January 12, 2018

Mapping the Fantastic

        This weekend I’ll be at the Arisia sci fi/fantasy/fandom convention where I will be exhibiting in the art show, presenting on a couple of panels, running a couple of block printing mini-workshops, and doing a reading from The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  I think I’ve got everything prepared and packed for all these various activities, although with a wide variety of events from both the art and writing sides of things, there’s a lot to keep track of and I hope I’m not forgetting anything vital!
        At any rate, the one event that really does tie together both the art and writing is a panel on the use of maps in fantasy.  Our panel members have been putting together a Pinterest board of map pictures to share with the audience, and it looks like there should be lots of interesting ideas about both larger concepts of cartography in world creation, and nitty gritty art tips about making cool-looking maps.  Here’s the link to the Pinterest board.  I’ve written a bit about my thoughts on fantasy maps previously here (or click the "maps" label in the sidebar),  but for this panel I also put together a simple graphic about the way I’ve broken down my thinking on fantasy maps.
        Roughly, the breakdown is that there are 1) the maps the writer/creator has for her own use in keeping things straight and visualizing a world in accurate, consistent detail, and then there are 2) maps that are intended for the reader/viewer/audience.  The maps intended for the audience can be divided further into A) the category of maps that reproduce a map within the story that the fictional characters see or use, and B) the category of maps that exist outside the story purely for the benefit of the reader.  Maps for the characters need to be consistent with the world in which they exist: What is the map for?  What kind of technology and materials exist in this world to gather information and depict it?  What kind of world view or religion would be reflected in a map made by this culture?  What priorities or agenda would it convey?  On the other hand, those maps that exist outside the story don’t need to worry about anachronistic style or accuracy.  They are often made to look as “realistic” as possible, in order to help the reader navigate or keep up with the story, and to help with the illusion that this world is indeed a real physical place that can be surveyed and mapped just like any place on the Earth we know.
        In case you don’t recognize them, the maps illustrating my graphic are, from left to right, top to bottom: a selection of my own notes for the Otherworld Series, the map from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, map of LeGuin’s Earthsea, map accompanying Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and a map of Gurney’s Dinotopia.
          Of course, I won’t know how the conversation with the panel goes until we get there and start talking, and hear what questions and ideas we all bring.  I certainly look forward to it!

[Picture: graphic by AEGN, 2018, using the maps noted above.]

January 9, 2018

Cat + Night + Magic

        There’s a long, deep, connection between cats, night, and magic, well captured in this poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth (USA, 1893-1986).
     On a Night of Snow

Cat, if you go outdoors, you must walk in the snow.
You will come back with little white shoes on your feet,
little white shoes of snow that have heels of sleet.
Stay by the fire, my Cat. Lie still, do not go.
See how the flames are leaping and hissing low,
I will bring you a saucer of milk like a marguerite,
so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet —
stay with me, Cat. Outdoors the wild winds blow.

Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night,
strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore,
and more than cats move, lit by our eyes’ green light,
on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar —
Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might,
and things that are yet to be done. Open the door!

        My cat is not allowed outdoors, but I suspect that she is not particularly attuned to magic anyway.  She’s not the most mystical of creatures.  Still, cats aside, it is easy to imagine elemental spirits abroad and magic strong on a dark, whirling night of snow.

[Picture: Old Town on a Wintry Night (guzhen xueye), woodcut by An Bin, 1998 (Image from Art Institute Chicago).]

January 5, 2018

Snow Day!

        Every winter when we have a big snowstorm I share a few relief block prints of snowy scenes.  There are plenty to choose from because snowy scenes are a natural for black and white, so I think a lot of printmakers must be inspired by a snow-covered world.  So let’s begin with white snow under a black sky: the still, clear aftermath of the snowstorm.  That’s what I expect here tonight, when we’ll be experiencing frigid cold under clear skies.  I like the big branches in the foreground balanced with the details of the trees in the background, and the natural world of frozen trees and water balanced with the human fence and church.  I also like the touch of the shooting star for just a hint of movement in a still world.
        Here’s another snowy church among trees, but this time with four colors: not just black and white, but also grey and beige.  The golden beige along with the shadows on the snow in the foreground capture a low, slanting sunlight coming in under the edge of the heavy, grey skies.  There’s actually very little white in this block, considering that it’s a snowscape.

        There’s plenty of snow in the next piece, where simple, rounded snow is heaped on the hills and roofs like puffy bonnets.  It’s almost cartoonishly adorable.  I like the simple sawteeth of trees atop the hills of this winter wonderland.
        Finally, a second piece by Sue Cave, with a particularly interesting pattern.  It’s too cold here for icicles - no water is melting enough to start them, despite the sunny afternoon - but I love how Cave has distorted the wintry scene behind in order to evoke the wet, shiny ice.  This one makes me think of a window, and today is definitely a good day to be inside looking out through a window (preferably double-glazed and insulated!) at the beautiful snow.

[Pictures: Drift, wood engraving by Sue Cave, 2009;
Kostelík v Nudvojovicích u Turnova, wood block print with multiple blocks by Karel Vik, 1929 (Image from Galerie09);
Houses in Winter, wood block print by Carl Schaefer, 1930 (Image from Masters Gallery);
Icicle, wood engraving by Sue Cave, 2011 (Images from SueCave.com).]

January 2, 2018

Orpheus and the Animals

        If you recall the story of Orpheus from Greek mythology, you will remember that there are a number of chapters, but the one I’m looking at today is Orpheus’s ability to charm all who heard his music.  The son of the muse Calliope, Orpheus lived with his mother and the other eight muses, so clearly he had plenty of inspiration around.  Apollo gave him a lyre and taught him to play it, while his mother taught him to compose lyrics.  He’s credited with inventing other musical instruments, as well.  And so beautiful was his music that animals were tamed, trees crept near, and even rivers might bend their courses to flow closer to his voice.  What artist wouldn’t wish for that level of mastery?  So it isn’t surprising that artists of all media - music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction…- should be inspired by Orpheus.
        Printmakers are no different, so here are a few relief block prints of Orpheus and the animals.  This first one has a wonderful variety of animals, from the monkey in the tree to the ducks in the water, a turtle, and even a giraffe.  Also interesting is his instrument, which is held and bowed like a fiddle, but fretted and with a head more like a guitar.  This is probably something he invented, since it isn’t the lyre Apollo gave him.  Older prints often show Orpheus with a bowed instrument rather than a lyre.
        There are two interesting elements in this second image.  For one thing, among the members of Orpheus’s audience is a unicorn.  This was not uncommon in the renaissance, but I don’t know whether it was just for fun, or whether there was a particular significance to it.  Oddly, what seems more unusual than the unicorn is that Orpheus’s mouth is actually open.  Despite the fact that he’s supposed to be singing, artists seldom seem to show him with open mouth.  I guess it’s just too difficult not to have him look silly that way!
        Jumping forward three and a half centuries, here’s an art deco extravaganza, complete with geometric palm fronds, chiselled wildcats, and full sized harp.  I love the foliage, the antelope, and the birds to the upper right, but Orpheus himself is looking a little too emo for my taste.  It seems a little odd that none of the animals in the foreground is looking at him, and the bear in particular looks very worried about something.  Maybe they’re all mourning Euridyce?
        In my final portrait of Orpheus there aren’t very many animals - just a cat, a deer, and a couple pigeons.  Lest you fear at first glance that this is a dead cat with the hunter’s foot on its neck, just observe that feline smile.  You can almost hear it purr.  I’m absolutely tickled by the way Orpheus is petting the cat with his foot, something that doesn’t seem very high-brow artistic, and yet we do it all the time in our house.  I suspect that the artist, Gerhard Marcks, must have had a cat himself.  And while I may dream, with all the other artists, of being able to enchant all of creation with the beauty and wisdom of my artistic work, at least I know that pleasing my own cat is an achievable goal (though she probably likes my fairly uninspiring singing better than even my most inspiring art or writing).

[Pictures: Orpheus serenading animals, woodcut designed by Matteo da Treviso from Convivio delle Belle Donna, 1532 (Image from The Met);
Orpheus cythara ludens, woodcut by Virgil Solis from Metamorphoses Illustratae, 1563 (Image from University of Virginia);
Orpheus Playing for the Animals, woodcut by Henri van der Stok, c 1920-5 (Image from William P. Carl Fine Prints);
Singender Orpheus, woodcut by Gerhard Marcks, 1948 (Image from Luther College).]

December 29, 2017

Words of the Month - Incensed

        Some time ago it occurred to me to wonder how the word incense came to mean both “a fragrant substance for perfuming the air”, and “to enrage,” two concepts that seem to be about as unrelated as it’s possible to be.  But these two definitions of incense are indeed related, as a quick look at their etymology reveals.  The connection is the burning.  Incense is something you burn for its scented smoke, and to incense someone is to set them aflame with anger.  Compare with fuming, another word that can describe a smelly fire, a fragrant perfume, and a furious person.
        Incendere, “to set on fire” is the same Latin root that gives us incendiary, of course, but it’s also in the same family as candere, “to shine,” which gives us candle, chandelier (by way of Old French), and incandescent.  But candare goes still farther, and also gives us candid (as in “shining pure, white, and truthful”), and even candidate, not, alas, from the shining honesty of  politicians, but from the shining white togas worn by candidates in ancient Rome.
        Let me share one more interesting related word, which comes from a Latin borrowing from Greek, from the Sanskrit branch of the same Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to shine, glow.”  The sandal in sandalwood has nothing to do with footwear but comes from the burning of the wood for incense.

[Pictures: Welcome, rubber block print by AEGN, 2016;
Book and Candle, wood block print by AEGN, 2000.]

December 22, 2017

Merry Christmas

        Here are a couple of lovely Christmas block prints by Rita Corbin (USA, 1930-2011) who worked with Fritz Eichenberg and Ade Bethune with the Catholic Worker movement.  I can't find very good images of her work, or much information about their titles or dates, but I'll let a couple of them speak for themselves.  This first one is wonderfully tender, with Joseph caring for Mary and Mary embracing the baby.  It’s a nice reminder of what this whole holiday is supposed to be about: letting Love be born into the world anew.
        Unfortunately I can’t find a bigger picture of this second piece, which has a
particularly exuberant star filling the entire sky above the Holy Family, wise men, and shepherds.  However, it’s simple and bold enough to be appealing even in so small a thumbnail.
        To those who celebrate Christmas, may yours be full of love!

[Pictures: Block print by Rita Corbin;
Crazy Star, block print by Corbin, (Images from Rita Corbin Art).]

December 19, 2017


        The hourglass has probably been a symbol of time since its invention (which may have been in Alexandria, about 150 BCE).  However, it also came to symbolize mortality, and as such was used on everything from elaborate vanitas paintings to pirates’ flags to gravestones,  sometimes with wings added to show that time is fleeting.  It is interesting that, unlike a clock, an hourglass simultaneously shows the time passing at the present instant, the past that has already flowed through, and the future remaining in the top bulb.  And we can still see a little hourglass icon on our computers, flowing and flipping, flowing and flipping, while we wait for the computer to get something done.
        Before my last show, when I asked my family for suggestions of what block I should make to carve, my son P replied, “an hourglass,” no doubt inspired by the decorative one he keeps on his desk as a fidget toy.  Obviously I was far from the first person to think of doing interesting things with the image of an hourglass; I quickly found cool art depicting hourglasses full of day and night, castles and universes, water and earth, people becoming smothered in falling sand… There were broken bulbs with little worlds escaping, hourglasses showing polar icecaps melting, and more.  In fact, it appeared that all my first thoughts had already been done, so I cast about for something else to put inside an hourglass, and thought of birds.  They can circle around scenic ruins, which is cool, and they can fly upward from the future to the past, which is cool.  And as a bonus, they’re another play on “time flies.” So here it is.

[Picture: Flocks of Time, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

December 12, 2017

Happy Hanukkah

        Hanukkah begins tonight, in honor of which here are a couple of wonderful wood block prints from an eighteenth century book of customs.  As far as I can make out from confusing citations, these wood block prints are from the same book, printed in Amsterdam in Hebrew and/or Yiddish and Spanish.  First, a man lighting a truly epic Hanukkah menorah.  I certainly don’t know anyone with a menorah this big in their home!  Interestingly, this one seems to have only the eight daily lights, not a ninth “servant” light, but the man is using his spills or candles double-fisted, apparently for maximum menorah-lighting speed and power.  I like the way the checkerboard floor pattern sets the stage and gives some perspective and interest to the scene.
        Secondly, a very handsome illustration of a man blowing a shofar.  We have the same checkered floor and diamond-paned windows, which give some nice texture to the scene.  This time we have a small crowd of other people, and what looks like an open book.  The text or musical notation in the book is carved as simple zig-zagged lines.  Generally speaking, these wood block prints would be considered pretty crude, but I think they have an appealing vigor, and the first man in the crowd, behind the shofar-blower, has a quite nicely detailed face.
        For those who celebrate Hanukkah, may it be a happy one!

[Pictures: Man lighting a Hanukkah menorah, wood block print from Sefer HaMinhagim, 1768 (Image from LiveAuctioneers);
Man blowing a shofar, wood block print from Sefer HaMinhagim, 1767-8 (Image from Yale University Library).]

December 8, 2017

Don Quixote

        I’m going to see a performance of “Man of La Mancha” this weekend, so here are a collection of wood block prints illustrating the supremely famous Don Quixote.  “Man of La Mancha” is not just any old adventure; it’s about seeing the world not as it is, but as it ought to be.  Admittedly, Don Quixote is nuts, and his illusions about the world are certainly not always helpful or even inspiring.  Nevertheless, in the musical adaptation Don Quixote’s fantasies (with the sense of delusions) definitely have a lot in common with my sort of fantasy (with the sense of speculative fiction).  That is, by inviting people to think in new, unconventional ways, both fantasies provide hope, creativity, and the possibility of making the world a better place.
        Don Quixote has been an incredibly popular subject for artists, which is hardly surprising, given his status as a symbol of people who live in their
imaginations.  I’ve had a tough time winnowing down the possibilities to a manageable number, but here are some of my relief print favorites.  We begin with one especially suited to “Man of La Mancha,” with its story-within-a-story about Cervantes imagining his characters.  We follow up the image of the fictional characters in Cervantes’s imagination with an image of the fictional characters in Don Quixote’s imagination.  I love the dreamy look in his eyes and the way it’s the pages of the open book that illuminate the world.  Note, too, how Don Quixote holds the pages of the book with separate fingers, marking favorite passages to refer back to.  It’s a nice detail.
        And so Don Quixote sallies forth in two very different styles of wood block print.  The first, a very traditional wood block reproduction of a drawing, shows Quixote looking quite overwhelmed by the world, while the horse Rocinante just looks resigned.  It’s a fun, whimsical depiction, with lots of personality.  The second is too rough, and the figures too distant to have any facial expressions, but the carving itself is very expressive.  It looks like a hot, dry, rough land indeed, and you can sympathize with Sancho’s - and the horse’s - resignation about their master’s whims.
        I certainly couldn’t fail to include a couple of illustrations of the most famous episode of all: tilting at windmills.  This is one of the most popular scenes for artists to depict, and it’s obvious why it would be more interesting to
compose than a picture of a bloke just sitting on a horse.  The illustration by George Cruikshank has his characteristic humor, with Quixote and horse lifted right up in the air, while Sancho and the other bystanders watch in horrified amazement.    The next illustrations show the aftermath, Gustav Doré’s famous version continuing the comedy with all six victims’ legs ridiculously up in the air.  The other takes a more sober approach, in which knight and charger will soon be able to drag themselves to their feet and set off once more.
        Finally, I include a couple of bookplates featuring Don Quixote.  It turns out that Don Quixote was an incredibly popular theme for bookplates during the golden age of hand-carved exlibris, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  Again, what better symbol for book lovers than the man whose favorite books consumed his entire brain?  The first is a charming image of Don Quixote reading while driving, with some nice little touches, such as the flowers on his lance.  The second is an interesting modernist take in which the famous windmill looks more like a huge machine turbine and Don Quixote really looks quite strong and competent like one of Ferdinand Leger’s workers.
        There were plenty of pictures I had to leave out in order to keep this post to a manageable length, and while most were very traditional, a few took the imagery in some interesting - or strange - directions.  But however you picture Don Quixote, it’s worth considering: what is that balance between seeing the world as it is, and imagining it as it could be?  Between practicality and dreaming the impossible dream?

[Pictures: Cervantes imagining his characters, wood block print by Enric Cristófol Ricart, 1933 (Image from Texas A&M);
Don Quixote reading a romance, wood block print by Pavel Šimon, first half of 20th century (Image from TFSimon);
Quelle joie, illustration by Jean-Ignace-Isodore Gérard Grandville reproduced as wood engraving by Barbant, 1848 (Image from Texas A&M);
Don Quixote’s second sally, wood block print by Hans Alexander Mueller, 1923 (Image from Texas A&M);
Don Quixote and the windmill, illustration by George Cruikshank reproduced as wood engraving by Sears and William Hughes, 1824 (Image from Texas A&M);
Adventure of the windmills, illustration by Vicente Urrabieta Ortiz reproduced as wood engraving by Sierra, 1873 (Image from Texas A&M)
Miséricorde! illustration by Gustave Doré reproduced as wood engraving by Héliodore Joseph Pisan, 1863 (Image from Texas A&M);
Bookplate with Don Quixote reading, wood block print by Herbert S. Ott (Image from Art-Exlibris);
Bookplate with Don Quixote attacking a windmill, wood block print by Anatolij Kalaschnikow, 1967 (Image from Art-Exlibris).]