November 29, 2021

Words of the Month - Caroling in a Cape?

         Do you prefer your carols a capella, or accompanied?  A carol has been a joyful song since about 1300, although it was also a circle dance, and may in the depths of its Greek etymology have involved accompaniment by a flute.  A capella has a much more interesting etymology.  It means literally, from Italian, “in the style of the chapel,” which may seem a little odd as most church music nowadays is accompanied by at least an organ, if not a full electronic “praise band.”  The phrase refers to older church music - sixteenth century and before - when much of the music was indeed unaccompanied chants.  Oddly, however, it didn’t enter English until the latter half of the nineteenth century, by which time it was already badly out of date to imply that unaccompanied vocals were in the style of church music.
        But let’s go back even further, to the etymology of capella and English chapel, which come from the same root.  A chapel is a place of worship smaller than a full church, and the word literally means “little cape.”  One theory is that this refers to the cloth laid over the altar during service, but a far more interesting theory is the traditional one: that the first “chapel” was the sanctuary in which the cape of St Martin of Tours was preserved as a relic.  (St Martin cut his cloak in half to give part to a beggar, and later dreamt that Jesus was wearing it.  But the relic is the half of the cloak that he kept.)
        In addition, the older traditional carols often include syntax, grammar, and vocabulary that don’t show up any more in the rest of our modern speech.  These unfamiliar words and phrases can lead to Mondegreens, like the four calling birds sung about at this time of year (prior post on Mondegreens here).  Some other phrases you may not hear much of outside of Christmas carols include:
skies - an archaic past tense of cleave, cloven means “split,” which makes the arrival of the angels very dramatic (but perhaps less fragrant-smelling, if you thought this had to do with cloves)
    gladsome tidings - meaning “making or causing to be glad,” -some is a suffix that is no longer productive in English, although you can still see it in a fair number of words including quarrelsome, meddlesome, cumbersome, troublesome, wearisome, and worrisome.
    bring him laud - We still use laud as a verb meaning “to praise,” and in the adjective laudatory, but it is no longer seen as a noun (meaning “praise, glory”) except in the carol.
    give ye heed - Nowadays we would say “you” instead of ye - except that in modern syntax we wouldn’t say the pronoun at all, but would rather use the imperative construction “give heed,” or more likely simply “heed”…  or even more likely, “Listen!”
    veiled in flesh the Godhead see - Between the syntax, the vocabulary, and the theology, this one is pretty dense to modern ears, though quite poetic, really.  The -head in Godhead is from the same root that developed in parallel into -hood, the form that is still productive today.  (Prior post on productive and unproductive suffixes here.)
        Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, whether you sing carols or not, such traditions are a vital way to keep some older forms of the language from disappearing entirely, which I think is always fun to see.

[Pictures: A Christmas Carol, woodcut by J.A. Duncan, 1899 (Image from Graham’s Antiques);

Saint Martin on Horseback, woodcut by Hans Baldung, early 16th century (Image from The Met);

The Angels, illustration from A Book of Christmas Verse Selected By H.C. Beeching, 1895 (Image from the British Library).]

November 24, 2021

Give Thanks

         Tomorrow I will be celebrating Thanksgiving, and it is a good time to share a brand-new project that I think has a lot to do with gratitude.  Despite the complicated history of the origins of Thanksgiving, despite the fact that the national myth of The First Thanksgiving has been badly skewed, despite the fact that some people may feel they have little to be thankful for in the arrival of new people on these shores 400 years ago, I persist in my belief that it is a good thing to celebrate gratitude.  I am grateful for my home, which is on such beautiful land of the Pawtucket people — and of me and my family.  I am grateful for that family, and I am grateful for the people I don’t know or love so well, who still are part of the fabric of my community, and who love their own homes and their own families.  I’m grateful for the people who produce and sell me food and art supplies and books and all the other things - both necessary and merely delightful - that make my life so good.  I’m grateful for the people who buy my art and books (or even just say nice things about them!) so that I feel supported and encouraged in doing this thing I love.
        One of those people is a friend who last week saw the sketch of a block I’ve just started working on.  She said that I should make the design into a coloring page, and we could share it with anyone who needs a little reminder, in these times of fear and hatred and anxiety, that each day we can make the choice to try to live in a whole different mode altogether.  So that’s what I’ve done!
        Feel free to download this coloring page HERE and color it as beautiful or eye-catching or cheerful or soothing as you desire!  Print lots of copies and bring them with you to your Thanksgiving get-together, and let everyone in the family color as you wait for the turkey to come out of the oven!  Send the colored pages to family and friends who couldn’t be with you, or drop them in your neighbors’ mailboxes; share this link with everyone you know… and then do it: try to fill your day with love in every way you can, whether that’s forgiving someone who hurts your feelings, or realizing that you might be hurting someone else, or being kind to the people in the shops (especially if you actually go out shopping during the crazy post-Thanksgiving shopping rush when people tend to get a little harried and cranky!)  Reach out to someone you’ve lost touch with, send a note of gratitude to someone who is important in your life, smile at everyone you pass when you’re out for a walk - and don’t be swayed by anyone who’s trying to fill your day with hatred.  Just try your very best to love them anyway, even while firmly not allowing them to do their hateful things.  Even you being just one person doing this will absolutely make a difference, and if we all do it, it will a change the world.
        Okay, that turned into a bit more of a sermon than I was intending.  In fact, all I really wanted to say was that I am full of gratitude.  My art and my writing tend to be the parts of my gratitude that overflow and spill out so much that I want to share them with everyone, which is what I wanted to do with this coloring page today.  If you want to share it, too, that would make me very happy.  And if you want to share your colored masterpieces back with me and with the wider world, I would love to post a gallery of them all!  So snap a picture of coloring in progress and/or the finished piece, and email it to me.  (Rather than post my email here, I’ll direct you to go to my web site, go to the bottom right-hand corner, and smash that “Contact Me” link.)
          As for the block for which this was just the design, I started carving a bit at a demo last weekend, but I am exercising incredible restraint in saving it to carve during upcoming shows.  In due course, when the block is actually finished and printed, I will be sure to let you know.  Also, if you want some additional coloring pages of my designs, you can find a collection here: Stay-at-Home Activities 1.
        Happy Thanksgiving and love to all!

[Pictures: Fill This Day coloring page, by AEGN, 2021;

All in this Together, rubber block print by AEGN.]

November 19, 2021

Observing the Moon

         In honor of last night’s lunar eclipse, I have for you today a collection of prints depicting the moon.  I begin with a diagram from 1540 that actually depicts an eclipsed moon in the shadow of the earth.  It doesn’t show us the weird rusty color, but I do like the way the moon’s face is in negative from the moon in its full light.  This wood block print was carefully hand colored, as part of one of the most lavish scientific works of the renaissance.
        The moon, of course, is one of the things that all humans have in common, so it’s no surprise that I was able to find beautiful depictions of the moon from all around the world.  Next up is a Japanese view with plum blossoms, which means it’s not an autumn 
moon, but I love it so much I had to share.  I particularly like how the great expanse of night sky that fills most of the composition is not really flat and empty.  You can see the wonderful wood grain in it.
        Travelling back in both space and time to renaissance Europe (about 150 years later than the first piece, however), we get a wonderful view of men observing the moon.  One points up at it, seeing something of significance or wonder.  This delightfully bold wood block print comes from a Hebrew prayer book, so I can’t read the 17th century Hebrew to know what the illustration has to do with the text.  It has a nicely stylized face in the crescent, and also demonstrates a characteristic of early wood block prints that is at once a ridiculous waste of the medium and endearingly backwards.  That is, the stars are black.  In a medium that does nothing better than black backgrounds with white shapes carved into them, a medium 
perfect for just such a scene as a night sky with glowing moon and stars, the renaissance 
artists stubbornly and obtusely insist on making their prints copy a drawing in black ink on white paper, even though it’s both far more work and far less attractive to put black stars on a striped sky.
        So I shrug and move on to some modern depictions of the moon.  This is a silkscreen rather than a relief block print, but I include it anyway because I love the compare-and-contrast with the other depictions.  Even though it comes from the traditional imagery of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation of the Pacific Northwest Coast, it shares with European moons the image of a human face.  I love the eyes that may be 
closed, but perhaps are simply looking downward, as the moon does.  Either way, it is serene, yet still with a strong sense of motion in all the curving shapes.
        And finally, another piece that could perhaps be a depiction of an actual eclipse, although the moon on the far side of Earth from the sun is not wholly shadowed.  This is made as a reduction print, and has wonderful colors as the fiery sun shades into a black sky.
        Were you able to observe the eclipse last night?   There was nothing to see here, as it was completely overcast, but I’ve been lucky enough to see a lunar eclipse once before, so I wasn’t too disappointed.  And the block prints are always there, rain or shine!

[Pictures: Diagram of lunar eclipse, hand colored wood block print from Astronomicum Caesareum by Petrus Apianus, 1540 (Image from Met Museum);

Moon over White Plum, color wood block print by Ohara Koson, c 1910 (Image from Hara Shobo);

Woodcut from Birkat ham-mazon, 1669 (Image from Bayerische Staatsbibliothek);

4 Phases of the Moon, silkscreen by Francis Dick, 2012 (Image from Cedar Hill Long House);

Sun Moon Earth, reduction linocut by Kylie Dally (Image from Etsy shop PotionsPress).]

November 15, 2021

Bite-Sized Writing

         This post is about writing process - and lack of writing process.  For the past several years I’ve had two novels “in progress,” except that they are really getting no progress at all.  It’s not that I’m not excited about them, and it’s not that I don’t have any ideas for them… It’s just that every time I sit down to write it seemed like nothing was going anywhere.  This has been deeply, painfully, infuriatingly frustrating.  But I was still doing plenty of block prints, thank goodness, and that got me off on the tangent of writing On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, which is not a novel but a whole collection of individual pieces for individual beasts.  That came out two years ago, and not long after it was finished covid struck, and I felt like that should have been perfect for writing… Plenty of time at home, all my outside activities cancelled, just peace and quiet at my desk…  But I still couldn’t seem to focus on those novels.  And then this summer I finally made a breakthrough: short stories.  Taking a small idea and writing a bite-sized story about it is actually manageable, and since the summer I’ve written seven new short stories, and it feels SO GOOD to be writing!
        I’ve been a bit rusty at figuring out how much plot a short story needs, and how to dive in with the right level of detail, since I’d been writing long form for so many years, but I think I’m finding my way back into the hang of it.  Now that I’m focussing on these short stories, I’ve found my creativity popping, and when I sit down to write I can actually get stuff down and feel like it’s going somewhere, and I can actually finish these small projects.  So I’ve diagnosed my issue as stress, which may be glaringly obvious, but I hadn’t given it credit for just how badly it was interfering with my ability to persevere on large projects.  Covid sure as heck didn’t help, but this started before covid, with the stress of politics, environmental disaster, escalating violence, and all the rest of the panic-inducing news bombarding us.  However, these bite-sized projects are something I can handle: a single image, sketched, carved, printed; a single mythical creature, imagined with just a little twist; a single scenario, followed just a little way to see what happens next; a single character with an interesting perspective, given a little push; a single observation, clarified and polished into a poem...
        If you’ve been having trouble with writing or creativity, I encourage you to give yourself permission to take smaller bites.  Scientific studies demonstrate that stress is actually the enemy of creativity, so if you’re feeling like you’re struggling right now, it’s not your fault.  (More here, at the beginning of the summer.)  Just take a deep breath, take one little fleeting idea, and try playing with it for a while.  Here are the stories I’ve written in the past five months or so

   - sci fi about a loner pilot encountering an alien mycorrhizal network

   - folktale-fantasy about a trickster

   - sci fi mash-up between “Hope is the thing with feathers” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”

   - fantasy about a unicorn maiden whose job is to sit in a glade and tame unicorns

   - fantasy about Pandora opening the jar, seen from an unusual character’s view

   - fantasy about Rumpelstiltskin set in an early-industrial-revolution mill

        I’ve been submitting stories to various speculative fiction magazines, and collecting plenty of rejections, and only one acceptance so far: for a very short, humorous, sweet story set in a Lovecraftian town.  It's scheduled to be published in February.  In the meantime, I’ve got three more short stories with a few paragraphs jotted down, and several poems I’ve been working on.  I’ve got one block about half-way carved and another sketch ready to transfer to rubber.  (I’m saving these to work on during upcoming art shows.)  And I’m just enormously grateful to be working and finding satisfaction in actually being able to create things.  More than ever I’ve been trying to incorporate messages of joy and hope into my work, because clearly we all need as much of this as possible these days.  I know I do!

[Picture: Beyond the Thorns, rubber block print (two blocks) by AEGN, 2017.]

November 10, 2021

Woodcut in the Digital Age

         Christiane Baumgartner (Germany, b. 1967) has been a recent star in the world of printmaking, for her huge woodcuts that reproduce digital images.  Her usual technique is to take found photographs or stills from video, often from television footage, in all their graininess, distortion, and “noise,” convert to black and white, blow the images up to monumental sizes, and then carve them as wood block prints.  This first image, from a photograph of military cargo planes, is made into a print 14 feet long, which took ten months to carve.  Obviously we aren’t getting the real impact of the piece by seeing it small on a screen, which turns the huge, hand-carved woodcut back into the little photograph with which it began.
        Baumgartner says she’s interested in the juxtaposition between the oldest and the newest methods of reproduction, the laborious handmade with the instantly technological.  She also works a lot with series, which is related to turning video back into still images.  Here are a couple of pieces from a series of 6, which, although still larger than most of my own block prints, are a size more manageable to look at on a computer screen.  (Click on it to see it bigger.)  You can see how her carving is entirely horizontal lines, with the image formed by the relative widths of black and white.  This connects the piece physically with the technology of digital images made up of all their little rows of pixels.
        It would not be accurate to say that I like Baumgartner’s work, but I certainly find it interesting.  I can imagining making a piece or two experimenting with these ideas, but then I would get bored!  She does make extremely small editions of each piece, which is entirely understandable for the big ones, which must be quite a job to print.  I can admire the craftsmanship - not to mention patience and persistence - required for these pieces.  And I’d certainly be interested to see some of Baumgartner’s pieces in real life.  Seeing them in person would be a very different experience, where the handmade quality would be more visible.  I can imagine that I might really like them in person, but it’s harder for me to get excited about the images as they appear on my computer screen.  What do you think of this idea of reproducing video and photography in this way?

[Pictures: Transnall, woodcut by Christiane Baumgartner, 2002;

Pink Moon 2 and 5, woodcuts by Baumgartner, 2019;

Nordlicht 1 (from a series of 4), woodcut by Baumgartner, 2018 (All images from]

November 5, 2021

Guess That Medieval Beast 9

         It’s been quite a while since our last round of Guess That Medieval Beast, so I’ll just remind you that if you’d like to start at the beginning and test yourself with the earlier rounds, go to the Labels list in the sidebar and click on “game,” which is down near the bottom of the list.
        And now, without further ado, our Round 9 Mystery Creature!  This creature appears in a copy of Der naturen bloeme from about 1350, one of those works that is just beginning the transition from medieval bestiary to renaissance encyclopedia.  To describe this thing is perfectly straightforward: it’s a fish with hands.  It seems to be using its hands to reach its big, toothy mouth, but that’s about all the picture tells us, although it does have very nicely detailed gills, scales, and fins, and an attractive coloration.  Go ahead and make your guess: what sort of creature is this?

November 1, 2021

Alcorn's Birds (and Frog)

         Stephen Alcorn (USA) has a distinctive style of printmaking that looks like a lot of fun to do — and is also a lot of fun to look at.  I’ve picked four creatures that show off the characteristics of Alcorn’s style that I like best.  First is this duck, whose feathers show a delightful mix of patterns.  They blend an accuracy of observation with a creativity of expression.  Then there’s that wonderfully embellished background, which could possibly represent some sort of trees or bushes in the background, but is really just an excuse to fill the space with a delightfully baroque pattern.  Combined with the ground that looks almost expressionistic or even cubist, and you have a piece that should be a mere mish-mash, but instead somehow works together.
        The next bird includes all these same traits: wonderfully stylized patterns for the feathers, renaissance-style embellishments in the sky, and early modern-style ground.  In addition, however, it adds two more characteristics to the mix.  One is the use of two blocks for a chiaroscuro effect.  (Find a refresher on chiaroscuro block prints here.)  Consistent with my general prejudices, I’m not sure it adds all that much to the image of the vulture, which I think I would like just as well (or better?) in plain black and white.  However, I do really like the grey border.  The border has a wonderful design, and the second color sets off the main image beautifully.  (Indeed, this is exactly the look I was going for in the illustrations for my book On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.)
        The frog is a delightful creature, although I might wish he had more white!  I love the patterning in the background, as well as the border.  Alcorn uses an interesting technique to make the backgrounds lighter than the creatures: cutting fine lines across the entire design.  I do like the effect, although I tried it once myself and did not consider it a success.  This may be one of those things that just works better in the harder mediums such as lino and wood than the soft rubber, in which it is difficult to make very fine parallel lines.  Interestingly, each side of this border has a different design, but I like them all.  I also like the fine, all-over texture of the ground beneath the frog.
        The final bird is back to black and white, and its border is not patterned, but otherwise you can still see Alcorn’s characteristic style.  The owl is perhaps even more stylized than some of the others, so that it has almost a folk art vibe, especially in the slightly floral look to the pattern on the shoulder, for example.  All of these pieces are actually fairly large for block prints, so I’d love to see them in real life - I think they would have a lot of dramatic impact.

[Pictures: Mother Duck, With Her Ducklings, relief block print by Stephen Alcorn, 1987;

The Vulture, relief block print with two colors by Alcorn, 1988;

Kiss Me - I’m Really a Prince! relief block print with two colors by Alcorn, 1987;

The Great Owl, relief block print by Alcorn, 1988  (All images from The Alcorn Studio & Gallery).]