July 31, 2018

Words of the Month - Say What?

        You may have heard the story about the origins of the word kangaroo in English.  In 1770 Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks were exploring in northern Australia when they saw a kangaroo - becoming the first Europeans ever to see such a strange beast.  They asked a local what the creature was called, and the local, who knew no English, replied “I don’t understand you,” which sounded like “kangaroo,” and which the Englishmen took to be the name of the animal.  It’s pretty funny to think about such a misunderstanding giving rise to a word, and kangaroo isn’t even the only word with a story like this.
        According to a footnote to a 1519 letter from Hernán Cortés, the word Yucatán also really meant “I don’t understand what you’re saying” in the local Maya dialect, and was the reply to the question “What is this place?” or something along those lines.
        Indri is a word you may never have heard of in the first place.  It’s a large lemur from Madagascar, allegedly given its French name (which English borrowed) by naturalist Pierre Sonnerat.  His Malagasy guides, upon seeing the creature, said, “Look there!” in order to show Sonnerat, but he thought they were telling him the animal’s name.
        People love stories like this.  They’re funny, and they poke a little fun at the big-name explorers and scientists who are supposed to know so much.  They shed an amusing light on the difficulties of cross-cultural communication, and we can all relate to the misunderstandings and difficulties of learning new things or new languages.  There’s just one problem.  All of these stories are, much to my regret, probably false.
        Yucatán is the only one that still apparently has some etymologists who think it may be true, despite the explorers having translators with them.  The other less entertaining but more plausible etymology is the Nahuatl word Yocatlan, meaning “place of richness.”
        The story of indri’s origins as an error dates back to the late nineteenth century, although the word entered French in 1780 and English in 1839.  Around the same time there is a record of endrina, an alternate Malagasy name for the animal, which is now the accepted source of the European word.
        As for kangaroo, in 1898 an ethnologist pointed out that in the local aboriginal Guugu Yimidhirr language the word for one species of kangaroo, at least, is gang-oo-roo, but nobody seems to have paid any attention at the time.  Later linguists eventually discovered that he was right (they record the word as gaNurru), thus debunking the original anecdote, which was predicated on no English speakers actually knowing the local languages of Queensland.
        Obviously it’s always better to learn the truth about things, and it’s also nice to think that the Europeans and the native peoples they were encountering were clearly managing to communicate at least a little better than those anecdotes were giving them credit for.  Still, I’m a bit sorry to learn that the anecdotes weren’t true.  After all, they were so much more amusing than the boring old truth!

[Kangaroo, linocut by Gladys Osborne Reynell, 1923 (Image from Centre for Australian Art);
Indri Indri, wood engraving by Jenny Pery, c. 2015 (Image from Society of Wood Engravers).]

July 27, 2018

Mixed-Up Menagerie

        I’m pleased to share with you the new group printmaking project that I introduced with one of my classes this summer.  It is inspired by the version of “exquisite corpse” that appears in a number of novelty interactive books for children: each page features an animal, but the pages are cut into sections so that you can move the flaps and create creatures that combine heads, middles, and tails of any three animals.  In our version, each child created a block of a creature, and then printed enough impressions that I could put together a book for each student in the class (plus myself).  The kids had fun with it, and from a printmaking perspective it was great to give them a concrete reason to print multiples, since otherwise several of them were inclined to print only one impression of each block and then move on.
        First I made a template and gave each person a copy to guide their animal design.  The little horizontal lines show where the top and bottom edges of the body should be.  The one shown here is slightly modified from the version my class used, which made the animals a bit too fat.  No doubt next time I do the project I may have to tweak some more.  The kids did have some difficulty designing their creatures within the parameters of the template, and you do have to make sure they’re at least close before you let them proceed with carving.  The point of the template is so that when the different animals are mixed-and-matched, the parts will actually line up and fit together.
        I reminded the kids that their carving should include plenty of details and texture to help insure that each section of their animal is recognizable.  A scaly creature should look different from a hairy creature, and wool should look different from feathers…  This is something I’ll push even harder for next time, because it makes the hybrid chimeras look a lot more interesting, as well as helping to push the students’ carving skills to the next level.  I made an animal, too, both as a demonstration sample and to add one more creature to the mix.
        After the blocks were carved, I had the kids print on paper with a relatively large margin all around, in order to give me wiggle room to trim them down so that they would all end up uniform.  The kids had to print enough copies for all the books, but I actually ended up printing one or two supplementary impressions if some of them weren’t clean impressions or were too close to the edge of the paper or something.  Plus, of course, the kids could print additional if they wanted some that would not be cut up and bound into booklets.
        On my own time I trimmed all the prints so that they were a uniform size and lined up uniformly on the paper.  I measured not from bottoms of feet or tips of noses, but from the place where those guidelines from the template would fall: the top of the back just in front of front legs and just in front of back legs.  Next, I put together stacks of one of each creature, lined up the edges, and sliced each stack twice from the bottom of the page to within about half an inch from the top, along the same lines where the two vertical lines on the templates would have fallen.  (A rotary cutter and grid ruler are invaluable for all this measuring, trimming, and slicing.)  Then I put on a top and bottom cover of construction paper and stapled them together across the top.  I also glued on a cover label that gave a “table of contents” of each of the animals and who made it.  I had taken orders for what color cover each person wanted, and I made sure that each kid got a copy with a particularly fine impression of their own block.  (I had to make only 8 copies, so obviously all this would be a bigger job with a bigger class.)
        On the whole I think this was quite successful and I’ll definitely keep it in my collection of projects to do again.  As I said, I may have to tweak the template again after another round, and in the future I’ll work harder to make sure the kids’ designs are lined up better with the template, and that they put more detail into their designs.  But you can see how much fun these can be.

[Pictures: Unizale, from rubber block prints by NF, LA, and AEGN, 2018;
Exquisite corpse template (feel free to copy and use!) by AEGN;
Cheepizard, from rubber block prints by EK, CD, and LA;
Dogsharkeetah, from rubber block prints by KF-K, TQ, and EK, 2018.]

July 24, 2018


        Did you think the World Cup was the competition of the season?  Oh no; it’s happening right here in the Nydam household where two authors are in a thrill-packed race to the breathtaking finish.  Who will complete a draft first and claim the glory and the fabulous prize?
        Before school let out in the spring my daughter T challenged me to a writing duel: which of us can complete a first draft of a novel over the summer?  If she wins, we have to take the family to her favorite restaurant for dinner (a win for all of us!)  If I win?… Her original proposal was that if I win we have to take the family to her favorite restaurant for dinner.  She’s no fool.  I think we left it that if I win I get the glory and satisfaction of having a completed draft of the Work in Progress that has recently been in frustratingly little progress.  And maybe a family dinner somewhere of my choosing.
        As I alluded, I already had a Work in Progress (three, in fact) before the summer started.  So I had a big head start going into this contest.  On the other hand, we agreed that T could complete a much shorter work and still have it count.  Actually, I’d be more than happy to let her count a solidly-crafted short story for the win, but she’s determined that only a novel will do.  I tell her that this is like trying to run a marathon without ever having completed a 5k, but she will hear none of it.  So, school let out, the summer vacation began, “Ladies, start your computer engines,” and Game On!
        I wish I could tell you about the writing thrills that followed.  How I took the early lead by diving back into my story (I’ve chosen to concentrate on the one about a changeling), but T quickly came from behind with an exciting outline.  How my chapters rolled forth in mighty waves, while her emerging characters made a furious full-court press, and from there it was frenzied typing all the way down the straightaway, neck and neck, neither giving quarter in our feverish pace…  But alas, I’m afraid it’s been a snail’s pace flop.  T has come up with several ideas, only to discard them.  Her most recent was a murder mystery, but I think she may have abandoned that one, too, and the sad fact is that she's got an awful lot of summer work for school.  I had a few days of progress, but then it was interrupted by my two weeks of teaching, and there will be another three weeks gone in various travel over the remainder of the summer.  So if I really want to get any work done, I’d better knuckle down right now.
        In fact, it appears that neither of us will get anywhere close to a finished draft before school begins.  I guess sport fans were better off with the World Cup after all.

[Picture: The high stakes: sushi buffet!]

July 21, 2018

Dog Days

        I just completed my two weeks of printmaking classes for the summer, so of course I want to share some of the students’ work.  This year dogs were especially popular, and if you include other canines, as well, we had an enormous crop.  Several different projects are represented here, too, so let me introduce you to the pack.
        First we had dogs (and a fox) appear in simple one-block relief prints.  I say “simple,” but of course I’ve spent decades never tiring of the look of one-block prints.  The first one is a great example of how close cropping can add drama, and how effective just a little texture can be.  The details of the eye and around the nose make the piece more sophisticated.  On the other hand, the sleeping dog has no texture at all (and in fact this particular artist worked quite obsessively to eliminate all the little stray black marks within the
white).  She initially carved the eyes, but didn’t like the way they looked, so just carved them away, leaving it even simpler.  It works so well, though, because even though the lines and shapes are very plain, their accuracy is perfect.
        Two of our canines were done with the Background/Foreground project.  In both, the animal is not minutely detailed, but gains interest from its setting.  I imagine these creatures could be set on a variety of backgrounds, and indeed the wolf was used to make some
printed patterns on its own with multiple colors.
        The collagraph puppy is quite charming.  It’s made of corrugated paper for the vertical lines and puff paint for the outlines of the dog.  (This year’s collagraphs included some especially successful examples, so I may share more of them another time.  For that matter, I may have to share some of the other rubber block prints, as well.)
        So, seven young artists; five dogs, a wolf, and a fox; three different techniques or projects.    (There was even
one more dog, but it was done with a new project that I introduced this year and which I’ll definitely share in a future post.)  Despite the fact that so many of the artists were making dogs, there was actually a striking difference between the two classes.  The first week worked fast and didn’t do much tweaking and recarving or much experimenting with printing or making large editions.  They whipped through projects, trying out everything I offered them, and then eager to try out the next thing.  The second week, by contrast, worked slowly and meticulously.  They  carved, recarved, and recarved again, then they
printed, printed, and printed some more.  I had to beg them not to be such perfectionists in trying to get rid of every stray carving mark.  (I like a few carving marks here and there, but kids are often unconvinced by this, and a majority of this year’s week two kids were even more unconvinceable than most!)  They didn’t have enough time to try all the different projects, but the ones they did came out exceptionally well.  Kids in both weeks went home with bags full of marvelous work, and I made a few new little projects myself - even though I didn't make any dogs!

[Pictures: Dog (Bonny), rubber block print by DM, 2018;
Dog, rubber block print by SA, 2018;
Wolf, rubber block print by AL, 2018;
Sleeping Dog, rubber block print by TS, 2018;
Dog, collagraph by LA, 2018;
Dog catching a frisbee, rubber block print by K F-K, 2018;
Fox (Lily), rubber block print by AF, 2018.]

July 17, 2018

The Broomstick Train

        In 1891 Oliver Wendell Holmes published one of his long, colloquial, anecdotal poems, which was all about New England’s witches returning from Hell to their old stomping grounds.  The punch line of the tale is that, after wreaking conventional misfortunes upon the locals, they are set to pulling the new electric tram cars, which had been introduced to Boston in 1887, Lowell in 1889, and Worcester in 1891.  It’s too long a poem to include the whole thing, but here are some excerpts, and you can read the complete poem here.

The Broomstick Train, or The Return of the Witches
Look out! Look out, boys! Clear the track!
The witches are here! They’ve all come back!
They hanged them high, — No use! No use!
What cares a witch for a hangman’s noose?
They buried them deep, but they wouldn’t lie still,
For cats and witches are hard to kill;
They swore they shouldn’t and wouldn’t die, —
Books said they did, but they lie! they lie!
In Essex county there’s many a roof
Well known to him of the cloven hoof;
The small square windows are full in view
Which the midnight hags went sailing through,
On their well-trained broomsticks mounted high,
Seen like shadows against the sky;
Crossing the track of owls and bats,
Hugging before them their coal-black cats.
Now when the Boss of the Beldams found
That without his leave they were ramping round,
He called, — they could hear him twenty miles,
From Chelsea beach to the Misery Isles;
The deafest old granny knew his tone
Without the trick of the telephone.
“Come here, you witches! Come here!” says he, —
“At your games of old, without asking me!
I’ll give you a little job to do
That will keep you stirring, you godless crew!”
They came, of course, at their master’s call,
The witches, the broomsticks, the cats, and all;
He led the hags to a railway train
The horses were trying to drag in vain.
“Now, then,” says he, “you’ve had your fun,
And here are the cars you’ve got to run.
The driver may just unhitch his team,
We don’t want horses, we don’t want steam;
You may keep your old black cats to hug,
But the loaded train you’ve got to lug.”
As for the hag, you can’t see her.
But hark! you can hear her black cat’s purr,
And now and then, as a car goes by,
You may catch a gleam from her wicked eye.

Often you’ve looked on a rushing train,
But just what moved it was not so plain.
It couldn’t be those wires above,
For they could neither pull nor shove;
Where was the motor that made it go
You couldn’t guess, but now you know.
Remember my rhymes when you ride again
On the rattling rail by the broomstick train!

        Like much of Holmes’s poetry, this builds verisimilitude for its claims with the inclusion of lots of specific local details - a writing tip that anyone can take note of.  When your realistic details are really concrete and accurate, your fantastical details also gain the aura of plausibility.  This poem also illustrates Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Invisible electric currents or invisible witches?  It’s all the same to the ordinary person riding the tram, and presumably even more so to the people in the late nineteenth century who saw the same tramcars that used to be pulled by horses, now suddenly running without visible means.  The converted tramcars even retained the harnessing hardware for the horses at the front.
        This poem was enormously popular, and it appears from this transit poster that the trams were even referred to as broomstick trains - or at the very least that anyone seeing this poster would understand the reference.  I don’t know whether Oliver Wendell Holmes made it up, although I'm guessing he did, and if the term was in common use, it wasn’t the only one he coined.  As a bonus linguistic note, Holmes was a doctor and coined the word anaesthesia.

[Pictures: See how tall they’ve grown, illustration by Howard Pyle from The Broomstick Train with Its Companion Poems, 1892 (Image from ibiblio.org);
By Broomstick Train, poster by Charles H. Woodbury, 1895 (Image from Digital Commonwealth).]

July 6, 2018

Playing with a Full Deck

        Playing cards were probably invented as a result of the invention of wood block printing in China around the ninth century, and were one of the most common early uses of printing in Europe in the fifteenth century.  Early in my teaching career in times almost as ancient (well, about two dozen years ago), I decided to have my students corporately create and print a complete deck of cards.  There were 56 students in the sixth grade, so each student was in charge of one of the 52 in the deck, plus two jokers, a title card, and a design for the back.  Each one designed their card, carved a rubber block, and printed on unlined 4x6 index cards.  It turned out to be a great project and a lot of fun, except that each card had to be printed 57 times, and the back had to be printed 3,135 times!  I spent a lot of long, late afternoons finishing the printing, since the kids themselves couldn’t get that many done.  But in the end, every student received a complete deck of cards.
        As with so many block print projects, both simple graphic designs and complicated detailed designs were very successful.  There were a few kids who got their letters or numbers backwards, and a few designs that were just a little too messy to read well, but for the most part the kids’ work was great.  Here are a few of my favorites.
        Notice that the bicycle treads on the ace of diamonds write “ACE ACE” and that there are six hidden diamond-shaped eggs for the 6 of diamonds.  The ace of clubs, in case you can’t see it, is composed of golf clubs, and the clubs for the 10 are charming little graveyard ghosts, plus a tree.  The queen of clubs is yet another clever interpretation of the club shape.
        With the spades you can see again how creatively different kids interpreted the shape and came up with interesting designs, from the peacock tail of the ace and the spade-spots on the cow (notice that the grass of the cow’s field is composed of 10’s), to the elegant Egyptians with 9 white spades on the chair and 9 black spades in the rest of the design.  I love the skritchy lines of the jack.  I don’t know what he’s doing up there, but he does look like a bit of a rascal.
        The spider and its web seems cute as the 4 of hearts, but there’s a little darkness to the idea of ensnaring hearts, and the king of hearts, with its tattoo aesthetic, also seems not quite to be trusted!  On the other hand, making the Tin Woodman the ace of hearts seems especially perfect, and I just find the graphic design of the jack very pleasing.
        This was a very ambitious project with sixth graders, and I might have chickened out had I actually been more experienced and realized what I was getting myself into.  Nevertheless, I, and I think the whole class, were pretty proud of our accomplishment.  I have a new scheme for a group project for my printmaking classes in the next two weeks, but I’ll have to see how the classes go before I decide whether or not to introduce it.  If we do it, though, you’ll certainly be among the first to see the results!

[Pictures: Ace of diamonds, rubber block print by Susanne Kelly, 1994;
6 of diamonds, rubber block print by Melissa Cain, 1994;
Ace of clubs, rubber block print by David Thorpe, 1994;
10 of clubs, rubber block print by Margaret Cromwell, 1994;
Queen of clubs, rubber block print by Sarah Morrissey, 1994;
Ace of spades, rubber block print by Nikki Hafezizadeh, 1994;
2 of spades, rubber block print by Matt Murphy, 1994;
10 of spades, rubber block print by Emily O’Brien, 1994;
9 of spades, rubber block print by Emily Hazelwood, 1994;
Jack of spades, rubber block print by Nicole LeFrancois, 1994;
Ace of hearts, rubber block print by Sacia Fowler, 1994;
4 of hearts, rubber block print by Mary Fredrickson, 1994;
Jack of hearts, rubber block print by Molly Smith, 1994;
King of hearts, rubber block print by Chris Kinniburgh, 1994.]

July 3, 2018

Beerhorst's City

        Rick Beerhorst (USA) uses urban elements in many of his wood block prints.  I especially like his buildings, which are very simple, rough blocks.  The addition of ladders gives both visual interest with their diagonals and storytelling interest.  This piece is titled Building the City, but it doesn’t look like construction.  The ladders seem to go off in random directions, as if they’re less about building buildings and more about building experiences or adventures.

        I also like the urban setting of this Peaceable Kingdom.  The theme is one very dear to my heart (my version here) and I think we need the vision always before us with all sorts of people, in all sorts of
settings, now more than ever.  Beerhorst gives it interest with lots of modern details including a beautiful fire hydrant in the foreground, buildings and water tower in the background, and a barbed-wire-topped chain link fence which I imagine might be running along a train track or a highway that cuts through the city.  I also like the ball and jacks for the children to play with, and the friendly alertness of dove and snake.

[Pictures: Building the City, wood block print by Rick Beerhorst;
Peaceable Kingdom in the City, wood block print by Beerhorst (Images from StudioBeerhorst).]