February 26, 2021

Idle/Idol/Idyll

         Three homophones, three spellings, three meanings.  Have you ever wondered how these words are different, or whether they’re related?  We’ll start with idle, meaning “lazy or not working or, in the case of an engine, working without accomplishing anything”.  This word comes from Old English, where it meant “empty or worthless,” so it definitely had negative connotations right from the start.  Interestingly, though, the meaning of “not working” seems to have come before the meaning of “lazy,” implying that originally the absence of work was seen as worthless even before it was seen as a deliberate choice.  Anyway, in the Elizabethan English of Shakespeare, there was also a usage meaning “foolish, delirious,” and apparently the phrase idle threats came from that sense: foolish, insane threats, rather than empty threats with no intention of doing anything about it.  I have to say that to my ear I think I get more of the latter connotation, so I wonder how many people still get the “insane” connotation.
        Idol comes via Old French, from Latin idolum meaning “image or form (either mental or physical)”.  In Church Latin idolum was the word used to refer to false gods, images, worshipped by pagans, and when an English word was needed for this concept in the 13th century, we simply took the Latin.  In Middle English the idea of images of false gods gave the word the figurative sense of a person who was false or untrustworthy.  By the mid-sixteenth century that figurative sense had been replaced by the idea of an idol as any object admired excessively, as if it were being worshipped.  It took only a few decades after that for us to see idol meaning a person excessively admired and adored.  Nowadays we are much more likely to see idol as a compliment and something to aspire to, rather than an insult for something or someone false and without true value.
        Idyll is certainly the least common of our three homophones, and the one with which people are generally least familiar.  It means “an extremely happy, peaceful, or picturesque episode or scene; a romantic interlude; or a work of poetry or prose that suggests a pastoral scene of peace and contentment.”  The poetic definition was the first to enter English, around 1600, and it came from Latin idyllium, which was a pastoral poem.  The shift from a poem to the sort of scene or experience described in such a poem is an easy one.  Latin had borrowed its word for the poem from Greek eidyllion which was the same sort of poem but which meant literally “little picture.”  And here’s where we get an interesting connection: the Latin idolum from which English derived idol, was derived from Greek eidolon, which meant “image, form, likeness.”  So yes, idol and idyll ultimately come from the same Greek root meaning “picture.”  Both refer to things that look really good, but might not have the deepest substance.
        As a bonus, around 1800 English also borrowed the Greek eidolon as a synonym for “ghost, apparition,” but its current definitions include not just “specter, phantom,” but many of these same ideas, too: “an idealized person or thing; an unsubstantial image.”  (Previous post here.)  Not to criticize any particular celebrities, but perhaps it’s time we reconsidered the warning that lurks in the roots of these words: rather than allowing lazy thinking to make our choices worthless, we should consider carefully whether any given person or thing, no matter how nice a picture it makes, is really worth our worship.


[Pictures: Little Boy Blue, color woodcut by Francis Donkin Bedford, 1897 (Image from Internet Archive);

The Golden Calf, woodcut for Hans Lufft’s Luther Bible, 1534 (Image from The British Museum);

Are They Thinking About the Grape?, etching and engraving by Jacques Philippe Le Bas after painting by Fran├žois Boucher, 18th century (Image from The Met).]

February 22, 2021

Spring in Winter

         Signs of spring are few outside here in February, although I did have my first snowdrops in bloom… until they were covered up with more snow.  Nevertheless, it’s been spring inside my studio recently, as I’ve worked on the next fairy in my seasonal series.  The spring fairy is also known as the Winged Peeper, being based on the tiny spring peeper frogs that are one of my favorite heralds of spring.  Their chorus begins not long after the ice melts in their wetland habitats, and there’s alway one evening in the year, still cold, when I step outside for my walk and suddenly there it is: the sound of spring.
        Of course crocuses are another beloved herald of spring.  As a child one of my self-appointed “jobs” was to count the crocuses in bloom in our yard every day: first one, then three or four, then a dozen… and I still eagerly watch for their sprouts at the earliest opportunity (and gnash my teeth when the rabbits or chipmunks or someone shears them off!)  My crocuses have a protector in this spring fairy: a spirit to watch over all the waking and stretching and new growth.  Maybe now that I’ve made it, I’ll notice that my crocuses are left alone!
        Like the others in the series, this is a two-layer reduction print, with the first layer printed in green and yellow.  I had a particularly frustrating time printing that layer.  I suspect that I’m not going to get any decent printing again until we turn off the heater when spring really has arrived — but I am far too impatient to wait for months until the heat is off before I print again.  Unlike the other two, I decided to print the second ink in dark brown instead of black.  As it is, it’s much too dark for the color of a spring peeper or the blazes at the base of a crocus petal.  But too light wouldn’t offer enough contrast to make the colors and shapes pop, so I compromised.  Because of the difficulty printing, I’m not 100% happy with this, but all things considered it’s not too bad.  And soon I’ll get to work on autumn!


[Picture: Spring Fairy (Winged Peeper), rubber block reduction print by AEGN, 2021.]

February 17, 2021

Utopia Suite

         I am somewhat familiar with the style of paintings characteristic of many Australian Aboriginal artists, but had not realized before that among the other various media these same artists have worked in is wood block printmaking.  Utopia is an area in central Australia where an art center was established in 1977, building on traditional body painting and sandpainting practices and introducing batik, printmaking, wood carving, canvas painting, and more.  Most of the artists have been women, and a number have reached international recognition.
        In 1990 these artists produced The Utopia Suite, a collection of 72 wood block prints by 70 different artists.  I can’t find any specifics about the project, such as whether there was any unifying theme beyond the usual interests of this group of artists.  Were the individual pieces intended particularly to be viewed together, or were they simply a collection of diverse output from a particular time and place?  At any rate, there are many pieces with definite similarities, starting with the fact that they’re all black and white, and including the use of dots and scattered motifs, the depiction of local flora and fauna, and so on.  None of the individual pieces is titled.
        We begin with two pieces that share animal motifs in a field of dots.  The first has some nice details in the lizard’s tongue and bird’s crest, and it seems to me that the lizard’s silhouette is particularly sensitively-observed.  The artist is one of I think only two men contributing to the portfolio.  The second piece has not only a wider array of animals - I particularly like the emu - but also some footprints, and some lines of motion around the snake.  These imply the story of where the animals have been or are going.
        The next two pieces both look more abstract to my eyes that do not know the stories behind them.  From what little I do know about Aboriginal art, I assume that they are representational in some sense, but I don’t know what they represent.  The third piece evokes a sea star to me, but perhaps more likely is trails to a water hole… or perhaps something completely different.  The fourth looks to me like leaves covering a forest floor, but again, I assume that’s just me and not at all what the piece means to the artist herself.
        The fifth piece definitely looks like trees and shrubs to me, and I think it would make a lovely fabric design, made into a repeating pattern.  I find it interesting that I don’t see in it any sign of animals, footprints, trails, etc.  Also, it looks to me as if the lines on the larger trees may have been carved by holding the gouge upside-down so that it scratches the wood with its two edges instead of scooping out a single wider trail.  The smaller shrubs, however, are carved with single lines.
        And the final two pieces are more different.  Number six is the only one showing a scene with a more Western-art kind of composition: mountains in the background, shelters with a bit of perspective, people going about their business.  I like the people, especially what I’m guessing is their curly hair depicted with halos of tiny dots.  The fire, too, or its smoke, is depicted with dots rather than lines.  
And the seventh piece is again abstract to me.  I particularly like the variety of lines: thicker white lines, trails of little dots, tight zig-zags, and more.
        While these don’t have the bright or earthy colors so often associated with Aboriginal art, they do still have the wonderful texture and sense of repeated patterns.  I find them a very interesting variety from most of the block prints I feature here.




[Pictures: Individually untitled wood block prints from Utopia Suite, portfolio of woodcuts by

Lyndsay Bird Mpetyane, Mavis Petyarre,

June Bird, Nora Petyarre,

Kwementyay (Gladdy) Kemarre,

Anna Petyarre, Gloria Tamerr Petyarre  (All images from AGSA).]

February 9, 2021

Spiral Staircases

         I love spiral staircases, and of course I’m not alone in this.  There’s something about spiral staircases that’s special: they’re more mysterious, more sinuous, more evocative of castles and libraries and secret spaces.  I’ve had it in my mind for some time to do a print of one, and a year ago I began a mini block to work on during a workshop.  But I never get very much done during the actual workshop, and I think I may have messed something up through not being fully focussed on my own block at the time, and then I even misplaced the little block for a while until various things got put away properly… and the end result is that I haven’t finished the block and am not sure that I ever will.  So let’s have a look at some artists who were more successful in completing images of spiral staircases!
        These four pieces have the full variety of viewpoint: one from the top looking down, one from the bottom looking up, one from the base looking straight on, and one from the middle.  
They also represent a variety of block print techniques: the first is a multi-color multi-block print, the fourth is a 3 (or 4?) color reduction print, and the other two are printed from single black blocks.  On the other hand, I don’t have as wide a diversity of dates represented, and oddly (or at least it seems odd to me) these stairs are all fairly modern.  Well, the pierced wrought iron treads are certainly Victorian in flavor, but even that seems pretty modern when there are so many iconic spiral staircases from the medieval and renaissance eras that could have been featured.  And my first two here are even more modernist in flavor, celebrating the sleek curves of the early twentieth century’s attempts to be new and dynamic.
        So where are all the block prints of ancient spiral staircases?  Well, to be fair, the same features that give medieval spiral staircases their air of romance and mystery make them extremely difficult to depict.  They are narrow, enclosed, dim, and disappearing quickly around the curves both above and below, so that you can actually see only a tiny bit at a time.  I imagine it must be pretty tough to capture any of that in a single image.  At any rate, I didn’t even try.  My mini block attempts to show a carved wooden library-style staircase that is open all around.  That’s much simpler (and yet still I think I messed something up!)  But even if these block printed examples don’t show the full range of what makes spiral staircases so wonderful, I hope you enjoy them anyway.
        This just in: On an unrelated topic, I do have a cool opportunity for everyone who’s interested in hearing me do a reading.  This upcoming Saturday, Broad Universe is holding one of our signature Rapid Fire Readings: ten authors in an hour, about five minutes each, giving a whirlwind sampling of excerpts from works of sci fi, fantasy, and horror.  (Don’t worry, they never read any truly graphic parts from the horror.)  Most of our readings take place at conventions, but with everything virtual these days you have a rare opportunity to join us without attending a con.  This Saturday at 9:30 pm (US Eastern time zone) you can join us for free.  You do have to sign up in advance, and you can visit the Broad Universe web site to find the list of Saturday’s authors, as well as the link to register.  You just might discover your new favorite author!



[Pictures: Spiral Staircase, color linocut by Cyril Power, c 1929 (Image from The British Museum);

Littauer Center Staircase (Harvard University), wood engraving by Thomas Willoughby Nason, 1949 (Image from 1st Dibs);

from Landschaften und Stimmungen (Landscapes and Moods) by Frans Masereel, 1929 (Image from The Met);

Spiral Stairs, Aldeburgh Beach, linocut by Graham Spice (Image from Graham Spice Artist);

Block in progress by AEGN, photo 2021.]

February 3, 2021

Upcoming On-Line Events

         For the past eight years I have been attending a couple of sci-fi/fantasy conventions each year to exhibit in their art shows, run printmaking workshops, do readings from my books, and participate on a wonderful variety of panels about art and writing and fantasy.  Like everything else in the past year, business has not been as usual for conventions, and they’ve all had to move on-line.  This is a steep learning curve for everyone, and on the whole I’ve been pretty impressed with how hard everyone has worked to come up with some semblance of all the usual activities.  Sadly, there is no way that virtual can really capture the buzz and engagement of an in-person event, but I have tried to look for the silver lining: if everything’s on-line anyway, there’s nothing stopping me from attending conventions all over the country.  So, what am I up to this winter?

November 20-22: Philcon (based outside of Philadelphia)

        Art Show

        Art Demo

        Broad Universe group reading

January 15-18: Arisia (based in Boston)

        Art Show

        Reading

        Broad Universe group reading

        Panel: Mining History’s Neglected Corners

        Panel: Pets and Writers

February 4-7: Capricon (based in Chicago)

        Speculative Poetry Group Reading
        Panel: The Economics of Art

        Panel: Twists, Reveals, and Red Herrings in Fiction

        Art Demo

        Presentation: The Fantastic Bestiary

        Reading from On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination

February 12-14: Boskone (based in Boston)

        Art Show

        Panel: Uncommon Creatures from Fairy Tales

        Mythic Poetry Group Reading

        Panel: Libraries and Archives in Speculative Fiction

        Panel: The Illustrated Book

        Panel: Creating Picture Books for Children

        Broad Universe group reading - In a rare opportunity, everyone can attend this reading for free without attending Boskone!  Details and pre-registration here!


        As you can see, that’s two down and two to go for me (plus, there may be another in May, but that’s not confirmed yet).  For the two that are coming up in the next two weeks, you might want to consider registering.  Whether your interests are books or movies, art or writing, high fantasy, urban horror, Marvel superheroes, hard science, or anime, there’s likely to be something on the schedule that will interest you — and the barrier to attendance is extremely low this year.  Conventions are lower cost than usual (or even the option of registering for free) and you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home to hear amazing writers, artists, and experts in their various fields as they bounce ideas around and discuss a wide variety of topics.  (Admittedly, not as wide a variety of topics as usual.  All of these cons have had to offer streamlined schedules this year, due to the logistics of virtual time and space.)  
        As for me, I’ve had to learn Discord, create a custom backdrop and picture-easel-system for Zoom, devise methods of using the cameras on my husband’s old tablet and my daughter’s old laptop as well as my desktop computer, and I’ll be learning Grenadine for Boskone coming up.  No doubt it’s good for me to gain some familiarity with all these systems (and I’ve certainly appreciated the tech support from my son!)  It’s true that from a sales perspective this virtual stuff just doesn’t cut it, and I don’t expect my art business to rejoin the land of the living until we are once again able to hold in-person shows and sales.  Nevertheless, it’s been a lot of fun participating in these opportunities to explore interesting stuff with interesting people and make some connections, and I’m very much looking forward to the upcoming panels, readings, and more.  See you there!