July 27, 2022

Words of the Month - Linen for Summer

         You’ve probably seen plenty of advertisements touting linen as the perfect fabric for summer.  Words like “breezy,” “cool,” “airy,” and “breathable,” abound.  But those aren’t the only words associated with this ancient fabric.  Etymologically speaking, you may be surprised by all the words linen has given the English language.
        The world linen itself comes from Old English, but was probably borrowed into even earlier Gothic from Latin.  The Latin scientific name of the flax plant is Linum.  The -en on the end of lin- is the same -en suffix that we see on woolen, wooden, and brazen, and meant “stuff made out of the material.”  You can still see the lin without the -en in linseed oil, from which we also get medical ointment liniment and floor-covering-cum-art-material linoleum, both of which originally included linseed oil as an ingredient.
        Perhaps it isn’t too astonishing that the word linens expanded its definition to refer to the items that were most often made of linen, such as tablecloths and sheets, even though nowadays these household textiles are more likely to be made of cotton or synthetic fibers.  (This is comparable to silverware referring to forks and spoons that are no longer made of silver.)  Linen was also commonly used for underclothes, which is why we now call fancy underwear lingerie.  Of course we got that one by way of French, since mid-nineteenth century English speakers felt that made it sound classier than the crude English word under-linen.
        Another use for linen was lining, since, just like underwear, linen was the fabric you’d prefer to have next to the body rather than wool, velvet, silk, etc.  Linen fabric was also scraped to obtain soft fibers used for dressing wounds, from which we get lint.
        However, the most basic word linen has given us is line, in all its definitions from mathematics to sailing, lineage to limits, queues of people to telephone wires…  All from the fibers of the flax plant.  Line's earliest sense in Old English was a rope or thread, making the connection to the flax fibers obvious.  These strings were used by builders to mark out levels, and by the late fourteenth century the word line came to be applied to those straight marks, as well…  All those other definitions followed from the various uses and connotations of threads and marks, such as boundaries, continuous series of things, and so on.  Imagine not having lines without linen!
        Linen is fairly difficult and expensive to produce, and nowadays it’s not exactly a basic, everyday fabric.  However, the earliest evidence of linen textiles comes from the Republic of Georgia and dates back to about 28,000 BCE; it was the premier fabric of ancient Egypt; it was central to Roman culture; and it got a renewed boost in Europe from Charlemagne in the eighth century CE.  Its full scientific name is actually Linum usitatissiumum, which means “flax most useful.”  All of this makes it clear why a fabric that seems fairly niche today could have been culturally important enough to have given us so many words for so many basic things.

[Pictures: Advertisements for linen dresses, from The Housekeeper, July 1912 (Image from New York Public Library Digital Collections) and from 1956 (Image from VintagePaperHeaven);

Linum usitatissiumum, hand-colored wood block print by Heinricus F├╝llmaurer from De historia stirpium commentaruu insignes by Leonhart Fuchs, 1542 (Image from University of Cambridge Digital Library);

The Linen-Draper, wood block print from The Book of English Trades by C. & J. Rivington, 1827 edition (Image from Internet Archive).]

July 22, 2022

Fairy Tale Flights of Fancy

         Here are two pieces from the large set that were mostly carved during my shows in May.  At that point, however, they still needed touch-ups and tweaking, and got put on the back burner as Life and Other Circumstances intervened.  But I finally got around to completing them, printing, and releasing them into the wild.  So, what have we here?
        These pieces are both illustrations for a fairy tale “The Swan Maiden,” by friend and fellow author Cari Lyn Jones.  As a fairy tale, her story makes use of many of the images, patterns, cadences, and tropes of classic fairy tales, weaving them together into something both timeless and fresh.  This first piece illustrates a passage in which the prince is being carried by the Swan Maiden: “Through the night sky they flew, the stars a blanket above them. Below them rose seven high mountains, which fell into seven deep valleys with seven wide rivers winding through them like silver ribbons. On and on they flew until he saw in the distance a dark hill crowned by a house that shone like fire.”  The image caught my imagination and I loved thinking about that night flight over mountains and rivers.  However, at the same time that this illustration depicts a very specific passage, I also wanted to capture the universality of the dream-like fantasy.  For that reason I have refrained from giving the rider any too-specific details.  Yes, in this story he happens to be the third son of the king, but really, can’t any and all of us imagine the wind on our faces and the feathers beneath our arms as we fly swanback toward adventure through moonlight and magic?
        The technical challenge in this piece was to get the textures and shadings to suggest the moonlit mountains below.  I wanted a variety of textures that would read with a range of value, while still looking like rocky mountains at night.  My first round of carving produced patterns that were a little too regular and mechanical-looking.  I had to go back and add more rough randomness with my tools until it looked a bit more organic.  Yes, I can certainly name artists who could do this far better than I, but since it pushed me a little to get to this point, I’m fairly pleased with it.
        The second piece comes from the end of the tale.  The Swan Maiden had instructed the prince to gather three crow’s eggs from the top of a tree.  When the pair finally reach safety, “she told the prince to open the first egg.  He did as she suggested, and what should he find inside but the most beautiful little castle, made all of gold and silver. He set the palace on the ground and it grew and grew until it covered a whole acre of land.”  From the other eggs came other treasures, but for me nothing beats a good castle!  And again, who doesn’t love the idea of cracking open a tiny egg and finding something magical inside?
        Cari commissioned me to do these illustrations because in addition to the classic feel of her tales, she wants to evoke the feel of those classic fairy tale books.  Many of them include a large full-page illustration for each story, plus a smaller chapter heading or tailpiece for each.  The castle in the egg is therefore a smaller, less detailed piece than the flying scene.  The technical challenge was to get a little shading for dimension on the eggshell, and, of course, to get a decent level of detail in a small piece.  Shading is never my strong suit and I decided against any attempt to add shading on the interior of the eggshell.  I thought it would just distract from the castle.  Plus, I love the way eggshells are so white inside!
        In terms of Cari’s final project, an anthology of her fairy tales and fairy tale retellings, that may yet be a long time coming.  I am hoping to do a few more illustrations for her, although I don’t have anything else in the works just yet.  You can find out more about things from her end at Idyll Dreams & Nonsensical Things.

[Pictures: Night Flight, rubber block print by AEGN, 2022;

Hatching Dreams, rubber block print by AEGN, 2022.

Quotations from The Swan Maiden by Cari Lyn Jones, proof copy.]

July 18, 2022

Prints by Schlangenhausen

         Emma Schlangenhausen (Austria, 1882-1947) is another of those artists active during the artistic ferment of the early twentieth century.  Her wood block prints were influenced by expressionism, art deco, and the Vienna Succession, but I think her style shows plenty of unique personality.  
        This first one is deceptively simple.  It may look rough, but it’s really got a lot going on.  There are tons of details, from the train chugging through the mountains, to the reflections of trees in the water.  There are lots of different sorts of marks making a variety of textures.  There’s also the interesting brown shadow outline along all the black ink.  This is not a separate color of ink or a separate block, but is rather a side effect of 
the black ink.  The ink is either so thick that it seeps, or so acidic that it burns the paper.  
What is not clear to me is whether Schlangenhausen cultivated this effect on purpose, or whether it was an accident.  Did her work look like this when she originally exhibited it, or has it darkened over time?  Either way, though, I like the depth it adds.
        Schlangenhausen portrayed a variety of subjects, although today I have for you only landscapes and people.  This little piece is fairly simple, but I really admire the face and hands.  There’s something about the way she’s stylized them that is dramatic, beautiful, and expressive, even while seeming so easy.  Look, for example, at how the white of the fingers has been carved in two delicate lines each, suggesting the joints, even though the joints are not flexed.
        Another landscape, this one with a particularly dramatic sky.  I’m fascinated by her choices of where to carve away and where to leave black.  I also love the tiny village in the valley, with the river meandering down.
        Today’s final piece is different from the others in several regards: it’s printed with two blocks (black and grey), it’s got very controlled lines rather than rough carviness, and it’s quite stark, with solid colors without textures.  It’s the earliest of Schlangenhausen’s pieces that I’m sharing, and was published in the magazine of the Vienna Secession.
        Schlangenhausen is one of those many artists who isn’t particularly famous, but who nevertheless created a body of unique and beautiful work.  She happened to rub shoulders with some of the more famous artists of her time, but maintained her own path and her own vision.  I think she deserves to be better known.

[Pictures: {Can’t make out the title}, wood block print by Emma Schlangenhausen, first half 20th century;

Die Frau, wood block print by Schlangenhausen, c 1920 (Images from Modern Printmakers);

Sud Tirol - Corvara, , wood block print by Schlangenhausen, undated (Image from National Galleries Scotland);

Die Sehnsucht, wood block print by Schlangenhausen, 1903 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

July 13, 2022

Unusual Modes of Transportation

         Who doesn’t love imagining new and exciting ways to travel?  They may be faster or safer or have a longer range than anything we know today.  They may be more exciting, or involve wonderful companions, or be self-driving or self-directed, or they may be more interesting in any number of ways.  Sci fi and fantasy are full of staples of unusual transportation, from broomsticks, flying carpets, and all manner of winged creatures, to flying cars, space elevators, warp drives, and living spaceships.  But along with these understandably popular recurring motifs, you may also occasionally run into some quirkier ways to travel.  Today I’ve gathered a few block prints depicting some unusual modes of transportation.
        Seven-league boots are known from the fairy tale in which they belong to a giant and are stolen by a little person.  A league equals roughly 3 miles or 4.8 km, so seven leagues would equal about 21 miles or 34 km.  Probably more important, though, is that a league represented the distance a man could walk in an hour, so the seven-league boots allowed you to walk in each step what would normally have taken 7 hours, or a full day’s hike.  Or to think about it another way, you’d be striding along at something like 2,520 mph.  Illustrators often depict this by making the landscape tiny so that one illustrated stride is clearly covering vast distances.  In the little piece above the boots are very large for the person’s feet, and the person is very large compared with the mountain.  An additional suggestion of speed is provided by the billowing wind.
        Next is a pleasing block showing someone riding a rooster.  It can serve to represent the entire category of riding on animals, and in this case we can wonder whether the rooster is enormous or the rider is tiny.  I like that her hair makes a bird-like crest, demonstrating a certain affinity with her mount.
        A more scientific mode of transportation is being used by our next character, who is apparently called Dr. Puff.  An apparatus of five kites carries him aloft, with separate steering on the smaller ones.  It looks like carnations attached to the ends of the tails and on the sides of two of the kites.  Are they for decoration, or do they serve some functionality?
        Here’s my own most recent piece, showing tiny people hitching rides on dandelion parasols for wind-borne dispersal.  Although the concept delights me, I confess that I’ve struggled with the execution.  I tried printing just the single block in black, but that looked too plain.  So I 
tried adding the background blocks for interest, but I’m not 100% happy with them, either.  Still, it is undoubtedly an unusual method of transportation, and I offer it up to your imagination.
        A hot air balloon is of course not science fiction, but flying all the way up above the moon in it is.  Unfortunately, our passenger is falling out and it looks as if the moon is going to swallow him whole!  I also have a question about what looks like a flying dagger to the left.  Is it actually a rocket of some sort?  Or a shooting star?  Or indeed a flying dagger on its way to slash the balloon?
        I’ve also featured a number of fun modes of transportation in previous posts, which you can revisit if you’d like a little inspiration for your next speculative vacation.  Today I’ve included a block print depicting Alexander the Great’s griffin-drawn space chariot, and if you want to see learn more about that, in addition to his voyage to the bottom of the ocean in a glass barrel, you can see

the sci fi adventures of Alexander the Great

        Plus lots of other interesting ways to get around:

Parasailing on a sea monster

Riding in a house that walks with chicken legs AND flying in a mortar and pestle

Flying by lung power machine

Driving in personal fish-shaped aeroships

Wafting by hanging garden

Transport by magical brass horse

        My final piece today is a magical flying horse ridden by two sons of the Emperor of Greece.  I don’t know more details of their story, but I will note that the wood block print, while charming to me, is pretty low quality.  Much of the 
border is missing, either due to mistakes 
in carving, or due to damage from excessive printing.  The people are fairly crude, without much detail.  Nevertheless, the king looking up to watch these adventurers fly over exemplifies our perpetual wonder with innovations in transportation.  It seems to be a universal human fascination to imagine better, faster, and more exciting ways to get from here to there.  Which unusual mode of transportation would you most like to experience?

[Pictures: “Seven-League Boots,” woodcut by Allen Lewis from Journeys to Bagdad by Charles S. Brooks, 1915 (Image from Project Gutenberg);

Run Rooster, lino print by Teresa Winchester (Image from Teresa Winchester Greeting Cards);

“Dr. Puff in a kite,” engraving from Un Autre Monde by J.J. Grandville, 1844 (Image from Carl Guderian Flickr);

Wind-Borne Dispersal, rubber block print by AEGN, 2022;

Wood block print by anonymous artist from The Loyal Man in the Moon, 1820 (Image from British Library Flickr);

“How Alexander went up into the air,” illustration by Fred Mason from The Story of Alexander told by Robert Steele, 1894 (Image from Project Gutenberg);

Wood block print by anonymous artist from The hystory of the two valyaunte brethren Valentyne and Orson printed by William Coplande, c 1565 (Image from Beinecke Library).]

July 8, 2022

Three Merpoems

         Today I have excerpts from three merfolk poems to share.  They’re all too long to repeat in full, and they’re all rather wordy and repetitive anyway, so I thought I’d just give you some of the highlights from each.  The first two are a pair by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (UK, 1809-1892) and come from his first solo collection of poems published in 1830.  Entitled “The Merman” and “The Mermaid,” they share the same structure, and each begins with the question “Who would be a merman/mermaid… on a throne?”  The poems then proceed into a fantasy of the carefree lives of the merpeople, concerned only with frolicking about and flirting with each other.  The mermaid dreams of being loved by everyone, while the merman dreams of kissing all the mermaids.  It’s fluff, but there are some fun descriptive passages.

There would be neither moon nor star;
But the wave would make music above us afar —
Low thunder and light in the magic night —
Neither moon nor star.
We would call aloud in the dreamy dells,
Call to each other and whoop and cry
All night, merrily, merrily;
They would pelt me with starry spangles and shells,
Laughing and clapping their hands between,
All night, merrily, merrily,
But I would throw to them back in mine
Turkis and agate and almondine…

Till that great sea-snake under the sea
From his coiled sleeps in the central deeps
Would slowly trail himself sevenfold
Round the hall where I sate, and look in at the gate
With his large calm eyes for the love of me.

The first excerpt is the merman’s fantasy, and I particularly like the image of “low thunder and light in the magic night” far beneath the surface of the ocean.  The second bit is the mermaid, and I like her description of the sea serpent “with his large calm eyes.”

        For a different take on merfolk lore, here’s “The Forsaken Merman” by Matthew Arnold (UK, 1822-1888), which is from this poet’s first published collection as well (1849), which may imply something about how sober, serious elderly poets don’t write about merfolk!  At any rate, this poem reverses the common folktale trope of a human abandoned by a wife from one of the magical races.  (See a prior post for some of the ways this usually plays out in selkie lore.)

Children dear, was it yesterday
We heard the sweet bells over the bay?
In the caverns where we lay,
Through the surf and through the swell,
The far-off sound of a silver bell?
Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep,
Where the winds are all asleep;
Where the spent lights quiver and gleam;
Where the salt weed sways in the stream;
Where the sea-beasts, ranged all round,
Feed in the ooze of their pasture-ground;
Where the sea-snakes coil and twine,
Dry their mail, and bask in the brine;
Where great whales come sailing by,
Sail and sail, with unshut eye,
Round the world for ever and aye?

“The sea grows stormy, the little ones moan.
Long prayers,” I said, “in the world they say.
Come,” I said, and we rose through the surf in the bay.
We went up the beach, by the sandy down
Where the sea-stocks bloom, to the white-wall’d town.
Through the narrow paved streets, where all was still,
To the little grey church on the windy hill.
From the church came a murmur of folk at their prayers,
But we stood without in the cold-blowing airs.
We climb’d on the graves, on the stones worn with rains,
And we gazed up the aisle through the small leaded panes.
She sate by the pillar; we saw her dear:
“Margaret, hist! come quick, we are here.
Dear heart,” I said, “we are long alone.
The sea grows stormy, the little ones moan.”

But, ah! she gave me never a look,
For her eyes were seal’d to the holy book.
Loud prays the priest; shut stands the door.
Came away, children, call no more.
Come away, come down, call no more.

There are a few interesting points about Arnold’s story.  For one thing, the human woman has gone down into the ocean to be with the merman (I like the description of that underwater realm in the first excerpt).  But it’s when she hears church bells that she returns to the land for fear that she’ll lose her soul with the merfolk.  For another thing, the merman is caring for the children as a single father and he obviously really loves and misses his wife.  The church is slightly ambiguous - it’s blinding a mother to the love of her husband and the needs of her children, even as it is a holy place where she sings joyfully.  Finally, although the poem ends with the merfolk “left lonely forever,” we do catch a glimpse of the human woman gazing out at the sea with a sigh and a sorrow-laden heart, missing her children.  It seems to me that her departure from the ocean looks a lot like Beauty leaving the Beast: she says she needs to go home, and he tells her to go, but to come back.  Once she gets there, she seems to forget all about him.  In Beauty and the Beast of course she does return at the last possible moment, and save the Beast and live happily ever after.  Do you think there’s a chance that could happen for this family, as well?

        You can read the poems in their entirety here: The Merman, The Mermaid, The Forsaken Merman.

[Pictures: Mermaid, color woodcut by Russian artist whose name I can’t make out because it’s in Cyrillic, 1915 (Image from StardustPrintShop);

Sirenes, engraving from Symbolorum & emblematum by Joachim Camerarius, 1590-1605 (Image from Linda Hall Library);

Proteus, wood block print from Emblematum libellus by Alciato, 1546 (Image from Glasgow University).]

July 4, 2022

America the Beautiful

         I know there are many people who are finding it a little difficult to “celebrate freedom” today when half of the people in this nation have just had federal protection stripped away from their right to personal bodily liberty.  I feel that, too, but to me rather than refusing to celebrate, this is all the more reason to celebrate the good things, which are why we need to keep working as hard as we can to help the country we love live up to its best possible ideals.  This is my homeland, land that I love, and so today I’m celebrating with block prints illustrating what perhaps should have been our national anthem: a poem written by Katharine Lee Bates usually called “America the Beautiful.”  The version we sing is her 1911 revision.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

        The spacious skies are depicted by Frances H. Gearhart (USA, 1869-1958), about whom you can learn a bit more in a previous post.  This sky has a wonderful subtlety of color, with multiple blocks each with washes and gradations of color.  Gearhart’s skies make we wish I could fly!
        For amber waves of grain I decided to go with a close-up for variety, and I offer this woodcut of a cornfield by Jacques Hnizdovsky (Ukraine/USA, 1915-1985), another artist you can revisit in a prior post.  Okay, I grant you, this piece has neither amber nor waves, but it does capture, as Hnizdovsky’s work always does, the astonishing geometry in organic things.  Certainly this field is abundant, and it reminds me just how much I love fresh corn on the cob.
        Purple mountains’ majesties were easy to find, being a very popular subject for artists!  I had a tough time deciding, but in the end I went with a view of mountains that isn’t even purple.  (After all, this blog is called “Black & White” for a reason.)  This one is by Tom Killion (USA) who is primarily known for his Japanese style printmaking.  The precision in all the little trees is impressive, but I particularly love the white peaks against the clouds that seem to be rushing across the night sky.
        The fruited plain made me think of an orchard, and I’ve chosen this one by Linanne Armstrong (USA).  There’s drama and interest in the pattern of shadows across the ground between the straight rows of trees, but I also like the pop of color in the fruit.  Plus one apple sits on the ground, showing us that this fruit is ripe and ready to pick - more of that abundance that we can truly enjoy only when we make sure it’s available to everyone.
        And finally, a shining sea, this one on my coast of the USA, the east.  It’s by Linda Mahoney (USA), and I particularly like the way she uses the Japanese moku hanga technique, but keeps her carving simple and a little rougher than in traditional Japanese blocks.  I also appreciate that she tells us that this piece was made with 4 blocks and 8 pressings.  This surging tide is sure to be cold, so I think I’ll stick to a walk along the beach!
        This Fourth of July I urge all citizens and residents of the United States to take a moment to celebrate how beautiful this land is, and how precious are the dreams of its people, so that we don’t let frustration and cynicism blunt the love that gives us a reason to keep moving forward, one step at a time.

[Pictures: Clearing, color woodblock print by Frances H. Gearhart, undated (Image from Dalton’s);

Corn, woodcut by Jacques Hnizdovsky, 1971 (Image from WorthPoint);

Lembert Dome, Tuolumne Meadows, wood block print by Tom Killion, 2000 (Image from TomKillion.com);

Afternoon in the Orchard, linocut by Linnane Armstrong, 2011 (Image from Whidbey Life Magazine);

Coast Guard Beach, Spring Tide, wood block print by Linda Mahoney, 2021 (Image from LMahoneyPrints.com).]