September 28, 2020

Words of the Month - Athenian Democracy

         With the significance of early voting and voting by mail for this year’s elections in the USA, I thought it would be interesting to take an early look at some of the words that English has derived from classical Athens and its democracy.  However, I’m not talking about words like democracy itself (which means literally “people power or rule”), but rather a few words that have strayed a little from their original meanings and may surprise you.

idiot - The literal meaning was “private person,” with the sense of one who lacks a professional skill and does not take part in public affairs.  Pericles is supposed to have said “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all,” and some have argued that it was the Athenian attitude toward people who failed to participate in politics that shifted the sense of the word to “an ignorant or foolish person.”  However, its current definition may have come more by way of class snobbery, as in Latin it had come to mean “uneducated, ignorant.”  By Middle English it meant “a mentally deficient person.”  In any case, I hope you will not be an idiot this year, but will educate yourself (with actual facts) and take part in exercising the power of the people.

parasite - The literal meaning was “one who eats at another’s table,” with the sense of a hanger-on or sponger.  The parasitos became a stock character in fourth century Greek comedy, but the word may have been used to refer not only to those who were literally fed by others in return for flattery, but also those who reaped the benefits of Athenian life while failing to work for the city-state or participate in its democracy.  I find it particularly interesting that the scientific definition of “an organism that lives in or on another species while offering no benefit in return” is the meaning derived metaphorically from the freeloading human, rather than the other way around.

liturgy - The literal meaning was “public works,” and specifically it was a service that citizens of sufficient wealth were required to perform for the state at their own expense.  These services included sponsoring public performances, festivals, and cultural events, all the way up to paying for the building and manning of warships.  In medieval Latin the word had come to mean “a public religious service or public worship,” and from there we shifted to the current meaning of “collective formulas for the conduct of divine services in Christian churches.”  It isn’t hard to see how public works and religious works were inextricably entwined in cultures from classical Athens to medieval Europe, where church and state were not separated.  Now, however, perhaps it would behoove us to reconsider the idea of moral obligations to care for the welfare of the entire populace of our nation.

ostracism - The literal meaning was “the practice of using potsherds,” and what the Athenians used potsherds for was a medium on which to write the name of a political figure they felt should be banished.  Anyone whose name appeared on enough of these potsherds when the votes were counted was banished from Athens for 10 (or possibly 5) years, so it was severe, but not permanent.  The system was intended to limit any one man gaining a dangerous amount of power, and to get rid of one seen as an embarrassment to the state.  The connection to our modern meaning is obvious, and English was using the word to mean “expulsion or exclusion from society” by the early 17th century.

        Although we like to talk about Athenian democracy now, it was not considered a success through most of history, and our modern so-called democracies were philosophically based more on the republic of Rome than the democracy of Athens.  Be that as it may, this year it is more important than ever to vote safely (use early voting or vote-by-mail if you can, to avoid crowds) and vote for inclusion, justice, and love.

[Picture: The Greek Assembly - Oration of Demosthenes, wood engraving by HMP, from Ridpath’s Universal History, 1894.]

September 23, 2020

Life on Venus?

         There has been much recent excitement over the report that scientists have discovered levels of the chemical phosphine in the atmosphere of the planet Venus.  This is exciting because phosphine is produced by microbes and thus could be an indicator of life on Venus or, to be more specific, in its atmosphere.  If you haven’t seen the news, you can read about it here.  Of course the idea of life on other planets is also of great interest in the field of speculative fiction, so today I’m leaping straight from the cautious scientific possibilities of hypothetical microbes to imagining complex and potentially intelligent alien life.
        First, a quick review of how sci fi writers have imagined Venusian life in the past: Venus is often called Earth’s twin, and in the early days of science fiction Venusians seemed as plausible as any other space aliens.  First Venus was generally understood to be tropical jungle and/or largely oceanic, then it was presumed to be harsh desert, in both cases with the appropriate fauna.  I haven’t read or seen any of these myself, but according to various sources the Venusians may include creatures that are a blend of elephants and horse-flies (Fred. T. Jane, 1897), spider-like shelks (Charles R. Tanner, 1930’s), serpent or lizard people (Lumley and Lovecraft, 1930’s), green humanoids (C.S. Lewis, 1940’s), giant frog-like amphibians (Captain Marvel, 1940’s), Aphrodite-worshipping fairies (Wonder Woman, 1942), grinning cones (“It Conquered the World” 1956), three-eyed chefs (“The Twilight 
Zone” 1961), animated plants (Arthur C. Clark, 1960’s), three-headed green Fearians (“Challenge of the Super Friends” 1978), horse-sized bees (Jacqueline Susann, 1979), snakes with sulfur blood (Ben Bova, 2000), or many other variations, especially of humanoids and dinosaurians.  It seems that a very high proportion of Venusians are either driven to extinction by humans, or do their darnedest to drive humans to extinction.
        Sci fi is concerned with exploring big questions such as war and peace, relationships with the “other,” evolution and extinction, what it is possible to do and whether it is right to do something just because it’s possible… and of course, sometimes it’s also simply about telling a rip-roaring adventure yarn.  In any case, when writers imagine aliens, it’s about the story they’re trying to tell, influencing whether the aliens are more or less intelligent than humans, more or less aggressive or warlike, more or less enlightened, and so on.  But I’m not telling a story here, so I’m just thinking about what sounds cool to me!  If life were to exist on Venus, it would probably have to exist in the particular level of the atmosphere where the temperature and pressure levels are not quite as extreme, but even there the atmosphere is full of sulfuric acid.  Any life in this “cloud deck” would clearly have to be quite different from life on earth.  Again, however, I’m just imagining what sounds cool, so I look at these various factors and imagine… jellyfish.  If life had actually evolved in the oceans of Venus before runaway greenhouse effect turned the planet’s surface into a searing hot hellscape, why not have aquatic life adapt to move up into the atmosphere?  And what aquatic life would be more suited to floating up into the clouds than jellyfish?  Here are a few fun facts about jellyfish that make them seem particularly plausible as candidates to evolve in the oceans of Venus and then continue adapting as conditions there changed.
   * Jellyfish are the oldest multi-organ animals on earth, making them basic enough to evolve in the first place, with plenty of time to evolve further.
   * Jellyfish are the most energy-efficient swimmers of all animals, so they need relatively less energy to get around.
   * Jellyfish have a variety of ways to reproduce, including asexual budding and sexual combining of egg and sperm; and different species have all manner of variations in their life stages.  All this variety makes it more possible that some version might be adaptable to any of the changing conditions Venus might throw at them.  Whether they need to anchor or swim free, protect developing polyps or broadcast them through the ocean, there’s a jellyfish that does it.
   * Some jellyfish have mutualistic algae growing inside them, and others have symbiotic relationships with single-celled planktons, giving them yet more ways to collect and process energy and nutrition, and yet more possibilities for different ways to interact with their environment.
   * Jellyfish often benefit from disturbed ecosystems, such as lower oxygen, higher salt, or turbid water, which implies that they would be more likely than many other species to survive and adapt to catastrophic changes to their environment on Venus.
        So, imagine a world that is a narrow band of cloud encircling a planet.  Imagine not just your most stereotypical image of an Earth-ocean jellyfish, but every sort of ecological niche filled by the descendants of jellyfish-like creatures.  Huge balloons the size of whales could drift through the clouds dangling kilometers of winnowing tentacles as they feed on vast swarms of single-celled creatures or tiny jellies only a few millimeters in size.  Other jellyfish could live in the lowest band of the cloud deck, scavenging the creatures that lose their buoyancy and sink.  There could be swift-moving jellyfish, having bells that can expel spurts of gas like a deflating balloon, sending them shooting through the clouds either as predators or as prey.  Various senses could have evolved, including sight, sound, and smell, but also different ways of perceiving their world, such as sensing heat or electrical currents or vibrations.  There 
could be jellyfish that evolved ways to move and control their tentacles more precisely, so that they might be capable of all the physical manipulation made possible for humans by upright stance and opposable thumbs.  There could be jellyfish large enough that other sorts of jellyfish build cities inside them, forming symbiotic relationships as island city-states floating through the atmosphere.
So that’s what I’m imagining.  What about you?  If there were to be life on Venus, what do you imagine it could be like?

[Pictures: Plate 78: Cubomedusae;
Plate 36: Leptomedusae;
Plate 26: Trachomedusae;
Plate 46: Anthomedusae;
Plate 88: Discomedusae;
Plate 16: Narcomedusae, all from Kunstformen der Natur (Art-forms of Nature) by Ernst Haeckel, lithographs by Adolf Giltsch from drawings by Haeckel, 1904 (Images from Wikimedia Commons).]

September 18, 2020

Dancing with Color

        Back in early May I had a craving for something bright, colorful, energetic, and cheerful.  Quite probably this grew out of sheltering-at-home and the oppressive grey feeling of so much of life these days.  At any rate, most of my block prints are black and white or maybe another dark color or two, and I wanted something brighter.  My mind turned to Matisse collages.
        When I used to teach middle school art full time, one of my favorite projects was Matisse collages.  We looked at the collages Henri Matisse (France, 1869-1954) made in his collection Jazz, and analyzed the color schemes and emotional impact, and the way Matisse used the colored paper.  He didn’t just cut out various shapes and glue them down, positive space on a background.  Rather, he cut out shapes and then used both those shapes and the leftover pieces of paper from around those shapes: negative space.  After we talked about all this, I let the kids loose on the Fadeless Art Paper, which is sheer artistic heaven.  Unlike the 5 or 6 coarse, dull colors of cheap construction paper, Fadeless Art Paper comes in 20 or more rich, intense, smooth, luscious colors, in large 18x12 inch sheets.  (Do I sound like an advertisement?  I promise, I’m getting nothing from Fadeless for saying this!)  It is absolutely impossible for any child and most adults to see an array of this paper and not want to get right to work.
        Now, every time I assign a project to my students, I do it first, and the samples I had made for this Matisse collage project particularly pleased me.  Further, I would always make mini-collages out of leftover bits and scraps of paper while the kids worked on their assignments, and these collages are almost certainly my favorite abstract art I’ve ever done.  So when I craved bright color, I thought about the collage designs I’d done and decided to turn one of them into a print.
        My first thought was to do a separate block for each color, but then I decided I would try something new, and I devised a scheme to make stencils for each color.  So essentially the concept of this print is like silkscreen (which is how Matisse’s collages were reproduced), except without a screen to hold the stencils in place.  Definitely a rough-and-ready poor-artist’s version of the concept.
        Step 1 was to adapt the design to an aspect ratio that would fit better in a standard frame size AND could fit on 8.5x11 paper.  
        Step 2 was to make the outlines of all the shapes on the computer and then print 5 copies on lightweight card stock.  (Hence the need to fit on standard sized paper that could go through my printer.)
      Step 3 was to cut out the shapes with an x-acto knife.  On each of the five sheets I cut out all the shapes of one color.  (I had also had to do some slight modification to the design to ensure that there would be no untethered bits of card: no islands of color anywhere.)
         Step 4, to print, I laid down the first stencil and pounced the first color of ink through the cut-out areas.  I did only one color each day, and it was quite laborious — not nearly as much fun as printing blocks with a brayer!
        This method made for the occasional messy place when ink got under the edge of the stencil, and it was enough of a pain that I do not have any plans to do any more, despite having another design prepared.  Still, as an experiment I think it was 
pretty successful, and I am quite pleased with the bright, colorful, energetic, and cheerful 
final piece, which is just what I had been needing.  I hope it brings a little cheer to others, as well!

[Pictures: Dancing, collage by AEGN, c 1993;
Dancing, stencil print by AEGN, 2020;
Untitled mini-collage by AEGN, c 2015.]

September 14, 2020

Art Changes People

        It’s been a while since I quoted someone at you to prove again how important art, fantasy, and imagination are, but as we watch the swirling storm clouds over a world that cries out for change, it seems a good time.  First, here is writer Rebecca Solnit acknowledging the sometimes deep and invisible roots of change:

        After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork — or underground work — often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

        Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power.

        Of course I want to call attention to Solnit’s mention of the work done by writers, and add to that the work of artists.  One part of our job is to bring forth the mushrooms of imagination, taking tiny mycelial threads of ideas and popping them up into the white stalks and frilled and spotted caps that others may notice, and consider, and perhaps remember.  Our mushrooms loose their spores into the air, millions of miniscule specks, like particles of smoke, of which we never know when, whether, or where one may land in a hospitable environment and lead in time to the mushrooming forth of further imagination somewhere else.

        I try to avoid politics in this blog largely because, while I do not wish to be an ostrich with my head in the sand, nevertheless we all need places we can go to have respite from the stress.  Still, I have always maintained that art and writing do not exist merely as the negative space of not-stress.  They have an important job to do as the positive space of helping us imagine a better world, so that we can move toward it.  At times like the present I find it easy to feel like my small-time art and writing are not much, certainly not enough, and perhaps really a waste of time altogether.  And that’s when it’s important to remember the simple but powerful words of artist Joey Hartmann-Dow:

        Art changes people, and people change the world.

[Pictures: Wood block prints from The herbal, or, Generall historie of plantes by John Gerarde, enlarged and amended by Thomas Johnson, 1636 (Images from Internet Archive).]

Quotations from Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit, 2016 (as quoted by Maria Popova in “Brain Pickings”), and Joey Hartmann-Dow as quoted in Friends Journal, June/July 2018.

September 9, 2020

Abstract Prints by Drewes

        In the last post I shared a number of figurative wood block prints by Werner Drewes  (1899-1985, Germany/USA).  They were of a range of levels of realism, but all had recognizable subjects.  Today I’ll share a number of wholly abstract pieces by Drewes, because he is somewhat unusual in working extensively with both modes of expression, holding his own in the face of art-world fads.  What’s also somewhat unusual is that I really like a lot of his abstract stuff!
        To continue with the transition from representation to abstraction, the first piece today is called Islands, and it is definitely identifiable as such when you know what you’re supposed to be looking at.  I just love the colors, and I think the faceted shapes wonderfully capture the scintillation of sun on waves.
        The next two pieces also have titles that reveal Drewes’s real-world inspirations and give the viewer a hint about what’s being expressed.  However, they both are just one little step more abstract because I don’t think you’d guess the subjects just from looking at the pieces.  Want to try?  When you’ve made your guesses, you can check on the titles in the information at the end of the post.  So, did you know?  But even if you didn’t guess correctly, now that you know, look at the pieces again: the violent colors and sharp, stinging shapes of the purple one, and the warm, bright sparkles of the yellow one.  Now that you know what to look for, you can really see what Drewes was getting at, can’t you?
        I think all three of these color woodcuts have five colors each, and were carved and printed with five separate blocks each.
        Drewes also made abstract pieces with titles based on abstract concepts rather than tangible objects.  I didn’t pick any that were exactly that, but this next piece is entitled Intrusion, and clearly is more about capturing a feeling than just a purely physical description.  It’s an interesting balance of precise geometry and rough carving.

        The next piece is one of 10 prints from the portfolio It Can’t Happen Here, which Drewes made in 1934, after he had emigrated to the USA, fleeing from the rise of Nazism in Germany.  Although the individual pieces in the portfolio have purely abstract titles (Composition X), the overarching title leads me to see the predominant dark areas as oppressive and the sharp darts and angles as threatening.  It’s a title that I find particularly haunting in our present political climate.
        As the final piece today I share Dynamic Yellow, a title which gives the viewer no context, emotional cues, or message about how to interpret what they see.  This is pure abstraction, in which the only subject of the piece is itself, its own shapes and colors and composition.  I find it surprisingly pleasing, as I would have predicted that I wouldn’t care for the color combination or the primarily rectangular shapes.  It appears to use 8 inks, probably with 8 blocks.  I would love to see how Drewes came up with this composition, since wood block prints can’t be done as spontaneously as paintings, with modifications and going-with-the-flow changes.  (Though it is possible, of course, that he designed it first in painting, and then translated to printmaking.  That’s somewhat how I made my piece Dancing, which I think I’ll post about soon.)  How does this one make you feel?  How do you respond to it?

[Pictures: Islands, color woodcut by Werner Drewes, before 1971;
Scorpion, color woodcut by Drewes, 1946;
Summer Garden, color woodcut by Drewes, before 1969;
Intrusion, woodcut by Drewes, 1974;
Composition X - Dynamic Rhythm, woodcut by Drewes, 1934;
Dynamic Yellow, color woodcut by Drewes, 1982, (All pieces from Smithsonian American Art Museum).]

September 4, 2020

Figurative Prints by Drewes

        Werner Drewes (1899-1985, Germany/USA) was a prolific artist who worked in many media, including several different types of printmaking.  According to Wikipedia, he produced 418 woodcuts during his life.  He did both figurative and abstract works, and I found so many I wanted to share that I’ve decided to do two posts sharing his work.  The first will feature his representational wood block prints.
        Drewes studied at the Bauhaus in its early, experimental years, where his teachers included Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee, all of whose influence is clearly visible in some of his work.  He was also one of the first pivotal artists to bring Bauhaus style
to the American art world.  In some ways I wonder whether he wouldn’t be more famous in his own right if he had been less versatile.  The range of his work is downright chameleonic, which I find absolutely marvelous, but it does mean that he doesn’t have such an identifiably distinctive style of his own to point to.  Not that he lacked success in his own lifetime; he seems to have done very satisfactorily both financially and critically.  He also had a long career as a teacher (during which he modelled his teaching style on that of Kandinsky.)
        Of course, by picking my favorites to share with you, I have necessarily culled out some breadth of variety.  Nevertheless, you can see that he does both black and white and color, both fairly realistic to fairly abstract (and you’ll see the even more abstract stuff in the next post).  The locust is possibly the least typical of his works I’m sharing, but I just loved it too much to leave it out.  The storm cloud over the Southwest is also a little more
starkly angular than is typical, but shows off well Drewes’s wonderful sense of color.  It looks like he used three blocks: orange for the mesas, plum that somehow works for both rocks and clouds, and the background, which has an ombre that shades from yellow to grey, changing the character of the colors on top.
        Next up are two early works.  The waves are more controlled and stark, while the forest brook is more expressionistic in its rougher carving and less even inking.  However, they both demonstrate the quality that I think is so appealing in Drewes’s work: the ability to imbue his pieces with a warmth of emotion regardless of style or technique.
        Contrast those two earlier scenes with one from fifty years later.  This pond is certainly
more detailed, but he’s still got that expressionistic roughness to his carving.  However, I think the roughness is deceptive because he’s absolutely masterful in the way his gouges do exactly what they need to do, black against white, white against black, both against textured backgrounds, so that you see not only trees, hills and sky, but details of reflections and ferns, dark and light.

        Next are two landscapes from the early 70’s (an era of printmaking about which I don’t usually have much to say).  These both make really fun use of layered inks, geometry, and pushing that line of representation versus abstraction.  The forest on top looks a little more random in its streaks and tailings of carving, while the Greek island below looks a bit more planned and controlled.  The layering of white ink is particularly interesting in giving some texture to the otherwise flat planes.  It looks as if Drewes printed with black and then printed the same block with white almost directly on top, but just enough offset to give those little shadows to create depth.  Both these pieces have wonderful colors.
        Finally, for a little bit of variety, people.  These women are not very detailed, and look as solid and worn as the architecture.  They have probably worked as long and hard at their jobs as Drewes did at his — and there’s even the suggestion that they may be having some fun with it, as Drewes clearly did, too.
        Tune in next time for the Abstract Prints of Werner Drewes.
[Pictures:  Locust (no.205), woodcut by Werner Drewes, before 1968;
Storm Cloud, color woodcut by Drewes, 1977;
Rock in the Surf, woodcut by Drewes, 1921;
The Little Brook, woodcut by Drewes, 1930;
The Beaverpond, woodcut by Drewes, 1980;
Sunlit Forest (Autumn Forest), color woodcut by Drewes, before 1971;
Mykonos I, color woodcut by Drewes, 1974;
Housecleaning (no. 259), woodcut by Drewes 1966
(All images from Smithsonian American Art Museum).]