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).]