May 22, 2018

Lino Prints by Harris

        Deborah Harris (USA) is a block print artist with a distinctive style that simplifies subjects, emphasizes graphic qualities, exaggerates distinctive elements, and makes wonderful use of the drama of black and white.  Harris does some interesting political pieces which I may share another day, but today I’m sharing a couple of my favorite of her lovely plants and animals because I need the joy.
        First up, a charming billy goat.  Notice how wonderfully hairy he is around the edges.  In places his hair blends right into the texture of the background, which is also quite full of hairy little lines.  I also really love the flowers in his background, as if he’s posed regally before damask hangings - or perhaps a lush meadow is equally regal.  I might be afraid to put a busily detailed foreground in front of a busily detailed background, but Harris makes it work beautifully.
        This snake is very dramatic indeed, popping off its own shadow, framed in a spotlight.  The shadow makes our eyes read this snake as active, head raised, instead of lying peacefully basking in the hot, white sunlight.  The saw-toothed edges add to the drama.
        Equally dramatic but with a very different effect is what I identify as lilies-of-the-valley.  They certainly aren’t botanically accurate, but Harris has exaggerated the distinctive forms of the plant.  This time the lighting is only in the center, with the edges disappearing into thin outlines around black on black.  Her little monogram makes an attractive part of the design, balanced by the small silhouetted crane, which looks like another sort of seal or symbol.
        And finally, some chrysanthemums with another background full of carved lines.  The background and the petals have the same sorts of lines, but Harris has given the composition enough pure black and pure white to make everything pop.
        I find Harris’s work interesting to study how she uses light and texture, but they’re also just really pleasing!

[Pictures: Billy Goat, linoleum block print by Deborah Harris;
Snake, linoleum block print by Harris, 2008;
untitled, block print by Harris;

Chrysanthemums, linoleum block print by Harris (Images from]

May 18, 2018

Spring Magic

        It’s time for another fantasy poem, so here is Alzuna by Alfred Noyes (UK, 1880-1958).  

The forest of Alzuna hides a pool.
Beside that pool, a shadowy tree up-towers.
High on that tree, a bough most beautiful
Bends with the fragrant burden of its flowers.
Among those flowers a nest is buried deep.
Warm in that nest, there lies a freckled shell.
Packed in that shell, a bird is fast asleep.
This is the incantation and the spell.

For, when the north wind blows, the bird will cry,
“Warm in my freckled shell, I lie asleep.
The freckled shell is in the nest on high.
The nest among the flowers is buried deep.
The flowers are on a bough most beautiful.
The bough is on a tree no axe can fell.
The sky is at its feet in yonder pool.
This is the incantation and the spell!”

        This is an odd poem, but I think a fun one.  Using the chain structure of many simple, silly children’s rhymes (such as The House that Jack Built), it manages to sound a little more Serious and Significant.  With a symmetrical structure that works its way in and then all the way back out again to end where it began, it manages to sound as if it’s  actually getting Deeper and Deeper.  The whole sound of it is rather like an incantation and a spell, but what, in fact, is the magic?  As I sit here with the robin nesting in the holly bush outside my window, the mere ordinary spring fact of a bird packed warmly in an egg in a nest in a flowering tree seems like as mystical and magical a thing as the world could possibly need.

[Picture: Preface heading, wood engraving by Charlton Nesbit from Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, Vol. 1, 1797 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

May 15, 2018

More Printmaking Classes

        Here are just a smattering of pieces that I happened to photograph, made by artists in my adult ed printmaking class in March-April.  I offer them with a few observations about the differences between the work of these adults and the children in my summer classes.
        1.  Adults are quite happy with black and white, while children want as many different colors of ink as possible.  In the adult class I only once was asked for ink other than black, while the kids ask me for 6 colors a day (the most I can put out at a time).  Plus sometimes I wash plates and change out the colors multiple times during a 3-hour class, and often the kids want to mix colors or make ombre colors, as well.  (For the colors on the pieces shown here, the artist watercolored paper at home and brought it to class to print on top… with black ink.)
        2. Adults are more willing to embrace the beauty of unplanned carved lines in the backgrounds, while children tend to want their backgrounds cleaned up to pure, blank white.
        3.  Children tend to have difficulty with - or just impatience for carving - lots of texture and pattern.  They are much more likely to stick with outlines and areas that are solid black or solid white.  Adults spend much more time adding details of pattern and texture.
        4.  Adults also spend much more time reworking blocks: testing, carving a bit more, testing, carving a bit more…  while most children don’t go through more than one or two iterations of testing and tweaking.
        5.  Adults make more interesting, complex compositions.  This isn’t just about printmaking, of course, but is the developmental stage in all visual arts.  Children until about age 11-12-ish tend not to overlap elements in their pictures, not to put them off-center or crop them,
not to use unusual viewpoints.  They generally like all their elements neatly centered, with blank space framing them, each element clearly visible in its entirety (which is why it’s fun to push them a bit with the foreground/background project.)
        For me its always fun to see both - what children do and then what adults do.  So I’ll be teaching an adult class again in the fall, but first, there are still spaces in my summer printmaking classes for children currently in grades 4-8.  So if you have any arts-and-crafts-loving children who want to join the printmaking fun, be sure to sign them up for either session in Needham Community Education’s Summer Explorations program.

[Pictures: Three pieces with watercolor backgrounds, rubber block prints by NA, 2018;
Egyptian falcon, rubber block print by SB, 2018;
Poppies, rubber block print by PL, 2018;
Brocade design, rubber block print by RG, 2018;
Friend’s dog, rubber block print by MH, 2018;
Trout, rubber block print by NB, 2018;
Faithful dog?, rubber block print by PG, 2018.]

May 11, 2018

Here's Something Cool: Mechanical Birds

        It’s time for another selection of gorgeous steampunky sculptures, and this time I have for you two artists whose birds come out quite different in style, but who both assemble their sculptures from very specific found objects.
        Jeremy Mayer made these swallows entirely from parts of old typewriters.  They include absolutely nothing that isn’t from the typewriters - not even glue or solder.  The outer stretch of the wings can fan in and out, which makes them seem that much more like robots or automatons rather than mere objects d’art.  What’s so much fun about them is that the typewriter parts are not in any way disguised or transformed, they’re very clearly still recognizable typewriter parts, and yet when assembled in this way they simultaneously become 100% swallows.
        Matt Wilson (aka Airtight Artwork), on the other hand, builds his birds almost entirely from silverware, adding only a bit of wire and sometimes other bits of scrap metal, and mounting them on wood.  These are certainly art sculptures, not robots(!), but they share with Mayer’s swallows that incredible property of reusing objects intended for something entirely different, and yet making them seem as if they must have been designed precisely for
their current spot.  The curves of spoons, the serrations of knife blades, the feathers - I mean
tines - of the forks…  Wilson’s birds are also amazing for what they don’t include.  There is often quite a bit of negative space in his designs, hollow areas, details left out, and yet they include everything necessary to capture the perfect essence of titmouse, nuthatch, or wren.  The other thing I find great about them is that they’re made from very ordinary, junky silverware.  I’ve seen plenty of lovely things made from lovely antique silver spoons, but it’s all the more wonderful to make such objects of beauty from something that really doesn’t seem at all beautiful before its transformation.
        Both of these artists have the wonderful gift of seeing the beautiful potential in something not very beautiful, and of course they also both have the gift of being able to make that transformation so that the rest of us can see it, too.  Charms, transfiguration, or illusion, it’s surely some kind of magic.

        (See some previously posted cool Mechanical Treasures here.)

[Pictures: Typewriter part swallows, assembled sculptures by Jeremy Mayer, c 2013 (Images from Colossal);
Silverware birds, sculptures by Matt Wilson, c 2017 (Images from Colossal and My Modern Met).]

May 8, 2018

A-Z Reflections

        Well, I don’t generally publish my reflections about my blogging because why should anyone care?  But this year they’re asking that the Reflections post be linked in order to tally up everyone who completed the A-Z Challenge, so here are a few thoughts so that I dutifully have reflections to link:
     - I should have included a one-sentence intro at the top of each post reiterating what my theme was, so that people who dipped in here and there would understand what they were finding.
     - I wish the spreadsheet of the links for each day was searchable (or maybe it was, and I just didn’t know how.)  Also that it included the title of each post.
     - My speed would definitely be to do the alphabet over two months instead of just one, but I certainly enjoyed coming up with all the posts, and managed to keep ahead of the days better this year than last (although that probably had more to do with my theme than with my somehow getting better at blog challenges).
        And now I shall share something a little more interesting for all you alphabet lovers.  This alphabet, illustrated with hand-colored woodcuts, comes from The Hobby-Horse, or the High Road to Learning from 1820.  There are some really interesting details, especially considering that this was most definitely intended to be educational for children.  What children’s alphabet today would include “D - was a Drunkard” or “G - was a Gamester”?  What educational book would teach children that the Robber should be whipped, the Oyster-wench is a scold, and the Vintner is a sot?  And notice that we're missing the letters I and U; they were often considered mere variants of J and V.  (Plus it's easier to arrange 24 letters than 26... and would have made April's challenge a little easier, too.)
        There are some pretty amusing details, as well, such as the King governing a mouse, for no apparent reason other than making a rhyme, which presumably also explains why on earth an archer should shoot a frog.  There’s the elegant Lady dressed in such current fashion that you can date the book from her attire alone.  There’s the Quaker who looks extremely un-Quakerly, apparently refusing to bow not because of a belief in equality but because of sheer overwhelming snobbery.
        These particular wood block prints are certainly not my favorite style, although some of the people’s expressions are skillfully done like political cartoons, and the hand coloring in this edition, though I tend to prefer my woodcuts uncolored, is exceptionally high quality.  Mostly, though, this alphabet is a fascinating demonstration of how children’s books illuminate their own time and agenda with remarkable clarity… and that’s surely amusing and educational.

[Pictures: “A was an Archer” alphabet from The Hobby-Horse, or the High Road to Learning, published by J. Harris and Son, 1820 (Images from A Nursery Companion by Iona and Peter Opie, 1980).]

May 4, 2018

First Experiments

        During the April A-Z Blog Challenge I was teaching a community ed block printing class with adults, and I couldn’t post any of their work because the April blog was entirely booked.  But now A-Z is over and it’s time to switch gears and share some fun rubber block prints.
        This is the introductory project of the class: the chance to start getting a feel for the rubber, how to get different effects, what the patterns look like when they’re inked and printed, and generally just dig in and see what happens.  Each artist began with a small rubber block, 3x4 inches, divided the space into several areas, and experimented with different patterns and textures in the different areas.  The idea was inspired by Zentangle doodling, but the purpose is very different.  It’s a chance for beginning printmakers to get the hang of this whole relief print thing before starting on a block for which they have grand plans and the potential for disappointment.  For example, how do you make each little carved line end exactly where you want it?  What’s the most comfortable and controlled way to carve curves
and circles?  What’s with that whole backwards thing where the more you carve the lighter an area gets?  How do you get the contrasts and patterns you want?
        I had nine artists in my class, and, as usual, they brought a range of experience, a range of taste and style, a range of ideas and inspirations.  As this was my first class of adults, I was also quite amused and interested to note how adults differ from children in the way they approach the projects.  Anyway, since I have only seven projects pictured here today, there are clearly two I didn’t manage to photograph, but nevertheless you get the idea of some of the range of patterns and effects the class produced.  It should be noted that these blocks were mostly just roughly inked and printed to get the idea, so they are not perfect impressions.  Some were worked further afterwards, others were declared finished, and we went on to the next block.
        Thanks to all my students - I had a great time and hope you did, too!
        And an ANNOUNCEMENT to anyone local: this weekend is Needham Open Studios - the 20th year of NOS, no less.  This anniversary year there are over 45 artists in 15 locations all around Needham, showing a variety of art in all sorts of media and styles.  It should be a lovely weekend to get out and about and enjoy some really inspiring art.  I’ll be showing at First Baptist Church on Great Plain Avenue, along with 6 other
artists.  In fact, the car is already packed and I’m about to go set up the space.  I hope to see you there on Saturday or Sunday!

[Pictures: Experimental patterns, rubber blocks by seven artists, 2018.]

April 30, 2018

Z is for Zenon

        In a plain white-painted room, with plain stackable tables and chairs, a nondescript man in khaki scrubs sat with another man who looked somewhat similar, but was noticeably handsomer.  Where the first man was average height and average build, the younger one was taller, more muscular.  Where the first had average light skin, the second was a little tanner.  Where the first had average brown hair, the younger man’s was a little darker and a little wavier.
        It was visiting hours at the prison, and all around the two men prisoners and their visitors sat at the tables talking and sharing food from the vending machines.  Guards watched over the room, but paid little attention to individual conversations.
        Zenon Blank was saying, “I can drive up to Boston this week.  Give me the address where they have one of those books you told me about, and I can have you out of here next time I visit.”
        Ammon Blank shook his head.  “Slow down.  I don’t want to be here a day longer than I have to, but it would be stupid to mess this up.  If we don’t do it right the first time, we’ll end up getting ourselves in bigger trouble.  So first of all, it won’t do us any good to steal the Books in Boston or Cleveland.  Those people know about the connection between the Books and as soon as you steal one, they’ll go through the portal from the other and find you.  You need to steal the Book that’s in London.”
        “London!  Are you gonna pay to fly me to London?”
        “What happened to all the money I gave you last month?”  Ammon sighed.  “Fine.  I’ll make arrangements to get you an airplane ticket.  The Book is at the Christopher Wren Museum.”
        “You’re sending me to rob a museum instead of a private house?  And this is your idea of a safer job?”
        “Keep your voice down, Zenon!  You do remember we’re in a prison, right?  It’s a pretty small museum and I don’t think it has a major security system.  I’ll see if I can do a little research from here, but you’re going to have to do some work yourself for once, Zenon.”
        Zenon scowled for a moment, then shrugged and smiled his charmingly handsome smile.  “Okay, big bro.  I got this.”

        Zenon Blank from The Extraordinary Salamander Door, the in-progress sequel to upper middle-grade fantasy The Extraordinary Book of Doors.

[Picture: created by photoshopping from model.]

A-Z Challenge, all posts for the letter Z.

        In addition to being the last post of the A-Z Challenge, today is also the last post of the month, and that means it’s time for a Word of the Month.  In honor of the Extraordinary Book of Doors, here is a fun door-related word:
        Tomason - an architectural feature that has lost its purpose and become useless, but still remains, making a sort of inadvertent sculptural element.
        One type of Tomason is doors that open onto air in a high place, precisely one of the things that Chen worries about in the book, and which indeed one of the doors turns out to be.  Other common types of Tomason are stairs to nowhere and bricked-up windows, but any sort of no-longer-functional architectural element is fair game.  The word was coined by Japanese architect Akasegawa Genpei after baseball player Gary Thomasson, who received an enormous contract in 1981 and then never played much (or well).  Because of this derivation the word is also sometimes spelled Thomasson or
        So keep your eyes open and enjoy any Tomason you may notice - just be careful when stepping through unfamiliar doors.

[Pictures: Elevated door (Image from shuusukeshiroi);
Staircase from the demolished Winston Churchill Bridge in Strasbourg, France (Image from Messy Nessy).]

April 28, 2018

Y is for Yunib

        After they had ridden north for a while in silence, Svarnil said, “It almost seems as if we’re on a road.  Have you noticed that there are blocks and mounds on either side, but this straight line we travel is quite smooth?”
        Yunib looked around critically and nodded.  “It would be a reasonable place for a road to have been – connecting the city with the Ring of Gods.”
        “If so,” Imruk-Black said thoughtfully, “We would seem to be heading away from the center of the city.  But if this storm came from the nameless gods, then we should expect to find some sign of it at the Ring of Gods, rather than in the ruins of the city.”
        Nulif objected, “For myself, I do not believe that those statues are anything other than stone.”  He glanced at Svarnil with a slight smile.  “They are no gods.  If magic powers were loosed here in Edah I think it no more likely they came from a few statues as from anywhere else among the ruins.  Except inasmuch as people who believe in those gods may have worked their incantations from a place to which they attribute special power.”
        Yunib’s laugh rang out across the sand.  “How narrow-minded are the Chebik-lan to believe in only one god!  You and the Sinbal tribespeople, always insisting on just one.  You can refuse to acknowledge the obvious, but you’ll have to admit I’m right when the vulture god comes for you!”
        “Do not invoke the vulture god, even in jest,” snapped Imruk-Black.
        Svarnil said, “Whether there is a vulture god or not, have you noticed a single vulture today?  Or indeed, any sort of creature?”  She stared into the dome of the sky, where not so much as a black speck appeared against the flat, uniform blue.
        “That is strange,” Imruk-Black agreed.
        “I daresay they’ll turn up soon enough if the gods provide them with our corpses,” laughed Yunib, earning himself another stern glare from the nomad.  Svarnil looked at Yunib, as well. She could not make up her mind whether to respect the Sisoan for his boldness or to take his flippancy as evidence of foolishness.  She glanced at Nulif and saw him raise his eyebrows questioningly at her.  His own thoughts must be running along much the same lines.  At least Yunib’s injury was not severe enough to keep him somber.

        Yunib from Ruin of Ancient Powers, sixth book in a high fantasy series for middle school-or-so through adult (excerpt from Chapter 6: The Silence of Edah).  More information here, or “Look inside” at Amazon.

[Picture: The Ring of Gods of Edah, drawing by AEGN, 1995.]

A-Z Challenge, all posts for the letter Y.

April 27, 2018

X is for Xenops

The xenops is another bird that clings to trees
            and pecks,
But the coolest thing about it is, its name
            begins with X!

        Okay, so I didn’t make up the xenops and indeed it’s not fictional at all, but it is a character in one of my books: my alphabet of animals.

        Xenops from Amazing, Beguiling, Curious: 26 Fascinating Creatures, an alphabet book for ages 3-8.  More information here, or “Look inside” at Amazon.

[Picture: Xenops, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009.]

A-Z Challenge, all posts for the letter X.