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).]