January 31, 2024

Words of the Month - Kickstarter

         The big news is that my Kickstarter campaign has successfully been fully funded!  I am full of gratitude for all the backers who are supporting my mission to bring more joy and hope into the world through one small (but beautiful) book.  The campaign is still on-going for almost two more weeks, so there’s still plenty of time to join in if you were thinking about joining the fun, but just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.  Here are a couple more teaser snippets to give you a taste of the sorts of art and writing that will be included.
        But of course that news isn’t all, because it’s the last day of January and that means it’s time for Words of the Month.  In honor of which, here are a few fun etymological factoids about the word kick-starter.
        The original kick-starter (noun) dates back to 1916 and is the method of starting a motorcycle’s internal combustion engine by pushing down a lever with the foot.  (The mechanism was apparently invented in 1910, but I guess the word wasn't coined until a few years later.)  The word then gained its attendant verb to kick-start, as well as the metaphorical meaning of getting any process off to a quick start.  Meanwhile, by the time Kickstarter was launched in 2009 to facilitate crowd-funding, kick-starters had become much less common in motorcycles, replaced by electric starters.  So far, so good.  But let’s look back even farther.
        Kick (verb) dates back to Middle English (late 14th century) and probably comes from Old Norse kikna meaning “bend the knee.”  However, some older etymologists thought it might come from Celtic.  Use as a noun didn’t appear until the 16th century.  Some of the more interesting slang meanings include the kick (the latest fashion) c. 1700, to kick (die) 
1725 (and kick the bucket in 1785), to kick oneself (self-reproach) 1891, kicks (shoes) 1904, and to get one’s kicks (get pleasure) 1941 (but kicks meant the high from alcohol or drugs in 1844 - it meant to end a drug habit in 1936).
        Start (verb) seems like an even more basic word, and goes all the way back to Old English.  There, however, it didn’t mean ‘“to begin,” but instead meant “to leap up, or to move or spring suddenly.”  This meaning still exists, although it’s less common nowadays, but you can still see it in the related startleStart doesn’t seem to have gained the sense of “to cause to begin acting or operating” (transitive) until the 1660s, and “to begin to move; to begin action” (intransitive) not until 1821!  It’s surprising to me that our primary definition of start is actually much more recent a word than the backers who supported my project!  Backer meaning “supporter, one who aids” dates back to the 1580s.
        Now that my own Kickstarter project has been fully backed, I can make use of a whole host of past senses of the words: I can bend my knees in gratitude, I can get my kicks from each new supporter, I can spring up in excitement, and I can begin my action in earnest, as I get to work putting this book together.

[Pictures: Scott Two-Stroke, 1910 (Image from cybermotorcycle.com);

Sample bits from Bittersweetness & Light, “Love Potion,” “Dreams,” text and illustrations by AEGN, 2023.]

January 26, 2024

Audubon's Fantasy Species

         John James Audubon (France/USA, 1785-1851) is probably the most famous artist of birds and wildlife in the western world.  However, unlike Bewick, he didn’t do relief prints… so what’s he doing in this blog?  It’s not the medium of art he used that prompts me to feature him, but some of the more unusual creatures he discovered.
        Most of these creatures are reported not by Audubon himself, but by an eccentric naturalist called Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840).  In 1818 Rafinesque visited Audubon in Kentucky for three weeks, eagerly filling notebooks with all the species that Audubon told him about.  According to a story related by Audubon and generally corroborated by Rafinesque, on the very first night of the visit, bats flew into the visitor’s room through the open window.  Convinced they were a new species and frantic to kill some specimens for study, Rafinesque grabbed Audubon’s violin and began chasing around the room, wildly flailing at bats, and generally trashing everything.  It is assumed that Audubon proceeded to slip Rafinesque tales of unique species both as payback for the destruction of the violin and as a test of how far Rafinesque’s passion for new species could be pushed.
        Among these creatures are some rarities that have never since been sighted, including the Devil-Jack Diamond Fish.  Up to 10 feet long with bulletproof scales, these fish often float motionless at the surface of the water, resembling logs from a distance.  Audubon actually pointed one out to Rafinesque.  In all, there are at least ten species of fish reported by Rafinesque that are dependent entirely upon Audubon’s authority, including the Toad Mudcat and the Buffalo Carp Sucker.  There is also a Tri-valve Brachiopod, and a number of “wild western rats” including the Three-striped Mole Rat, the Lion-Tail Jumping Mouse and the Brindled Stamiter, all of which more closely resemble Old World species - although still having a number of unique characteristics of their own.
        In general, Audubon took his work with birds more seriously, but even here he introduced the world to a number of singular species.  The best name of a mystery bird is the Carbonated Swamp Warbler, because I love to imagine either a fizzy little bird or, better yet, one of the strange species of the great bubbling Carbonated Swamp of Kentucky.  However, Audubon himself was dubious about these specimens, which he suspected might simply be juveniles of another species, a perfectly reasonable mistake to make in the days before DNA analysis, and frankly no fun at all!  Indeed most of Audubon’s anomalous birds are assumed to be simple errors.
        So let’s talk about the  Blue Mountain Warbler and the Small-headed Flycatcher.  The first was recorded by Audubon’s chief rival Alexander Wilson, and Audubon later claimed to have gotten his own specimen to include in his own book.  Meanwhile, he claimed that Wilson had copied the flycatcher from him.  Neither bird has ever been seen again, and I can’t help suspecting that the two rivals were playing the same games with each other.  Unfortunately, these birds have no interesting characteristics such as bulletproof feathers or 100-year lifespan or something.
        Finally, I have to mention the great Bird of Washington.  This eagle looks very much like a golden eagle or juvenile bald eagle, but is far larger than any other eagle known in the New World, with a wingspan of over 10 feet - for the male, which would make the females of the species even larger.  Other than the remarkable size of this noble bird, its other remarkable feature is its timing.  Audubon had just headed to Europe in a desperate attempt to gain support and funding for his long-dreamed-of project of an epic illustrated book.  His financial state was at its lowest ebb, his nomination for membership in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia had been rejected, and he was afraid that if he couldn’t make a success of this project, he’d have to leave America forever.  (Frankly, I feel his pain — he was, after all, essentially launching a Kickstarter campaign for the project dearest to his heart!  So, for Audubon’s sake, please check out my Kickstarter campaign for my illustrated book project!)
        Back to Audubon, freshly arrived in England in 1826.  He unveiled a magnificent large painting of a magnificent new American species: a noble and wonderful bird worthy of the noble and wonderful continent his book was to depict.  And suddenly the nobility were all enthusiastic about the project and subscriptions started pouring in.  Thus Audubon’s epic book The birds of America was  brought to life.  (Did I mention my beautifully illustrated book?  I’m making up everything in mine, so it should be even more enthusiastically received!  Help me bring it to life!)  Too bad the magnificent Bird of Washington has never been seen again.
        Normally I might have been inclined to post this to celebrate Audubon’s birthday on April 26, or possibly on April 1.  But in this blog April is always taken over by the A to Z Challenge, so I’m celebrating instead for Audubon’s deathday, which is January 27.  At any rate, in conclusion, John James Audubon is widely acclaimed as both an artist and a naturalist, and rightly so.  But while I certainly do not condone scientific fraud (or indeed fraud of any sort), I have to confess that Audubon’s lesser-known species do tickle my fancy!

[Pictures: Devil-Jack Diamond Fish, pencil and ink sketch by Rafinesque, 1818;

Toad Mudcat, pencil and ink sketch by Rafinesque, 1818;

Three-striped Mole Rat, Big-eye Jumping Mouse, and Lion-tail Jumping Mouse, pencil and ink sketch by Rafinesque, 1818;

Brindled Stamiter, pencil and ink sketch by Rafinesque, 1818 (All Rafinsesque images from Biodiversity Heritage Library);

Carbonated Warbler, engraving by Robert Havell, hand-colored, based on painting by John James Audubon, c 1827-38 (Image from University of Pittsburgh);

Bird of Washington, engraving by Robert Havell, hand-colored, based on painting by John James Audubon, c 1827-38 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

January 22, 2024

Tiny Reduction Landscapes

         I treated myself to a belated Christmas gift: a miniature reduction block print by Dealey Dansby of Pink House Print Shop Co.  I myself have done a number of reduction prints, but mostly only a couple of layers, and all quite simple.  (Read here, if you need to know what a reduction print is.)  I’m always very impressed by people who do more complicated reduction designs, and today I’m celebrating my beautiful new addition to my art collection by sharing the work of two artists who not only do more complicated reduction prints, but who specifically do miniature reduction landscapes.
        I couldn’t resist my new piece “On the Water” because I love the subtlety of color and the glow of light.  You know I love black and white, so I always feel like there’s no point in doing color at all unless it’s going to do something that black and white really can’t do.  And in this case, that’s the pale, delicate light of a fading day.  This piece is only 2x2 inches, and uses 7 colors.  Here’s another piece by Dansby, this one with 9 colors.  In Dansby’s work the colors lie softly with each other, with gentle shapes and thickness of ink that make the shapes and colors almost blend in places, which is certainly different from my style of block prints.
        I’ve also been admiring the work of Molly Lemon, whose tiny reduction landscapes are done with wood engraving rather than linoleum blocks.  To put an even more impressive twist on these pieces, she carves and prints them plein air and without any sketching ahead of time!  I discovered her on Instagram where she posted little videos.  Honestly, I normally refuse to watch the reels on Instagram because you can’t skip forward or back, which is too annoyingly stupid.  Also, when it comes to art, I always prefer still photos so I can just look at things at my own pace.  But in this case, I did find it fascinating to watch Lemon’s process.  She certainly makes it look idyllic, but I think I’ll stick with working in my own room where I have a little more control and all my tools more easily accessible!
        I’ve picked two examples of Lemon’s work to share, and you can see that there are similarities and differences with the prints by Dansby.  The clearest difference is that wood engravings are composed of lots of tiny lines as opposed to larger solid shapes.  This first one is 4.2 cm square and uses 6 layers, some of them printed with a bit of color gradation.  The second appears to be 4 layers of ink.
        Both of these artists make other prints as well, larger ones, black and white ones, and so on.  For purposes of this post I was focussed on just one sort, but I do like the others very much and you should definitely check them out!

[Pictures: On the Water, reduction lino print by Dealey Dansby;

Siler Bald, reduction lino print by Dansby (Images from Dansby’s Etsy shop PinkHousePrintShopCo);

Miniature Landscape II, reduction wood engraving by Molly Lemon, 2022 (Image from Molly Lemon Art);

Prema, reduction wood engraving by Lemon, 2023 (Image from mollylemonart on Instagram).]

January 18, 2024

Sea Witch

         Today I’ve found a number of illustrations of the sea witch from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid.”  Right away I need to state that I think the story is an absolutely dreadful tale!  (I’m sorry to yuck on the yum of anyone who loves this story, but I’m afraid I find it simply appalling.  However, if you’ve never read the original version, you can find it on Project Gutenberg or here.)  Even the happy ending of Disney’s version can’t lessen the numerous problematic elements of the thing — although I do love the music of the Disney version, and especially Ursula the sea witch’s song!  Back to Andersen’s version, however, the sea witch is unnamed, and her own appearance is not described, although we are told that she’s accompanied by sea snakes and a toad.  (How is a toad living at the bottom of the ocean?  Never mind that - what’s the point of a fairy tale if you can’t be fantastical?)
        "The Little Mermaid" was first published in 1837 and translated to English in 1845.   The illustrations I’ve collected today cover a range from 1899 through 1937.  Of course plenty of other artists have done illustrations for “The Little Mermaid,” but most of them don’t show the witch, and that’s all I care about today!
       So, how have artists imagined and portrayed a sea witch?  The first question is always whether she’s a traditional mermaid herself, or some other sort of being.  Four of today’s six illustrations give her a fishy tail, although the first one here is definitely not an entirely normal sort of mermaid tail.  One artist gives the witch legs with webbed feet, and another covers her lower half with a blanket of some sort, so we really don’t know whether she has limbs or a tail… or octopus arms, or crab legs, or sea anemone polyps, or what.  In fact, the 
way the witch speaks in the story tends to imply that she does not have legs herself, but we don’t really know for sure.
        The next point is that she’s most commonly portrayed as old and ugly.  This fits in with the standard stereotypical fairy tale wicked witch, but I have to confess that I think she could be done well as a coldly beautiful type instead.  In most she’s skinny rather than fat.  In many she has bad teeth.  In some she looks rather comical, while in other’s she’s more intensely terrifying.
        The first is my favorite.  I love her muppety face and arms and how she’s making kissy faces at her toad.  Number two is my next favorite, and very different indeed with her sharp features and sharp glare.  (The little mermaid herself, meanwhile, looks utterly bored and indifferent!)  But look at those magnificent zentangle patterns on the mermaid’s tail, and the swirling flowers on the sea floor!  Each of the sea snakes has its own pattern, too.  In illustration number 3 the artist has brought long-legged crabs to the mix, which is fun for variety.
        So, which is your favorite depiction of a sea witch?  How do you feel about the sea witch as a villain?  How do you feel about Disney’s Ursula?  And how, for that matter, do you feel about the whole fairy tale?  Regardless of my dislike of the story, I do enjoy seeing how different artists have imagined it and brought it to life.

[Pictures: Illustration by Ivan Bilibin from The Little Mermaid by H.C. Andersen, 1937 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Illustration by Harry Clarke from Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, 1916 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Illustration by Hans Tegner from Fairy Tales and Stories by H.C. Andersen, 1900 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Illustration by Anne Anderson from Hans Andersen’s Fairy Stories, 1924 (Image from SurLaLune);

Illustration by Helen Stratton from The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, 1899 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Illustration by Monro S. Orr from Andersen’s Fairy Tales, 1930 (Image from Sofi Flickr).]

January 10, 2024

Kickstarter Campaign is LIVE!

         Announcing the launching of the Kickstarter campaign for my next book, Bittersweetness & LightYou could skip this blog post and head straight over to KICKSTARTER where all the details are laid out (and there’s a little video of me being earnest).  But over here on this blog I’ll give just a little more of a peek behind the scenes.
        Bittersweetness & Light is a project I’ve been thinking about for a long time, as I’ve become more and more convinced that acknowledging joy is not childishness, naivety, or escapism, but is, on the contrary, a vitally necessary act of fierce defiance.  So I’m pulling together a selection of my work into a book that I hope will hold up a hopeful vision of goodness to be found all around.  Here’s what you can expect
• a full-color, fully-illustrated, slightly oversized paperback book
• short stories, poems, and art (mostly relief block prints)  Why?  Because stories, poetry, and art can put us in others’ shoes, expose us to new ideas, and connect us on the deepest levels.  (And also because I love it.)

• various flavors and genres of speculative fiction

including space exploration, a knitting witch, alien encounters, an Old One, an adventuring librarian, a puzzled ghost, and more.  Why?  Because speculative fiction has a unique ability to save the world!  (And also of course because I love it.)
• some humor, some heartbreak, some irreverence, some focus on the spiritual, some whimsy, some earnestness…
• happy endings, looking for the best in others and ourselves, affirming joy, and finding reasons for hope.
        A few of these stories and poems have been previously published in magazines and anthologies, but most will appear in this collection for the first time.  Each written piece is illustrated, plus there will be additional art that’s in there in its own right.  Again, some of the artwork has been created specifically for this project, while other pieces have been drawn from my entire catalogue of work.
        I launched this campaign yesterday, and it’s already a third of the way funded, so I’m feeling pretty optimistic.  If you feel like you could use more reminders of joy and more messages of hope, by all means check it out and join us!  And as always, please be sure to spread the word to any friends and family who you think might also enjoy this project.  We small-time artists and authors are utterly dependent on word-of-mouth to get out the news about our work.
        Profound thanks to everyone who joins me in this project; making connections so that we can encourage each other is what it’s all about!

[Pictures: all images by AEGN, representing drafts of details from Bittersweetness & Light, 2024.]

January 3, 2024

King's Devon

         Cathy King (UK, b. 1967) is a printmaker whose block prints have some interesting characteristics.  Her subjects are primarily landscapes and nature, and these are depicted with a fair amount of graphic stylization.  She makes both reduction prints and multi-block prints, and her work is characterized by blocks of color overlaid by more detailed elements.  In these first two examples you can see the way swaths of solid colors interact with more detailed (but still somewhat geometric) trees, plants, etc.  In both, the skies are not quite solid-colored; they have a bit of texture to them, which is achieved in the inking as opposed to the carving.  I especially like the trees in both of these, and the plants in the foreground.  The red sails of the boats are interesting because although they’re printed on top of the background, they’re not opaque.  Another thing these two pieces have in common - which is a trait shared by many of King’s pieces - is that they’re coastal!
        The third piece demonstrates what happens when all the details disappear and the landscape is so simplified and geometric as to become almost abstract.  Like the skies in the pieces above, these blocks of color are not quite solid; there’s some interesting texture happening, especially in the brown.  There’s also an interest provided by the layering of inks, which is apparent in the grey-over-brown in the foreground.  A similar effect happens in the background of the next piece, which is otherwise at the other end of detailed spectrum.  It looks to me like the birds are reduction prints, and I really love their patterns and shades of grey.  I also like the contrast between the elaborately patterned feathers, the stylized sweep of grasses in the foreground, and the very simple background.
        Another much more detailed block is this view of Exeter Cathedral, which sits against an especially interesting sky, which was probably done with monoprinting techniques.  It looks quite ominous!  More serene is this final piece, although the sky is grey enough that it looks fairly overcast.  Once again I like the simple background with a nice, detailed botanical foreground.
         There’s lots that’s interesting about these pieces, and they’re certainly very different from my own style, and my own way of thinking through a piece.  I think they’re cool.

[Pictures: Budleigh Beach II, linocut print by Cathy King;

Starcross, linocut print by King;

Porthtowan Beach, linocut print by King;

Waders, linocut print by King;

Exeter Cathedral,  linocut print by King;

Trevose Head,  linocut print by King (All images from CathyKingPrints.com).]