August 31, 2018

Words of the Month - The Sweet Smell of Odor Words

        Here’s something to consider: English famously has a huge vocabulary, extraordinarily rich in expressing fine shades and distinctions of meaning.  English has as many basic color words as almost any other language in the world, plus hundreds of additional words to describe the colors we see.  (Read all about it here.)  We have dozens of words to describe fine nuances of tastes, textures, sounds… But strangely, English has very few words that describe smells.  We have smelly, fragrant, stinking, aromatic, and malodorous, but those are telling us little more than degree of stinkiness and basic pleasantness vs unpleasantness.  Of words describing the quality or particular type of smell… not so much.
        Pungent is particularly penetrating; musky is like musk; sulfurous is like sulfur; but mostly we have to fall back on the same words we use for taste (fruity, spicy, sweet, acrid) and on simply naming the thing that the smell smells like (like cinnamon, like vanilla, like disinfectant, like wet dog, like new-mown grass).  This isn’t to say that we can’t describe or talk about smells.  Of course we find ways to express what we need to express, and of course perfumers have a huge vocabulary with which they describe aromas.  Nevertheless, there seems to be a qualitative difference in the sorts of words we use: metaphoric uses drawn from words for other senses, such as “bright with notes of cherry.”  Why?
        It may well be that in all sorts of languages humans find it easier to describe what they see than what they smell.  After all, our sense of sight is more dominant for us than our sense of smell.  As Kenneth Grahame notes in The Wind in the Willows, “We others who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s inter-communications with his surroundings… and have only the word 'smell’, for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling.”  But there are languages whose speakers do better than English.  Jessica Love cites a study about the language Jahai, spoken by a group of hunter-gatherers in Malaysia.  Speakers of Jahai were able to describe scents just as well - and just as consistently - as they were able to describe colors.  Speakers of English did better describing colors, but far worse on scents.  Why?
        We don’t really have an answer.  Different languages carve up the world into different words, and focus their linguistic attention on different areas (consider the “Eskimo words for snow” stereotype), so on the one hand, this is simply within the range of human linguistic variation.  On the other hand, surely this is an area ripe for English innovation.  We can start with snorky, brambish, and brunky, and move on from there.  We’ve got a lot of work to do!

[Picture: Calvin and Hobbes, comic by Bill Watterson, Feb. 13, 1995 (Image from GoComics).]
Why So Few English Words for Odors?, article by Jessica Love, 2014.

August 28, 2018

Students' Collagraphs

        This summer my classes produced some particularly pleasing collagraphs, and I’d like to share a few.  For a refresher on the definition and techniques of collagraph, check out this previous post.  I’ve given students a variety of materials to use over the years, ranging from classes in which anything goes, including dried leaves, and scraps of every imaginable textured material, to classes who used nothing but puff paint.  This year’s provided materials were basically puff paint, craft foam, and corrugated paper.  This first picture is a sampler I created to demonstrate the effects the different materials could have.
   1. printing styrofoam (the kind usually used by kids too young for carving tools)
   2. a foam sheet that came wrapped around some books I ordered
   3. corrugated paper
   4. textured mat board
   5. craft foam
   6. crumpled paper
   a. puff paint (atop the types of foam, and on the base board)
   b. pressing into the two types of foam with a pencil
        This first piece made particularly nice use of the puff paint on top of craft foam.  I like the effect of the white shadow around the raised paint, contrasting with the more clearly visible edges of the craft foam shapes.

        The artist of the second piece made the unusual choice of building the bird's outlines with narrow strips of craft foam, instead of drawing them with the puff paint.  The wing is a larger foam shape, but only its outlines show because two stripes of corrugated paper were glued on top.  Its charm is in its simplicity.
        And finally, a duck that uses the variety of materials especially well.  The wing is corrugated paper, and the reeds long strips of cardboard that got a little crumpled or bent.  The water is the packing foam, and the white speckles on the duck’s body are indented into the craft foam with a pencil point.  It printed so clearly in part because instead of gluing the wing on top of the body, this artist fit the shape of the wing into a space on the body like a puzzle piece.  That means that all the raised areas are raised to roughly the same level, thus getting inked more consistently and printing more uniformly.
        I think I’ve finally found the right balance of materials to give the kids some options to stretch their creativity, while ensuring that all the materials used are stable enough to make successfully printable blocks.

[Pictures: Collagraph material sampler, by AEGN, 2018;
Flower vase, collagraph by EK, 2018;
Bird, collagraph by K F-K, 2018;
Duck, collagraph by SA, 2018.]

August 23, 2018

Mythical Reptiles

        This week I saw several mythical creatures in the wild!  First of all, I saw a number of basilisks, and I provide for you a photograph I took, along with an official depiction.  The “official” depictions in this post all come from a 1514 book of poetry (first edition from 1476) that includes dozens of natural history woodcuts of animals.  You can see that the basilisk I saw was missing its wings, but it had a bonus set of legs to make up for it.  What are perfectly clear are the crest and the spiky claws.  I came quite close to this one, and luckily managed to remain unscathed by its poisonous presence.  And while, thank goodness, its gaze did not actually prove lethal, you can see that it certainly has a pretty intense glare.  (See here for a previous mention of the mythical vs scientific attributes of basilisks.)
        The cocodrillo I saw was also missing its wings, but perhaps that’s because it was only a young one, clearly much smaller than the creature in the illustration menacing a man.  In fact, though, it’s a little difficult to square this fabulous winged, two-legged, eared, leopard-like creature with the reptile I saw.  About the only things they really seem to have in common are webbed feet, a suggestion of spottiness, and suspiciously narrowed eyes.  Most people probably don’t think of crocodiles as mythical, but looking at this early depiction, there can really be no doubt.
        And finally, a viper… which is also apparently missing its wings.  It makes me begin to wonder whether all reptiles have wings and two legs.  I haven’t seen a picture of a winged, two-legged turtle, but surely it can’t be far behind.  Both depictions of vipers have long, coiled tails, but other than that it’s difficult to spot any resemblance here.  Clearly the
viper I saw must have been disguising its true nature, ready to pop out a pair of legs and unfurl its hidden wings  in the instant when it attacked.  And if so, then these are definitely mythical powers, worthy of any fantasy tale.
        One of the chief characteristics of mythical creatures is that they almost always live far away from wherever a writer happens to live, in exotic, seldom-explored lands.  Now that my family and I can actually hop on an airplane and travel to far-away lands, the mythical creatures will either have to move even farther away, or they’ll have to learn to disguise their wings, as these reptiles have all apparently managed to do.

[Pictures: Badalischo, wood block print from Lo illustro poeta Cecho Dascoli by d’Ascoli Cecco, 1514 (Image from Penn Libraries);
Basilisk lizard, photo by AEGN, 2018;
Cocodrillo, wood block print from Lo illustro poeta Cecho Dascoli by Cecco, 1514 (Image from Penn Libraries);
Young crocodile, photo by AEGN, 2018;
Vipera, wood block print from Lo illustro poeta Cecho Dascoli by Cecco, 1514 (Image from Penn Libraries);
Side-striped palm pit viper (Photo from WIkimedia Commons because I saw it at night and couldn’t get a photograph myself).]

August 15, 2018

The Life of a Book

        The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.
                - Quotation from Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Flight”  (excerpted by Maria Popova).

[Picture: Reading, mini block print by AEGN, 2017 (sold out).]

August 8, 2018

Volume 100

        I’ve been keeping a journal since I was nine, and I recently embarked upon the 100th volume.  I always appreciate landmarks like this, however arbitrary they may be, and I see this as a perfect occasion for a little self-indulgent sharing of some of the art that I’ve put into my journal over the years.  To be clear, my journal has never been either an artist’s sketchbook nor the philosophical essays of a writer.  It’s really just an old-fashioned diary sort of thing: first I did this, then I did that, and meanwhile I was upset about this thing and excited about that one.  There are certainly occasional philosophical musings, poetical observations, and reports of inspirations and progress on various projects.  There are also, sprinkled throughout, illustrations, and I thought I’d share in this post some of my recurring types of drawings I’ve put in my journal’s first 99 volumes.
        I’ll start with the category that includes the first picture on the first page of Volume 1, which is sketches of the things I see around me.  Particularly when traveling, but also sometimes when I have a little extra time, I’ll sketch the scene before me.  I also often put in little floor plans and similar diagrams.  I suppose a related category is pictures of cats, since, at least for the past 22 years, a cat is quite often the thing before me when I’m sitting down with my journal to record the happenings of the day.
        Probably the most common type of drawing of all is borders.  Sometimes the border is an embellishment of the date at the top, or the margins at the sides, but most common of all is borders across the bottom of an entry.  When I have just a little room at the bottom of a page, which I deem not really enough to start the next day’s entry, and just a little extra time which I deem not really enough to start some other activity, I often fill it in with a little decor.  You can see that interlacing has been a favorite motif of mine since the 1980s.
        Sometimes the urge to decorate requires more than just a narrow strip, and over the years I have had the occasional whim to use my journal for larger, more detailed illustrations, most commonly pencil, pen, colored pencil, or watercolor, but also sometimes collage, crayon, or some other media.  (Of block printing, more later!)  Usually these pictures are my own inventions, but I do also sometimes copy pictures I enjoy, as Starry Night and the portrait of Richard III demonstrate.  The picture of my friend Stephanie came from a series in high school in which I copied my friends’ school pictures.
        One of the more distinctive ways I have sometimes decorated journal pages is what I like to think of as “Grail Diary style,” a sort of romantic imagining of antique notebooks of early explorers and adventurers.  On these pages the text contributes to the look of the thing, but I’ve blanked out all the personal text, so you can’t really see the full glory.  But I’ve filled in some of the blanked areas with extra pictures in similar style from other volumes.  I love this stuff!
        Then there are the sketches that illustrate incidents or thoughts that amused me.  They are presumably a bit of a window into the quirkier sides of my view of the world.  The samples I’ve included here show the range: a free-standing cartoon, a diagram of my daughter T’s delightful sartorial selection at age 6, an illustration of how I felt at 8 months pregnant with twins, and a rough attempt to sketch a stray state of mind.  As both an artist and writer, I find that some things are easier to explain with words, while others seem better described in pictures.
        Finally, on to the categories that could be deemed of interest in an artist’s notebook: sketches, notes, ideas for actual projects.  Most of my art projects in the first half of my life were all manner of crafts and media, with a particular emphasis on miniature objects suitable for miniature houses, and needlework of various kinds.  Here are the different patterns I knew how to make for knotted friendship bracelets back in high school, and a number of patchwork patterns.
        As for printmaking, possibly the first rubber blocks I ever made were the footprint stamps carved from pieces of eraser when I was in eighth grade.  The alligator block was made as a demonstration of the fabric printing project I taught as an eighth grade art elective, and the black and white pattern shown here is another One Inch square.  But I have also included among the various other sketches featured here today some of those that also ended up as block prints.  The view from the window in Vol. 15 and the view from the airplane in Vol. 36, the “catball” design of Vol. 41, and the sunflower of Vol. 39 each became the inspiration and basis of a relief block print.  So I reckon I get artist notebook points for that!

[Pictures: Drawings by AEGN, from 1979-2017.]