August 15, 2017


        Raubdruckerin (“pirate printer”) is a project begun by Emma-France Raff in 2006.  Like the brass rubbings I featured in the last post, Raubdruckerin prints from textured plaques that were not designed to be printing blocks and that are set in public spaces rather than being in a studio.  Specifically, they choose surfaces in the urban landscape, especially manhole covers.  They look for textured surfaces that are unique and often iconic of their place, sometimes including images, sometimes abstract designs, and often text.  Unlike brass rubbings, Raubdruckerin actually does print as any other relief block, rolling ink onto the textured surface, and pressing.  (This means any text on the original is backwards on the print.)
        I have to confess that although I’ve thought of this idea myself - around here we have plaques near our storm drains with a great design of a fish - I had never seriously considered actually doing it!  Naturally it’s a bit of an undertaking to clean the selected surface, roll it with ink, and print on it, right there in the middle of the sidewalk or street of a busy city!  Raubdruckerin makes an event of it, so that the printing becomes a performance in its own right, inviting passers-by to notice so that they, too, can appreciate the beauty of something they may have walked over hundreds of times without noticing.
        I was quite delighted when I learned about this project, and would love to see the idea emulated in more cities, including the USA.  A quick search of manhole cover pictures on the internet turns up some really gorgeous ones around the world!  To see more of Raubdruckerin’s work (or buy some), check out their web site.

[Pictures: Printing a tote bag in Bruxelles;
T-shirt printed in Berlin;
T-shirts printed in Stavanger and Lisboa (All images from raubdruckerin);
Charles River storm drain (Image from Charles River Conservancy).]

August 11, 2017

Brass Rubbing

        Brass rubbing is a particular form of relief printing in which, instead of inking the raised surface and laying paper onto the ink, paper is laid on the clean surface, and the top of the paper is rubbed with a wax stick to pick up the raised texture beneath.  Unlike a traditional block print, the image on paper will not be reversed from the block, but it also has somewhat less detail.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brass rubbing became popular in Britain to reproduce the many monumental brass plaques that had been placed in churches in the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries, so another difference between brass rubbing and block printing is that in most cases the textured plate was never intended as a printing block or designed with that in mind.  However, repeated rubbing does eventually begin to wear down the brass plaques, so many originals now forbid rubbings… and reproductions of the brass plaques are created specifically to allow rubbing, thus making them true printing blocks of a sort after all.
        Even though the brasses were not intended for printing, they sometimes have really lovely designs and textures.  I particularly like this couple’s Gothic canopy, and the husband’s chain mail and belt.  The other fun details are the lion at his feet, and the little lap dog at hers.  The woman in the gorgeous brocade gown must have been spectacularly
fashionable in life, and saw no reason to stop in death.  A quite unusual amount of work went into patterning her dress all over.  The bust of a man is, by contrast, very simple and may even have been a stock design rather than made to commission as a portrait.  Nevertheless I find it exceptionally beautiful, with its expressive eyes and careworn brow.
        In my youth my jack-of-all-crafts mother dabbled in brass rubbing while we visited the UK, and I (at age 9) joined in with scrap paper and scrap crayons, and kept the results in my scrapbook.  Two years ago at the National Museum of Ireland we found small reproduction brass plaques provided for visitors to make rubbings, but we couldn’t do a very good job, as the provided paper and wax sticks were all
almost entirely used.  You can see in my two examples the shift in brass rubbing fashion: earlier rubbings were black on white, while nowadays people favor metallic on black.
        There’s no reason the rubbing plate has to be brass, of course.  In the United States it used to be not uncommon to make rubbings of colonial gravestone designs.  One difference between the monumental brasses and the colonial gravestones is that the former are, as far as I can tell, carved by anonymous artists, while the gravestones are often initialed by their creators and can be attributed to known carvers.  Of course, all forms of rubbings have become much less common with the ease of photography as a quicker, cheaper, less damaging, and (in some ways) more accurate method of reproduction.  But there is an artist using the equivalent of found brass plaques for interesting effects today, to be featured in the next post

[Pictures: Sir William and Alianora Burgate, brass effigies 1409, from Burgate, Suffolk;
Margaret Bernard Peyton, brass effigy 1484, from Isleham, Cambridgeshire;
Bust of a civilian (James de Holveston?), brass plaque c. 1360, from Blickling, Norfolk (Images from Hamline University);
Several rubbings from Brightlingsea, Essex and the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, by AEGN;
James Allen gravestone, slate carved by W.C. (William Custin?), 1714;
Jonathan Wyatt gravestone, slate carved by John Stevens III, 1775;
Joseph Fitch gravestone, granite carved by Obadiah Wheeler (decorations) and John Huntington (lettering), 1741;
Job Howland gravestone, slate carved by John Bull, 1785, all gravestone rubbings by Sue Kelly and Anne Williams (Images from the Farber Gravestone Collection).]

August 8, 2017

Here's Something Cool: Fenghuang

        I like mythical creatures, and I like sculptures made from found mechanical bits and pieces, and these phoenixes check both boxes on a massive scale.  I featured the artist Xu Bing earlier this year for his wood block prints, but these sculptures begin to give you an idea of the breadth and variety of his artwork.  The two phoenixes are made from materials collected from construction sites in China.  At 90 and 100 feet long, they’re almost more roc than phoenix!
        The Chinese phoenix is called "fenghuang," and originally feng was male and huang female, which is what Xu has named his two huge sculptures.  Although fenghuang is given the English translation “phoenix,” the only thing they really have in common is being magical, mythical birds.  The fenghuang lives on the Kunlun Mountains in northern China and appears only in places blessed with exceptional peace and happiness.  It became associated with the empress, to pair with the dragon representing the emperor, and now the paired dragon and phoenix are often used in wedding decorations to symbolize the perfect union between husband and wife.  (“Dragon and phoenix” is also a common item on Chinese menus.  In the USA it’s a dish that combines chicken with seafood.  Additional fun fact: my children P and T are “dragon and phoenix children,” i.e. boy-girl twins.)  In any case, the fenghuang represents all sorts of auspicious virtues.
        Xu’s Feng and Huang represent the cultural changes brought on by rapid development in China, and they’re a reaction to the terrible conditions experienced by migrant construction workers in China.  Xu said of his phoenixes, “They bear countless scars.  [They have] lived through great hardship, but they still have self-respect.  In general, the phoenix expresses unrealized hopes and dreams.”  You can see that they’re entirely composed of salvaged construction materials: rusty metal, battered hard hats, ductwork tubing, backhoe buckets, and so on.  I haven’t seen these sculptures in person, alas, but from the photos I’d say they don’t seem so grim to me.  They look quite powerful and transcendent.

[Pictures: Phoenix installation at MassMoCA, sculptures by Xu Bing, 2013 (Image from The Daily Gazette);
Feng at Cathedral of St John the Divine, sculpture by Xu, 2014 (Image from Bobby Zuco);
Huang at Mass MoCA, sculpture by Xu, 2013, (Image from Colossal).]

August 4, 2017

Afternoon through Midnight

        Here is the second half of my day of “hours.”  To compare with the earlier four, there is a little more reference to human homes here.  I always feel that part of the beauty of night is being able to go in from it when you want.  I especially love the look of lighted windows as the sky turns dark.  But it’s also comforting to remember that while I’m shut away from the night in my bed, the rest of the universe carries on: stars wheeling, animals of every kind living their lives, tides rising and falling, all without any reference to me and my concerns.
        As for the verses on these pieces, Noon is attributed to a traditional Jewish proverb; Dusk is mine; Evening is from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; and Midnight is a line from an Algonquin legend as recorded by Charles G. Leland in 1884.  Obviously music and singing are a recurring theme 
among all eight “hours”.  Sometimes music is a very clear, physical way to rejoice and celebrate, but phrases such as “my heart sang” and “the music of the spheres” show how deeply music symbolizes rightness and joy even when you’re outwardly silent.
        Obviously the other recurring theme here is nature.  Certainly I’m grateful for all manner of technology that makes my life comfortable, safe, and productive, not to mention interesting.  But the whole idea of a book of hours for me was to remember the natural rhythms of the day and use them as a basis for contemplation and awareness of the divine.  It’s best to treasure the fact that life comes in its seasons despite all our efforts to control it.  I’ve also made sure to choose some of my favorite unremarkable creatures for these pieces, including red-winged blackbirds, fireflies, and bats.  These are not the big 
and flashy animals like tigers or whales that everyone admires, or the cute ones that everybody loves.  Rather they’re the everyday, ordinary creatures that would be easy to overlook and forget, but which make my heart sing whenever I notice them.

        So here I am with a series of eight block prints, and a lot of thought about the idea behind a book of hours: a call to personal devotion that is also a thing of beauty.  That has led me to the idea of compiling an actual book, with words and images.  I’ve been collecting snippets of psalms and other poetry to assign to different times of day; I’ve been converting elements of these eight block prints into borders to decorate text; and I’ve been working on how this can become a book that might be really meaningful to people with a broad range of specific spiritual 
backgrounds.  We’ll see how it all comes together.

[Pictures: Afternoon, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017;
Dusk, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017;
Evening, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017;
Midnight, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

August 1, 2017

Wee Hours through Noon

        As previously mentioned, I’ve been working on a project inspired by the medieval Book of Hours, a genre that was simultaneously status symbol and aide to private devotion.  Because of the former, these books were often beautifully crafted and lavishly decorated with gorgeous illustrations and decorative borders.  Because of the latter, they included calendars of church celebrations, psalms and Bible excerpts, prayers and creeds to recite at different times of the day on different days of the week, litanies of saints to invoke, and so on.  Since I’m not Catholic (let alone medieval) I don’t care about the specific Saints’ Days or prayers traditionally included in medieval books of hours, but I do embrace the idea of spirituality throughout the day and the year.  I like the reminder that it’s always appropriate to be aware of the natural rhythms of the day, to be grateful for the gifts of each
part of the cycle, to maintain wonder and appreciation for the presence of the divine all the time.  So I began to think about a series of prints celebrating each of the traditional “hours” of the day.
        Again, I’m not necessarily adhering strictly to the monastic hours, which had a good deal of variation from order to order and century to century.  I simply chose to divide the day into eight more-or-less equal and important moments: wee hours, dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, dusk, evening, and midnight.  These would be equally spaced if dawn and dusk were exactly twelve hours apart, in which case you could think of the times as being 3am, 6am, 9am, 12 noon, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm, 12 midnight.  They roughly correspond to the traditional “hour” names vigils, matins/prime/lauds, terce, sext, none, vespers, compline, and getting some sleep for goodness sake.  (Again, the observation of
these “hours” and exactly when they fell varied a great deal historically.  See my post Time for Etymology for a quick summary of how one such monastic change gave us our word noon.)
        Today I share the first four “hours” in my series.  You can see that my inspiration from medieval books of hours gave me elaborate decorative borders, as well as the inclusion of text.  My texts are not all explicitly religious, but they are all definitely spiritual to me.  I composed the text for  Wee Hours using Dylan Thomas’s beautiful phrase “the close and holy darkness,” and Dawn’s line is from Shakespeare’s sonnet 29, my favorite.  Morning and Noon are simply my own.
        As far as design, Morning was the hardest because I couldn't figure out what to do that was different.  It seems a little too similar to Dawn and Noon.  But one
thing it does include that's different from these other three is signs of human activity.
        I’ll share the final four hours in the next post, along with my further ambitions…

[Pictures: Wee Hours, block print by AEGN, 2017;
Dawn, block print by AEGN, 2017;
Morning, block print by AEGN, 2017;
Noon, block print by AEGN, 2017.]

July 28, 2017

Words of the Month - From the Stars

        In honor of next month’s upcoming solar eclipse, I have some words for you that come from the sun and other stars.  Of course there are all the scientific words including Greek and Latin roots  helios, sol, aster, and stella, such as parhelion, solar, solstice, stellar, asteroid, astronomy, astronaut, and constellation.  But today I want to share some words that you might not have associated with the stars.
        First, a few where the root is still fairly clear:
helium - “sun’s element”, first detected in the solar spectrum during an eclipse in 1868
parasol - “defense against the sun”
starling - starred bird
heliotrope - flower that “turns to the sun”

Let’s continue with the botanical theme:
girasole - flower that “turns to the sun” from Latin roots instead of heliotrope’s Greek.  This is an archaic word for the sunflower in English, borrowed from Italian.  I’ve never heard it used, although perhaps it remains in some dialects.  However, it does live on in the Jerusalem artichoke, whose “jerusalem” is actually a folk etymology, a reinterpretation by others who weren’t familiar with the word girasole, either.
aster - flower shaped like a star

asterisk - “small star”, also pretty obvious when you think about it

        Here are a couple of words in which the sun and stars are much better hidden:
south - “sun-side” (in the northern hemisphere, anyway)
disaster - “ill-starred”

        And finally, two bonus words whose etymologies are disputed.  They may come from astrology:
desire - “from the stars”, with the sense of awaiting what the stars have in store for us
consider - “to observe the stars”, with the sense of study and contemplation
        … or then again, they may come from a different root with a sense of “stretching or extending”.  Just like the stars themselves, word origins are a long way off, and possible to study only from the faint signals that have made it all the way to us.

[Pictures: Solar eclipse, wood block print from Vberrimum sphere mundi by Johannes de Sacro Bosco, 1498 (Image from Indiana University);
Calendar of eclipses, wood block printing from Calendar by Regiomantanus, printed by Erhard Ratdolt, 1582 (Image from University of Glasgow);
De Eclypsi Solis, wood block print from an unspecified book on the Venerable Saint Bede, 17th century (Image from University of South Carolina).]

July 25, 2017


        I’ve been printing up a storm recently, and everything was going smoothly until we actually had a beautiful, perfect day after two weeks of hideously muggy, humid weather.  And suddenly my printing was a disaster.  I’ve always been aware that when I teach classes in highly air conditioned schools or conference rooms, it’s difficult to keep the ink from drying out too quickly, but I had never before seen the effect so clearly when printing at home.  Luckily for my printing spree (although unfortunately for the rest of life) the next day it rained all day and I was able to redo my printing efforts with better results.  In future I may have to make a point of checking the humidity in the weather forecast when planning when to undertake major printing efforts.
        In any event, here’s one of the pieces I printed.  It’s just a fun little thing, nothing too ambitious because I began it during my class last week and was working on it only intermittently when no students needed assistance.  It’s a wyvern, which is a two-legged, winged dragon.  (Introductory definition here.)  As usual when doing mythical creatures, I wanted to show my wyvern a little differently from how they’re usually seen, and this time I took that idea rather literally.  Wyverns are common in heraldry, but my wyvern is too curious to stay confined to a coat of arms.  He wants to get out and stretch his wings, see the world, seek his fortune, and find adventure.  I just hope he doesn’t cause too much trouble along the way!

[Picture: Freedom, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

July 21, 2017

Student White Line Prints

        Last summer I did a couple of posts about the Provincetown white-line style of block prints, because I was planning to have my students give it a try in my summer printmaking class.  You can refresh your memory in the post about the style, and the post on my own attempts at the technique.  But I never did post any student work because that year’s class were meticulous workers and ran out of time before we got to the project.  But this year’s group got to try it, and they did a great job with it.
        The work I’ve posted here today was done by kids going into fifth and seventh grade (although the whole class had students going into 5-9).  I explained that they needed to think about making a design like a coloring book: just outlines around areas, with no areas too big or too tiny, and no need to think about black and white or texture.  Although this was a bit of an adjustment from how I’d been trying to get them to think about all their other block print designs all week, it is a fairly natural, easy way for them to think of designs, so in the end they probably did better with it than I do!
        Like the one sample I had done last summer, these designs were carved into rubber and colored with markers, which works reasonably well.  I encouraged the kids to try a few different color schemes, which some of them really took to, as you can see with the crazy-colored cows.  I also encouraged them not to leave too large a plain background, and you can see in the bird an example of a student who had more plain background than I wanted them to aim for - but it still works out pretty well.
        From a teacher’s perspective, this is a good project for the end of the class because it doesn’t use printing ink.  That means a) the cleaning of ink plates and brayers can begin a little sooner, and b) more importantly, there aren’t any prints at the end of the class with ink still tacky, making it easier to stack up all the art and get it home without a mess.  For more detail about the step-by-step, check out the previous post on the technique.  Some additional tips for success with students are:
   1. Pre-cut each block with an extra half inch of rubber on one side, and draw a line to mark the extra area.  This is the place where they will tack their paper to keep it registered while coloring and printing.
   2. Pre-cut paper to exactly the size of the finished image and give it to students to draw their designs.  That way you don’t have to worry that they’ll get confused and put carving in the extra area.  When they transfer their designs to the rubber, just show them to line it up even with the outside edge, and their paper should end at the line drawn on their rubber.
   3.  Fold each sheet of printing paper along one edge.  Then when a student is ready to print, you can line up the crease of the paper just outside their carved area and tack it down with thumbtacks onto the extra rubber.  The fold makes it clear to them how the paper folds back so they can color an area, and folds down so they can press it.
        From the students’ perspective, this project made a nice variety from the other printmaking projects, was quite quick and simple to carve, and was a lot of fun.

[Pictures: House and Waterfall, block print by EA, 2017;
Cow, block prints by AA, 2017;
Bird, block print by ELZ, 2017;
Dragon, block print by EZ, 2017.]

July 18, 2017

Books of Hours

        I’ve been working for some time on a project inspired by Books of Hours, so before I share my pieces, here’s a little background.  The book of hours developed towards the end of the 13th century out of the texts outlining the daily Divine Office to be performed in monasteries, as an abbreviated version for use by lay people.  They were prayer books, but they were also status symbols as the only book (if any) most families were likely to own.  Lavishly illuminated books of hours were enormously valuable, but with the advent of printing, simpler, mass-produced versions became affordable for the rising middle class as well.  In either form they were enormously popular, and from about 1275-1525 more books of hours were produced than any other title.
        The luxury illuminated books of hours are the most famous.  While most books of hours are illustrated with religious themes, some have secular scenes that offer valuable and fascinating clues about daily life, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries.  In addition to the illustrations that are entire scenes, decorative borders are common and range from botanical designs, to abstract embellishments, to detailed trompe l’oeil arrangements of plants and insects.  I enjoy the appearance of the text, too, usually in gothic script and often with fancier initial letters.  Of course, I’m showing examples of printed volumes rather than the more famous and colorful manuscripts.
        I’ve been interested in books of hours for their appearance, but recently began thinking about the content, as well.  A book of hours generally contains a calendar of the church year, excerpts from the  gospels, and a cycle of psalms and prayers to be observed at various times through each day and on particular occasions.  The content of books of hours was never officially standardized so there is quite a bit of variation in both contents and order.  Some elements are very common, others more personalized.  The early books were all made to order on commission, but even the mass produced editions were often adapted to a particular market with variations for geographical region and price point.
        I’ve included pictures to represent a couple of different styles of border, both made in segments for ease of printing.  One appears to have hand rubrication, the others printed.  I also have two illustrations for the month of July.  The first is a pleasing family scene, but I don’t know whether it represents an episode from the life of Mary, or a stage in the life of a human, both of which were popular themes for books of hours.  The other July is an engraving rather than a wood block print, but I included it because it represents the other popular theme, daily life through the seasons.  You can see how such illustrations are great resources about clothing, tools, practices, etc.
        Here's a previous post featuring a printed book of hours, and in another post before too long I will share what direction I took these various ideas.

[Pictures: July from Ces presentes heures a lusaige de Paris printed by Thielman Kerver, 1540 (Image from University of Virginia Library);
Book of Hours at King’s College, Cambridge, 1498 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Horae in Laudem Beatissimae Virginis Marie as usum Romanium printed by Thielman Kerver, 1556 (Image from Les Enluminures);
July from Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis of Marguerite of Valois, 1597 (Image from University of Virginia Library).]