November 17, 2017

Zofrea's Harvest

        As we near Thanksgiving, here’s a wood block print of the harvest.  Salvatore Zofrea (Italy/Australia, b. 1946) has a distinctive technique in which his white figures have a black outline and a white outline.  Clearly he first carves an outline of every shape regardless of whether it will eventually be up against a white or a black background.  He then goes on to carve out white areas, carefully leaving their black outlines, thus giving them that double border.  In this harvest piece there is an over-all texture of lines for the long stalks, growing, cut, gathered, fallen… everywhere.  It certainly looks like hard work.
        I’ve included a second piece by Zofrea that I especially like, entitled “My mother’s hands.”  I love how well the sketchy texture of the carving makes accurate details of wrinkles, veins, and skin.  The close focus on the hands laid in the lap is quite lovely.  This comes from a series of pieces illustrating the artist’s life.
        These are actually quite large pieces, for woodcuts.  The harvest scene is 60x90 cm (24x 36 in).  Seeing only small images on-line, it’s hard for me to get a sense of the impact they would have in person, at full size.  Still, better a small view than none at all!

[Pictures: Harvesting, from the series Capricornia, woodcut by Salvatore Zofrea, 1989;
My mother’s hands, from the suite Appassionata, woodcut by Zofrea, 1994-9 (Images from Art Gallery NSW).]

November 14, 2017

Moore's Moyle and More

        It’s time for some more fantasy poetry, and today I’m looking at Thomas Moore (1779-1852), Irish Romantic poet.  Like many of the Romantics, his work can be appallingly overwrought, as in this verse I discovered when researching my hercinia.  It’s an excerpt from a "Dream of Antiquity” (c. 1804).  You can note the reference to hercinias, if you can get that
far through the densely self-conscious poetickness.

And now the fairy pathway seemed
To lead us through enchanted ground,
Where all that bard has ever dreamed
Of love or luxury bloomed around.
Oh! 'twas a bright, bewildering scene--
Along the alley's deepening green
Soft lamps, that hung like burning flowers,
And scented and illumed the bowers,
Seemed, as to him, who darkling roves,
Amid the lone Hercynian groves,
Appear those countless birds of light,
That sparkle in the leaves at night,
And from their wings diffuse a ray
Along the traveller's weary way.

        Having read this I was wondering why on earth Moore was famous.  Then I saw that he was also the author of many of the classic sentimental Irish songs including “The Minstrel Boy,” “The Last Rose of Summer,” and “Believe Me if All those Endearing Young Charms.”  So that explained his fame, but didn’t qualify him for a blog post about fantasy poetry.  And then I saw that he was also the author of “The Song of Fionnuala,” (c. 1808) and here he is!  For the fantasy background, you need to know that this poem refers to Fionnuala, one of the four Children of Lir, a sea god of Irish mythology.  The mother of Lir’s children was a daughter of the king of the gods, and when she died her father sent Lir another of his daughters as a replacement.  Unfortunately, this second one was jealous of Lir and his children and cursed the four children into swans for 900 years.  For 300 of those years they had to live on the Sea of Moyle.  Here’s the first verse.

Silent, oh Moyle, be the roar of thy water, 
Break not, ye breezes, your chain of repose! 
While, murmuring mournfully, Lir's lonely daughter 
Tells to the night-star her tale of woes. 
When shall the swan, her death-note singing, 
Sleep with wings in darkness furl'd? 
When will heaven, its sweet bells ringing, 
Call my spirit from this stormy world? 

        Okay, you may still be wondering what’s so great about this, but I first encountered it at the impressionable age of 9.  I liked the tragic drama of the fairy tale, but I fell in love with the alliteration.  Read it aloud with a little emotion and see if all that smooth, wonderfully interlocked alliteration doesn’t thrill you!  Of course, Moore also has rhyme to add to the mix, making the words flow together even more voluptuously.  Quite simply, this was the sort of stuff that turned me into a life-long lover of poetry and fantasy both.

[Pictures: Swan Feather, wood engraving by Colin See-Paynton;
Quietude of Swans, wood engraving by See-Paynton (Image from Colin See-Paynton’s web site).]

November 10, 2017

Show Season

        Art Show Season is in full swing, and I want to start getting out the word about a number of upcoming shows in which I’ll be participating.  If you’re in the area, consider visiting one or two (or four) to have fun with your holiday shopping.  These shows are a great opportunity to find unique and special gifts, buy local, and support the arts and artists while getting away from the computer screen without having to face the mall.  And even if you don’t want to buy a thing, local art shows are still a fun place just to see original arts and crafts, talk with the people who make them, and perhaps get inspired for your own projects.  Most artists at shows are delighted to talk shop, and share tips and techniques.
        Next up for me, in one week, is the Village Fair at the Needham Congregational Church on November 18, from 9:30 - 3:00, plus another hour or two after the service on November 19.  This will be the first time I’ve done this show in several years, since they’ve started having more emphasis on artists, so I’m curious to see how it goes.  My daughter loves this event because it offers such a range of things, from hand-made original art including pottery, jewelry, painting, and of course block prints, to food and a bake sale, to a display of quite nice used items at rummage sale prices.  There’s also a special area where very young children can select and wrap gifts for others without breaking very small budgets or ruining the surprise for family members.
        Two weeks after that, on December 2-3, from 11:00 - 5:00, will be Mother Brook Open Studios.  This is the place for the more serious Art, including not just smaller works in a wide variety of media, but large scale oils, sculpture, and more.  This is the show where I’ll have more space to display all my work instead of having to jam-pack as much as possible onto one table.  November “holiday” sales notwithstanding, I just can’t go into Christmas mode until December — but as of Mother Brook Open Studios, it’s time to go wild with your Christmas shopping!  And you will find some really amazing and gorgeous art at this event.
        The following weekend, December 9, from 10:00 - 3:00, I’ll be at the annual Winter Arts Fest in Needham Town Hall, where there will be live music and lovely sunlight streaming into the beautiful hall.  Okay, I can’t really guarantee the sunlight, but I can guarantee a variety of hand-made goods including candles, soaps, origami boxes, and recycled art, in addition to the usual array of jewelry, ceramics, and wall art.
        Meanwhile, for the entire month of December I’ll be exhibiting in the Gallery at Wellesley Free Library.  My show will be “Around the World” and will include about two dozen pieces that depict real places.  I expect that I’ll share more details about the show once I hang it, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it comes together, because I’ve never assembled this particular selection of my work before and it’ll include some of the pieces that I don’t show so often.
        I’ll be busy in the next month, and you should get busy, too, putting these dates on your calendar, and then getting out and enjoying some local art.  I’ll see you there!

[Pictures: Needham Congregational Church, pieced quilt block by AEGN, 2007.
Information about the Village Fair here or here.
Grist Mill, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015.
Information about Mother Brook Open Studios here.
Collage by Mary Hensley.  (Information about Winter Arts Festival here.)]

November 7, 2017

Feathers to Light the Way

        Here is my newest piece, illustrating a hercinia.  The hercinia is a bird with feathers that glow and shine at night like fire, and serves as a guide for travellers in the dark forest.  Isidore of Seville (Spain, c. 560-636 CE) described them, “Their feathers sparkle so much in the shade that, however dark the night is with thick shadows, these feathers, when placed on the ground, give off light that helps to mark the way, and the sign of the glittering feathers makes clear the direction of the path.”  I find this a really lovely idea: the Light guiding us in the darkness, sometimes like a shining beacon, and sometimes just with little clues of Light that mark just one or two steps at a time but keep us safely to the Path…  The bird itself glows brightly, but the feathers don’t lose their light when they’re shed but continue to mark the way, even if we miss the bird itself.  The birds’ name comes from the forest they inhabit, the very forest that gave us all those fairy tales warning us not to stray from the path.  The Hercynian Forest was ancient in antiquity and stretched right across Europe.  Now only pockets of it remain of which the Black Forest is probably the most famous.
        For my illustration of the hercinia I knew exactly what I wanted: the dark, dense forest with shadowed trees tangling themselves into the distance, and the bright bird like a spirit of Light beckoning the viewer in.  This was more complicated and detailed than most of my pieces, and the layered shadowiness particularly was a little different from what I’ve attempted before.  I used a fine crosshatching to try for a mid-tone between black and white in addition to various areas textured like bark, grass, leaves, moss, etc.  For the most part I’m pretty pleased with it.  I think the cross-hatching worked best where I had vague shapes in it, as just above the hercinia, rather than the areas of more even cross-hatching, which look a little too geometric.  I am pretty disappointed by the feathers along the path, which I think look a bit too much like large, hairy caterpillars.  Not that glowing caterpillars couldn’t be good guides, too, of course, but that was not exactly my intention!  On the other hand I’m very happy with most of the trees, with their variety of bark patterns, and their texture and shadow.  Over all I really stretched my technique with this one and am well satisfied with how it came out.  I’m also having fun thinking about what I might say about the hercinia in the theoretical mythical bestiary I’ve been playing with.

[Picture: Feathers to Light the Way, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

November 3, 2017

Lyrical Kandinsky

        Wassily (or Vasily) Kandinsky (Russia/France, 1866-1944) is generally considered the creator of the first purely abstract work in modern art.  Most famous for colorful paintings, Kandinsky also worked a fair bit with wood block prints, in which he explored many of the themes that so interested him, including music, spirituality, and the move to abstraction.  In 1913 he published a book of prose poems and 56 woodcuts he’d been working on for several years.  It was entitled Sounds and he called it a “musical album,” although most of it wasn’t explicitly about sounds or music - at least as far as I can tell; the poems are pretty abstract, too.  It’s sort of funny that Kandinsky and I share so many similar interests - music, poetry, block printing, spirituality - and yet come to such completely different places.
        The piece entitled “Lyrical” uses four blocks for four colors, plus two more shades where the colored blocks overlap.  In it I see a flying horse with red wings, which seems quite lyrical swooping through the air.  Unfortunately I’m wrong, and it actually represents a horse and rider, which was a motif Kandinsky used to symbolize overcoming representation.  (Isn’t that
an irony, to use a representational image to symbolize abstraction?)  It also seems to me less lyrical and more of a headlong gallop when I look at it as a horse and rider.  In any case, it’s interesting to see how this particular piece reproduces a painting from 1911.  Or perhaps the painting reproduces the wood block print.  Given that the wood block prints for the book were made over a period beginning in 1907, I can’t say whether the painting or the woodcut came first.
        And I’ve included a couple of other pieces from the book.  If I try to find images in the abstract piece above, I can imagine a woman in the lower right, and perhaps more horses along the bottom center and left.  But who knows?  If Kandinsky’s thought process for this piece was recorded anywhere, I haven’t seen it.  The last piece here is quite representational, showing Kandinsky’s interest in Russian folk motifs.  I like the pattern on the woman’s dress, and the fairy tale quality of the trees and clouded mountain, and blowing veil.

[Pictures: Vignette next to “Offen (Open)” color woodcut from Klänge (Sounds) by Vasily Kandinsky, 1913;
Lyrisches (Lyrical) woodcut from Klänge by Kandinsky, 1913;
Der Reiter (Lyrisches), oil on canvas by Kandinsky, 1911 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Der Schleier (The Veil) woodcut from Klänge by Kandinsky, 1913 (Images from MoMA).]

October 31, 2017

Words of the Month - Biblical English

        Today is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation’s kick-off in Germany.  (See the previous post for more on Martin Luther and printmaking.)  For purposes of the English language, however, the important Reformation date is 1534 when King Henry VIII declared himself the head of the church in England instead of the pope.  Thereupon Henry ordered the first authorized English translation of the Bible.  (Previous English translations had been illegal.)  Several English translations followed, but the most famous, long-lasting, beloved, and influential English text of the Bible is certainly the version authorized by King James I.  The work began in 1604 and was completed in 1611, and has had a tremendous influence on the idioms of the English language ever since.
        Contemporary with William Shakespeare, that other paramount influence on English’s catchy phrases, the King James Bible (aka the Authorised Version) nevertheless contrasts widely with Shakespeare’s work.  For one thing, its poetic beauty, rather than being the product of a lone genius’s fertile mind, was the work of a committee of 47 scholars and a long process of sub-committees and group decisions.  Secondly, where Shakespeare is famed for the wild ingenuity of his language, his huge vocabulary, his gleeful embrace of fire-new words and words he made up himself, the King James Bible was written with a deliberately narrow vocabulary and somewhat old-fashioned language, so as to be sure everyone could understand it easily.  Yet its committee of scholars made enduring, beloved poetry with their vocabulary only a quarter the size of Shakespeare’s, and the KJV’s language has become so deeply embedded in everyday English that we quote it unknowingly all the time.
        Of course, we frequently quote the Bible knowingly, too.  Most speakers are probably aware that the following idioms are Biblical:
   Let there be light (Genesis 1:3)
   an eye for an eye (Matthew 5:38)
   Am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:9)
   Thou shalt not… (Exodus 20)

        But even more telling are those phrases that many people don’t even realize have their origins in the seventeenth century Bible.
   a drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15 “a drop of a bucket”)
   all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:22)
   at their wit’s end (Psalms 107:27)
   to eat, and to drink, and to be merry (Ecclesiastes 8:15)
   fight the good fight (Timothy 6:12)
   heart’s desire (Psalms 21:2)
   labor of love (Thessalonians 1:3, Hebrews 6:10)
   a man after his own heart (Samuel 1:14, Acts 13:22)
   no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
   nothing but skin and bones (Job 19:20)
   out of the mouth of babes (Psalm 8:2, Matthew 21:16)
   physician, heal thyself (Luke 4:23)
   put the words in her mouth (2 Samuel 14:3)
   the root of the matter (Job 19:28)
   see eye to eye (Isaiah 52:8)
   the signs of the times (Matthew 16:3)
   stumbling block (Ezekial 3:20, 1 Corinthians 1:23)
   suffer fools gladly (2 Corinthians 11:19)
   two are better than one (Ecclesiastes 4:9)

        This is just a small sampling, of course.  Plus there are many more famous phrases which the King James Bible reused from previous English translations, such as “I have escaped with the skin of my teeth” and “the powers that be.”  The translators purposely reused phrasings that were familiar to people when they deemed the meaning accurate and the sound appealing.  Although it’s likely that it was the KJV that really popularized these idioms as household words, I haven’t included them in my list because no one can really know for sure.
        You can see that the phrases I’ve listed are used as idioms, not just quotations, because they can be adapted to different situations.  Some of them have had their grammar tweaked to keep up with the language, although I have purposely left out phrases in which the wording in common usage is not substantively what the KJV gave us.  There are lots of English phrases that derive from Biblical stories but which do not use the KJV’s wording, such as “forbidden fruit” and “the writing on the wall,” but the point here is not the influence of the Bible, but the influence of the King James Authorized Translation.  It’s significant, though, that many of these idioms can have their pronouns switched for appropriate reference, and can be played with but still have hearers recognize the original phrase, as in, for example, “He’s not his sister’s keeper.”  That shows they’re alive and active in the language, not just frozen relics.
        Obviously the King James Bible’s language wouldn’t have influenced English so deeply if the Bible were not such a fundamental part of the culture, but I think it’s also true to say that these Biblical verses would not have remained so deeply embedded in the culture if it weren’t for the power of the KJV’s language.

[Pictures: Title page and dedication from a 1613 edition of the King James Bible (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Title page of first folio printing of KJV, 1611 (Image from King James Bible Online, but better information about it at Ohio State University);
Interior page of 1611 edition of KJV (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

October 27, 2017

Luther in Print

        Hallowe’en this year, in four days, is also the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, if you date it from Martin Luther’s public unveiling of his Ninety-Five Theses.  (Fun fact: although we’ve all heard about Luther posting his Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, there is no evidence that he did so.  This is the date, however, on which he sent his Theses to his bishop.)  At any rate, soon after Hallowe’en, copies of the Theses were being printed in several towns in Germany, and within the first few months of 1518 copies were being printed and spread throughout Europe.  Printing was fundamental to the Protestant Reformation - beginning with the fact that the Indulgences which were the straw that broke Luther’s back were being printed by the hundreds of thousands.  (Fun fact: indulgences were among the first documents printed on Gutenberg’s press; he used the income from printing indulgences to fund his big Bible project.)  The Davis Museum at Wellesley College currently has an exhibit of printed materials connected with Luther and the Reformation, and I have a few cool examples to share today.
        First is the frontispiece of A Collection of Sermons by Luther published in 1538.  It’s worth remembering that although the literacy rate was not so high that everyone could read these books for themselves, the number of people the message reached through reading aloud was huge.  As for the wood block print, I think it’s gorgeous.  This is not a large book and the level of detail is wonderful.  The artist, big name Lucas Cranach (c.1472-1553), worked to Luther’s specifications, and the iconography here is all about the principle of “Law and Grace” or “Law and Gospel,” which states that the Old Testament gives God’s law to be followed for ethics, while the New Testament gives God’s grace, which is the only way to salvation (unlike, say, an indulgence).  This illustration was another way of spreading the Protestant message to the illiterate, and Luther and artists such as Cranach worked hard to come up with images that would represent their theology.  You can see Adam and Eve, Moses with his tablets, and devils casting sinners into the flames, as well as the crucifixion, Christ slaying evil, angels, a lamb, and other Christian symbols.  I especially like the tree in the top center getting blasted very dramatically.
        Next up is an edition of Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German.  The lush, full-page illustrations here are by Georg Lemberger (c.1495-c.1543) who was clearly inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s series of woodcuts of Revelation.  Again, it’s got great details and marvelous monsters, the Ark of the Covenant sailing in on the upper left, unusually happy angels smiting on the lower right…  But a particularly cool thing about these images is a flaw: each page has left a ghost image on the opposite page, especially visible in the light areas of the left page.  This is because demand for these books was so high and editions were being printed so quickly that the pages were bound before the ink was completely dry and set!
        And finally, here’s a nice version of the Garden of Eden, from another edition of Luther’s translation of the Bible.  I really like all the animals gathered around Adam and Eve, from unicorn and peacock to hedgehog and snail.  I’m particularly pleased that while the Serpent is the villain as always, we are shown an ordinary, uncrowned snake along with all the other happy animals in Eden.  This illustration is attributed to Jost Amman, but I notice that it has initials SF in the block, so I’m guessing another artist must have done it, even if Amman may have been the lead artist for the project.
        Whatever your theology - or your taste in art - there can be no doubt that the Protestant Reformation is a striking example of the power of printing to spread ideas.

[Pictures: Fronstispiece, wood block print by Lucas Cranach from A Collection of Sermons by Martin Luther, 1538;
Scenes from the Apocalypse, wood block prints by Georg Lemberger from New Testament translated by Luther, 1524;
Adam and Eve, wood block print by Jost Amman or anonymous SF from Feyerabend Bible translated by Luther, 1564.  (Images from Davis Museum, photos by AEGN).]

October 24, 2017

Say Goodbye!

        I had a terrific weekend at Roslindale Open Studios and am deeply grateful to all the wonderful people (and several friendly dogs) who came by and stopped to talk, to ask questions, and to report that their nephew loves the book or they enjoy my art in their dining room every evening.  It means a lot to me to hear that past years’ customers are happy!  And of course I also love this year’s customers, and am always pleased to see my “babies” going to good homes.  I’ve mentioned before that I especially like selling firsts and lasts of editions, and this weekend I sold out of six prints, which is almost certainly a record for me.  In celebration, therefore, today’s post is a farewell to those six pieces, which have been taken down from the web site, and will never again have to be matted or framed or hauled up from the basement and carried to a show… or carried back home from a show unsold.

        These six pieces range from some of my very earliest block prints to quite recent, and they represent a range of subject matter.  They include some of my smallest prints and my largest ever; simple images and complex, detailed ones.
        While selling out of these six prints, I carved another block, and made a solid start on carving yet another.  I hope to print the first some time this week, and I have to decide whether to continue carving the second, or to save it to work on at my next show.  It might be hard to wait that long because I’m pretty excited about this block, and the next show is a month away, so I’m thinking I’ll have to keep carving.  I’ll just have to think of something else to work on in November at the Village Fair show.  So despite managing to “get rid of” six pieces, I’ll be replacing them just as quickly.
        Of course, one of the beauties of printing multiples is that I don’t really have to say a final farewell to anything: for every edition I print, I keep one, I give one to my parents, and I sell the rest.  I can have my cake and eat it, too.  It’s a good life!

[Pictures: Visitors at my ROS booth (photo by Amy Joyce);
Three Billy Goats Gruff, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007;
Bookby-upon-Shelf, rubber block print by AEGN, 2016;
Spear Thistle, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997;
Sweet Briar, rubber block print by AEGN, 1997;
Love, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015;
Fair Winds, rubber block print by AEGN, carved c 1994, printed 2013.]

October 20, 2017

Working Hard

        Tomorrow is Roslindale Open Studios, and on Monday I’m giving a lingusitics talk, so I have been hard at work preparing.  Today I also have the hard physical work of hauling my display racks, tables, and boxes of books and art up from the basement and packing them into the car for an early start tomorrow.  So I thought it would be fun to find a block print of workers hauling boxes, maybe stevedores or construction workers.  To my surprise, I couldn’t find what I was thinking of, although I can’t imagine that none exists.  But I did find this wood block print by Mike Goscinsky of Pittsburgh steel workers changing shifts.  I really like its mix of detailed realism and abstracted pattern.  The building at the center is quite realistic, but the two on the sides look stylized, patterned, and almost doodled.  The line of workers are quite finely detailed, while the streams of smoke are boldly patterned.  The smoke and sky are especially interesting because the patterns don’t always follow the contours of the smoke puffs.  Altogether I find it very striking with lots of wonderful stylistic elements.
        If you’re local, be sure to come to Roslindale Open Studios this weekend.  (I'll be at Roslindale House.)  It’s always a beautiful show with lots of great buzz, the weather should be unseasonably gorgeous, and I have two new designs to carve that I’m really excited about.

[Picture: Shift Change, woodcut by Mike Goscinsky (Image from his Etsy shop MikesOriginalPrints).]