October 31, 2018

Words of the Month - By Thomas Browne

        Thomas Browne (England, 1605-1682) was another of those incredible polymath thinkers at a time when individuals still strove to study everything.  A writer for whom science, mysticism, nature, philosophy, reason, melancholy, and humor were inextricably entwined, Browne needed lots and lots of words to work with, and when he didn’t have the word he wanted at hand, he made up his own.  His original lexicon and the popularity of his work meant that many of those words he coined have stuck with the language, making Browne the now-little-known originator of a whole host of well-known words.  The OED credits him with first usage of 775 words, and first usage of a specific meaning of 1596 words.  You can reread this post on word-coining for some brief caveats about the OED and attributions of words, but any way you figure it, Browne’s word-smithing is impressive.  Among the words for which Browne gets credit are:
approximate (adj)
coexistence (also coexistancy, which obviously didn’t stick.  By the way, this was before the verb, making coexist a back-formation.)
compensate (back-formed by Brown from the existing word compensation)
computer (meaning “a person who computes,” of course)
electricity (meaning “the property of substances that make static electricity through friction.”  Browne was not yet referring to the force itself.)
medical (also medically)
migrant (adj.  Apparently migration was already in use, but migrate came later.)
precocious (precocity was just a few years earlier)
ulterior (meaning “coming later, future”)
        All but one of these words (prairie) first appeared in Browne’s most popular work, Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into Very many received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths, also known as Vulgar Errors, which was a pioneering work in popular science and scientific journalism.  If you begin reading at the preface of Pseudodoxia Epidemica, within the first 6 pages you find the words reminiscential, colourishing, radicated, paradoxologie, manuduction, dilucidate, ampliate, and desiderated, which makes it easy to see how Browne managed to give us so many words: throw around enough and some are bound to stick.
        I’ve only just discovered Browne, and am enjoying his rational takes on various mythical creatures, so you’ll probably be hearing more about him from me in the future.

[Picture: Title page of first edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646 (Image from Abe Books).]

October 28, 2018

Devil at Hallowe'en?

        This wonderful, strange little woodcut is thought to represent the Devil dressed as a bird catcher.  Perhaps the Devil decided to dress as a bird catcher for Hallowe’en in the year 1525?  Theologically it is presumably illustrating Satan’s stratagems for ensnaring souls, but setting that aside, I find this a wonderfully goofy image.  First of all, is that bird catcher get-up for real?  Did hunters really dress as a haystack with a bird decoy and thus successfully catch birds?  What kinds of birds?  In this case, clearly holy birds, as the Devil’s decoy has a halo.  Like most haystack costumes, it’s presumably more convincing if you crouch down and keep still, but with his horned head popping out the top and his clawed feet popping out the bottom, it’s pretty easy to see through the Devil’s disguise.  If he came trick-or-treating to your door, would you make him pick up a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup with his tongs, or would you give it to the bird?

[Picture: The devil as a bird catcher, wood block print perhaps designed by Hans Beham, from Beschwerung der alten Teüflischen Schlangen mit dem Götlichen wort, 1525 (Image from Penn Libraries).]

October 24, 2018

Childhood Is Not Simple

        I heard a pop song yesterday in which the lyrics celebrated the “simplicity” of childhood, and I was excessively irritated.  I hate songs like that!  The thing is, children don’t find their lives simple.  Condescending adults may think it’s not really a big deal to have an argument with your friend or family, or to have trouble understanding your homework, or even to be told (if you’re even younger) that you have to wait until you get home before you can have lunch.  But children’s difficulties are just as big a deal to children as adults’ problems are to adults.  If you want to wax nostalgic about how simple your life was as a child, that’s fine, but don’t expect any children to understand or agree.  Children experience all the same emotions as adults: grief, stubbornness, joy, rage, pride, hopelessness, love, irritability, aspiration…  Moreover, because time stretches longer for them, they are even less able than adults to see to the end of a crisis or understand that this, too, shall pass.  The younger a child is, the more difficulty she’ll have in modulating the intensity of her emotions, or knowing what to do with them, but that also shouldn’t be taken to mean that children themselves are simple.  Being human, they are creatures every bit as complex as adults, who have to be exceptionally creative and adaptable in coming up with strategies to deal with their complicated and often bewildering universe - which just so happens to be exactly the same universe that adults inhabit.  In short, every week in a child’s life may be full of drama, dragons, epic quests, victories, and defeats.
        So, why do I share this little dollop of pop psychology?  Simply to say that those people who romanticize the “simplicity” of childhood may be able to score hits writing sentimental pop songs for their fellow sentimental adults, but they absolutely should never attempt to write for children.  To write for children it is necessary to take children seriously, to acknowledge the reality and validity of the challenges they face, and to give them credit for being able to respond to challenges with courage, creativity, and resilience.  Sometimes it takes true heroism to hold it together until you get home for lunch.

[Picture: Children Playing, woodcut by Feliciano Peña, n.d. (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum).]

October 19, 2018

Art Show Checklist

        This weekend I’ll be at Roslindale Open Studios, so today is all about finishing preparations and packing up.  For most of my weekend shows I prefer to set up on Friday when possible, but Roslindale is not somewhere I want to drive at rush hour on a Friday, so for this one I don’t set up until early Saturday morning.  Moreover, it’s a far enough drive that having to rush back home for some forgotten item is at best a terrible, frantic, stressful inconvenience, and at worst simply impossible.  This makes it all the more important that I actually remember to pack everything I’ll need.  To that end, I have put together a checklist.  This one is personal to me, my work, and my display, and obviously each artist’s list will be a little different.  Nevertheless, I offer it in the hope that it may be of some help to anyone thinking about showing or showing for the first time or so.

Display Stuff                                                Other Stuff
- hanging racks                                            - block(s) to carve
- hardware                                                   - carving tools
- hooks                                                          - sample rubber
- binder clips                                               - stamp pad
- multitool                                                    - test paper
- long table                                                   - business cards
- medium table                                           - networking cards
- small table                                                 - cash box
- tablecloths                                                 - square reader
- print racks                                                 - change
- card rack                                                    - record-keeping notebook
- card display baskets                                - price list folder
- book rack                                                   - pens, pencil
- labels                                                          - tape
- signage                                                      - camera
- easels, stands                                            - cart
                                                                      - bags for purchases

Goods                                                            Last Minute Stuff
- framed work                                             - phone
- matted work                                             - lunch/snacks
- card/necklace/etc. box                            - water bottle
- holiday cards                                            - glasses
- books                                                         - sweater
- framed posters                                        - phone charge cord/battery  
- box of posters                                           - purse (which includes essentials such as
                                                                               chapstick, tylenol, pads, scissors,
                                                                               tape measure, etc.)

        The binder clips, by the way, are for hanging unframed signs, unframed prints, and similar stuff from my wire racks.  The stamp pad and test paper are for checking the progress of the block I’m carving, at the end of the day when I think I may be about done with it.  I never bother bringing lights, but many artists do, in which case they’d also need to remember extension cords and gaffer tape.  Some artists bring an entire toolbox.  I think I’ve only once been in a location that didn’t provide a chair, but some artists bring their own special stool or higher chair.  I’ve always found the other artists extremely generous with tools, tape, making change for a customer, and other necessities that apply to all of us, but of course it’s more convenient to remember your own - and nice to be the person who can be generous to someone else when needed.
        You’ll be substituting your own artwork for mine on this list, your own display system for mine, and so on.  But perhaps there might be something on my list you wouldn’t have thought of.  Certainly my list has been developed and refined over my 14 years of doing art shows, and I’ve learned the hard way how handy it is to have some of the less obvious items, and how easy it is to forget some of the smaller ones - or even large ones, if they happen to get shoved out of sight out of mind.  So I hope this checklist is helpful to some of you, and I hope it’s helpful to me this evening as I load the car!
        If you’re in this Bostonian neck of the woods this weekend, be sure to come by and introduce yourself at Roslindale House.  It’s always a wonderful show.

[Picture: ROS 2017, photo by a helpful neighboring artist, 2017.]

October 16, 2018

That's No Moon!

        A long time ago (about five hundred years) in a continent far far away (Europe) an Italian engineer produced a sketchbook of fantastic gadgets he claimed to have invented and was making available to rich and powerful patrons.  Among his distinctly medieval-style sketches are a wonderful variety of automatons, fountains, musical instruments, weapons, locks, special effects for stage plays and pageants, and… the Death Star.  I mean, just look at this!  What else could it possibly be?
        The engineer, Giovanni or Johannes de Fontana (Italy, c 1395- c1455), included among his vaunted inventions a mishmash of items that were physically impossible, as well as some that he could have actually built, and still others that might have been onto something plausible, but were probably ahead of the technology of the time.  It seems likely, therefore, that Fontana never actually built a
Death Star.  After all, we’d probably have heard about it if Venice had obliterated Milan instead of agreeing to the Peace of Lodi.  Plus, it looks like he’s got the firing pattern of its superlaser a little wrong.  Still, he clearly had the basic concept, and even included lots of star destroyers in the scene, too.  (I confess I don’t know what the thing at the bottom is, though.)

[Pictures: Death Star(?) illustration from Bellicorum instrumentorum liber by Johannes de Fontana, 1420 (Image from Public Domain Review);
Death Star, still from Star Wars, 1977.]

ANNOUNCEMENT for everyone in the Greater Boston Area... or maybe even all of New England!  This weekend is ROSLINDALE OPEN STUDIOS, a wonderful event and one of my biggest shows of the year.  There's always a great buzz and great art, so come on by!

October 12, 2018

Saito's Signals

        Saito Kiyoshi (Japan, 1907-1997) worked as a designer for a railway corporation before taking up printmaking.  Clearly it left him with an interest in the aesthetics of railways, and I really like these two woodblock prints depicting railway depots.  There are no trains here, just the skeleton of infrastructure without any movement or life.  There are tracks, girders, and signals: all manmade geometry.  The dark colors could be interpreted as baleful or ominous, but  for some reason they seem almost peaceful to me.  I guess it’s that everything is so strictly ordered, mathematical and under control .  I suppose they’re set at dusk, or just before dawn when no trains are running.
        I don’t know how many blocks went into each piece; I’m guessing three or maybe four if the red lights got their own separate block.  (The red and the skyline could have been done in a single block inked in two colors.)  The grey ink of the ground is rolled on lightly enough to show a lot of white speckles, which evokes gravel.  Against this gravelly grey, the solid black and red look particularly dramatic, and the shadowy skylines offer a fitting backdrop.

[Pictures: Signal (B), color woodblock print by Saito Kiyoshi, 1962 (Image from Our Sense of Place);
Signal (A), color woodblock print by Saito, 1962 (Image from invaluable).]

October 8, 2018

Here's Something Cool: Mechanical Nef

        This amazing renaissance creation definitely gets some sort of fantasy cred, despite being 100% historically for real.  On the hour the model galleon bursts into life, with three heralds and seven or eight prince electors parading past the emperor on the deck, while ten trumpets, a drum, and a timpani play music, and various sailors move among the ropes and ring bells in the crows nest.  It even trundles across the table and fires a cannon with a puff of smoke.  You can see a video showing the elaborate golden decor, the clockwork, and the  various movements, here.  (The narration is in French, but there’s not much narration anyway.  Mostly it’s just the ship doing its thing.)
         It’s credited to one Hans Schlottheim (Germany, 1544/1547-1625 or-6), who was originally a travelling watchmaker who went on to work in the courts of Bavaria, Prague, and Saxony.  He may have devised the clockwork, with additional goldsmiths and artisans helping with the decor.  This nef may have been in the collection of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, or perhaps the Elector of Saxony.  This particular nef is one of three similar ones, of which historian Lisa Jardine observes “The rich,… the aristocracy, everybody wanted to own a bit of technology - something with cogs and wheels and winding bits… It immediately fascinates everyone that you can wind something up and it goes without your touching it.  Clockwork is magic in the sixteenth century.”  And really, even knowing that it’s all mechanical, it’s hard not to think some wizardry must have been involved just to figure out how to put it all
together and make it work.  The clockwork was cutting edge, and so was the subject: this sort of ship was on the verge of conquering the Earth, the renaissance equivalent of the space shuttle.  Note, too, the wonderful pegasus and sea monsters wreathing the ship at the water line.  Marvelous stuff!
        Here’s another of Schlottheim’s automata, a belltower from about 1580.  And here is another video, showing the working of another of his galleons.  These magical clockwork toys were made as dinner table decorations that would most definitely have impressed the guests at banquets.  It certainly makes a centerpiece of flowers seem ordinary!  (Although flowers, too, have their magic, not to be underestimated.)

[Pictures: Nef of Charles Quint, by Hand Sclottheim, c 1580 (Image from Artsy);
Glockenturmautomat (Bell tower automata) by Schlottheim, c 1580 (Image from Kunst Historisches Museum Wien).]
Quotation from Jardine in A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor, 2010.

October 2, 2018

Woodcuts by Ibañez

        Here is a sampling of wood block prints by Josemaria Ibañez (Chile, b. 1975).  He has a range of styles, from relatively naturalistic to quite stylized and symbolic, but all his work has a bold, graphic quality.  I’m featuring a few of my favorites, of course.
        First up, an aerial view with lots of little details reminiscent of “Where’s Waldo” or something by Mitsumasa Anno.  There are people sunning in the plaza, and people visible in a couple of windows.  A woman appears to be dancing across a crosswalk.  Alas, these pictures are very small while the original is fairly large (50x80cm), so I can’t really enjoy the details as much as I would like, but it’s clearly a fun piece.
        Next, another one that frustrates me with my inability to see it larger.  This one is a pretty realistic view of Heidelberg, Germany, with proper perspective and all.  Nevertheless, the tree-covered
hills are patterned in an interesting, stylized way, and the use of both black and white outlines around some of the roofs and buildings is characteristic.  I find the black, untextured trees in the foreground especially effective.
        And then, for variety, a very simple, almost cartoonish piece, entitled “I Don’t Want to Be Late.”  I can certainly relate to the character vaulting along the treetops, bypassing all the cars and trucks.  Who hasn’t imagined that they could go faster than the traffic, flying along in leaps and bounds?

[Pictures: Mapocho Arereo (Aerial Mapocho), wood block print by Josemaria Ibañez;
Heidelberg, wood block print by Ibañez;
No Quiero Llegar Tarde (I Do Not Want to be Late), wood block print by Ibañez (All images from Josemaria Ibañez).]