September 29, 2021

Words of the Month - Metaphors in the Brain

         In neurolinguistic circles there is a great deal of curiosity and debate as to how the brain interprets and understands metaphors.  Metaphors, of course, involve comparison between objects and concepts, but they do so by treating the primary object as if it is the object of comparison.  She’s a little mouse.  Love is a roller-coaster.  His job is a train wreck.  I’ve got a boatload of work.
        The first question is often to debate how literally the brain interprets these metaphors.  Do we simply memorize their meanings like idioms, or do we interpret them anew each time?  A number of recent studies have shown that when someone hears a metaphor involving a physical action (He tends to bend the rules) the parts of the brain involved in the physical action do get involved, just as when hearing a literal sentence with the same word (He tends to bend the wires) — but not the same as hearing a sentence with the literal meaning instead of the metaphor (He tends to alter the rules.)  Similarly, a metaphor involving a sensory concept (She’s so sweet) activates areas of the brain involved in literal sensory sentences (The cupcake is so sweet), but not the same as the literal meaning (She’s so loving.)
        We use metaphors so ubiquitously that we often don’t even notice much of our own figurative language.  I’ve got a bright future ahead of me.  The future is here given both the visual metaphor of light and the spatial metaphor of being physically in front of a physical human.  The temperature’s falling.  We have mapped temperature onto a spatial framework: hotter temperatures call for larger numbers, and larger numbers are described as being physically higher in space.  We simply cannot understand or communicate our world without metaphor.  On the other hand, if we aren’t even aware of the figurative nature of language, is our brain still processing that language the same way, or has the once-figurative simply acquired a new meaning?  I haven’t seen any studies specifically on this.  That said, there are studies showing that the brain is most active in processing novel, meaningful metaphors, and that by the time a metaphor is so well known that it becomes a cliché or idiom, the brain uses less and less time, less effort, and less varied areas to process it.
        The areas of the brain used in making up new metaphors are all those same areas involved in all kinds of creativity: the areas that allow unusual combinations of ideas to jumble up together, as well as the areas that oversee which of those unusual combinations are actually meaningful.  In some sense metaphors are creativity and creativity is metaphors.  So, our brains are brimming over with metaphors - we can hardly think any nuanced thoughts at all without them, and to me this is absolutely beautiful.  I love the idea that our brains are looking for those connections all the time.  It’s also true that our brains love a meaty metaphor, which probably explains some of the magic of poetry, art, and speculative fiction: all media that often ask us to consider old things in new ways.  It turns out that a good, fresh metaphor literally makes your brain metaphorically light up!

“A noble metaphor, when it is placed to an advantage, casts a kind of glory round it, and darts a luster through a whole sentence.” (Joseph Addison, The Spectator, 1712)

“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.”  (Orson Scott Card)

“Cover the walls with mirrors of metaphor --

Silver and glass unmixed in space but fused in time.” (Anne E.G. Nydam)

On the other hand, apparently not everyone loves metaphors - "Had we but an Act of Parliament to abridge Preachers the use of fulsom and luscious Metaphors, it might perhaps be an effectual Cure of all our present Distempers." (Samuel Parker, 1671 - see a little more here)

[Pictures: Detail from an illustration by AEGN for Periodic Table of Alien Species by Miguel O. Mitchell, 2021.]

September 24, 2021

Howard Cook's NYC

         I featured a couple of pieces by Howard Norton Cook (USA, 1901-1980) back in 2017, but it’s time for a few more.  Born in Massachusetts, living in New Mexico, and fond of travel, Cook was inspired by the scenes he saw around the world, in cities, landscapes, and small towns.  He worked in a variety of printmaking techniques, but of course I’m only sharing his relief block prints.  Today I’m also sharing only a variety of views from New York City.
        One of Cook’s trademarks is his dramatic viewpoints, which are on full display here.  This view of Manhattan Bridge looks up along one massive pier, leaving the viewer dwarfed by the engineering.  Even the ship passing under the bridge looks small in comparison.
        The scene of the ocean liner Bremen is also an unusual view with, once again, an emphasis on the engineering.  Rather than seeing the entirety of the ship from the side, or a view of the luxurious decks or amenities for passengers, Cook has chosen to look along a 
narrow deck, with the hangers for the lifeboats along one side, and the vents and chimneys on the other.  It becomes almost abstract with its bold geometric shapes.
        A much simpler, more graphic black and white design is evident in Cook’s wood block print of the Christopher Street Station on the 6th Avenue El.  There are strong shadows, and areas of black meld together in the dark.  I like the way not every detail is outlined or indicated.  The artist trusts the viewer’s eye to interpret what it sees.  Cook recorded later that he enjoyed taking the El and preferred it to the subway, and I think you can feel affection in this piece.  There’s something a little whimsical about it that seems to me to reflect Cook’s feeling, “I always liked watching familiar aspects of the city passing briskly by.”
        Finally, another dramatic piece, with bright lights shining on the rain-slicked pavement on  a dark night.  The building shown here was the Weyhe Gallery, which was a center for printmaking in the 1920s and 30s.  Cook made this piece as a holiday greeting card commissioned by the gallery.  In addition to the dramatic lighting, dramatic skyscrapers tower up at odd angles into the sky behind.  The architecture of the neighboring buildings is suggested with just a few delicate lines, while Cook has added lots of fun details to the depiction of the gallery itself.  An array of artwork is shown in the ground floor window, and an umbrella-less man takes shelter in the doorway.  My favorite touch is the cat silhouetted in the upper window.

[Pictures: Manhattan Bridge, woodcut by Howard Norton Cook, 1930;

The Bremen, wood engraving by Cook, 1931;

Christopher Street, woodcut by Cook, 1928;

Greetings from the House of Weyhe, linoleum cut by Cook, 1099 (All images from The Old Print Shop).]

September 20, 2021

Show Report

         It’s been a long time since I’ve had a show report here in the blog.  On December 14, 2019 I was at the Winter Arts Festival in Needham Town Hall, and that was the last proper in-person show where I sat with my display of all my various goods and met with visitors, until this Saturday.  There have been a few other things in between that came close -- in-person art shows at conventions in January and February 2020, and the in-person sale on June 12, 2021 where I had a table -- but this was the first “normal” show in 1.75 years.  Of course, there were still a few things that were different.  For one thing, it was outdoors.  I hate outdoor shows.  If it rains it’s a disaster, if it’s windy it’s a disaster, if it’s too hot or too cold it’s not a disaster but still unpleasant… The stress of uncertain weather is just not worth it when there are other options.  But for a year and a half there have been no other options, so I borrowed a tent (Thank you, Dottie Laughlin!) and joined a dozen other Needham Open Studios artists in showing our work in front of Town Hall.  And it turned out to be a wonderful day!
        The weather cooperated, there was plenty of foot traffic, and everyone was delighted to be out and sharing in a cultural community event.  Sales were great, and it underscores once again the importance of seeing art in person and talking with people face to face.  Honestly, I do love on-line shopping -- the comfort and convenience of not leaving home, of being able to look for something whenever I want, the low stress of not having to deal with other humans -- for some things those conveniences can’t be beat.  But for other things that human connection makes all the difference.  (Thank you, Everyone who came by, who said hello, who shared stories, who bought things, and who made up part of the community!)
        Part of my bookkeeping after an event is to update my web site.  I make sure the “Upcoming Events” are current and I remove any sold-out pieces.  But my 15-year-old web building system, which has been glitching out worse and worse for some time now, baulked utterly at this most recent set of changes.  And this necessitated an emergency web site transplant.  Luckily I had been working at building the new web site for a couple of months and it was already just about ready to go.  A few final tweaks, and I hit “Publish”… and nothing happened.  But after about 16 hours, help from my in-house IT (Thank you, D!), some tech support tickets, and some more tweaking, I have a shiny new web site.  Honestly, it’s not much different.  I pretty much just tried to reproduce the old one with the new one, rather than doing any radical redesign, and the address remains the same.  Still, now is as good a time as any to remind everyone that my web site is up-to-the-minute and includes all my currently-available original block prints, information about all of my books, notecards, necklaces and other fun stuff with my designs, and a comprehensive listing of upcoming events including both on-line and in-person events for both art and writing.  Plus there’s information about how I make prints, what workshops and lectures I can present, the Alphabet of Mythical Creatures, and other stuff of possible interest.  Be sure to leave me a comment if you have any ideas of stuff I should include or how it could be improved.
        So, what about the future?  I am currently signed up for two more upcoming in-person holiday sales, but only time will tell what the state of the pandemic will be come December.  I’m not taking anything for granted — except that people will always need art and stories to hold us together and keep us focussed on the important things.  I will be teaching in-person block printmaking classes for both kids and adults in October, and I’ve also got an upcoming on-line author event that you can attend from anywhere in the world.  That’s on October 1, a Strong Women-Strange Worlds First Friday Quick Reads event in which 6 authors each read for no more than 8 minutes, giving the audience a delightfully diverse tasting menu of speculative fiction of all kinds in one convenient hour-long flight of fancy.  I’d tell you which of my books I’ll be sharing, but that would spoil the surprise, which is half the fun of these events!  It’s free, and you can preregister here.  I’d love to see you there!
        I am hopeful that last Saturday’s in-person show was not an island of connection in the ocean of isolation, but was rather a turning of the corner toward knitting our social threads back together.  (I think I may have mixed about three different metaphors there, but put it down to my being overcome with delight at the prospect of a return to in-person shows.)  And if art and story can’t help with that re-knitting of connection, then nothing can.

[Pictures: Needham Open Studios Inside-Out - my tent, me carving a block, my tent along with my neighbors, photos by AEGN and MJPG;

Strong Women-Strange Worlds October 1 Quick Reads.]

September 15, 2021

Flightless Birds

         We just had some block prints of birds printed in three dimensions so that they could soar (or at least dangle) in the air.  Today we have a selection of flightless birds.  Spanning more than 4 centuries and a range of styles, what these birds have in common is that they aren’t your typical fluttering flyers.
        We begin with the ostrich, and this wonderfully floofy example comes from the mid-sixteenth century, from Conrad Gesner’s Historia animalium.  I love how the feathers are a big pompom, going in every direction and with no indication of wings at all.  A fun detail for those interested in the science is that this ostrich appears to have external ears.  A fun detail for those interested in the printmaking is that the tail feathers are a little crushed down at their tips in order to fit them onto the wood block.
        The ostrich and the emu have traded in flight in favor of running.  The emu hails from Australia, as does this depiction of it.  Emus' feathers are not as fluffy as ostriches’ (which was probably lucky for them, as they didn’t get put on hats), but otherwise the two birds are everyone’s favorite example of convergent evolution.  My favorite thing about this piece by Gladys Reynell is the two little emu chicks scurrying along with their attractive stripes.
        The penguin, by contrast, has traded in flight in favor of swimming, and this piece by Rick Allen is a great evocation of the penguin’s streamlined athleticism when underwater.  I love the texture of the swoosh and the bubbles.
        As for the dodo and the kiwi, they traded in flight for having no predators, which was great, until the predators showed up.  We all know the sad fate of the dodo, but this linocut is not sad at all.  It’s a bright, cheerful, fun bird, with bright, cheerful, fun feathers in a variety of patterns and colors.  It looks like Richard Bawden used three blocks in making this print: the background, the leaves, and the bird.  The background and bird were then each inked with multiple colors on a single block.
        We end with one of my favorite artists depicting one of my favorite birds.  Jacques Hnizdovsky has perhaps made his kiwi a bit too tidy - Hnizdovsky does incredibly controlled, geometrically precise prints, while kiwis tend to be a bit like messy mops - but he has captured beautifully the kiwi’s benevolent expression 
and magnificent whiskers.
        Sure, we humans tend to idolize and long for flight, but as far as these birds are concerned, who needs it?

[Pictures: De Struthocamelo, wood block print from Historia animalium by Conrad Gesner, c 1555 (Image from Smithsonian Magazine);

Diving Penguin, wood engraving by Rick Allen (Image from Kenspeckle Letterpress);

Emu, linocut by Gladys Reynell, early 20th century (Image from Art Gallery New South Wales);

Dodo, linocut by Richard Bawden (Image from Bankside Gallery);

Kiwi, woodcut by Jacques Hnizdovsky, 1975 (Image from WorthPoint).]

September 10, 2021

The Sci Fi Adventures of Alexander the Great

         I know of Alexander the Great as a Macedonian king from the third century BCE, who spent his life on military campaigns, conquering enough people to amass one of the largest empires in history.  But apparently he was actually far more interesting than that.  Apparently he was involved in all manner of fantasy and science fiction exploits.  Alexander himself encouraged legends about his prowess, including the episode in Cilicia in which the sea itself drew back in respect and adoration of him.  After his death, ever more 
interesting episodes of his life were discovered and written in numerous versions of the Alexander Romance, which was wildly popular from the 3rd through 16th centuries CE, in the literature of Europe, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Persia, Ethiopia, and more.
        Among Alexander’s fantastical adventures are encounters with the usual giant wild men, beasts with 5 or 6 eyes and feet, headless men with their faces on their chests, dragons, three-horned beasts, a roc, and lobsters as big as ships.  He also discovered fish that cooked themselves in cold water, and birds that emitted fire when touched, among other wonders.  Pretty much everything he encountered, he battled, because that’s his thing.  However, he also participated in a couple of cool sci fi adventures that were very popular in the medieval era.
        After pursuing the giant lobster/crab, and discovering a number of magnificent pearls, Alexander decides to explore the depths of the ocean.  He has a large barrel made of glass, and in it he is lowered on chains to the ocean floor.  He takes with him an astrologer for guidance, lamps to see with, a cock to tell the time, and a cat to function (for some reason that no one can satisfactorily explain) as an air purifying device.  The bottom of the barrel has a hatch so that Alexander 
can collect any pearls or other 
treasures he might find on the sea bed.  In one version of the tale, the barrel is swallowed by a giant fish which then drags around the four ships at the tops of the chains until eventually it spits up the barrel on shore.  (In another version Alexander is shocked - shocked, I tell you! - to discover that big fish eat little fish, and thus the world is damned.  Never mind that he’s built his life on big men slaughtering little people.)  What makes this story sci fi, though, is that while the “scientific” solutions are utterly absurd, the author has, in fact, given some real thought to what would be necessary for a deep-sea dive, including the idea that it would be dark, there would be no way to tell time, and the air in the barrel would need to be purified.
        In another adventure, Alexander decides to discover where the earth ends and the sky slopes down to meet the edge.  He orders his men to catch two (or in some versions, as many as 16!) griffins that were scavenging his army’s dead horses.  He makes a basket or structure large enough to ride in, yokes the griffins to it, and then holds meat on a long pole just out of the griffins’ reach above.  They fly up trying to catch the meat, which of course stays just beyond their reach, so they keep flying up and up, carrying Alexander in his basket with them.  He finds the upper air cold, and meets a winged man who tells him to return to earth, which is now so distant as to appear like a small disc encoiled by a snake, which is the ocean encircling the earth.  So Alexander points the meat-spear down toward the distant disc, and the griffins fly down after it, and he returns once again, exhausted but safe.
        Although simple diving bells were actually known in the ancient world, I never heard that griffin-powered flight had been attempted before Alexander.  As a man who just goes around battling everything he meets, he’s not of any interest to me, but as a man with an enquiring mind, a creative and adventuresome spirit, and the resources both mundane and magical to support his ideas, he becomes much more fun!

[Pictures: Alexander lowered into the sea, illumination of Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, fol.77v, c 1420 (Image from the British Library);

Isfandiyar Slays a Dragon, illumination of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, c 1530 (image from The Met); 

Alexander fighting with dragons, illumination from Roman de Alexandre, fol.21r, 1444-1445 (Image from the British Library);

Battle with a three-horned beast, illumination of Le Livre … Alixandre, fol.51v, c 1420 (Image from the British Library);

Alexander is Lowered into the Sea, illumination from a Khamsa of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, 1597-98 (Image from The Met); 

Alexander lowered into the sea, illumination from Romance of Alexander, before 1400 (Image from Bodleian Libraries);

Alexander being lowered into the sea, illumination from Roman de Alexandre, fol.20v, 1444-1445 (Image from the British Library);

Alexander carried aloft by griffins, illumination of Le Livre … Alixandre, p76v, c 1420 (Image from the British Library);

Alexander traveling in the air, relief from San Marco Basilica, Venice, probably 10th or 11th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Alexander being carried up by griffins, illumination from Roman de Alexandre, fol.20v, 1444-1445 (Image from the British Library).]

September 7, 2021

Farmer's Birds

         Here’s a fun and interesting use of relief printing!  Bridget Farmer (UK/Australia) makes little three-dimensional models of birds by printing on cut plywood.  Each bird has two pieces, and each piece has two sides, so the bird is depicted from all directions.  Most are printed in multiple colors.  They each have a loop on top so that they can be hung to dangle in the air.  Farmer uses linoleum blocks to carve her designs with simplicity but accuracy.  She captures textures, patterns, and colors without losing the look of carving.  For example, I like the marks of carving on the belly of the third bird.
        Farmer primarily does etchings, in a very loose, sketchy style, but always Australian birds.  It’s always interesting to me when someone concentrates so deeply on a single subject.  I love birds — but I love everything else, as well!  It’s also interesting to see how her depiction of a bird is changed depending on her medium, so I’ve included one of her etchings for comparison.  But of course I like her relief-printed bird “mobiles” best.
        This technique got me thinking that I might be able to adapt the idea for my classes.  I’m always looking for new projects, and especially projects with a collaborative element so that kids print multiples to share with each other.  Butterfly designs could be made in a single piece instead of two, folded to give dimensionality, and made into mobiles including all the students’ different designs…  Well, I’ll certainly share it here if I ever do something like that with one of my classes, but in the meantime, I do like Farmer’s birds!

[Pictures: Welcome Swallow, lino printing on plywood by Bridget Farmer;

Striated Pardalote, lino printing on plywood by Farmer, and dry point etching by Farmer;

Superb Fairy Wren, lino printing on plywood by Farmer (All images from Bridget Farmer Printmaker).]

September 1, 2021

Baba Yaga Village

         Baba Yaga is a fascinating magical figure from Slavic mythology.  The easiest description is to say that she’s a witch, and that certainly gets you into the right ballpark, but she has some interesting and unusual features.  Her appearance is witchy enough: an old crone, hideously ugly and ferocious-looking, bony-legged and with a long nose.  Often she is a cannibal or otherwise murderous, and she is the villain of plenty of folktales.  On the other hand, sometimes she functions more as a wise woman or prophetess, offering assistance and advice to questing heroes.  Sometimes she’s ambiguous, or both helpful and harmful in the same story.  In some folktales there are actually three Baba Yagas, sisters, each of whom is more knowledgeable - and fiercer - than the last.
        My favorite thing about Baba Yaga is her wonderfully distinctive house, which is perched atop a pair of chicken legs!  She often has an unusual vehicle, too: a mortar and pestle in which she can fly around, thumping the ground as she goes.  For some time I had wanted to do a block print of the chicken-footed house, which is just such a fun idea.  There were a couple of directions this went in my mind.  First, if there were multiple Baba Yagas, then perhaps their family included not only sisters, but generations.  Perhaps there might be a village of Baba Yagas, grandmothers and granddaughters.  So now I had three Old Baba Yagas, three young Baba Yagas-to-be, and three chicken-legged houses.  These houses, although clearly small, would be more like “cottages” than “huts,” well cared-for and clearly magical.  In designing these I researched the izba, a traditional Slavic wooden cottage, which often has wonderful carved and painted decoration.  I had a lot of fun making the different designs of my three Baba Yaga houses.
        I placed this tiny village in the midst of a dark forest, as befits Baba Yaga’s association with wild nature, and added the deer as a further symbol of their connection with wildlife.  I also gave them plenty of chickens, though.  And finally, I put a firebird above the little village, because magical folks need to stick together.
        The level of delicate carving needed to depict all these fine details was a challenge, and I had to push myself.  On the whole, I’m quite pleased with how it came out.  I also really like how the sky sets off the tops of the trees.  So, no, this does not illustrate any particular fairy tale, and I make no claims of “authenticity.”  Rather, it is my riff on those elements of the Baba Yaga mythology that most appealed to me and sparked my imagination.
        How would you like a house on chicken legs?  It sounds very useful, but I can’t help suspecting that if my house walked around I would have continuous motion sickness!

[It Takes a Flock, rubber block print by AEGN, 2021.]