was originally) “I span the wheel” or “I have spun the wheel,” but I wouldn’t use span unless I were at my most pedantic.  It sounds weird to me.  In Paul Zelinsky’s 1986 Caldecott Honor retelling of Rumplestiltskin, “the little man once again spun all the straw into gold.”  What sounds right to you?
        Sing - sang - sung, on the other hand, remains pretty strong.  Indeed, it wouldn’t even occur to me that anyone could possibly say something as wrong-sounding as “I sung the song,” except that a quick internet search reveals many many grammar sites earnestly explaining that the correct past tense is “I sang.”  Clearly people are wondering, no longer certain of their own ear-intuition.  The same situation seems to be true of drink, with enough confusion out there to warrant plenty of grammar advice.  Indeed, one site urges not only that “I drunk” is wrong, but that “I have drank” is also wrong.  How could one possibly be unable to hear how wrong those are?  Well, if you hear enough other confused people, you get confused, too.
        This particular class of strong verb forms seems gradually to be simplifying itself: losing its simple past tense form in favor of using the same form for both past tense and past participle.  But just to keep things exciting, sometimes the language complicates itself instead.  The past tense dove began as an 18th century error based on analogy with the past tense droveDrive - drove - driven is the original correct formation, but the original past tense of dive is dived.  Somewhere along the line, speakers (chiefly in the USA) began to think dove sounded better, and now that is the more common usage in the US, although dived is still more common in the UK.  The same thing happened to dig - digged, except that dug appeared in the sixteenth century and has now completely superseded the original past tense, leaving digged as the incorrect form.  It’s worth noting that the English language survived the change.  So give it a couple more centuries and for better or worse we’ll probably be seeing the same thing with the disappearance of shrank, sank, stank, and span.

[Pictures: Tom Thumb dancing on the queen’s hand, wood block print from an eighteenth-century chapbook, reproduced in Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century by John Ashton, 1882 (Image from Internet Archive);
Magres Serapion, wood block print from Ortus Sanitatis published by Jacob Meydenbach, 1491 (Image from Internet Archive).]

May 25, 2018

Odd Fish

        Let’s be honest, there are some seriously weird fish in the world’s waters, and anything you could possibly think up while trying to be all fantastical is probably tame compared with something that really exists.  That said, I came across a few fishy illustrations in some of the early natural history works, that leave me exclaiming, “What the heck?”
        So what do we have here?  First, a sea serpent with a  ribbon-like crest with which it is “booping” a bemused seal.  Despite the rather amusing look of the protuberance squishing down over the seal’s head like a turban, the sea serpent definitely has an evil look in its eye.  If I were the sea turtle, I wouldn’t be treading water and watching; I’d get away from there before I was booped next!
        The next monster has most excellent flippers, the head of a boar, three eyes on its side, and a pair of crescent horns at its shoulders.  Is it mammal or fish?  As far as I can make out the Latin of Gessner’s description (which is, admittedly, NOT very well) he seems to have found this monster in Olaus Magnus, and confesses that he’s dubious about the pig snout and the extra eyes.  But I’m not dubious at all - surely such things are swimming in northern waters even now?
        Our next odd fish has a human face - is it a sort of proto-mermaid?  And how about a fish with an armada of galleys on its flanks?  Are they camouflage for swimming among fleets?  Or are we seeing an x-ray view of all the ships this monster has swallowed?  Again with my attempts at Latin (with the questionable help of Google translate), is this a decorative artwork in which galleys have been carved on fish-leather?  Who knows.
But now a creature which doesn’t look much like a fish at all, except for the scales.  Is it perhaps a reptile, instead?  The bald head and human face remind me of a professional wrestler or something!
        Adorable pufferfish, perhaps?  Fish building a nest up in a tree?  Musical swimming recorder-fish?  All very odd, indeed.
        And then we end with a final What the…???  Twelve arms with clawed paws, a tail with a fishy fin, an eye and an ear at each point of the compass, and a vicious little tusked mouth to the west…  I can't tell you what it is, but I can tell you that this thing is big, and that it was sighted between Antibes and Nice, so you may want to avoid swimming there!  
        Wondrous and strange as these aquatic monsters are, it is equally wondrous and strange that many of them are genuine scientific attempts to depict real creatures of the world’s waters.  So let’s take another look at these terrifying oddities.  Our sea serpent with the aggressive plume?  Believe it or not, that’s meant to be a remora.  Think of it this way: a long skinny fish that has a sticky thing on the top of its head which it uses to grab onto large aquatic creatures such as sea turtles…  When you put it like that, this picture kind of starts to make sense.
        I can’t explain the pig-nosed, eye-spotted monster any more than Gessner could.  He calls it a sea hyena, but I don’t know what real animal that might correspond with.  The boat-marked fish is a tuna, but that still doesn’t explain the picture, so we’ll pass on to the proto-mermaid, which is actually a koi.  I certainly don’t think of koi as having human-like faces, but at any rate, they do have flatter faces and more of cheeks than most fish.  As for this scaly feline… sea lion, anyone?  The puffer-fish are not actually pufferfish, but rather sea stars.  The nest-building fish are trout, and the aquatic musical instruments?  Apparently they’re supposed to be some sort of sponge, but nothing in the description of the creatures explains why in the world they should be depicted like this.  Of course with fifteenth-century books you never know - maybe they just messed up, and this wasn’t the picture that was supposed to be printed here at all.
        The final mish-mash-monster remains a mystery.  I could maybe guess a starfish, with many arms with little grabby claws, but that certainly doesn’t explain what’s with the four elfin ears.  Who says it has to be an ordinary creature, anyway?

[Pictures: Remora, wood block print from De piscibus libri V by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1613;
De hyaena cetacea, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Conrad Gessner, 1604;
Cyprinis Rariset monstrosis, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Gessner, 1604;
Tuna, wood block print from De piscibus by Aldrovandi, 1613 (Images from AMS Historica);
De monstro leonino, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Gessner, 1604;
Stella, Tructa, and Sfungia , wood block prints from Ortus Sanitatis published by Jacob Meydenbach, 1491 (Images from Internet Archive);
Magnus et admirabilis bellua, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Gessner, 1604;
Little bonus fish, wood block print from Historiae animalium by Gessner, 1604 (Images from Internet Archive).]

May 22, 2018

Lino Prints by Harris

        Deborah Harris (USA) is a block print artist with a distinctive style that simplifies subjects, emphasizes graphic qualities, exaggerates distinctive elements, and makes wonderful use of the drama of black and white.  Harris does some interesting political pieces which I may share another day, but today I’m sharing a couple of my favorite of her lovely plants and animals because I need the joy.
        First up, a charming billy goat.  Notice how wonderfully hairy he is around the edges.  In places his hair blends right into the texture of the background, which is also quite full of hairy little lines.  I also really love the flowers in his background, as if he’s posed regally before damask hangings - or perhaps a lush meadow is equally regal.  I might be afraid to put a busily detailed foreground in front of a busily detailed background, but Harris makes it work beautifully.
        This snake is very dramatic indeed, popping off its own shadow, framed in a spotlight.  The shadow makes our eyes read this snake as active, head raised, instead of lying peacefully basking in the hot, white sunlight.  The saw-toothed edges add to the drama.
        Equally dramatic but with a very different effect is what I identify as lilies-of-the-valley.  They certainly aren’t botanically accurate, but Harris has exaggerated the distinctive forms of the plant.  This time the lighting is only in the center, with the edges disappearing into thin outlines around black on black.  Her little monogram makes an attractive part of the design, balanced by the small silhouetted crane, which looks like another sort of seal or symbol.
        And finally, some chrysanthemums with another background full of carved lines.  The background and the petals have the same sorts of lines, but Harris has given the composition enough pure black and pure white to make everything pop.
        I find Harris’s work interesting to study how she uses light and texture, but they’re also just really pleasing!

[Pictures: Billy Goat, linoleum block print by Deborah Harris;
Snake, linoleum block print by Harris, 2008;
untitled, block print by Harris;

Chrysanthemums, linoleum block print by Harris (Images from]

May 18, 2018

Spring Magic

        It’s time for another fantasy poem, so here is Alzuna by Alfred Noyes (UK, 1880-1958).  

The forest of Alzuna hides a pool.
Beside that pool, a shadowy tree up-towers.
High on that tree, a bough most beautiful
Bends with the fragrant burden of its flowers.
Among those flowers a nest is buried deep.
Warm in that nest, there lies a freckled shell.
Packed in that shell, a bird is fast asleep.
This is the incantation and the spell.

For, when the north wind blows, the bird will cry,
“Warm in my freckled shell, I lie asleep.
The freckled shell is in the nest on high.
The nest among the flowers is buried deep.
The flowers are on a bough most beautiful.
The bough is on a tree no axe can fell.
The sky is at its feet in yonder pool.
This is the incantation and the spell!”

        This is an odd poem, but I think a fun one.  Using the chain structure of many simple, silly children’s rhymes (such as The House that Jack Built), it manages to sound a little more Serious and Significant.  With a symmetrical structure that works its way in and then all the way back out again to end where it began, it manages to sound as if it’s  actually getting Deeper and Deeper.  The whole sound of it is rather like an incantation and a spell, but what, in fact, is the magic?  As I sit here with the robin nesting in the holly bush outside my window, the mere ordinary spring fact of a bird packed warmly in an egg in a nest in a flowering tree seems like as mystical and magical a thing as the world could possibly need.

[Picture: Preface heading, wood engraving by Charlton Nesbit from Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, Vol. 1, 1797 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

May 15, 2018

More Printmaking Classes

        Here are just a smattering of pieces that I happened to photograph, made by artists in my adult ed printmaking class in March-April.  I offer them with a few observations about the differences between the work of these adults and the children in my summer classes.
        1.  Adults are quite happy with black and white, while children want as many different colors of ink as possible.  In the adult class I only once was asked for ink other than black, while the kids ask me for 6 colors a day (the most I can put out at a time).  Plus sometimes I wash plates and change out the colors multiple times during a 3-hour class, and often the kids want to mix colors or make ombre colors, as well.  (For the colors on the pieces shown here, the artist watercolored paper at home and brought it to class to print on top… with black ink.)
        2. Adults are more willing to embrace the beauty of unplanned carved lines in the backgrounds, while children tend to want their backgrounds cleaned up to pure, blank white.
        3.  Children tend to have difficulty with - or just impatience for carving - lots of texture and pattern.  They are much more likely to stick with outlines and areas that are solid black or solid white.  Adults spend much more time adding details of pattern and texture.
        4.  Adults also spend much more time reworking blocks: testing, carving a bit more, testing, carving a bit more…  while most children don’t go through more than one or two iterations of testing and tweaking.
        5.  Adults make more interesting, complex compositions.  This isn’t just about printmaking, of course, but is the developmental stage in all visual arts.  Children until about age 11-12-ish tend not to overlap elements in their pictures, not to put them off-center or crop them,
not to use unusual viewpoints.  They generally like all their elements neatly centered, with blank space framing them, each element clearly visible in its entirety (which is why it’s fun to push them a bit with the foreground/background project.)
        For me its always fun to see both - what children do and then what adults do.  So I’ll be teaching an adult class again in the fall, but first, there are still spaces in my summer printmaking classes for children currently in grades 4-8.  So if you have any arts-and-crafts-loving children who want to join the printmaking fun, be sure to sign them up for either session in Needham Community Education’s Summer Explorations program.

[Pictures: Three pieces with watercolor backgrounds, rubber block prints by SB, 2018;
Egyptian falcon, rubber block print by NA, 2018;
Poppies, rubber block print by PL, 2018;
Brocade design, rubber block print by RG, 2018;
Friend’s dog, rubber block print by MH, 2018;
Trout, rubber block print by NB, 2018;
Faithful dog?, rubber block print by PG, 2018.]

May 11, 2018

Here's Something Cool: Mechanical Birds

        It’s time for another selection of gorgeous steampunky sculptures, and this time I have for you two artists whose birds come out quite different in style, but who both assemble their sculptures from very specific found objects.
        Jeremy Mayer made these swallows entirely from parts of old typewriters.  They include absolutely nothing that isn’t from the typewriters - not even glue or solder.  The outer stretch of the wings can fan in and out, which makes them seem that much more like robots or automatons rather than mere objects d’art.  What’s so much fun about them is that the typewriter parts are not in any way disguised or transformed, they’re very clearly still recognizable typewriter parts, and yet when assembled in this way they simultaneously become 100% swallows.
        Matt Wilson (aka Airtight Artwork), on the other hand, builds his birds almost entirely from silverware, adding only a bit of wire and sometimes other bits of scrap metal, and mounting them on wood.  These are certainly art sculptures, not robots(!), but they share with Mayer’s swallows that incredible property of reusing objects intended for something entirely different, and yet making them seem as if they must have been designed precisely for
their current spot.  The curves of spoons, the serrations of knife blades, the feathers - I mean
tines - of the forks…  Wilson’s birds are also amazing for what they don’t include.  There is often quite a bit of negative space in his designs, hollow areas, details left out, and yet they include everything necessary to capture the perfect essence of titmouse, nuthatch, or wren.  The other thing I find great about them is that they’re made from very ordinary, junky silverware.  I’ve seen plenty of lovely things made from lovely antique silver spoons, but it’s all the more wonderful to make such objects of beauty from something that really doesn’t seem at all beautiful before its transformation.
        Both of these artists have the wonderful gift of seeing the beautiful potential in something not very beautiful, and of course they also both have the gift of being able to make that transformation so that the rest of us can see it, too.  Charms, transfiguration, or illusion, it’s surely some kind of magic.

        (See some previously posted cool Mechanical Treasures here.)

[Pictures: Typewriter part swallows, assembled sculptures by Jeremy Mayer, c 2013 (Images from Colossal);
Silverware birds, sculptures by Matt Wilson, c 2017 (Images from Colossal and My Modern Met).]

May 8, 2018

A-Z Reflections

        Well, I don’t generally publish my reflections about my blogging because why should anyone care?  But this year they’re asking that the Reflections post be linked in order to tally up everyone who completed the A-Z Challenge, so here are a few thoughts so that I dutifully have reflections to link:
     - I should have included a one-sentence intro at the top of each post reiterating what my theme was, so that people who dipped in here and there would understand what they were finding.
     - I wish the spreadsheet of the links for each day was searchable (or maybe it was, and I just didn’t know how.)  Also that it included the title of each post.
     - My speed would definitely be to do the alphabet over two months instead of just one, but I certainly enjoyed coming up with all the posts, and managed to keep ahead of the days better this year than last (although that probably had more to do with my theme than with my somehow getting better at blog challenges).
        And now I shall share something a little more interesting for all you alphabet lovers.  This alphabet, illustrated with hand-colored woodcuts, comes from The Hobby-Horse, or the High Road to Learning from 1820.  There are some really interesting details, especially considering that this was most definitely intended to be educational for children.  What children’s alphabet today would include “D - was a Drunkard” or “G - was a Gamester”?  What educational book would teach children that the Robber should be whipped, the Oyster-wench is a scold, and the Vintner is a sot?  And notice that we're missing the letters I and U; they were often considered mere variants of J and V.  (Plus it's easier to arrange 24 letters than 26... and would have made April's challenge a little easier, too.)
        There are some pretty amusing details, as well, such as the King governing a mouse, for no apparent reason other than making a rhyme, which presumably also explains why on earth an archer should shoot a frog.  There’s the elegant Lady dressed in such current fashion that you can date the book from her attire alone.  There’s the Quaker who looks extremely un-Quakerly, apparently refusing to bow not because of a belief in equality but because of sheer overwhelming snobbery.
        These particular wood block prints are certainly not my favorite style, although some of the people’s expressions are skillfully done like political cartoons, and the hand coloring in this edition, though I tend to prefer my woodcuts uncolored, is exceptionally high quality.  Mostly, though, this alphabet is a fascinating demonstration of how children’s books illuminate their own time and agenda with remarkable clarity… and that’s surely amusing and educational.

[Pictures: “A was an Archer” alphabet from The Hobby-Horse, or the High Road to Learning, published by J. Harris and Son, 1820 (Images from A Nursery Companion by Iona and Peter Opie, 1980).]

May 4, 2018

First Experiments

        During the April A-Z Blog Challenge I was teaching a community ed block printing class with adults, and I couldn’t post any of their work because the April blog was entirely booked.  But now A-Z is over and it’s time to switch gears and share some fun rubber block prints.
        This is the introductory project of the class: the chance to start getting a feel for the rubber, how to get different effects, what the patterns look like when they’re inked and printed, and generally just dig in and see what happens.  Each artist began with a small rubber block, 3x4 inches, divided the space into several areas, and experimented with different patterns and textures in the different areas.  The idea was inspired by Zentangle doodling, but the purpose is very different.  It’s a chance for beginning printmakers to get the hang of this whole relief print thing before starting on a block for which they have grand plans and the potential for disappointment.  For example, how do you make each little carved line end exactly where you want it?  What’s the most comfortable and controlled way to carve curves
and circles?  What’s with that whole backwards thing where the more you carve the lighter an area gets?  How do you get the contrasts and patterns you want?
        I had nine artists in my class, and, as usual, they brought a range of experience, a range of taste and style, a range of ideas and inspirations.  As this was my first class of adults, I was also quite amused and interested to note how adults differ from children in the way they approach the projects.  Anyway, since I have only seven projects pictured here today, there are clearly two I didn’t manage to photograph, but nevertheless you get the idea of some of the range of patterns and effects the class produced.  It should be noted that these blocks were mostly just roughly inked and printed to get the idea, so they are not perfect impressions.  Some were worked further afterwards, others were declared finished, and we went on to the next block.
        Thanks to all my students - I had a great time and hope you did, too!
        And an ANNOUNCEMENT to anyone local: this weekend is Needham Open Studios - the 20th year of NOS, no less.  This anniversary year there are over 45 artists in 15 locations all around Needham, showing a variety of art in all sorts of media and styles.  It should be a lovely weekend to get out and about and enjoy some really inspiring art.  I’ll be showing at First Baptist Church on Great Plain Avenue, along with 6 other
artists.  In fact, the car is already packed and I’m about to go set up the space.  I hope to see you there on Saturday or Sunday!

[Pictures: Experimental patterns, rubber blocks by seven artists, 2018.]