August 30, 2016

Words of the Month - Back to School

        Tomorrow is the first day of school for P and T, and in the spirit thereof, here are a few school-related words with interesting histories.

school - The original Greek root skhole meant “spare time, leisure, idleness.”  So how did we get from “leisure” to its apparent opposite on this, the last day of summer vacation for my children?  Thank the Romans, for whom the right and proper use of free time was philosophical debate, lecture, and learned conversation.  From there we get the gathering of pupils and teacher, and the place of instruction.  Considered in light of the history of child labor, getting to attend school is indeed an intermission from work.

anthology - This staple of literature textbooks has a lovely etymology.  It comes from Greek for “gathering of flowers.”  Originally describing a collection of poetry, the ancient Greeks thought of the poems as lovely flowers - a poetic name for a poetic book.  The term was borrowed into Latin, and eventually into English in the 1630s.

plagiarism - A serious intellectual crime, but one that teachers are always needing to educate against because, sadly, so many students seem to feel the temptation.  If you don’t see why plagiarism is so bad, consider the etymology: in Latin a plagiarius was a “kidnapper, rapist, or plunderer.”  The word was first used to describe literary theft by Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis, Roman, c 40-c 103 CE).  It entered English in the 1620s, when printing was exploding throughout Europe, and thus unauthorized copies of books were also exploding throughout Europe.  (Early laws all tended to focus on the rights of the printers, rather than the rights of the authors, however.)

school of fish - It kind of makes sense to call a group of fish a school, gathered together as they are like students all following a particular lesson plan… But that’s not the real etymology at all.  In fact, it seems that fish swim in schools nowadays only because back in the days of impressionistic spelling, school could be written the same as shoal, “a large number.”  So it was simply misreading that gave us scholarly fish — insufficient schooling leading to an extra meaning of school?



[Pictures: Teacher and students, woodcut from Epitome de sanctis by Georg Witzel, 1551 (Image from UPenn Libraries);
Circular Fish, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1956 (Image from Wikiart).]

August 26, 2016

Two Boats

        Earlier this summer we saw these two color wood block prints displayed together at the RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) Museum.  They are, roughly speaking, the same subject matter, even largely the same composition, and the same technique.  But they have a wholly different feel from each other.
        First, a cool, foggy morning in the Inland Sea in southern Japan.  The swirling fibers of the paper add to the mistiness, and the subtle variations in color are a far cry from the stark black and white of a traditional European woodcut.  I love the faint hint of other shapes in the distance, and the watery ripples of the reflections.  Yoshida Hiroshi (Japan, 1876-1950) has made an image so soft it’s hard to believe it comes from the force of a press on hard, carved wood.
        The exhibit in which these pieces appeared was showing how students of Arthur Wesley Dow (USA, 1857-1922) explored the history and practice of traditional Japanese color woodblock printing, and how it influenced their work.  In this case, however, the American
boat, by Margaret Patterson (USA, 1867-1950) is actually the earlier of the two.  Right away the difference in color is obvious.  We’ve travelled to full, sultry sunlight in Italy, and Patterson’s piece has intense, saturated colors and high contrast.  It’s less detailed, more stylized, with the focus on bold shapes.  You can also see the embossing of the paper, so that you really get the feel of intense pressure on hard blocks.
        I really love both these pieces, and love that they’re so different despite all their similarities.

[Pictures: Hansen, kiri (Sailboats, Fog), polychrome woodblock print by Yoshida Hiroshi, 1926 (Image from RISD Museum);
Torcello, polychrome woodblock print by Margaret Jordan Patterson, 1919.]

August 23, 2016

Strasbourg Astronomical Clock

        Here’s a cool wood block print of a cool thing: the second astronomical clock in the cathedral in Strasbourg, France.  (The present clock is the third, but appears to replicate this design.)  This woodcut is about 15x22.5 inches, and was printed from two blocks - you can see the line where the two sheets of paper are joined across the middle.  That means that each of the two blocks was just a little smaller than the largest block I’ve ever carved.  The artist, Tobias Stimmer (Swiss, 1539-1584) was one of the artists who made the actual clock.  I don’t think he was involved in the clock’s design, but he painted elaborate scenes to decorate it, particularly the three panels down the left tower, and other decorative elements.  (Keep in mind that Stimmer would have drawn the design for this woodcut, but not carved the block or printed it himself.  The printer was Johann Fischart, but the Formschneider (carver) was not named.)  I love the range of details, from the dials and measurements of the clock itself, to the gratuitous putti and curlicues sprinkled about, and even lions and a rooster perched here and there.
        The artist who actually designed the clock, Conrad Dasypodius (Swiss, 1532-1600), wrote a short book about mechanics, and decorated its title page with his own diagram of the Strasbourg clock.   The numbers on this picture are all explained later in the book.  This image is a good deal smaller and rougher than Stimmer’s, as befits its role as an illustrative diagram rather than a glamour shot.  Dasypodius claimed that his clock presented a complete and absolute description of time, including minutes, quarter-hours, hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years, a century, and the beginning and end of the world with Final Judgement and redemption.  A work of art, indeed!

[Pictures: Eigentliche Fürbildung und Beschreibung deß newen Künstlichen Astronomischen Urwecks zu Straßburg, woodcut by Tobias Stimmer, 1574 (Image from The Met);
Title page of Heron mechanicus by Conradus Dasypodius, 1580 (Image from University of Cambridge).]

August 19, 2016

Mythical Z

        This is it, the final letter in the alphabet of mythical creatures!  Many thanks to the Slavic languages for so many of these Z creatures, although we’ve also got creatures from Hebrew, Arabic, and Haitian.  Anything beginning with Z automatically sounds rather exotic in English.

ziz - A bird so huge that its wingspan can block out the sun.  It’s the avian counterpart of leviathan and behemoth.  Standing in the deepest ocean, the water reaches only up to the ziz’s ankles.  Some sources describe it as being like a griffin, while others say it’s like a giant rooster.  I’ve chosen to show it in the gallinaceous style.  (Jewish)

zburător - Something like an incubus, this spirit is a ghostly, handsome young man who visits women in the night for indecent purposes.  He especially favors recently married women.  (Romanian)

zitiron- A sort of merperson with the upper body of a knight in full armor.  (medieval European)

zilant - This wyvern-like dragonoid is the symbol of Kazan, Russia.  (Tatar/Russian)

zmey/zmiy/zmaj/zmij/zmej - Slavic dragons, sometimes representing evil, but sometimes extremely wise, magical, and respected.  (Slavic)
     Zmey Gorynych is a green, three-headed dragon that walks on its hind legs and has small front limbs (like a T. Rex?), and breathes fire.  (Russian, Ukranian)
     Zmeu is an anthropomorphic dragonoid that can shapeshift, make and use tools and weapons, and has a magical shining stone on its head.  It has a predilection for stealing precious objects ranging from golden apples to the sun and moon, and with a particular yen for beautiful maidens.  (Romanian)

Zlatorog - A white chamois or mountain goat with magical golden horns that can lead to a treasure hidden in the highest peak of the Slovenian Alps.  (Slovenian, Alpine)

zubat - I felt that I should include a pokémon in my alphabet.  The zubat is certainly not the most interesting of pokémon, but having got to Z, I was out of better options.  (Japanese, universal)

zaratan - another name for aspidochelone, especially prevalent in the Middle East

zombie - A reanimated dead human, previously mentioned here.  (originally Haitian, now universal)

     At one point after beginning this mythical alphabet, I had fantasies of ending with a grand launch of a Kickstarter campaign for my own bestiary project… but then I decided it was all futile anyway!  So perhaps someday you’ll hear more about this scheme, but for now, this is the end of the series.  But don’t worry, I’m sure there will be plenty more mythical creatures to come.


[Pictures: Ziz Eclipse, rubber block print by AEGN, 2016;
Zitiron, hand-colored wood block print from Hortus sanitatis, 1499 Strasbourg edition (Image from Boston Public Library);
Zubat, from Pokémon Go;
Disarmed Zombie, block print by Pete Mitchell (Image from his Etsy shop daspetey).]

August 12, 2016

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

        One of William Butler Yeats’s more famous fantasy poems, The Song of Wandering Aengus was published in 1899.  Aengus is one of the Tuatha De Danann, a god of love, youth, and beauty.  This poem doesn’t tell one of the traditional myths about Aengus, but there is a story that Aengus fell in love with a woman he saw in a dream, and it took three years of searching to find her.  She was the goddess of sleep and dreams.  So you can see here how Yeats lets ideas from Celtic myth inspire him, and weaves something new and mysterious from them.  I especially love the moth-like stars.

[Pictures: Songs for Wandering Aengus, woodcut by Matthew Zappala (Image from roll magazine);
Wherever Angus went a number of white birds flew with him, illustration by Beatrice Elvery from Heroes of the Dawn by Violet Russell, 1914 (Image from Internet Archive).]

August 5, 2016

Background and Foreground

        Last week I taught my annual summer printmaking class, and I want to share a project the kids did.  I introduced it for the first time this year, and I’m really pleased with the results.  The project was inspired by some of Escher’s work that I shared here previously, and my artists (this year all kids going into 6th and 7th grade) were to make two blocks to be printed together: one background block and one foreground block.  I showed them Escher’s pieces, plus a few others by way of explanation.  The kids had to stretch themselves a little, but got the concept well.  They made a real effort to use texture, too, which is often something kids neglect.
        I pointed out that the main focus of their piece could be the foreground block with the background block as, well, just background.  That’s what most of them did.  But another way to do it was to make the main focus the background block, with the foreground block as framing, and one student went about the project that way instead.  Finally, there was one student who made foreground and background more equal, with her tropical sunset and palm trees.
        One of the things I liked about this project was that it seemed to inspire lots of experimentation.  Most of the students tried printing with a variety of color combinations, and one made a series worthy of Monet in making color combos for every time of day.  One decided in the end that she liked one of her blocks better on its own, while another decided to carve a second background as another option to put behind her foreground block.  It was a lot of fun for the kids, and a lot of fun for me to see everything they came up with.  Several of the students asked where they could get supplies to do more printmaking at home, so I hope at least a few of them will keep with it!
        This is another of those projects that I’ve been wanting to do myself for quite a while, but haven’t yet got around to.  I have a couple of ideas marinating in my mind, and I hope to get something down on rubber before the end of the summer.





[Pictures: Elephant, rubber block print by CL, 2016;
Barn, rubber block print by NR, 2016;
Tropical Paradise, rubber block print by RB, 2016;
Desert, rubber block print by KW, 2016.]

August 2, 2016

Mythical Y

        We’re almost to the end now, and it might seem that we’re scraping the bottom of the mythical barrel.  (Not that one should keep mythical creatures in barrels, with the exception of slimes and extoplasms, of course.)  But Y turns out to host some grade A creatures, many little-known and a couple of classics.

yale - A sort of antelope with horns that can independently swivel 360°, the yale was first described by Pliny the Elder but became particularly well-known in the middle ages through the renaissance.  Its most famous feature is the very long horns which can be turned to face a threat from any direction, or to spare someone, as the yale deems appropriate.  In battle it sometimes holds one horn out of the way to keep in reserve in case the first is broken.  It may even be able to roll the horns up when not in use.  In addition yales have tusks in their lower jaws.  There’s some diversity in body type, from Pliny’s description of a body like a hippopotamus to very slender, goat-like varieties.  Coloration ranges from black to white, but many are spotted.  One of the more common species is white spotted with pure gold, while some have multi-colored spots.  There is also a species of yale with straight horns, although most of them are curved.  (European)

ypotryll - Another creature of heraldry, the ypotryll has the head of a boar complete with tusks, the body of a camel complete with humps, the legs of an ox or goat complete with hooves, and the tail of a serpent.  I have no idea what it’s good for, but it looks absolutely fabulous (in all senses of the word.)  (European)

Yara-ma-yha-who - This looks like a little red man with a big head, big toothless mouth, and suckers on its hands and feet.  It lurks in a fig tree until a human stops to rest in the shade.  Then it drops down on the victim and drains their blood through its suckers.  It then eats the human, but after taking a nap, it spits the person back up.  The human is now a little shorter and redder than before, and if this happens repeatedly to one person, they become a Yara-ma-yha-who themselves.  The best way to protect oneself is to play dead during the day, since the Yara-ma-yha-who hunts only during the day and only living prey.  (Australian Aboriginal)

yacumama - A water-monster some 150 feet long that lives at the mouth of the Amazon.  It is generally thought to be serpentine, can slurp up anything within 100 paces, may have horns, and can squirt a jet of water at prey.  Recently there have been claims that this is a genuine scientific species of giant snake or caecilian, but as always in cryptozoology, the evidence remains inconclusive.  (Brazilian indigenous people)

yowie - Australia’s Bigfoot, the yowie is also sometimes called yahoo (which word I suspect must be related to the yha-who of the other Australian creature above).  It’s a tall, hairy, ape-like biped with long arms and irregular feet and toes.  It can be as tall as 12 feet, and is usually shy but sometimes accused of mauling pets or livestock.  Like many hominoid cryptids, it's often reported as having a strong, foul stench.  (Australian)

yeti - The Himalayan Bigfoot, this cryptid has widely varying descriptions.  It’s generally portrayed with white fur, which makes it look more at home in the mountain snows, but earlier descriptions often give it dark or orangish fur.  Its height seems to have wide variations, too.  Like many hominoid cryptids, it may have backwards-facing feet, to prevent being tracked by its tracks.  Previously mentioned here.  (Himalayan)

yeren - China’s Bigfoot, the yeren is usually reddish but occasionally albino, and lives in Hubei province.  It seems a little more prone than most Bigfoot-kin to eating humans.  (Chinese)
        What’s the mystical connection between the letter Y and giant ape-men?  That’s yet one more mystery to add to all the others.


[Pictures: Beaufort yale, possibly by Torric inn Bjorn but I can’t find info about it (Image from  Hrynkiw and Braidwood);
Extremely happy ypotryll, again without artist, date, source, or other helpful info (Image from Heraldic Clipart);
A Description of a wonderful large wild man, or monstrous giant, brought from Botany-Bay, woodcut from a broadside, c 1788 (Image from New South Wales State Library);
Illustration of yowie seen by Charles Harper, 1912 (Image from Unsolved Mysteries In The World);
Yeti in winter, woodcut by Joshua Norton (Image from Etsy shop woodcutposters).]

July 29, 2016

Words of the Month - Ghost Words

        A ghost word is a word that makes it into a dictionary or authoritative work by mistake, and having once landed there is taken by everyone to be a real word.  The essence of a ghost word is that it had no meaning or usage at all before mistakenly being given a place in a position of authority.  Most ghost words are eventually unmasked and removed from dictionaries, but some stick around a surprisingly long time.  I’ve chosen this topic for this month’s Words because there’s a ghost word associated with one of my mythical X creatures.

hsigo - “flying monkey from Chinese mythology,” this word was apparently a mistake generated by optical character recognition software trying to read hsiao (which I featured under the alternate Romanization xiao, because x’s are always more exciting.)  Having once appeared in Wikipedia, the word can now be found all over the web, and although Wikipedia has been corrected, it’s probably too late - the hsigo has escaped from captivity and is naturalizing on the internet.

dord - “density,” added to Webster’s when the abbreviation D or d was mistakenly taken as a word in its own right.  It existed as a word in all the Webster’s editions from 1934 until 1947.

phantomnation - “multitude of spectres, illusion,” added to dictionaries in the eighteenth century when Alexander Pope’s “Phantome-nations of the dead” was copied without its hyphen and came to be reinterpreted as a single word.

morse - “to prime or foster,” first appeared in nineteenth century editions of Walter Scott’s novel The Monastery in the line “dost thou so soon morse thoughts of slaughter?”  A scholarly journal included articles giving etymologies of morse (from French amorce in priming a musket, or from Latin mordere in biting or gnawing).  In fact, however, it was simply a misprint of nurse, as eventually confirmed in Scott’s original manuscript.

ouphe - “imp, goblin, elf,” another of my mythical creatures, and probably simply a misspelling or misprint of oaph/oaf.  The word first appeared in Shakespeare, which is why its existence was considered authoritative.  (Alexander Pope and Walter Scott are not so widely popular these days, but they, too, were major bestsellers and trend-setters in their days.)

feamyng - “a group of ferrets,” appeared in several dictionaries including a 1949 crossword dictionary.  Although it looks like a most satisfactory Old English word, it is, apparently, merely the final result of a long string of errors gradually transforming busyness to feamyng.  The proper collective term for ferrets is therefore a “business.”

snalce - “one who schemes, connives, and uses sex appeal to further their own ends.”  Okay, this word doesn’t actually appear in any dictionaries, although it should.  It’s a word in usage among my friends and family, and it originated from my misreading of a friend’s handwriting when, in a high school note, she described a certain scheming classmate as a “snake.”  If snalce ever does get into the dictionary, of course, it will be a simple coinage rather than a mistake, but its origins are purely ghostly.

esquivalience - “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities,” is not technically a ghost word because it was invented for The New Oxford American Dictionary deliberately in 2005, as a copyright trap.  Copyright traps are minor “mistakes” or falsehoods purposely included in reference works in order to provide evidence of plagiarism should they be copied.  However, like ghost words, they can potentially be taken as real words despite having no linguistic past.

        The term ghost word was coined by Walter William Skeat in 1886 in an address to the Philological Society , in which he praised OED editor James Murray for trying to eliminate such words from the dictionary.  Personally, however, I think they’re fun.  And chances are that a few of the words we use to today might well have begun with a copyist's or editor's error that never was caught.

[Pictures: Midnight, linoleum block print by Lori Biwer-Stewart (Image from her Etsy shop);
Ferrets, linocut from Etsy shop Indrukwekkend (Image via Pinterest).]

July 26, 2016

Provincetown White-Line Technique

        You can review my previous post to brush up on the origins of Provincetown white-line printmaking.  Today I’m going to go into more depth about the step-by-step of the method.
         So, step one is to design an image like a coloring book picture - just the outlines of all the areas.  I actually made four or five different sketches trying to figure out the right level of detail for a first experiment in this style.  I kept making designs that I thought would be too complicated.  However, when all you carve is basic outlines, carving goes very quickly compared to the usual kind of blocks that I do!  The characteristic white outlines result when those lines are the only areas of the block that are actually carved away and can’t carry ink.
        Once all the outlines are carved, each outlined shape is then painted with ink, one at a time, and pressed individually.  To keep the registration, the paper is tacked onto the edge of the block, folded back while an area is painted, then folded down and pressed to print the ink.  This is repeated until all the colors are done for a single complete impression.
        As I mentioned before, in a traditional multi-block print, you print the entire edition’s worth of one color (one block), followed by the entire edition with the second color (second block), and so on.  In the Provincetown method, all the colors are done on one impression before the second impression of the edition is begun.  The Provincetown printers often worked on several blocks at a time so that they could do the yellow of three different blocks, then the light green of all three blocks, and so on.  I had two blocks to work on, but one was carved in wood and inked with watercolors, but the other was carved in rubber and inked with markers, so they didn’t share ink anyway.  (Watercolor doesn’t work with rubber blocks because it just beads up, and besides, the rubber block version is to be a possible project for my class this week, so I wanted a version that would be easy for kids.)
        At any rate, the effect of each impression being colored individually is that each impression can be done with its own individual color choices - any two impressions from the same block could have all the same colors, or minor variations, or a completely different palette.    For my wood block print I decided what colors I liked best and just stuck with them - no wildly original red dandelions or purple grass.  But I did make two versions of the child.  Although the design is based on a photograph I took of my son P many years ago, I love the photo because of its universality.  It might be my own son, but don’t all children love to pick flowers?  Don’t all children recognize the beauty in the flowers that adults tend to call weeds?  Don’t all children love dandelions or other “interactive” plants that can be blown, popped, scattered, or otherwise played with?  So I made the blond version that looks like P, and I also made a version with another child, who may be painted with different colors, but is exactly the same at heart.  Aesthetically I like the second child better because I think the dark colors have more interesting contrast with all the light and bright colors elsewhere.
        I tried more variations with my window box design, where I experimented with different colors of flowers, and different combinations of siding and window box paint.  Because I used markers, I couldn’t blend the perfect colors but was stuck with the plain colors that came in the set.  Mostly I would have liked some lighter colors for the house siding: a greyer blue, a paler yellow, maybe a beige…  But while they give less flexibility in color, the markers and the small size of the block do make it easier to experiment.
        I confess that this is not my favorite kind of relief block print.  I like prints better with more interesting carving, and I like the ink to emphasize the carving, rather than just its own color.  I don’t think I have any interest in doing more, or at least not at the moment.  Still, it was fun to try something new, and if my students come up with any masterpieces at the end of the week, I’ll be sure to share them.

[Discovering Dandelions, while-line wood block print in two color variations by AEGN, 2016;
Paper tacked to blocks for registration;
Paper tacked to wood block with several colors printed;
Paper tacked to rubber block with several colors printed, photos by AEGN, 2016;
Little Window Box, while-line rubber block print in three color variations by AEGN, 2016;
Inked block by AEGN, 2016.]