July 26, 2021

Periodic Table of Aliens

         Do you like my depictions of fantastical creatures?  Do you like weird and wild space aliens?  The properties of chemical elements?  Light verse?  Cute and quirky books?  If you replied “Yes” to any of those questions, you should zip straight over to Kickstarter to check out Miguel Mitchell’s new Kickstarter campaign!
        Miguel has written a poem with a humorous verse for each of the 86 naturally-occurring chemical elements in the universe, describing a property of the element and an imaginary space alien associated with it.  With a PhD in chemistry and plenty of speculative fiction cred, he knows whereof he rhymes.  I’m involved because he commissioned me to illustrate his verses.  Exactly how many of the illustrations I will do depends on how much backing the project gets — the more people pledge, the more illustrations I’ll do!  The remaining illustrations will be done by Miguel himself.
        Today I’m sharing with you the illustration for sodium and its associated alien, the oodleplop.  (You can read the verse as the sample shown on the Kickstarter page.  I’d share it here, but I want to make you go to Kickstarter — that’s what a marketing mastermind I am.  Bwaahaha!)  This is one of the first illustrations I’ve done because it really caught at my imagination, and the whole scene of the slime-monster tending a dark old-time apothecary came to me in a glorious flash.  In fact, the idea tickled me so much that I even wrote a short story inspired by it (although in my story the creature is on Earth).
        I’ll share one more illustration with you today.  This one is a faux block print, done digitally rather than actually carved and printed.  It illustrates a long-legged iverstahl, who is associated with strontium.  The other little alien doesn’t have a name.  Maybe it’s actually a larval iverstahl before it undergoes metamorphosis…  But I tend to think that it is indeed another species, receiving assistance from the tall iverstahl.  I know what it’s like to need help reaching high things.
        Anyway, I signed on to be an illustrator on Miguel’s project because I thought it was a fun combination of science and fiction, and because I thought it would be an interesting challenge to imagine all these crazy creatures.  If you, too, think this sounds like a fun project, please consider supporting the Kickstarter campaign to make it possible.  And forward this along to all your most wonderfully nerdy friends, so that they, too, can enjoy and support this delightful undertaking.

[Pictures: Na is for sodium, aka Love Potion, rubber block print by AEGN, 2021;

Sr is for strontium, illustration by AEGN, 2021, both for Periodic Table of Alien Species by Miguel O. Mitchell.]

July 21, 2021

Travels with Covacevich

        Sue Jean Covacevich (USA, 1905-1998) spent some formative years in Mexico before settling in Kansas, but clearly she travelled widely and used the monuments she saw on those travels as subjects for block prints.  In general, Covacevich’s work is solid, workmanlike mid-century style, and while her style and technique don’t seem particularly distinctive, it is a style I always like.  What makes her work especially interesting, though, is the subject matter: fascinating buildings, both famous and less-so, with all their wonderful shadows, angles, and architectural details.
        Covacevich has the largest preponderance of images of Mexico, which is not surprising as she lived there for ten years.  I’ve included two today, both dating from 1941, but with very different lighting.  The first is brightly lit with strong 
outlines to all its edges.  I especially like the clouds, and 
the contrast of the flat white arch against the heavy clouds.  Looking through gateways is always a motif that appeals to me, and here I like the steps heading up to the hill, although I am curious about the view.  Are we looking out of the gate away from a large church or other complex, or in at the gate toward a destination that is far enough to be out of sight?  By contrast, the second piece shows not an open gate, but closed walls.  We can see the buildings but can’t get in.  Instead of bright light on flat surfaces, we see dark shadows on textured surfaces.  Once again, though, there are lots of interesting architectural details suggested through relatively rough carving.
        Next we travel to Spain to see a street corner in Malaga.  Unlike today’s other pieces, this is presumably not a landmark or particularly famous spot, but simply an interesting snippet of the city.  It is also the only piece today that doesn’t depict a religious building.  I like the blacks and whites of the walls and the texture of the roofs.  The sky is interestingly angular, with its sharp lines instead of trying to look like puffy clouds.  The over-all roughness of the carving gives texture to the walls and street that suggest a rustic feel.  Combined with the irregular architecture, it makes the street corner look organic rather than the result of modern city planning.
        I’ve always wanted to go to Mont-Saint-Michel, and Covacevich’s depiction of the famous abbey and town just adds to my desire.  This piece is more detailed than some of the others, with its many small outcroppings of architecture and rock.  She’s done a really masterful job with the shapes and textures of the rock, and all the little windows, arches, and turrets.  I also like the sweep of the sky and the hint of reflection in the bay at the bottom.
        And finally, the famous St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow, another celebrated architectural extravaganza.  Although the black and white of the block print doesn’t show the wild exuberance of color for which the church is famous, it does make a great medium for pattern.  Once again, Covacevich has used her relatively rough carving style to suggest a great delicacy of detail.  Interestingly, the outline edges of the domes are not uniformly smooth, but are rather jiggly in several places.  Whether this was a deliberate choice or a by-product of the way Covacevich carved the sky, I don’t know.
        Covacevich was another of those artists for whom I had picked about twice as many images I wanted to share, and then had to cull them down to fit in a manageable post.  But if you’re curious, you can scroll through the link below to see more (plus random other paintings and sketches).  She obviously loved travel and ornate architecture, plus, of course, block printing — all things that I enjoy, too.

[Pictures: Gateway to El Calvario, block print by Sue Jean Covacevich, 1941;
Del Carmen Convent, block print by Covacevich, 1941;
Street Corner, Malaga, Spain, linoleum cut by Covacevich, c 1955;
Mont-Saint-Michel, block print by Covacevich, undated;
St. Basil, linoleum cut by Covacevich, undated, (All images from Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art).]

July 16, 2021

Tree Octopus

         Among the excerpts read at yesterday’s Strong Women-Strange Worlds on-line group author reading was one including far-future squid that hunt in packs.  (Sea Wolf by Anna Burke.  For more info about this and yesterday’s other authors and their amazing books, see here.  And you are most enthusiastically invited to attend our next event on August 6!)  At any rate, I do love cephalopods, and now seems a good time to share with you the tree octopus.
        I love the idea of highly intelligent octopuses swinging through the trees, and I am far from the only one who has found this idea marvelously appealing.  It’s not too outrageous to imagine that these inquisitive creatures could have crawled out of the oceans and adapted to live in coastal areas all around the world.  Many people have also imagined them living in space.  The thing is, cephalopods are perfect for speculative possibilities.  They are intelligent, but their intelligence is of a sort so alien to our own that it’s fascinating to imagine how it could develop further.  They don’t have opposable thumbs, but they are nevertheless capable of the same sorts of physical feats that were tied in with human evolution: holding things while moving, manipulating objects, fine motor coordination, and so on.  They have good eyesight and other senses, they demonstrate emotion, and they are altogether a perfect blend of strange and familiar.
        According to previous authors, most tree octopuses climb from branch to branch with their  well-adapted arms, but there are some other land species, including some that glide between trees by spinning frisbee-like, and some that spend more time walking on the ground.  Or what about using their legs almost as a spider uses its silk, both as web and as cable to drop down on?  These possibilities notwithstanding, my favorite image is still that of the agile and carefree  octopus swinging from branch to branch 
        The most in-depth look at the famous Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is on the web site by Lyle Zapato, where there’s lots of excellent information about the ecology and history of this beautiful species, as well as links to the astonishingly wide array of literature and other media featuring tree octopuses.  (Indeed, the web site is perhaps too good.  It has been used in a number of studies demonstrating how much difficulty children (and adults?) have in evaluating the reliability of information on the internet.  Should you have any questions, I direct you to remind yourself of the theme of this blog.)
        Octopuses that hunt velociraptors, octopuses that live in underground caverns, octopuses in space, octopuses in parallel dimensions, octopuses that devour humans, octopuses with fur or feathers or leaf-like integument, octopuses that sing, octopuses that use mind control…  What would you most like to see in the world of fantasy octopuses?
        And yes, as a little bonus Word action, the correct plural is octopusesOctopi is now generally accepted simply because it’s so commonly used, but it’s etymological nonsense.  It’s sticking a Latin plural on a Greek-derived word in an ill-informed effort to sound more educated than you clearly are.  
(If you want to go the obnoxiously erudite route, use the proper Greek-derived plural, which 
would be octopodes.  But nobody does this!)
        If you’d like to see some of my previous posts featuring cephalopods both real and fantastical, try

[Pictures: A New Dawn for the Tree Octopus, poster design by Lyle Zapato (Image from ZPi);

Squibbon, still from The Future is Wild docufiction miniseries, 2002 (image from Fandom);

Leaf Octopus by Alex Konstadt, 2013 (Image from DeviantArt);

Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and Pine Clams by Iris Jay, 2015 (Image from irisjaycomics on weasyl).]

July 12, 2021

Landscapes by Loughridge

         This little relief block print caught my eye this morning because although it is apparently intended as a winter holiday card, it seems to me more like the green and grey rain we’ve been having so much of recently here.  It’s labelled as a reduction print, but I don’t believe it.  For one thing, in a reduction print the pink could not go over the blues in some places, as it does, unless the blues were under the pink everywhere, which they are not.   (For a refresher on how a reduction print works, see here.)  But even more interesting is the lighter green, which is clearly not any sort of woodcut at all.  It is a piece of burlap or similar coarse fabric, inked and printed.  So I’m seeing 5 colors printed on the white paper, and while the two blues may be printed reduction style (light blue block carved and printed, then the same block carved down further and printed with darker blue), the pink, and the two greens are probably 
each separate.  However it was made, though, I’m enjoying the color scheme, and the textures that are
 not trying to be “realistic” depictions of trees or rocks, and that fabulous unexpected burlap texture in the middle.
        The artist is Leon Loughridge (USA, b. 1952) who lives in Colorado and is indeed known for his reduction woodblock prints of western landscapes, which is probably why the image above got labelled as such.  I’ve included just a couple of these reduction prints of his that I particularly like.  These are actually not Loughridge's most complex images, because I generally prefer the ones where the carving is not so detailed that it disappears.  Even so, it looks like these have about half a dozen colors each, which interact in interesting ways as they layer.  He tends to capture beautiful light.  
        What sorts of colors is your world these days?  Look for the beauty in them, whatever they are!

[Pictures: Title unknown, relief print by Leon Loughridge, late 20th century (Image from Beach Museum of Art);
Peak Study, reduction woodcut by Loughridge, 2016 (Image from Breckenridge Gallery);
Morning Glow, reduction woodblock by Loughridge (Image from Reuben Saunders Gallery).]

July 7, 2021

People of All Possible Forms

         Camille Flammarion (France, 1842-1925) was a French astronomer who was an interesting character.  He was a believer in spiritism and the transmigration of souls and was fascinated by life after death and life on other planets, writing a number of books in both non-fiction and science fiction genres, in which he explored his ideas.  I first encountered him when I looked up the famous Flammarion woodcut, which is a very popular illustration.  I made further acquaintance with him when I quoted him as the “ancient writer” describing the infinite diversity of space creatures in my book On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.
        Lumen, published in 1872, is sort of sci fi, but instead of a plot it consists of the dialogues in which a disembodied spirit who has travelled throughout time and the universe, describes all that he has seen and learned.  One of his main themes is the vast diversity of life, and specifically “human” life, by which he basically means sentient, intelligent life.  He lists all sorts of possibilities including people whose separate atoms are all able to come apart or rejoin each other at will, people who die immediately after sex, people who do not reproduce sexually at all, people who live for so long without war or disease that they all eventually commit suicide, people who never sleep, people who are various forms of plants or animal-plant hybrids, and more.  Here are a number of excerpts from Lumen, to give you an idea of what Flammarion was thinking.

        … The floating beings belonging to the world of Andromeda, where my antepenultimate existence was passed, are submitted to a still more degrading manner of sustaining life than are the inhabitants of the Earth. …They must work to obtain what may be called their oxygen, and, without ceasing, they are condemned to use their lungs in order to prepare the nutritious air they need, without sleeping, and without ever feeling satisfied, because, despite their incessant toil they cannot absorb more than a small quantity at a time. Thus they pass their entire life, and finally die victims to the struggle for existence.

        … The men of θ Orionis bear some likeness to [the saguaro cactus]. Only they move slowly, and maintain an upright position by means of a process of suction analogous to that of the ampullæ of certain plants. The lower part of the vertical stem, where it rests on the ground, is slightly elongated, like a starfish, with little appendages which fix themselves to the soil by means of suction. These beings often go in troops, and change their latitude according to the seasons.

        … There is an immense variety amongst the worlds. On one of the planets of the system of Aldebaran… the vegetables are all composed of a substance analogous to the lodestone, because silica and magnesia predominate in its constitution. The animals feed on this substance only. Most of the beings inhabiting this world are incombustible.

        … I visited, not long since, two worlds on which human beings have two senses of which we have not any idea on our Earth.  One of these senses may be described as electrical. One of the little nerve-threads of which I have just told you is developed into a multitude of ramifications which form a sort of cornet. These, under the scalpel and the microscope, appear to be tubes placed in juxtaposition, the outer extremity of which receives the electric fluid and transmits it to the brain, much as our optic nerves receive the waves of light, and our auditory nerves receive the undulations of sound.  The beings provided with this sense perceive the electrical condition of bodies, of material things, of plants and flowers, of animals, of the atmosphere, and of clouds. To these beings this electric sense is a source of knowledge which is wholly forbidden to us. Their organic sensations are all different from yours. Their eyes are not constructed like yours; they do not see what you see; they see what you do not see. They are conscious only of the invisible violet rays…
        Another sense with which I was still more struck, and which was of quite a different character, I found on a second world. This was the sense of orientation. Another of the nerve-threads proceeding from the brain produced a species of winged ear, very light, by means of which the living being perceives his direct bearings. He is conscious of the points of the compass, and turns to the north or the south, the east or the west, instinctively.

        … Terrestrial humanity, you understand, is, as regards moral as well as physical life, the result virtually of the forces of the Earth. Human strength, figure, weight, all depend on these forces. The organic functions are determined by the planet. If life is divided with you between work and rest, between activity and sleep, it is because of the rotation of the globe, and day and night. In the luminous globes, and those lighted by many Suns alternately, they do not sleep. If you need to eat and drink, it is in consequence of the insufficiency of the atmosphere. The bodies of the beings who do not eat are not constructed like yours, since they have no need of a stomach and intestines. The terrestrial eye enables you to see the universe in a certain way, the Saturnian eye sees in a different manner.
        There are senses which perceive other things than those which you perceive in nature. Each of the worlds is inhabited by a race essentially different, and sometimes the inhabitants are neither vegetables nor animals. There are men of all possible forms, of all dimensions, of all weights, of all colours, of all sensations, of every variety of characteristics. The universe is infinite. … An inexhaustible diversity enriches this marvellous field of the eternal Sower.

        I’ve been looking to Flammarion recently for a little inspiration, since I am embarking on a project that will involve illustrating a large number of whimsical alien species.  (You’ll be hearing more of this project in due time.)  In the meantime, you can read the entirety of Lumen, or several of Flammarion’s other speculative works on Project Gutenberg.

Quotations from Lumen by Camille Flammarion, translated by A.A.M. and R.M., 1897.

[Pictures: Assorted engravings from Un Autre Monde by J.J. Grandville, 1844 (Images from Carl Guderian on Flickr, and more about Grandville here);

The Cereus Giganteus or Monumental Cactus, wood engraving from The Countries of the World, c 1890 (Image from ebay);

Two woodcuts by Jean Porcher and/or François Desprez from Les Songes drolatiques de Pantagruel, 1565 (Images from Les Bibliothéques Virtuelles Humanistes, and more about these illustrations here).]

July 2, 2021

4th of July

         As we in the United States of America enter a long weekend to celebrate July 4, here are a few appropriate wood block prints to get you in the mood.  One of my favorite things about the 4th of July is the fireworks.  For the second year in a row our town will miss its fireworks show, so I am looking wistfully at this first piece, which shows the fireworks in Washington, D.C.  D lived there for several years before we married, and I would visit him in the summers and enjoy the huge fireworks displays over the National Mall and all the monuments, as shown in this piece.  It looks to have four different blocks: red, yellow, dark grey, and also a greenish color on the buildings to the right (although perhaps that's just the color of the grey ink on top of the yellow ink).  I especially like the glowing lights of the Lincoln Memorial on the left, and the wood grain in the sky.
        We haven’t gone to our town’s parade since the kids were young, but here are a couple of cute pieces showing the best kind of parade of all: happy people coming together to celebrate their togetherness.  These are printed with two blocks each, and although unfortunately I couldn’t find any higher-resolution images, you can probably make out enough of the details to make a guess as to their era!  I don’t have much information about these pieces, either, but they seemed appropriate enough to my theme that I wanted to share them anyway.
        Returning to fireworks, this last piece silhouettes the Statue of Liberty against a sky alight with sparkles.  Although I’m generally not a fan of pink, I do love the choice of it for the sky in this piece.  It’s so unexpected, and so magical.  I also love the use of the Statue of Liberty in a 4th of July celebration, because while she stands for the USA’s liberty from Britain, she also stands for much more than that.  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  She stands for why this country is still, despite everything, worth loving and celebrating.  Because we do still have a dream.  Let’s make sure we do all we can to light up the night that sometimes seems to press from all directions, and that we light it up with welcome, and truth, and justice, and hope.  Let’s see those sparklers glow, people!

[Pictures: 4th of July, D.C., 1986, color woodcut by Bobby Donovan, 1986 (Image from National Gallery of Art);

Parade I, and Parade II, woodcuts by Margery Niblock (Images from WorthPoint and ChesterCountyRamblings);

Statue of Liberty July 4th, woodcut by Su-Li- Hung, 2006 (Image from The Providence Art Club).]

June 28, 2021

Words of the Month - Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot

         I have mentioned before my undying passion for my thesaurus in original form, and today I turn to it to look at synonyms for the seemingly simple word hot.
        The first point to note is that “simple” words are often exactly the ones that end up with the broadest array of applications.  In the case of hot, it can mean warm in physical temperature, but also lustful, stolen, zealous, angry, good-looking, passionate, colored in the red-yellow range, near in proximity or on the right scent, new, syncopated, excellent, radioactive, embarrassed… and more.  Not so simple after all!  But even if we restrict ourselves to the more literal temperature words, we still have an incredible array of synonyms.  Confining myself still further to the ones that are in reasonably active use (no calid, pyric, or sudorific today,  for example), we have

fiery, burning, flaming, kindling, incendiary, blazing, 

scorching, blistering, scalding, 

torched, parched, singed, seared, charred, incinerated, molten, 

warm, toasty,

tropical, torrid, sweltering, sultry, stifling, muggy

baking, roasting, toasting, broiling, grilling, simmering, seething, boiling

sizzling, smoking, sweaty, 

hot as a furnace, an oven, hell, a sauna, blazes

        The more temperate words, such as warm and toasty are most often used with positive connotations, implying comfort.  It’s not surprising that as you get into the words derived from fire or cooking, they would no longer sound so comfortable.  It is perhaps more interesting that words like tropical and hot as a sauna can be negative when they both refer to things that people are supposed to enjoy.
        The reason I love this array of words so much is that as a writer (or even just a speaker) I can rummage through them searching for the one with the perfect connotation.  They all mean “hot,” but which one I use to describe a character’s situation tells you so much more than just the temperature.  It tells you whether the heat is humid or dry, whether it is causing physical pain (or feeling like it’s causing damage, at least), whether the character finds it oppressive or acute, enervating or galvanizing, active or passive, beautiful or horrifying…  When Millicent leaves her apartment building and finds the sidewalk sizzling, it’s clearly not good.  If she’s a gumshoe on the way to a stake-out it may simply be another hot night in the mean city, while if she’s going out to scavenge food for her post-apocalyptic people the ground might literally be smoldering.  Either way, it’s something Millicent will have to deal with, and I love that as I try to make her world come alive I can choose between the delicate nuances of sizzling versus broiling versus scorching…  
        Maybe this is just a writer thing and sounds stupid or shallow to others, but even during difficult or unpleasant times I find surprising comfort in thinking about how best to convey the experience in words.  If it’s going to be bad, I may as well be able to express just precisely how bad!  (It is certainly hot here where I am right now, but really not so very bad.  My heart goes out to those with truly extreme weather right now.  Hang in there, and take care of yourselves and each other.)

[Pictures: Carr Fire 2018, color woodcut by Makaylah Fazzari, 2018 (Image from MakaylahFazzari);

The Great Fire at Ryogoku Bridge, Viewed from Asakusa Bridge, color woodblock print by Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1881 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

June 23, 2021

Rip Van Winkle

         In 1818, a bankrupt Washington Irving, staying with his brother-in-law in England, wrote the short story “Rip Van Winkle” in the hopes of making some cash.  (It worked.)  In the story, Rip Van Winkle is a man who hates both working and listening to his wife nag him for not working.  To escape both, he wanders into the Catskill Mountains near his village, where he meets a mysterious man in old-fashioned Dutch clothes.  He helps this man carry a keg up the mountain until they reach a whole party of men in similar antiquated style, all drinking and playing nine-pins in a sort of natural amphitheater.  Van Winkle sneaks a few drinks himself, and falls asleep.  When he wakes up with a long beard and makes his way back down the mountain, he discovers that everything has changed.  The King George Inn is now the George Washington Inn, his wife and most of his friends have died (many fighting in the American Revolution), and his children are now grown up.  He realizes that he’s been asleep for at least twenty years, and lives happily ever after being taken care of by his daughter.
        I am thinking of this little fantasy tale now, because I’ve been seeing Rip Van Winkle referenced as we begin to “wake up” after the strange hiatus in “normal” life that has been covid.  Admittedly, for most people this past year and a half has been crazier and more stressful than normal, not at all like a peaceful sleep, but it has still seemed strangely outside of time for many of us.
        “Rip Van Winkle” is one of those literary classics that few people have actually read, but which is nevertheless very widely known, at least in its basic gist.  That basic gist is not unique to Washington Irving’s story, of course.  The motif of a person falling asleep and waking to find that lots of time has passed appears in tales from ancient Greece to modern sci fi, from India to Ireland to Islamic tradition.  Although Irving identifies his mysterious mountain men as the ghosts of the crew of the Dutch ship Halve Maen, which explored up the Hudson River (named for Henry Hudson, the captain of the ship) in 1609, these beings play the same role that fairies, trolls, and little folk play in many other traditional stories.  (Besides, it’s not like the crew of the Halve Maen died on that journey, so I don’t know why they’d be haunting the 
Catskills anyway!)  Everyone knows that time passes differently in the fairy realms, and that to eat or drink with the fairies does strange things, and this story certainly fits that pattern.
        The most iconic image of Rip Van Winkle is with the long white beard, asleep or just waking, and this image is used in many a cartoon as well as straight illustrations of Irving’s story.  I have for you today several versions of this scene by various artists, including Arthur Rackham.  The depictions of the ghosts/faeries/dwarves can also be a lot of fun, though.  One of the unique aspects of Irving’s description of them is that even though they are drinking and playing nine-pins and should be having a grand old time, they are all completely solemn and stony-faced (much to Van Winkle’s discomfiture).  This, at least, is a different twist on most of the traditional tales of partying with the little folk!  Most artists show the mysterious men looking small and dwarfish, although there is no textual evidence that they are markedly shorter than a normal human, and if in fact if they’re human ghosts I’d expect them to be more normal-sized.  Still, it’s a lot more fun to see them (and no doubt more fun to draw them) if they’re more exaggeratedly odd-looking.

[Pictures: Rip Van Winkle sleeping and waking, two illustrations by Arthur Rackham, 1905;

“Wanting in his usual activity” illustration by Frank T. Merrill, 1887 (Image from Project Gutenberg);

“They stared at him with such fixed, statue-like gaze, that his heart turned within him…”, two illustrations by Rackham, 1905 (Images from Project Gutenberg);

Rip Van Winkle play poster by Winnie Fitch, 1960’s (Image from Today’s Inspiration).]

June 18, 2021

Under the Wave (WEP)

        Possibly the most famous Japanese wood block print in the world is Under the Wave off Kanagawa (aka The Great Wave) by Katsushika Hokusai (Japan, 1760-1849).  You see it reproduced on t-shirts and mugs, spoofed in cartoons and internet memes, and referenced in subsequent works of art.  Let’s start with a few basic facts about this iconic work.
   1.  It was first published around 1831.
   2.  It was the first of Hokusai’s series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” and Mount Fuji appears tiny in the distance, like the peak of another little wave.
   2.  It was not a limited edition, but was printed over and over for years, until the blocks wore out, and even after with replacement blocks.  No one knows how many “originals” were printed, but perhaps more than 5000 impressions.  However, because the prints were not expensive or considered particularly valuable, the majority of them have probably not survived to the present.
   3.  Different impressions could vary from each other in a number of ways, some subtle, others more obvious.  Therefore there is no single “Great Wave,” but a whole variety of “Great Waves.”  You can see a selection below.  Pay particular attention to the shading of the skies and the colors of the boats.  (Apparently the pink sky was the original color, but it has faded in the majority of surviving prints.)
        The Japanese wood block technique uses multiple blocks with multiple colors, and one black-inked “key block,” which generally includes the outlines and finest details.  (Some early impressions of the Great Wave use dark blue for the key block instead of black.)  The very skinny little raised ridges from which these details were printed are the most fragile, and over time they might break off or become damaged by the wear and tear of inking and pressing.  This means that even though the printing wasn’t dated, different impressions can be put into chronological order by looking at the patterns of wear.  In these close-ups you can see how the outlines of the cartouche appear damaged in the second example, showing that it must be a later impression than the perfect one on the left.
        We tend to think of this piece as traditional and quintessentially Japanese, and in some ways it is.  But at the same time, Hokusai was incorporating some edgy modern elements in his work.  For one thing, that tiny distant Mount Fuji was influenced by Hokusai’s fascination with European-style linear perspective and the low horizons of Dutch landscapes.  For another, the beautiful blue was produced with Prussian blue, a brand new synthetic pigment freshly available in Japan from Berlin.  It was more colorfast than the traditional blues that had been used previously, and struck the Japanese print-buying public as very exciting and exotic.  (The Japanese were just as enthusiastic about the exotic art of the west as Europeans were about the exotic art of the east.)  The printers of Hokusai’s design did not simply replace the old indigo blue with the new Prussian blue, however.  They used a subtle range of both blues to achieve both depth and intensity.
        I personally tend to look at the scene as a beautiful seascape, and ignore the three fishing boats full of people who appear about to be swamped.  Because it’s frozen it can seem almost serene, but it’s really a terrifyingly violent moment.  It is probably not a tsunami, but simply an extra-large wave.  Hokusai was coming from a tradition of paintings and prints of ocean waves, including a number of other works of his own on similar subjects.  In this one, however, he has amped his wave to the max.  You can see some more of Hokusai’s work here, including another version of the wave that takes away the ill-omened boats and adds just a touch of magic instead.
        I am posting this piece now in order to coincide with Write Edit Publish’s June challenge.  Their challenges are intended to prompt fiction and creative non-fiction, which this obviously isn’t, so I’m not looking for the feedback comments of a fiction piece.  I simply thought that writers working on their own inspirations from Hokusai’s iconic work might enjoy learning a little more about the block print behind the prompt.  
(On the other hand, if you do want to see a work of my own art that owes something to the influence of Hokusai, check it out here.)

[Pictures: Kanagawa-oki nami-ura (Under the Wave off Kanagawa) color woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, 1831 (Image from The British Museum);
Detail of comparison of key block impressions on two prints (Image from The British Museum);
Four versions of Under the Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai (Images from Art Institute of Chicago, The Met, and Museum of Fine Arts Boston).]

June 14, 2021

Woman of Birds and Flowers

         It’s been quite a while since I properly shared a fantasy poem, so today I have a spring poem based on Welsh mythology.  It’s by Francis Edward Ledwidge (Ireland, 1887-1917).  As you can guess by his dates, he was killed during the First World War, and he is classified as one of the War Poets.  However, this poem comes from a book published in 1916 called Songs of the Fields, that is mostly pastoral.  It was published with the support of Ledwidge’s patron, fantasy writer Lord Dunsany.

     The Wife of Llew

And Gwydion said to Math, when it was Spring:

“Come now and let us make a wife for Llew.”

And so they broke broad boughs yet moist with dew,

And in a shadow made a magic ring:

They took the violet and the meadow-sweet

To form her pretty face, and for her feet

They built a mound of daisies on a wing,

And for her voice they made a linnet sing

In the wide poppy blowing for her mouth.

And over all they chanted twenty hours.

And Llew came singing from the azure south

And bore away his wife of birds and flowers.

        In the mythology about Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the young man has a curse placed on him that he shall never have a human wife.  His uncle and great-uncle make this flower wife for him, and name her Blodeuwedd, which means “flower-face.”  In the manner of mythologies, things don’t go well.  Blodeuwedd has an affair and plans with her lover to murder Lleu.  Delilah-like, she learns the special method for killing him, but he survives and is nursed back to health by Gwydion and Math.  Gwydion then turns Blodeuwedd into an owl and proclaims that she will be hated by all other birds.
        As a poem this captures some lovely images, especially the idea of having a linnet sing into the poppy to give the woman a voice in a mouth.  Ledwidge also embroiders on the details of the creation, adding more flowers and birds and details of how such a magical spell might work; the original merely briefly mentions flowers of oak, broom, and meadowsweet.  As a story it raises all sorts of interesting issues: the desire to create artificially the “perfect” woman to belong to a man, the prioritization of beauty in making the perfect wife, and what happens when the created being turns out to have a will of her own, and not to be satisfied with being taken for granted…
        I didn’t find many older illustrations of the mythology, and most of the newer ones come from modern paganism of various sorts, but I did find one relief block print, by John Petts (UK/Wales, 1914-1991), in which this flower woman looks quite villainous.  In the two modern illustrations here, the first gives her creepy eyes, but I like the idea of her being sort of surprised and confused upon being brought to life.  The second includes the owl as well as the flowers, which seems to be standard iconography these days, but is a little different in how it shows her transformations all at once, flowers to person to owl.
        My final illustration is not intended to be Blodeuwedd at all.  It’s the goddess Flora, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italy, 1526-1593) in his signature odd style.  I chose it because I thought we needed to see what a woman made of flowers might really look like, especially right at first before she settled into being a living person.

[Pictures: Blodeuwedd, wood engraving by John Petts, 1956 (Image from Campbell Fine Art);

Blodeuwedd Flower Maiden, watercolor and gouache by Elisabeth Alba (Image from her Etsy shop albaillustration);

Blodeuwedd, watercolor by Jenny Dolfen, 2016 (Image from Jenny Dolfen Goldseven);

Flora, oil on panel by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1589 (Image from Obelisk Art History Project).]

June 9, 2021

What's New (and Some Old) in the Studio

         A couple of weeks ago I shared a bunch of upcoming events, many of which feel as if they are suddenly exploding into life as covid restrictions are eased in my state, but today I wanted to share what’s been happening behind the scenes in the studio.  I’ll start by backing up even further to brush over this whole crazy past year.  For many of us introverts, the stay-at-home restrictions haven’t seemed so bad.  I was pretty much home all the time anyway, and all my art and writing is done at home, so being stuck at home doesn’t leave me feeling as isolated, stir-crazy, or depressed as it does some people.  That’s one regard in which I’ve been extremely lucky.
        But there is another part to all this that may not be so widely recognized, which is that plenty of time at home last year hasn’t necessarily been as good for artistic productivity as you might expect.  Under stress the brain diverts blood and energy toward the more basic fight-or-flight parts of the brain, and away from the parts that work on higher-order connections and creativity.  It is literally harder to be creative while stressed, so if you haven’t been feeling that spark recently, it’s not your fault.  And we can’t blame covid for all of this, either.  Our whole country (and perhaps the whole world) has been enduring chronic stress for quite some time, and for me this has meant that trying to write feels like wading through molasses while wearing a lead coat… Which is frustrating, and heartbreaking, and distressing.  (Again, if you’re feeling like your brain hasn’t been in top form this past year and more, it’s not your fault, and you’re not alone.)
         This is why I’m so delighted that I’m currently at work on a short story.  I can’t think of the last short story I’ve written, and this is sci fi, too, which is another departure for me.  Probably it’s really helpful to shake things up instead of continuing to struggle with the fantasy novel that I’m really psyched about, but which nevertheless feels like wading through that molasses.  Anyway, for this new story, imagine a human adopted by a mycorrhizal network.  I’ve had some beta feedback and I’m ready to get back to work on revision!  So exciting!
        I’m also working on another new writing project: a series of poems for each of the thirteen fairies who come to Sleeping Beauty’s christening.  I’ve been a little all-over-the-place about what I’m doing here, but at the moment each poem seems to be the explanation for the fairy’s particular gift.  Also, I’m fooling around with doing each one in a different form.  I’ve already got drafts of some blank verse, a limerick, a villanelle, and most of a sonnet.  Even if this series of poems never ends up going anywhere or being any good, it really feels good to be practicing those poetry muscles, and my arbitrary goal of working in many different forms is good exercise.
        While the writing has been a terrible slog in the past year, the block prints have not been hit so hard.  (Why?  I don’t know, but I suspect because they are more bite-sized.)  I am currently working on an idea that I’d been mulling for a while, which is Baba Yaga’s house on chicken legs.  I’ve made a little flock of Baba Yaga houses, and a little village full of Baba Yagas old and young.  The carving on this needs to be extremely detailed for the tiny people and the fancy decorations on the izba-style cottages, so I am not at all sure whether it’s coming out legibly.  I won’t know until I ink it up.  In the past few days I’ve been working on it only a tiny bit each day, but I will presumably get some solid carving done on Saturday while I’m sitting at my table during an art show for the first time in 18 months.
        Another new thing in my studio is a collection of tiny metal tubes.  I had two miniature metal thingies that I’d been using for “carving” little circles, but a couple of weeks ago I knocked over my toolbox, everything scattered all over the floor and radiator, and I never could find one of the little round bits.  After scouring the house for any old empty mechanical pencils or pens that might have comparable metal bits I could scavenge, it occurred to me that it might be worth just buying some simple metal tube beads.  And in my search for those I discovered little sets of assorted metal capillary tubes, and in a further search down that direction I discovered a packet of mixed small cut-offs from some metal manufacturer.  When my little package arrived I went through dozens and dozens of bits and pieces of various shapes, and selected an array of tubes of various miniature diameters that may work well for pressing circles into my rubber blocks.  There were even a couple of square and hexagon tubes that might have interesting possibilities.  So I look forward to having these to play with.
        What about you?  Are things reopening where you are?  And does the new season feel exciting and freeing, or are you weighted with dread?  How has your creative spark been faring recently?  Have you found any way to care for it?  Right now I am finally feeling cautiously optimistic about mine, and I hope you are feeling a lightening of spirit.

[Pictures: Out of Darkness, rubber block print by AEGN, 2021;

Carving a new block, AEGN, 2021;

Little tubes and experiments with “carving,” AEGN, 2021.]

June 4, 2021

Morgan's World

         I encountered the relief prints of Gwenda Morgan (UK, 1908-1991) during my 2020 A to Z Challenge on Nursery Rhymes, but it’s now time to feature some of her other work.  Morgan studied modern art, specializing in wood engraving and linocuts, embraced as a democratic art form.  She illustrated a number of books, and was inspired by the landscapes of south-eastern England where she lived most of her life.
        You can see that her work is clearly influenced by the time and place and artists with whom she was working in the 1930s and 40s, but also that she has some distinctive characteristics.  For example, her figures are usually quite tiny in their landscapes, and often simply silhouettes.  Other things are often silhouettes, as well, such as animals and trees, and she uses the solid blacks to make things stand out against more textured backgrounds.
        You can see another characteristic she sometimes employs in the first and last examples I have for you today.  That is a melding of multiple vignettes into a single epic view.  The first includes all sorts of details in a scheme that you could probably never see all in one vista, and certainly not with the level of detail Morgan gives us.  There is little perspective: the farthest objects are at the top of the page, but not significantly smaller than those in the foreground at the bottom.  Today’s final piece also shows multiple vignettes, but arranges them with a very interesting faceted effect.
        The second piece is a much more conventional composition for a landscape.  It's interesting for its finely engraved textures and patterns: every blade of grass, every roof tile…  I especially love the sharp detail in the reflection, observed by ducks and a cat.  The third piece is much less detailed, but I do love the little silhouetted adult and child, admiring the moon, with the thick black shadows all around them.
        I enjoy Morgan’s style, with its balance of blacks, whites, and patterns, and its affectionately stylized glimpses into tiny people and animals going about their lives.

[Pictures: From the Hills to the Sea, wood engraving by Gwenda Morgan, 1965 (Image from V&A);
East Dean, wood engraving by Morgan, 1947 (Image from V&A);
Moonlight, wood engraving by Morgan, 1970 (Image from National Galleries of Scotland);
By the River, wood engraving by Morgan, 1964 (Image from V&A).]

May 31, 2021

Words of the Month - From Sophomoric to Sophisticated

         In this season of graduations, students in high schools and colleges throughout the United States are gaining new names, from freshmen to sophomores, sophomores to juniors, juniors to seniors…  But where do these names come from?  Freshman is pretty straightforward: around the 1550’s the word freshman meant a new or inexperienced man in any field, and by the 1590s was being applied specifically to students in their first year of university.  Freshwoman is first seen in English in the 1620s, and nowadays there are also variants freshperson, frosh, and fresher.
        Junior and senior are also relatively easy to explain.  They are shortened forms of junior sophister and senior sophister, in which sophister was the Latin (from Greek) for “a wise or learned man, or a master of his craft.”  Sophister was dropped from the titles used for upperclassmen when the terms were transferred from Cambridge and Oxford to US universities, and the word, along with its twin sophist, has gained the definition “a specious or fallacious reasoner,” which does not reflect well on university students.
        That leaves sophomore, which is the knottier term.  It entered English more than a century later than the other three (after all, university programs were only three years and thus didn’t need a fourth term) and some attribute it to a derivation from sophumer, meaning “arguer.”  This was another variant of the Greek sophistēs root that gave us the junior and senior sophisters.  But many also derive the word from a combination of sophos and mōros, both “wise” and “foolish” (as in moron).  So the question is, was the word deliberately coined of these two parts to mean “wise fool,” or was the “wise fool” interpretation a folk etymology devised later?  And how much later might it have struck people with its appropriateness?  Some claim that the term existed in ancient Greek, others that it was invented out of Greek roots by those English university men.
        Of course the adjectival form, sophomoric, does not reflect so well on second-year students, implying immaturity and opinionated ignorance.  We gained that version around 1806.  However, that Greek root about wisdom gives us some other words, as well, such as philosopher (early 14th century), who is a “lover of wisdom.”  This word gained its positive connotation when the word sophist began to seem a bit conceited, and slipped toward its negative meaning.  We also have sophistication, which began in English in the early 15th century as “the use of sophistry; fallacious argument; adulteration,” but which moved in the opposite direction as sophist, reaching the positive sense of “worldly wisdom, refinement” by 1850.
        Not until the early 20th century did the four words for university students come to be applied to the four years of high school in the US.  Meanwhile, they have pretty well disappeared from British English.
        So, if you are a high school or college student, don’t forget to aim for the love of knowledge without being a moron or sophist.  And if you are graduating this year from high school senior to college freshmen, or from college senior to sophisticated adult, congratulations, and be wise!

[Pictures: Doctor in Theologia, copper engraving by C. Grignion after Huddesford, 1790 (Image from Sanders of Oxford);

Gentleman commoner and nobleman undress gowns, Student in Civil Law, Oxford, engravings by J.S. Agar after T. Ewins, 1814 (Image from International Museum of the Student);

Alma Mater, engraving by William Hogarth, c 1860 (Image from Mental Floss);

Female Graduate, engraving by Harold Copping, 1891 (Image from International Museum of the Student).]