October 21, 2020

Ghost of John

         Today’s fantasy poem is a little different: the lyrics of a traditional folk song that many a generation of children has learned around Hallowe’en.  Because it’s sung as a round, the verse is actually very short.
     Have you seen the ghost of John?
     Long white bones with the skin all gone…
     Ooo…oooooo…
     Wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?

        If you aren’t familiar with this one, I recommend listening to it with music, because it’s not really much of a poem, and it’s the music that contributes significantly to the feel and interpretation of the piece.  Here’s a pretty basic version.
      Okay, so let’s look at this first as horror.  Horror (to my irritation) is quite frequently lumped in with sci fi and fantasy, and of course some horror certainly includes those elements.  Axe murderers not so much, but ghosts can be a legitimate fantasy topic when they’re about exploring something that doesn’t follow our natural laws and explanations of everyday “reality.”  But as for horror, this song cranks it up in both words and music.  The story begins like all the scariest horror: there’s something here.  No, here, where you thought you were safe.  Have you seen it?  You might, because it’s nearby, in your neighborhood, among people you know, where any dark and lonely place might suddenly reveal those long, white bones that cannot be explained by the rational mind… Those ghostly white bones that are the presence of unquiet Death.  The tune, meanwhile, is in a minor key, with a slow build to the keening like wind or worse…  Many people have fun trying to make it sound as creepy as possible, with organ, or eerie sound effects, or dour and dismal children’s choirs.
The canon should offer John his cloak.
        I do not like horror.  For one thing, I scare easily.  For another, once something gets into my head, it stays there, and the danger of a good imagination is that when it gets to work on something, it’s very difficult to stop.  And most of all, I simply don’t enjoy being afraid.  Apparently many people find fear exciting or invigorating or something, but I just find it deeply unpleasant.  So why was this little horror ditty one of my favorite songs that I learned in music class back in first grade or so?  Because of the last line, which gives the poem a wonderful fantasy twist ending.  It turns us suddenly from victims of a haunting to companions of a fellow being.  It asks us to empathize with the ghost of John, and my imagination is now engaged not in creating scenarios of horror against me, but in inhabiting another character’s experience.  John is an object of sympathy, rather than fear.  The way I learned the song, the tune heightened this twist ending because we sang the last three words suddenly staccato, for comic effect.  I was disappointed that most of the versions I listened to on-line didn’t make that contrast, and instead continued legato and creepy through the whole thing, which I think slightly misses the delightful point of it all.
        This little poem is hardly a serious exploration of anything, but I do think it illustrates an important point.  The horror genre is all about seeing oneself as the victim and expecting everyone and everything else to be malicious and deadly - and necessary to destroy.  This song turns horror into fantasy by reminding us that perhaps we can have a little empathy with the “other.”  What do we discover when we try to see from someone else’s point of view, instead of fearing them as a monster?  What “reality” did it turn out we just might have been wrong about?


[Pictures: De Anatomia, wood block print possibly by Ugo da Carpi from Isagogae breves by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi, 1523 (Image from National Library of Medicine);

Death and the Canon, wood block print with hand coloring from Totentanz by Heinrich Knoblochtzer, before 1488 (Image from University of Heidelberg).]

October 16, 2020

Jajam

         In the state of Rajasthan in northern India, a traditional use of block printing is the making of jajam floor spreads.  Jajam are large cotton textiles that look to my eye like heavy bedspreads or tablecloths, but their use is right there in the name: Jajam means “coming together, gathering” and their use was to spread out on the floor for people to sit on, in a whole variety of social gatherings.  They were used for weddings, festivals, village council meetings, and all sorts of social events, and a jajam might be owned by a family, a temple, or communally owned by multiple families or an entire village.  A jajam might be included as part of a dowry, might be custom made to fit a particular courtyard or floor space, or might be given as an offering to a temple.  Clearly they speak to a community-oriented village life which began to disappear in 
the mid-20th century 
when many people migrated to cities and the traditional ways of village life began to erode.
  With the erosion of the village traditions, the physical craft of printing jajam also began to disappear.  Luckily, there are some people celebrating the craft, preserving traditional jajam, and promoting new work for those artists who still practice the skills of the art.
        I’m looking at this primarily from a block printing perspective, so here are some of the things I find coolest about jajam as a printmaking medium.  For one thing, the designs are printed with carved teak wood blocks, which I understand, but it seems that these blocks are in some way packed with wool scraps, which I do not understand.  It seems to have something to do with making the block absorb ink.  In addition to printing with ink, the designs may also be 
printed with mud as a resist, and then the whole cloth dyed, leaving the printed areas un-dyed.
  The most common traditional colors are red and black (and the cream of the fabric).  I also learned that the printing is done on tables padded with multiple layers of cotton, which makes sense for getting a good, solid impression.  The designs are largely geometric, with multiple borders surrounding a patterned central area.  The borders may include botanical motifs, animals, and people, as well as geometric designs, and apparently borders of fierce things such as tigers, elephants, and warriors are thought to symbolize protection of all the people sitting on the jajam within the border.
        Perhaps my favorite thing of all is that the center of a jajam frequently includes a printed chaupad game board, which is in a cross shape.  Chaupad is related to pachisi, and I love the thought that it might be played not only at a family gathering, but perhaps as a break in the middle of a long village council meeting, too!
        As you can imagine, a fabric that people are sitting and walking on takes a lot of wear, and it seems that there are not a lot of very old samples of jajam still surviving.  I wish I could have found more pictures, and of course I really wish I could magically visit the Anokhi Museum in Jaipur, which is in collaboration with the Wabisabi Project, my main source of information for this blog post.
        I think this is the perfect time to revive an art form that celebrates people sitting around together playing board games, although unfortunately we still need to wait a little longer before we gather the whole village together on one jajam.  Maybe we’d better block print some fabric for masks, too, while we’re at it.


[Pictures: Jajam from Marwar region, printed by Usman Alarakha Chhipa, c 1960 (Image from Wabisabi Project);
Detail of traditional syahi-begar jajam, printed by Devi Sahay Chhipa, c 1997 (Image from Anokhi Museum);

Details from jajam (no specific information);
Block with motifs inspired by architecture, carved by Abdul Sattar Kharadi;
Stuffing wool into a block (namda), by Rashid Ahmed (Images from Wabisabi Project);
Printing a block (no specific information) (Images from Wabisabi Project documentary trailer);
Printing  a large jajam (no specific information) (Image from Wabisabi Project);
Jajam from Ajmer region, printed by Kanniyalal Chhipa, c 1958 (Image from Wabisabi Project);
Children sitting on a jajam (no specific information) (Image from Wabisabi Project).]

By the way, chhipa means “wood block carver”!

October 12, 2020

Parade

         Back in April I finally got around to trying an experiment I’d been mulling for three years.  I first got the idea from a couple of pieces I saw in Wellesley College’s Davis Art Museum back in 2017.  They were drypoint etchings made by South African artist William Kentridge, which you can see in my previous post here.  I’m not usually particularly interested in etchings, but these were cool because instead of a plain copper plate, the carved plates were old vinyl records.  Some time after seeing these pieces in the museum, I found a stack of vintage records at our town dump’s reuse-it shed, and grabbed a couple for experimentation.  At some point I took the next step and sketched some ideas for what to carve on a record, but even after that those records sat on my table for I don’t know how long before we went into lockdown in the spring, and I felt a little more urgency to do something.
      Let me tell you first about the record I used as a block.  It is a collection of Polkas by Lawrence Welk and His Champagne Music, from 1949 (Decca DL 5139).  I carved the B side, and if you’re really curious about the cultural treasure I defaced, you can actually listen to the pieces through the magic of the internet: Clarinet Polka, Pound Your Table Polka, Barbara Polka, and Friendly Tavern Polka.  (I would have thought this was beer music rather than champagne music, but what does a tee-totaller like me know about drinking?)
        The next question was What to carve?  I thought that it should have a musical theme, and it seemed obvious to make a little parade of musical critters marching around and around.  The critters themselves were inspired by another artist, Austrian-American Helen Siegl.  You can see my previous post about her charming monsters here.  My extra idea was to imagine creatures that weren’t just playing instruments but were instruments.  The critters featured on my piece are

• the Tufted Hornbeak, with its trumpet bill

• the Drumbelly, which is a species of gnome

• the Calliopine, which has hollowed quills, each tuned to a different note, through which it can blow air with amazing volume

• the Double-Belled Euphonibun, with tuba and trombone bells sprouting from its head, and an exceptionally elongated body for a pleasing tone and wide range

• the Harp-Finned Walkingcod, with its fin and tail formed of fine strings of tendon, together with its symbiotic partner the Melodious Octopodious, which is capable of plucking multiple notes simultaneously on both fin and tail

        The actual process of carving this unconventional block was much harder than usual.  The first difficulty was transferring my design to the grooved surface of a record.  I used carbon paper, which put down enough of a mark to function as a guide, although it was far from clearly detailed.  The second difficulty was carving.  My first attempt was simply scratching with an awl, but after first experiments it became clear that my scratches weren’t deep or thick enough to show up against the background noise of the record’s own texture.  I turned then to my mini Dremel Moto-tool and small-headed carving bits.  It took some experimentation to minimize throwing up burrs at the edges of my carving, and I ended up having to do quite a bit of scraping and buffing to get rid of burrs, edges, and tailings.  It was quite tiring for my hand, as well, and I didn’t like to carve for more than about half an hour at a time before taking a break.  I also ended up going back over most of my carving a couple of times, trying to make it show up better.  As you can see, it’s still a matter of fine lines without any larger areas of white or subtlety of texture.
        The printing stage was yet another challenge.  Kentridge printed his etched records intaglio, which means he forced ink down into his carved areas (and the records’ grooves) and wiped it off of the raised areas.  I printed relief, with the ink staying on the top edges of the groove and not going down into the carved areas.  Because of the record’s texture, the whole thing is basically grey instead of solid black.  I was quite pleased, however, that I got a subtle lithographic effect on the record’s label, where the ink Decca used to print their label repelled my ink slightly, so that you can see the writing in my print.  I think that’s cool.
        This is another of those experiments that I don’t expect to do again, while still being quite tickled by the way it turned out.  As for whether anyone else will enjoy it, it may be a while before I know.  I had expected that this piece would have been shown in several exhibitions by now, and I’d have had a sense of whether it was getting any love — but with all my shows cancelled, that was not to be.  Hopefully these cheerful musical beasties will still get their coming out someday, and when they do I hope they make a joyful noise indeed.

[Pictures: Parade, relief block print by AEGN, 2020;
carved record by AEGN;
details from Parade, AEGN, 2o2o.]

October 7, 2020

Spring-Heeled Jack

         Spring-Heeled Jack was a creature who haunted Victorian England with violent and terrifying antics, becoming a widespread and famous urban legend of the era.  From his first reported sighting in 1837 to his fading away around 1904, Spring-heeled Jack terrorized and thrilled London and a wide array of other towns all the way to Scotland.  He was said to look devilish, sometimes including horns and eyes like balls of red fire.  He was tall and thin, breathed blue flame, grabbed and scratched victims with metallic claws, and seemed to be impossible to injure with gunshot.  The trait that gave him his name was his ability to leap ten or even 20 feet high at a bound, and he used his jumping prowess both to attack and to escape.  As for his attacks, they seem to have fallen into a few different categories: sometimes he accosted young women and ripped at their clothes, sometimes he caused carriages to crash by leaping in front of them, while sometimes he rang doorbells and then terrified the person who answered.  He was blamed for at least one death, but seems on the whole not to have been as murderous as many phantom attackers.
        In some ways this all sounds not terribly interesting, but there are a few things about Spring-heeled Jack that are worth a closer look.  First of all, what sort of entity was he: something monstrous and supernatural, or just a man playing macabre pranks?  Many people seemed to assume that he was simply a human, possibly a young aristocrat playing pranks on a wager.  The metallic claws were often described as something he wore on his fingertips, rather than being his own demonic growth, and one newspaper report said he had springs on the soles of his boots.  On the other hand, his leaping feats (even with springs), not to mention his ability to breathe fire, were clearly not the behavior of a mere mischievous human, and some people believed he was something of ghost or devil kind.  Given Jack’s longevity and wide range, if he were not supernatural, there would have to be multiple men playing the part, possibly an originator of the type, followed by copycats.  I find it interesting that opinion was divided throughout the period on whether he was an ordinary human villain or a supernatural entity.  One Thomas Millbank was actually arrested and tried for one of the Spring-heeled Jack attacks in 1938, but was acquitted simply because the victim insisted that her attacker had breathed fire, and Mr Millbank demonstrably could not.
        So widely known was Spring-heeled Jack that he was invoked as a bogeyman to scare children into obedience.  By 1838 there were already three pamphlets circulating with tales of Spring-heeled Jack, and there followed a number of penny dreadfuls about the character.  The other interesting thing about Spring-heeled Jack is that in this literature he morphed from a demonic villain into a hero.  By 1900 he was basically Batman, a costumed avenger.  Presumably this change in character happened as people became less genuinely afraid of him, but I think it illustrates an interesting literary truth: endow a character with interesting abilities, including the ability to get away with things unscathed, and people will be fascinated.  Once people are fascinated by a character, they seem unable to think he’s all bad, and the next thing you know there are ballads about Robin Hood, broadsides celebrating romantic highwaymen, and millions of words of fan fic about Boba Fett.  Which brings us to our current renewed fascination with Spring-heeled Jack, who has recently appeared in a number of video games, books, and TV shows set in Victorian London.
        What was he really?  Or more likely, what were they?  Humans playing wicked pranks?  Aliens?  Ghosts?  Demons?  Monsters?  Who knows, but more than 150 years after his first appearance, Spring-heeled Jack seems to have been welcomed with open arms into the annals of fantasy.

[Pictures: Ad for a penny dreadful, engraving from 1886;
Engraving from penny dreadful, OR from The London Gazette, 1839 (Images from Wikimedia Commons);
Spring-Heeled Jack Jumping on Newport Arch, engraving from The Illustrated Police News, 1877;
Illustration from The Lincolnshire Guardian and News, 1864 (Images from Deadpan Flook).]

October 2, 2020

Symbiote City

        I have completed a new block print inspired by the idea of life on Venus, and I wanted to share some of the thought behind the design.  If you really want the full story, you should review the earlier post on Life on Venus, which lays out the scientific background, and why I began thinking about jellyfish.  So, I was imagining creatures evolved from jellyfish-like organisms, floating around in the cloud deck of Venus’s atmosphere.  I had a lot of fun carving the thick, swirling clouds representing the atmosphere, and I picked my weird color combination because I thought it evoked muggy, poisonous gases.  The ink colors are actually black and yellow.  One of the weird quirks about mixing pigments is that while you mix black with colors to get dark blue, dark red, dark green, dark purple, you never really get “dark yellow.”  It just ends up looking green instead.  So that’s how I depicted the atmosphere of Venus.
        The creatures, however, are less straightforward, and they illustrate an interesting point about creating strange new things.  The seed of my idea was that all Venusian life would be evolved from medusae.  (That’s the scientific word for jellyfish.)  Presumably these creatures have had as long to evolve as, say, the first things to crawl out of the oceans on Earth.  They could therefore be as diverse as all vertebrates, from snakes to hummingbirds to fish to giraffes to frogs to whales to ostriches to dachshunds to turtles to humans.  If I were writing a sci fi novel about life on Venus, I could depict all manner of creatures, as wide a diversity as I could imagine.  In one little illustration, however, I can’t.  Why not?  Because the idea behind the picture was that life on Venus evolved from jellyfish, and if I depicted creatures diverse enough not to look like jellyfish, no one would any longer be able to recognize the idea.  If I were capable of greater detail and precision in my carving, I’m sure I could have stretched the bounds a little further while including more subtle clues about my creatures’ origins.  However,  in the end, with the limits of my ability, I couldn’t really get wildly creative without losing the focus.
        I was taken with the idea of creatures evolving symbiotically, and imagined that very large medusae could house smaller ones.  With no solid surface land in the cloud deck, these huge ones would be floating islands, providing both a ground to build on and a protective dome inside which other organisms could thrive.  The symbiotic smaller medusae have four tentacles more like an octopus, with which they are capable of manipulating their world with great dexterity.  Likewise, there's no reason that intelligent, dextrous jellyfish should, when building towns, come up with anything even remotely like human towns.  Yet I've made mine look fairly humanoid so that my humanoid viewers can recognize it as a town.
        Then there’s another little type of jellyfish inside the dome, and I picture these perhaps processing the chemicals in the atmosphere in a way that makes them useful so that the dome dwellers have domesticated them.  Perhaps there are also species that are kept as pets.  To the lower right a flock of them is fleeing to the safety of the island dome’s tentacles, pursued by a large predatory medusa.  To the left and in the upper right corner are a couple of other species.  The fact is, though, that they all look a lot like basic Earth jellyfish, and not nearly as wild and alien as they could actually be in real life, if real life actually evolved on Venus.  I alluded to this before in my discussion of the poem Jabberwocky, because nonsense and sci fi/fantasy both have to balance the known with the unknown, the strange with the relatable, and the wildest stretches of the imagination with the intelligibility of the story to be told.  This piece is not intended to be a great flight of world-building bravura, but is rather a just-for-fun whimsy.

[Picture: Symbiote City (Venusian Medusae), rubber block print by AEGN, 2020;
the carved block, photo by AEGN, 2020.]