July 17, 2019

Herrick's Hag

The Hag is astride,
This night for to ride;
The Devill and shee together:
Through thick, and through thin,
Now out, and then in,
Though ne’r so foule be the weather.

A Thorn or a Burr
She takes for a Spurre:
With a lash of a Bramble she rides now,
Through Brakes and through Bryars,
O’re Ditches, and Mires,
She followes the Spirit that guides now.

No Beast, for his food,
Dares now range the wood;
But husht in his laire he lies lurking:
While mischiefs, by these,
On Land and on Seas,
At noone of Night are working,

The storme will arise,
And trouble the skies;
This night, and more for the wonder,
The ghost from the Tomb
Affrighted shall come,
Cal’d out by the clap of the Thunder.

        Here’s a poem by Robert Herrick (UK, 1591-1674).  I’m no expert on Herrick, but I think this seems a little unusual for him, as he’s famous for poems celebrating the joy and beauty of both the English countryside and the English young women.  He is one of the foremost poets of the carpe diem genre, author of that most famous line “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”  So how does a poem about a witch consorting with the devil at midnight fit into that?
        To me the tone of the poem evokes a rollicking song - I can imagine this set to foot-stomping music - that plays the fright for entertainment.  Such a galloping rhythm and rhyming couplets are now usually associated with comic poetry, and the images focus more on the wild ride than any specific evil the witch is committing.  But how was it intended and received in a world that still knew a very real and serious fear of witchcraft?  Witchcraft trials were at their peak in Europe during Herrick’s young adulthood.  When Herrick published this poem in 1648, self-proclaimed “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins had just been responsible for the executions of an estimated 300 accused witches in England between 1644-1647.
        So, was this poem intended as fantasy, or as warning of true perils?  I don’t know, but of course I’ve shared it today as a fantasy poem.  Read it aloud to enjoy the rhythm, and the phrases such as “a lash of a bramble” and “husht in his lair he lies lurking.”  I particularly like the idea of the demonic thunder frightening the ghost right out of its tomb.

[Pictures: Witch and Devil riding, wood block print from the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, c 1493 (Image from Cornell University (Shared Shelf Commons));
Matthew Hopkins Witch Finder Generall, wood block print from The Discovery of Witches by Hopkins, 1647 (Image from The British Museum).]

July 10, 2019

Nature at Work

        Here’s a cool illustration from a medieval French manuscript.  Don’t worry, this is not an image of animal abuse; it portrays Nature, personified as a woman, sculpting a bird on her anvil.  She has already created several other animals and birds and even a man, who will be brought to life by the divine breath when she’s finished making them.  I love that Nature is dressed so elegantly (if perhaps not very practically).  I love the beautiful blue sky and the details of the smith’s tools and forge.  I love the very plain, dull earth, as if Nature’s work is only just beginning.  I also appreciate that this personification of Nature is a woman, giving some recognition and scope for female power and creativity in a culture that didn’t usually allow much.  It’s a beautiful little painting, finely detailed, luxuriantly colored, and edged with shining gold illumination.
        The illustration appears in a French manuscript from about 1405, of Le Roman de la Rose, a poem about the art of courtly love.  The Romance of the Rose was one of the most widely read books of the middle ages, especially for a secular work.  I haven’t read it, so I can’t tell you anything about how our image of Nature fits into it, but it seems to come from the second section of the poem, wherein various allegorical personages hold forth on Love.  Just for fun, here’s also a wood block print of the same scene from an edition printed in 1503.  This Nature looks less aristocratic and more like a hard-working craftswoman as she hammers her little doll-like human.  However, it makes a good demonstration of why manuscript books were considered higher quality and higher prestige than early printed books: the hand-painted illustration is clearly a much more beautiful work of art than the rather crude wood block print.

[Pictures: Personification of Nature making a bird, painting by anonymous artist from Le Roman de la Rose, 1405 (Image from The J. Paul Getty Museum);
Personification of Nature making a man, wood block print by anonymous artist from Le Roman de la Rose, 1503 (Image from Digital Library of Medieval Manuscripts).]

July 3, 2019

Apple Pie and Chow Mein

        In honor of July Fourth, let’s have a look at Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s illustrations for Apple Pie 4th of July by Janet S. Wong (2002).  Chodos-Irvine uses a variety of printmaking techniques, most of which fall into the collagraph category.  What she does differently from the collagraphs I’ve featured before, however, is to print in multiple layers with multiple “blocks” for multiple colors.  You can see how the various cut-out shapes build up the picture, not minding that they don’t fit together precisely, and how the textured patterns are printed on top of solids.  Chodos-Irvine is known for the bright, bold colors and textures of her illustrations, which come from using all manner of textured materials which she collects.  She particularly went to town with the textures and patterns in her Caldecott Honor-Winning Ella Sarah Gets Dressed (mentioned in my previous post on print-illustrated Caldecott books.)
        Chodos-Irvine has a web site with some pictures and explanations of her process and her inspirations.  (Step-by-step creation of a piece here.)  Check it out if you want to see more.  You can see that she works very messily!  This is not so surprising when she’s using so many sorts of different materials and inks at once.  She lists some forty materials that she has used in printmaking, including posterboard, textured vinyl, paper doilies, corrugated cardboard, ribbon, styrofoam…  In other words, anything you can ink up and press is fair game.  She clearly has fun with it.  Indeed, she says, “If you are going to be illustrating children’s books, you might as well be smiling, right?”
        Of course I picked today to feature Chodos-Irvine because of the July Fourth connection with the book.  It’s about a girl who doesn’t think people will want to eat Chinese food on the 4th of July - only apple pie.  But of course they do want Chinese food.  The book doesn’t preach, but I’m going to: July 4th is when we celebrate the United States of America, and you cannot, simply cannot, celebrate all that the USA has been, has stood for, and can be, without also celebrating all the immigrants of which we are composed.  (Besides, Chinese food is yummy every day of the year!)
        To those who will be celebrating tomorrow, Happy Independence Day, and remember as you cheer the fireworks and parades, that what makes America great is not hatred, oppression, and exclusion, but the possibility of an American Dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone.  The prouder we are of that ideal, the harder we have to work to make it true.

[Pictures: Chow mein in our kitchen, collagraph by Margaret Chodos-Irvine from Apple Pie 4th of July by Janet S. Wong, 2002;
printmaking materials, photos by Chodos-Irving, 2013;
Soda and potato chips, collagraph by Chodos-Irvine from Apple Pie 4th of July, 2002;
Fireworks show, collagraph by Chodos-Irvine from Apple Pie 4th of July, 2002 (Images from Margaret Chodos-Irvine.com).]

June 28, 2019

Words of the Month - Pluralia Tantum

        A plurale tantum is a word that, grammatically, appears only in the plural form and never (or, if you’re being less precise in the definition, very seldom) in the singular.  (Plurale tantum is Latin for “plural only” and its plural is pluralia tantum.)  In English, pluralia tantum are often things that occur only in sets, such as eyeglasses, or things that are always a collective, such as suds.  Still, there really isn’t any logical reason why the grammar should have to work this way.  For example, you could certainly say to the person washing dishes, “Oh, you got a sud on your nose!”  Logically this makes perfect sense, but in English it is perceived as being a humorous “error” for effect.  (See a previous post on similar linguistic humor a lá P.G. Wodehouse.)
        You can give thanks, or say “You have my thanks,” but you cannot give a single thank, even though clearly it is possible to thank someone a single time.  Or take riches.  You cannot have a single rich.  On the other hand, you can have wealth in singular only, and not many wealths.  (A word that can be grammatically single only, usually a mass noun, is a singulare tantum.)  There’s clearly no logic there.  Besides, different languages choose different words to treat this way, proving that there’s nothing intrinsic or inevitable about English’s selection.
        Other examples of pluralia tantum include alms, blues, clothes, electronics, feces, graffiti, heebie-jeebies, heroics, hysterics, knickers, kudos, news, odds, outskirts, remains, spaghettisurroundings, and tenterhooks.  To test them out, try “Mary has lots of electronics, but Joe has only one electronic,” or “Can you believe he came to the door wearing only a clothe?” or “They lived on the northern outskirt of town,” or “Billie sang the blues, but Ethel sang only a blue or two before she quit.”
        Words that are pluralia tantum in normal conversation but can have exceptions include trousers, pants, jeans, pajamas, and scissors.  I have seen stores advertising “The
perfect trouser for spring,” which always looks stupid and pretentious to me, but clearly works in the fashion industry.  And I would never refer to a single scissor, but I have seen it done, alas.  Amazon, for example, will sell you an 8-inch Scotch Precision Scissor.
        There are also plenty of words that are pluralia tantum in one definition, but normal in another.  Glasses is a case in point.  You can have one glass, but never for your eyesight.  Likewise, you can witness a single spectacle, but again, never for your eyesight.  You can have brains, but if you have a single brain, well… duh.
        Reggie says, “Igor sure has a lot of brains!”
        “Smart, is he?” asks Gladys.
        “No, I mean in jars.  Shelves and shelves of them.”  And this is why it’s important to know your pluralia tantum.
[Pictures: Rub-a-dub-dub, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002;
Princess Zita, linocut by Julia Forsyth, 2017 (Image from JuliaForsythArt on Flickr).]

June 25, 2019

Sound from the East

        Here’s a wild and amazing wood block print by Dai Zhengsheng (China, b. 1954).  Given its title, A Distant Sound from the East, I feel sure it must have deep significance, or at least a background story for its imagery, but I don’t have any information about what that might be.  Dai says, “When I am creating artwork, the starting point and the goal of expression in my work is to elucidate and clarify traditional Chinese culture and the progression of original creative power in life, by means of using direct, condensed, pure and profound woodcut language.”  Which isn’t really very helpful.  You can see if you peer closely (don’t forget that you can click the image to see it at least a bit bigger) that there are figures in the facets of the various shapes: something like a cat at the lower left, somebody reading a book in the bottom middle, figures with staves on the sides of the large central block…  The whole thing evokes the view from an airplane, and the rays of light from glowing clouds, and some sort of superhuge robot like a prism with arms and legs.  The whole thing is quite large, about three feet square (90cm) and full of densely detailed carving over the entire surface.  It’s technically very impressive, as well as being visually fascinating.  I’d love to get a look at it in person.

[Picture: A Distant Sound from the East, woodcut by Dai Zhengsheng, 1998 (Image from Ashmolean Library).]

June 21, 2019

How to Be an Artist

Gratitude first, then curiosity spurred by wonder,
Gathering beauty until it overflows.
Precision spurs precision,
Detail detail, light light.
Polishing each facet of wonder,
Place the world in a small silver setting
And present it to itself.
Pause often to let the beauty flow clear.
Hush often to hear the silence fill up with silence.
Yet never stop, for the pausing is work,
The hushing is work,
The waiting is work –
As long as it fills and overflows again.

[Picture: Small Glass Bottles, rubber reduction print by AEGN, 2017.]
Poem by AEGN, 2017.

June 18, 2019

Baumann's Block Prints

        Gustave Baumann (German-born, USA 1881-1971) is a prolific, famous printmaker with a long and successful career.  He primarily worked in color linoleum and wood block prints with multiple blocks, and I did a previous post here on his process with a six-block six-color piece.  That piece gave us a great tour of his working method, but wasn’t a piece I really loved, so today I’ve got a few of his pieces that I do love.
        First, a wonderfully detailed view of a wonderfully detailed building.  The piece is entitled “Old Munich” and my first thought is that the color palette was chosen under the inspiration of sepia-toned photographs.  However, I’m probably being anachronistic with that, since in 1905 photography and sepia-toning would presumably have seemed fairly new.  At any rate, it’s a beautiful image, with a sort of wistful, autumnal look.
        This next one also captures light wonderfully, with a masterful dappling of shadow and the hot sunlit lawn beyond the cool shade of the tree.  The little birds are not very detailed, but the very imprecision of this scene somehow contributes to that sense of looking into strong sunlight, slightly dazzled.  I can’t even figure out how many different blocks and colors Baumann has used for this piece, because the layering of colors adds so much further subtlety.  (This piece is undated, but it has the same border of little yellow dots as the piece in my previous linked post, and is signed with a similar sort of chop, so I’m guessing this one is also from around 1924.)
        And finally, a piece that at first glance looks closer to my beloved single-color block prints… But when you start to look more closely you realize that it has at least three different colors of brown ink, and possibly four or five, depending on how some of the colors were achieved.  Once again, I love the way Baumann has depicted light and shadow.  Perhaps most notable, I find the cream-colored texture on the main arch to be a delightful surprise, and an interesting contrast from the solid areas and other textures in the piece.  Everything about this is gorgeous!

[Pictures: Old Munich, color linocut by Gustave Baumann, 1905;
Live Oak, Sando Park, color woodcut by Baumann, between 1901-1934, c 1924?;
Interior of a Stable, color linocut by Baumann, 1905 (Images from Art Institute of Chicago).]

June 14, 2019

Creature Collections: Encyclopedias

        My interest in compendia of magical beasts is nothing new, obviously  (click on “Creature Collections” in the sidebar for lots and lots of other books) but for the past year or two I’ve been trying especially hard to get my hands on as many comprehensive creature reference books as possible, in order to research subjects for my block prints and my bestiary.  Here are a few of the works I’ve consulted:

        The Mythical Creatures Bible, by Brenda Rosen, 2009 - Lavishly illustrated, full-color encyclopedia with creatures organized in categories, of which “Sacred Creatures” is a separate category, which I appreciate.  The variety of illustrations includes some from older sources and some apparently made for this book.  It does include some errors (such as “the real-life lizard called a Salamander,” and putting the elves of The Lord of the Rings among the “many famous fairies in literature”) which don’t inspire confidence.  It is, however, an appealing book to browse through.

        Dragons, Unicorns, and Other Magical Beasts, by Robin Palmer, 1966 - A dictionary of only about 66 animals with small illustrations, plus complete stories or poems about 12 of them from a variety of cultures.  Hardly a comprehensive reference work, but it is interesting to read about some of the creatures in their own contexts.

        A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts, by Richard Barber and Anne Riches, 1971 - A good small reference with a wide variety of creatures, including lots of local monsters of the British Isles, and some more modern beasts such as the gremlin and shmoo.  I especially appreciate that each entry includes its references in an extensive bibliography.  The bibliography is helpfully organized by time period.

        A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts, by Olento Salaperäinen, 2016 - Despite the title this is not a field guide, but it is a nice overview of lots of creatures, relatively heavy on humanoids, and arranged in categories (including “The Sacred & the Divine”).  Each of the entries includes side boxes that mention specific instances in literature from ancient myth to modern movies.  It does a great job of putting recent pop culture instances into context.  The illustrations aren’t particularly inspiring, but do at least have the benefit of including a nice diversity of people, when people are shown.

        Giants, Monsters, and Dragons, by Carol Rose, 2000 - Pretty much the keystone reference work on mythical beasts (it tends not to include the more humanoid creatures), this one has a lot going for it.  It covers a lot of beasts, each one given with its references; it has an excellent bibliography; and it includes a number of useful indexes.  It’s always one of the first places to look.  Because it’s such a popular source, it’s a little hard to cross-check - any errors in this book tend to be repeated by everyone else on the internet and in subsequent works (including, no doubt, my own).  Obviously I’d prefer to be able to trust all its information completely, but I think it’s pretty much impossible to cover this much ground without allowing a few errors to creep in, and I consider this encyclopedia an impressive and extremely useful resource.

        The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, by John & Caitlín Matthews, 2005 - This dictionary aims to include all sorts of magical beings, including not just what I think of as mythical creatures, but also gods, and famous named individuals of certain species, such as centaurs, for example.  It also has articles on the magical attributes of real animals such as elephants and dogs.  There are inset sections retelling specific stories about many of the creatures, and others discussing certain larger categories, such as “Celestial Creatures” and “Road Predators.”  I would have appreciated if it included references for each entry, as some of the other encyclopedias do.

        As I mentioned, I think it’s pretty hard to achieve simultaneously broad range and perfect accuracy of detail, and I’m sure all these works have at least a few inaccuracies, especially in their accounts of non-European mythologies.  I wish they were perfect, of course, and if there were a perfect source I would certainly wish to own a copy — but I confess that I find myself with a bit of a soft spot for the inaccuracies that result from the Game of Telephone that is mythology.  After all, myths and legends have always morphed and changed over time and place as people hear stories, misunderstand them, “improve” them, and tell them again, on down the line.  Despite our best efforts, why should we be any different?

[Pictures: Kraken by uncredited illustrator (?) from The Mythical Creatures Bible by Rosen, 2009;
Gremlin by Rosalind Dease from The Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts by Barber & Riches, 1971.]

June 11, 2019

Three Ways to Look at Churches of Rome

        Here are a few of the wood block illustrations from Andrea Palladio’s The Antiquities of Rome.  This was one of two volumes of guides that Palladio wrote in the mid-sixteenth century about the churches and other antiquities of Rome, and was part of his efforts to popularize classical architecture - something he did sufficiently well to be hailed as one of the most influential architects in the history of Western culture.  The illustrations are credited to Gieronimo Francino, but it’s not always clear what this means in a Renaissance book.  Does it mean he drew the sketches?  That he carved the wood blocks?  Or that he was the printer/publisher?  (See this post on the Nuremberg Chronicle for an overview of Renaissance wood block printmaking.)
        Looking at these illustrations, the first thing to keep in mind is that they were probably not conceived of as being art in their own right, but rather as being illustrations equivalent to those in a text book or guide book of some sort today.  Whoever carved the blocks was not taking advantage of the unique possibilities of relief printmaking, but was simply attempting to reproduce a line drawing.  That said, I do find them pleasing.  The first image is the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.  (This tower is still standing, but it has a facade new since Palladio's time.  He probably would have liked it.)  This is a workmanlike little print with attractive details of windows and column capitals, and the charm of not-quite-right perspective.
        For the church of San Pietro Montorio, our illustration shows the Tempietto, a small tomb in the courtyard built in the early sixteenth century to enormous acclaim.  I’ve included here the illustration of it from The Antiquities, as well as an illustration of it from Palladio’s earlier more acclaimed and scholarly work of architecture.  A comparison of the two indicates how much rougher and less detailed is the one from the guide.  Clearly Palladio had spared no expense in the four books of architecture that were to secure his reputation, while his guide to the antiquities of Rome was his downmarket work for, comparatively speaking, the masses.  Personally, I tend to prefer the less careful work, because it has a little more hand-made charm, although I admit that it would be less useful for architectural analysis.
        For a final style comparison, we’ll look at the church of Santa Maria Rotunda, better known as the Pantheon.  The Pantheon is a remarkable building, completed around 126 CE, one of the best-preserved of all ancient Roman buildings, with the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, and converted into a Christian church in 609 CE.  In this case, I find Gieronimo Francino’s illustration of the Pantheon to be a pleasing enough little block print, until you recall that, while a reasonably accurate depiction of the exterior, it portrays absolutely nothing of what
makes the Pantheon special.  This illustration gives no hint about the incredible interior space, or the light that has been considered divine for nearly two thousand years.  So I give here also my own block print depicting the Pantheon, to illustrate some of the differences in how artists have come to think about relief printmaking since Palladio and Francino’s time.  First of all, mine is attempting to be aesthetic rather than didactic.  Then, where Francino’s Pantheon is placed neatly in the middle of a frame, mine is cropped into a mere slice of a view (roughly the view from the doorway), and is asymmetrical.  Finally, Francino uses only black lines on white background, just like the drawing which he was reproducing, while I use some black on white, but other areas with white on black, and still other areas where the black and white are more equal.  Francino is trying to show walls and stones, while I am trying to show light.

[Pictures: La Chiesa de Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, wood block print by Gieronimo Francino from L’Antichita Di Roma by Andrea Paladio, 1588;
The Tempietto of La Chiesa di San Pietro Montorio, wood block print by Francino, 1588;
Tempietto, wood block print from Quattro Libri dell’Architettura by Palladio, 1570;
Pantheon, Tempio di Santa Maria Rotunda, wood block print by Francino, 1588 (Images from Yale Beinecke Library);
Pantheon, Rome, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

June 7, 2019


        The Land of Cockaigne is a mythical place in European legend.  It is a land of plenty where everyone lives in luxury and ease, but it’s not quite accurate to call it a utopia.  The thing that makes Cockaigne different compared with, say, Shangri-La or other pure paradises, is that Cockaigne is satirical, topsy-turvy, excessive, usually humorous, and always irreverent.  Its plenty is gluttony and its ease is sloth.  According to one 13th century French poem, “the houses were made of barley sugar and cakes, the streets were paved with pastry, and the shops supplied goods for nothing.”  In another 13th century song the rules of Cockaigne's priesthood include sleeping in and playing dice, and in Pieter Bruegel’s 1567 painting, a knight waits for a roasted pigeon to fly straight into his mouth.  In the story collected by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, “I saw a plough ploughing without horse or cow… sweet honey flowed like water… I saw two mice consecrating a bishop… Then a snail came running up and killed two furious lions.”
        Descriptions of Cockaigne appeared on the scene in monastic writings of the middle ages - after all, monasteries are where pretty much all writing was taking place.  In the 12th and 13th centuries a group of mostly young, university-educated clerics called Goliards were particularly known for their satirical poetry, criticizing many elements of church rule, as well as fantasizing about unlimited food, drink, and sex.  In a world that could be unrelentingly harsh for the poor in Europe, it’s not surprising that their fantasies should feature not only exaggerated luxury for humorous effect, but also criticism of the rich and powerful people who weren’t giving them much cause for affection.  However, it’s hard to know whether tales of Cockaigne were prevalent among peasants, because the only records we have are those of the literate minorities who could actually make records.
        In any case, it’s clear that Cockaigne was never believed to be a real place or even a mythical place representing philosophical, cultural or religious beliefs.  It is, quite simply, a vehicle for wish-fulfillment, humor, and satire, and I imagine the rebellious young clergy, and perhaps the peasants, too, enjoyed themselves mightily inventing ever more ridiculous flights of fancy that could be seen in Cockaigne.  Over the centuries, however, its vision of self-indulgent sloth, gluttony, and topsy-turvey social behavior morphed from a commentary on the difficulties of life to a commentary on the evils of excess.  Bruegel’s painting, for example, makes Cockaigne look rather ugly and disgusting, and a poem by Hans Sachs in 1530 says “He who’s worthless and has no will to learn, will be a big success in this realm… He who is wasteful, wild and stupid, crude and senseless at every occasion, he will be made into a prince.”  But the pure wish-fulfillment thread remains in popular culture and can be seen echoed in the American folk song “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (recorded in 1928  but written in 1895) where there are cigarette trees, rivers of booze, and bawdy sex.  This song also illustrates a final cultural adaptation of the Land of Cockaigne: its transformation from a very adult satire to an amusement for children.  Many versions of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” have been rewritten to be aimed at children.
        Like so many fantasy locations, the Land of Cockaigne tells us something about our human preoccupations.  We always use fantasy to illustrate our messages.  When life is unending hardship, we imagine a land where pastries grow on trees and we never have to work.  When we’re frustrated with society’s restrictions, we imagine a land where no one can tell us what we can’t do, and where the upper classes are made the butt of all the jokes.  When lives get a little less grueling - or perhaps when the powers that be begin to subvert the original rebellion - we imagine the cautionary tale of a land where no one does their work and everyone eats junk food all day.  And when we see ourselves as being serious, scientific types, we imagine that lands of humorous fantasy are fit only for children.  Being the Good Little Girl that I am, I would not actually enjoy the Land of Cockaigne, and I think it’s worth considering that the more instant gratification we get with our apps and our technology, the more depressed and alienated we seem to become…  But then, I don't need a Cockaigne because my life is pretty darn good right here, and I can certainly sympathize with the fantasies of the creative medieval satirists who invented and explored Cockaigne as a contrast to their own lives.

Further reading: Fourteenth-century poem
        Poem by Hans Sachs

[Picture: Das Schlauraffenlandt, wood block print by Erhard Schön for the poem by Hans Sachs, 1530;
Luilekkerland, oil on panel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1567 (Images from Wikimedia Commons);
Land of Cockaigne, woodcut by Nancy Haver (Image from Zea Mays Printmaking).]

June 4, 2019

En Plein Air

        Painting “en plein air” just means painting outdoors, but it’s a fancy art term because it’s French.  Before the mid-nineteenth century, both logistics and tradition required that art be made properly in a studio, but with the invention of pre-made paint in tubes for portability, and the new interest in capturing natural light and various time and weather conditions and optical effects, artists began taking their easels outdoors and working en plein air.  Most of the earlier plein air artists were using oil paints, but nowadays it’s probably even more popular with watercolors.  At any rate, it certainly doesn’t have much to do with block printing!
        Back in April, Needham Open Studios held our annual plein air painting event to help advertise and build excitement for our Open Studios weekend.  We collaborate with a local farm/garden center and usually have artists working in shifts through the day, about three at a time in various areas around Volante Farms.  It’s been an enjoyable event, and I usually take a shift sitting at the information table, since I’m not a painter.  This year, however, a little confusion and miscommunication meant that one of the artists I thought would be painting thought that she would be sitting at the table, so that left me in the role of plein air artist!
        It was not as beautiful a day as we’ve had some years - a little chilly, a little windy, and looking as if it might be inclined to sprinkle - so we all set up in the large greenhouses instead of outdoors.  (I guess that makes it plein-ish air, but it was certainly natural light, at least.)  Anyway, I chose as my subject a handsome pot of mixed succulents, and spent my plein air shift just sketching it.  I had to fall back on stodgy old tradition and return to my studio to transfer the sketch to rubber, carve, and print the block.  So no, it really isn’t a proper plein air piece, but I think it’s about as close as you can get with block printing!

[Picture: AEGN at work, photo by M. Grundy, 2019;
Succulents, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019.]

May 31, 2019

Words of the Month - Body Language

        Few things are as familiar to us as our bodies - you know the human body like the back of your own hand; it’s as plain as the nose on your face.  So it’s not surprising that words for the parts of the human body get lots of use with extended meanings.  Today I’m looking at when words for body parts become verbs.  The most obvious verbs to start with are those that simply mean “to do with the body part that which the body part normally does.”  For example, you can
     eye someone suspiciously - eyes see
     elbow someone in the ribs - elbows poke
     mouth words silently or mouth off loudly - mouths speak
     face your companion (or the music, or the future) - faces turn frontwards
     muscle your way through a crowd - muscles exert force
     finger the keyboard, or the dress fabrics (or the sexual meaning) - fingers touch things

But some body parts get used in slightly less iconic ways when they turn into verbs, such as
     hand someone something - by putting it into their hands, rather than keeping it in your own
     shoulder a load - by carrying it on the shoulders
     knee a groin - by striking with the knee
     tongue notes on a wind instrument - by tapping with the tongue
     thumb a ride, or the pages of a book - by manipulating with the thumb, or by holding the thumb up in the hitchhiking symbol

Some body parts get used quite metaphorically when they become verbs, including
     toe a line - which could be literally placing the toes up to it but no farther, but usually is not literal
     stomach something unpalatable (or more commonly, be unable to stomach it) - which could be literally holding it in the stomach, but usually isn't literal
     head a company - by acting as the directive force
     nose around in someone’s affairs - as if by sniffing or leading with the nose
     finger a criminal - by metaphorically pointing them out

Some are an even further stretch.  Why should it be that
     necking uses arms and lips much more than the neck
     ribbing is teasing (though apparently derives from rib-tickling, so there is a connection)
     footing a bill has nothing obvious to do with feet at all

And finally there are those words which mean not using the body part but rather removing or destroying it…
     skin a knee - to remove the skin
     brain a victim - to smash the brains out

        These are the sorts of usages that are potentially particularly difficult in a non-native language.  You see the word finger used as a verb, and you guess it must mean something having to do with fingers… but what?  It could be touching, pointing, poking, pulling into protruding finger-shapes, wringing the hands, placing in very precise spots, beckoning… and that’s not even including the metaphorical or idiomatic possibilities.  So it turns out that while we know what our bodies can do, sometimes it isn’t so obvious what our body parts do when they become verbs.

[Pictures: Wood block prints from Orbis Sensualium Pictus by John Amos Comenius, 1777 English edition (Images from Google Books);
Wood block print from a Book of Hours, 1498/9 (Image from Bodleian Library).]

May 28, 2019

Here's Something Cool: Fairy Doors

        Ann Arbor, Michigan is known for its urban fairy population, as evidenced by their doors, which can be spotted all around the city.  The first public fairy door appeared outside a coffee and tea shop in 2005, followed by about twenty others.  Some have subsequently disappeared again when their host premises closed.  Doors have appeared in neighboring towns, as well.  I don’t know whether the fairy doors of Ann Arbor are responsible for starting the crafting fashion for fairy gardens, but I particularly like the unique nature of these doors.  Going to the craft shop and buying a selection of pre-made fairy miniatures is fun, but crafting doors that are personalized to their location is definitely much cooler.  Some of these quirks include doors that match the human-sized entryways beside them, as at the Red Shoes gift shop, and a fairy ATM outside the Bank of Ann Arbor.  (I assume a fairy ATM spits out leprechaun gold, rather than bills.)  Particularly fun are the doors with windows that allow a peek inside.
        The doors were started by Jonathan B. Wright, whose first installations were done in secret.  The mythology is that these urban fairies come and go on a whim, so that doors can appear and disappear without warning.  Lots of other people have now gotten involved, including homeowners, who often host suburban or woodland fairies who dwell in trees.  Some shops and public buildings have doors inside, as well.
        Ann Arbor is certainly not the only place with fairy doors, and probably not the first, but it is one of the areas that has most embraced this form of public art.  If I owned a shop - or even a house on a street with much walking traffic - I would love to do this.  In my youth one of my primary artsy-craftsy activities was making dollhouses and other miniatures, so obviously this would be right up my alley.  (Admittedly I’d have to put some thought into how to make something weather-proof for outdoor installation, but I’m sure I could manage it.)  What fun it would be to start the tradition in my town!
        To my dismay, it seems that the doors do get vandalized from time to time.  How depressing to think about how miserable someone has to be to look for satisfaction in destroying that which makes others happy.  Nevertheless, the fairies seem to be resilient, and I wish them the very best of luck!  I’m absolutely tickled by these charming little creations that reward observation and imagination.

[Pictures: Fairy door at Red Shoes Homegoods;
Vault door and ATM at Bank of Ann Arbor;
Door at The Michigan Theater;
Door at Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea;
Door and bookshelf house at Ann Arbor District Library;
Door at Kay Wilson Dentistry (Images from Wikimedia Commons and from urban fairies operations (web site of Jonathan B. Wright).)]

May 24, 2019

More Printmaking Books

        Today I’ll switch to pure printmaker mode, and speak to anyone who is interested in getting started with printmaking, or in developing some new techniques.  I’ve lately got my hands on a few relatively recent guides to printmaking, and thought I’d offer my reviews.

Print Workshop, Christine Schmidt, 2010 - Quite comprehensive in including a thorough discussion of materials, tools, and basics, it also includes a wide range of techniques of which relief printing is only one.  In fact, it’s really too broad for my tastes, becoming too diffuse with projects including embroidery, a mobile, image transfer of commercial photographs, and so on.  I’m also not crazy about books that include templates and instructions that encourage copying someone else’s project instead of coming up with your own — especially in a book with the subtitle “Truly Original Projects”! — although I acknowledge that many people need to get a few copied projects under their belts before they feel confident in branching out.  Schmidt does at least encourage readers to modify projects, and not to worry if their result is not just like the sample shown in the book.

Block Print, Andrea Lauren, 2016 - As the title implies, this focusses on block printing, thus including more detail and information within the narrower scope.  It does include some needless complications — why draw your design on paper, then trace onto tracing paper, and then transfer from tracing paper to block? why bother with “registering” a single block and a single sheet of paper? — but it also includes some interesting techniques such as using transparent acrylic and acetate sheets for different ways to register multiple colors.  I also like the “International Artists’ Gallery” section at the end.  This is a very nice intro, though possibly a little daunting for true beginners.

Block Print Magic, Emily Louise Howard, 2019 - An excellent introduction, including the usual descriptions of materials, plus explanations of several transfer methods, the basics of carving, printing, and so on.  There’s also a discussion of setting up a studio - which is lovely but far from necessary for a beginner.   I’d hate for anyone to think they can’t get started because they won’t have a studio like that!  Howard’s first project is quite similar to my “Not a Zentangle” project, which obviously implies that her approach to teaching is not too dissimilar from mine.  She includes a variety of projects that focus on various techniques using various numbers of blocks, and she even has a few projects at the end that involve collaging and finding uses for not-quite-perfect prints, which I may have to play with myself.  I also like the “Artist Spotlights” with examples of the work of a handful of printmakers, explaining their inspirations and methods of working.  I liked this guide a lot.

        One of the points I’m always harping on about is that relief block printing is a very easy art medium to jump into without a lot of money, or a lot of space, or a lot of time, or a lot of experience.  Although I teach classes and we have a blast, you don’t need to take a class.  If you want some introductory instruction, find a book at your local library, skim through it for the basics, and then dive right in.  Enjoy — and let me know how it goes!

[Pictures: Potato printing page from Christine Schmidt, 2010 (For more on potato printing, check out my previous post);
My favorite project from Andrea Lauren, 2016;
The Cabin with details from Emily Louise Howard, 2019.]

May 21, 2019


        The Greek myth of Persephone (Roman Proserpina) is one that many people have found resonant, but in a surprisingly broad range of ways.  The story represents very different things to different people, and to different artists.  When I went looking for one or two relief block prints to post with my poem about the Persephone myth, I found so many I thought I’d take a closer look.
  Myths, like fairy tales, aren’t about individual people.  They’re about symbols, and symbols don’t have emotions, except when the emotion is the point of the myth.  Demeter’s grief at losing her daughter explains the barrenness of winter.  But how does Persephone feel?  Part of fantasy’s job is to explore these things.  There are many possible ways the bare bones of the myth could be fleshed out into a story of experience,  reflecting the complex realities of life as a human.  (Persephone and the other characters in this myth aren’t exactly humans, of course, but as the Classical gods are pretty much just superpowered humans, and as all stories that humans tell are, really, about ourselves, I let my statement stand.)
        So, was Persephone raped in our modern sense of the word?  Kidnapped and sexually assaulted, and forced, then, to marry her rapist?  Or was she thrilled at the adventure of running off with the tall dark and handsome Hades, escaping from the frankly smothering love of her powerful mother?  Did she grow to love Hades gradually, like Beauty and her Beast?  Did she, like me, find eternal summer boring and enjoy the rhythm of changing seasons, each with its own evocative beauties?  What about Hades; did he merely lust after the nubile maiden, or perhaps just want a trophy wife to sit on the throne by his side, or did he really love Persephone?  Was Persephone tricked into tasting those pomegranate seeds, or was it freely chosen, an acknowledgement that life with Hades was something she was willing to take on, or perhaps even wanted?
        Traditional depictions of “the Rape of Persephone” tend to emphasize the violence of the kidnapping, and the titillation of Persephone’s beauty, which highlights the somewhat disturbing fascination that artists (and/or their patrons) have with that unholy combination of sex and violence.  The first piece above, by Guiseppe Scolari around 1600, is of that type, although his version is unusual in failing to focus on Persephone’s nudity as most other artists seem to do.  Scolari seems to have had much more interest in the cleft from hell opening in the earth and venting infernal fumes.  That was probably a more interesting challenge than just another naked chick.
        In ancient Greece Persephone was always paired with Demeter as a goddess of spring, flowers, and fertility, or paired with Hades as the queen of the underworld.  These two pieces by Cynthia Cratsley reproduce the traditional iconography, and the scene with Hades is directly based on a votive tablet found at an altar dedicated to Persephone.
        Another popular theme for artists is Persephone as a lovely maiden gathering flowers.  Presumably this is simply because lovely maidens and pretty landscapes are always a sure bet in art, and calling it “Persephone” adds Culture by way of an excuse.  Sometimes this version of Persephone is shown looking pensive, as a reference to her coming sorrow.  I’ve included a sampling of these, in different styles and different printmaking techniques.
        Finally I get to some of the more unique interpretations.  I’ve included Georges Braque’s version because he’s famous and all, but really, I have absolutely no idea what we’re supposed to be looking at here!  And while we’re feeling cryptic, here’s another piece inspired by Persephone’s story, without being too literal.  The artist Steve Goodwin says this is about “the experience of being split between two worlds, pulled apart in two opposite direction, never fully dwelling in one place.”
        Mina Mond’s Persephone is also split between two worlds, Hades’s hands clutching after her as she rises from Hell into a world of sunshine… and growing pomegranates.
        Persephone’s beauty is always emphasized, and here is a beautiful dress for her, a verdant springtime tangle of plants and flowers and birds… and pomegranates.
        Demeter is beautiful, too, but Persephone’s beauty is that youthful, springtime loveliness that all fashionable women desire — and it can be yours with Le véritable corset Persephone, rendering the sveltest Parisiennes even svelter!
        So many things to so many people… What does the myth of Persephone mean to you?

[Pictures: Rape of Persephone, wood block print by Guiseppe Scolari, 1590-1607 (Image from The Met);
Demeter and Persephone, and Persephone and Hades Enthroned, linocuts by Cynthia Cratsley (Images from the artist’s Etsy shop CynthiaRaeCratsley);
Persephone, etching(?) by Roberto Rascovich from The Myth of Demeter and Persephone, c 1903 (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum);
Proserpina, woodcut by Eric Ravilious, 1928 (Image from MutualArt);
Persephone, paper relief by Lila Oliver Asher, before 1972 (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum);
Persephone, woodcut by Georges Braque, 1948 (Image from MutualArt);
Persephone, linocut print by Steve Goodwin (Image from the artists’s Etsy shop rememberinggreen);
Persephone, woodcut in three colors by Mina Mond (Image from the artist’s shop Mina Mond Prints/DUO DESORDRE);
Persephone, woodcut by Ouida Touchön (Image from the artist’s shop Ouida Touchön Portfolio);
Le Véritable Corset Persephone, advertisement from 1911 (Image from Mary Evans Picture Library).]

May 17, 2019

Persephone in Hades

        It’s time for another fantasy poem, and this time I’ll share one of my own.  This was written probably some time around 1990 although I don’t feel like taking the time to find an exact date for it.  At any rate, you no doubt know the myth of how Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and brought to the underworld to be his wife.  There she was tricked into eating pomegranate seeds, so that even after Zeus demanded her release, she was now required to spend some of each year with Hades.  As a myth it explains winter, when Earth is in mourning and nothing grows because Persephone is in the underworld.  But as a fantasy story it has so many other interesting places to go.  What would it be like to have experienced this story from within?  How might actual people have lived these events?  I say “lived,” but of course most of the witnesses were the dead, the Shades who inhabit Hades.  What would they think or feel to see a living goddess suddenly brought into their realm of the dead?

The Shades Watch Persephone’s Arrival in Hades

These listless plains were ignorant of screams,
til echoes dropped like wadded cotton shrouds
in Lethe's torpid water as she crossed.

He set her, sullen, on the carbon throne,
her brightness cut the passive haze like ice,
we stilled our barren wanderings to watch.

The rest of us had never screamed or shone.
No thought of life had moved since mute descent;
We paid our earthly coin impassively.

We watched her crack the pomegranate's hull,
to disinter the blood-red seeds and taste
(I hadn't thought of blood in all this time)
unwarned her sentence: burial alive.

Her vivid fingers take the first red bead,
we watch her vivid mouth - the silence is
a rustle of cracked leaves, a scratching breath -
inaudible, unvoiced, we murmur "Don't."

Three times we watch a seed to living lips,
three times there is no cry, no warning, "Death."
We are no longer human and forget what we once were.

Did misery invite our tacit hate?
Did Tantalus's shadow chain our grace?
Did hissing shame advise, "Don't get involved"?

We numbed our minds; no thought of ringing blood
can breathe us now.  Does conscience die with death?  
Not before this we forfeited our souls.

        By the way, I went looking for one or two relief block prints of Persephone to illustrate this post, and discovered so many that I’ll do a separate post so I can share more of them.  So, more on Persephone, coming soon…

[Picture: Persephone’s Choice, linocut with watercolor by Eloise Birnam-Wood (Image from her Etsy shop BirnamWoodPrints).]