Monday, January 26, 2015

Bosque-Larios I

My most recent artistic endeavor:

Bosque-Larios I, 7" x 5", watercolor on hot-pressed paper.
In 1675, the first expedition from Mexico into the part of Texas in which I live was organized at the request of the local Indians, a Gueiquesale group, who wished to convert and enter under the protection of the Spanish crown. The Bosque-Larios Expedition, named for its leaders, Fernando del Bosque and Fray Juan Larios, crossed the Rio Grande and traveled north toward the Edwards Plateau. A high mass – reputedly the first high mass in Texas – was celebrated on a portable altar not far from where I live, and attended by more than a thousand Indians.

There, according to the expedition's travel log, a curious story was related to the explorers by a Gueiquesale leader. The Cabesas, a group of Indians with whom the Gueiquesales had dealings, had some time previously come into the possession of two Spanish children, a boy and a girl. The boy they had shot full of arrows – he died praying over his crucifix – while the girl was made a servant of, until, long after, she too fell victim to her captors' arrows. Her dead body was left where it fell. Two years later, the Indians happened upon it again, and found it as fresh as though she had just died, with no sign of decay or molestation by wild beasts. They moved the body to a cave. The account ends by noting that the girl had long hair.

[Cf. The Native Americans of the Texas Edwards Plateau, 1582-1799, Maria F. Wade, University of Texas Press, pp. 39-40.]

Did this actually happen? Materialists might doubt the Indians' story, or posit natural causes. For what it's worth, there is a precedent of saints' bodies remaining incorrupt. The romantic in me would like to think of these two as nameless martyrs in the wilderness. Many a medieval cult was established on slimmer evidence. Being a circuit-riding professor who teaches night classes, it is my lot to drive long, lonely desert roads after dark, and the story often comes to mind, especially when I'm in the vicinity of where the mass took place. I imagine the girl's body still reposing undiscovered somewhere in the hills to the north, where limestone caves abound. Whether the episode is more likely to have happened around here or over in Coahuila is more than I can say.

The plants in the picture (agave, prickly pear, red yucca) are such as are found locally; the figure is inspired by depictions of St. Sebastian and St. Cecilia, whose tombs I visited several years ago. The upper part of the picture employs a lot of chrome green and Naples yellow, the lower more sap green and raw sienna, with plenty of cadmium red and burnt umber throughout. As usual, no black was used, but there is a bit of black in Payne's gray, which I frequently employ.

The execution was inspired by William Blake and his disciple Samuel Palmer. I recently read G. E. Bentley's biography of Blake, which is quite excellent, but found the author strangely dismissive of the "conservative," naïve Palmer, to whom we owe many important impressions of Blake's last days. Palmer's early visionary works are far ahead of his time and among the most glorious in British art. Before his youthful exuberance was curbed by his father-in-law, the painter John Linnell, he seemed obsessed with trying to portray nighted pastoral scenes under the glow of the crescent moon. I'm always trying to get something of the magic of these works into my own pictures.

I once spent time poring over a facsimile of Palmer's famous early sketchbook. Unfortunately, after the artist's death, his son burned the other sketchbooks from that period because of their "unmanly" qualities, which, given the historical context, I take as a reference to homosexual undertones. It is a shame. Indeed, it is a great crime against art. And a great sadness that such genius should have been sandwiched between two such uncongenial minds.

Sometimes, as I continue to paint and sell art, and to write stories and publish them here and there, I wonder what will have become of all of my faltering efforts in a hundred years?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Day of the Dragonfly" at BCS

I'm pleased to announce that my story "Day of the Dragonfly" has been published in Issue 165 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It's a pulp-style quest story with a few twists, a touch of myth, and a touch of noir. Materially speaking, a lot of it comes from my experience on a land surveying crew in urban South Texas.

Read and enjoy! Information about my development of a novel concerning the same character can be found in numerous posts, including here and here.
And if you're visiting my humble blog from BCS, welcome! Take some time to peruse the site and look over the various interesting/random/irrelevant things I've posted. No other blog will give you such a unique blend of reflections on fantasy, style, art, logic, autism, and feral chickens.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

On Chickens

During a heavy thundershower last April, my wife was washing dishes, looking out the kitchen window, when she saw a big white bird flutter down from the sky. I came home from work that evening to find a white rooster with a ruby-red comb rushing up to me, an eager expression on his face. Reflecting that my grandmother once took in a similarly storm-brought chicken, I poured a little birdseed on the front walk, which was eagerly pecked up.

Now, we have always had feral chickens in our neighborhood. It was once home to a vice president, and also a state governor, and local lore has it that our feral flock is descended from the fowl of one of these VIPs, though opinion is divided as to where the praise/blame is due. The chickens are singularly beautiful: the cock has feathers of rich red, brown, gold, and dark green, with long, metallic green tail feathers. They spend most of their time in the easement behind our property. Sometimes they nest in the brushy area behind our shed, and they like to sit in trees, which reminds me of this song:

Believe the credentialed rooster, not your lying eyes.

Anyway, our white rooster is very obviously not one of the flock. He is, I believe, a leghorn rooster (as in Foghorn Leghorn). He's much larger than the neighborhood fowl. But despite his size and strength, he lacks street smarts. You see, after generations of fending for themselves and dodging cars, the feral chickens can pretty well take care of themselves. Survival of the fittest. But our rooster, no. I guess he was someone's FFA project. On his own he's pretty pathetic.

In his first days with us, I just gave him birdseed in the front yard, considering him a temporary boarder. He took to standing on our stoop, with his beak to the glass of our storm door, awaiting his next feeding. Fellow townsfolk would drive by and see him there, and everywhere we went we'd get all kinds of remarks. "Is that your chicken? What's that chicken doing on your porch? Is that your chicken?"  It got to be kind of embarrassing. So, birdseed being expensive, we started buying sacks of chicken feed at the Tractor Supply, and feeding him in the privacy of our backyard.

We were, from that day forward, His People. When we go outside, he rushes up to us, whether he's hungry or not, and follows us around the yard, making gentle little clucks and moans, and scratching at the dirt in a negligent way. He's actually pretty smart (for a chicken) and, ever since the first time I mowed the grass/weeds/dirt in his presence, runs up when I get the mower out, anticipating a feast of bugs. His lusty crow awakens us (and, presumably, the rest of the neighborhood) every day before dawn.

We named him Pappagallo, which basically means "Daddy Rooster," after the idealistic-and-well-spoken-but-somewhat-ineffectual compound leader in The Road Warrior. This is pronounced as in Italian, though everyone around here corrects the ele to an elle, which I subtly correct back. (Sometimes we call him Chanticleer, which also seems appropriate.)

As I said, though, he's got moxie, but lacks street smarts. He used to go roving around the neighborhood at night, until he got into several tangles with dogs, which run as freely in my town as dingoes in the Outback. He would return in the morning, quite crestfallen, bloodied, with feathers missing. One time he was gone for a week or two, and we thought he must have died. But he came back, though missing all his tail feathers, and apparently unable to crow. For months he remained silent. Was his throat injured? Or was it his pride? I suspect a combination of the two. For everyone knows the pride of the cock. But eventually he did start crowing again.

Now, he's quite a fine-looking fellow, and it's no surprise that several of the little beauties attached to the feral flock fell for his strut and glory. There's one red-brown hen in particular (Chickie, I call her) that he allows to share his feed. She's warmed up to me considerably, and lets me approach her now, which I take as a compliment. But once the other hens started gorging themselves at my expense, the feral rooster (The Lord Humungus, the Warrior of the Wasteland, the Ayatollah of Rock and Rollah) decided to take over, and claim the rights to the food for himself.

I don't know if there was any physical altercation, but Pappagallo began behaving most obsequiously toward this usurper. He'd give me this kind of pathetic, helpless look as The Humungus began pecking up his breakfast, and I'd have to chase the feral flock out of the yard, energetically flapping the wings of my jacket (which is black leather, naturally). This has been going on for weeks now, and it's been most vexing. There's no galline Max Rockatansky to help us, and, though an excellent human (I hope), I make a poor chicken. I'd sometimes give Pappagallo these little pep talks, but he'd just reply with an enigmatic, sad, knowing look, and rrrrrr in his throat.

Well, all of that changed yesterday. I was sweeping the back porch when I noticed that Pappagallo was in the easement, crowing as though to wake the dead. I went back there, thinking he was just trying to get my attention so I'd let him through the gate. He does that sometimes. Actually, he's always getting himself stuck in peculiar places, much to my wife's annoyance. Anyway, there's a little free-standing metal roof, partly on our property, mostly on the easement, which used to be on four legs, but now dangles on one, with the opposite corner on the ground.* The chickens like to sit under it when it's raining. So when I got back there, I saw that The Humungus lay beneath it, an apparently lifeless heap. As soon as I lured Pappagallo away with some food, I went and looked again, and The Humungus lifted his head and gave me a miserable glance, but didn't get up. He was thoroughly thrashed, possibly dying.

I do hope he's not dead. I never wanted that to happen! I just wanted him to go back to living on cockroaches and crickets in the cemetery, and leave our feed to our rooster. At any rate, if he is alive, I suspect that things will be a bit different around here. And can I be blamed if I admit that I'm proud of Pappagallo? I knew he had it in him.

* The remaining post is actually a hackberry tree growing through the welded pipes, so the thing is impossible to move without cutting the metal or chopping the tree down. This guy on our block who once owned our house used to always bug my wife about it, asking if he could come cut it out for his junk collection. She'd tell him that it was on the easement, so he'd have to contact the owners of that property. This happened I don't know how many times. It started to get to her. Finally I told her I'd take care of it. Next time I saw him, I said, hell yeah, come and haul it off, any time you like. Never heard another word about it.

When I went through the back gate yesterday – something I suppose I'd never done – I realized that there's a big yellow "We Shoot All Trespassers" sign hanging on the outside. I'd never known it was there. No wonder utilities people ask before they come on our property!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Terra Incognita

Here is a map of the northeastern arc of Enoch, the world-city, the coast-long downtown that surrounds the sea on three sides like a giant omega, together with various adjacent lands.

It's a crude black-and-white scan of my ink drawing on paper, and probably needs to be rescanned and touched up. But you get the gist of it. The lettering is in an Art Nouveau font. I'm inordinately pleased with the mountains, which go beyond the cut-and-paste angle-things you see on many fantasy maps. The basic style is influenced by Tolkien's maps in The Hobbit.

Strangely enough, I've been drawing fantasy maps for longer than I've been reading fantasy. Here is the story of my first fantasy map.

It all began in the third grade. My teacher was kind of weird. For instance, she believed she had once seen a flying saucer, when she was a little girl: it had descended over her backyard one night, and she'd thought to it, if you can hear my thoughts, give me some sign, whereupon it had started flashing and flown away. I believed the story, and after that would "think" to all the mysterious lights I saw moving in the sky; once, a light I thought to kind of blinked, or so I imagined, and when I mentioned it to my teacher a few weeks later, she was upset that I hadn't told her sooner. She acted as though I had neglected to give her a crucial piece of information. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" were her words. We also had to talk to her houseplants when we watered them, to encourage them to grow, and other New Agey stuff like that.

Well, anyway, sometimes this teacher would turn the lights out, sit cross-legged on her desk, and rub a crystal bowl with a crystal rod, producing a hypnotic hum. We would put our heads on our desks and imagine whatever she narrated. Generally it would begin like this: "You come to a gate. It has your name on it. You open it and go inside. There you find a giant egg. The egg is your house."

Not long after this I was introduced to Edith Hamilton's Mythology by my father, and I had been pretty skilled with a map and compass for some time, so I began creating fantasy contour maps of the egg-house-country peopled by creatures of Greek mythology. As a matter of fact, I got in trouble in math class when the girl who sat in front of me to told the teacher that I was drawing and not paying attention.

So when I discovered Tolkien at age fourteen or thereabouts I was immediately drawn to the maps. What sets them apart from a lot of other fantasy maps is, I think, the fact that they were constructed as part of the drama. They're not "overworld" maps someone drew and set a story in. Tolkien was continually modifying the geography so as to accommodate his desired plot. They're almost alive. Of course the geography is quite unrealistic, as he himself admitted: long, straight mountain ranges running north-south or east-west, at right angles to each other. But they're really a literary construction, and the power of the story makes such artificiality a nonissue.

I was also really into fantasy role-playing video games at the time, especially Final Fantasy II and III (IV and VI in Japan), those have doubtless influenced me as well.

In college I dealt with a bout of depression by creating a future history of Martian civilization, drawing numerous maps based on a fold-out map of the planet's surface I'd gotten in a National Geographic. None of those have survived, unfortunately. I also began, but never finished, a large watercolor map of the world of Norse mythology. That I still have somewhere.

So, me and fantasy maps, we go way back.

This map may ultimately be accompanied by another with a smaller inch-to-mile ratio, so that the entire Tethys Sea is visible. This is for a sword-and-planet story, so the design takes place on a planetary scale, though much of the surface is terra incognita to the inhabitants. A really good map makes the reader want to know what lies beyond the boundaries, and I hope mine has that effect.

All of this brings up a stylistic issue. Do you make your map bear some of the weight of your story, so that the reader has to consult it if they want to follow the action, or do you write your story in such a way that the reader must consult the map only if they can't keep the geography in their head? I go with the second, regarding the first as sloppy writing. Then again, I can't remember ever having read The Lord of the Rings without looking at the map.

Now on to the next thing.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Metapost: 2014

Another year has passed and I'm still here. Time for some reminiscence and reflection.

Let's see, let's see. Last January I decided to keep a list of all the books I read in 2014. Here they are, in reverse chronological order:
Some stats seem in order. I count 54 entries, which comes out to approximately one book per week, not a bad rate. I read parts of other things, mostly stuff from the Great Books collection, as well as books on art practice, theory, and history, and a number of essays from E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. I have a deplorably short attention span, and my list leaves off numerous things I began but then set aside. At the beginning of the year I also had a "Books I'm Reading Now" list, but its length became too embarrassing to keep up, and I eventually deleted it. Eight of these items were read to my kids, in addition to a bunch of fairy tales from Andrew Lang's collection of many colors, and two were read to my wife. Several I listened to as audiobooks while painting late at night.

My focus this year was obviously on vintage fantasy and science fiction, as I've been incorporating various elements of these into my writing. The most recent work I read was Null-A Continuum by John C. Wright (2009),which completes the Null-A saga begun by A. E. van Vogt in the forties; aside from this, the most recent novel was Gene Wolfe's Exodus from the Long Sun (1996). The oldest work of fiction I read was The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (1872), and that to my children; the second oldest was She by H. Rider Haggard (1887). Gene Wolfe wins the coveted award of Author with Most Books Read by Me in 2014, with Philip K. Dick coming in second.

Remarkably, there is only one item of "literature" on my list: Milton's Paradise Lost, which I'd already read many times. Three items were devoted to the craft of writing, two to mathematics, two to politics, two to art, one to the contemplative life, and one to ants. The rest were novels and novellas.
I note that only four items on my list were written by women. Should I be concerned? A lot of people out there would say, most emphatically, yes, you should be. Hm. In my defense, I'll point out that it's actually rather unusual for me, considering that I count Jane Austen, Willa Cather, and Flannery O'Connor as three of my favorite authors. I was reading mostly vintage pulp so there wasn't much to choose from. Only one of my fantasy reads was by a woman (Leigh Brackett), but I sought it out deliberately; I did read a few of C. L. Moore's Jirel stories that aren't written down here, as they seemed too short to be worth recording, and I started something by Ursula K. LeGuin. In addition, the single most substantial book on my list is by a woman: The Way of Perfection by St. Teresa of Jesus, who happens to be a Doctor of the Church. It was assigned reading for my formation as a Carmelite Secular, and I studied it slowly and reflectively over several months.*

I saw several movies in the theater, including The Lego Movie (awesome), Godzilla (pretty good in some ways, quite stupid in others), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (not bad), Guardians of the Galaxy (awesome, despite being a Marvel property, which I tend to avoid), and Nightcrawler (meh). I also began a project of watching and blogging about seventies sci-fi, e.g.:
For some reason these posts get lots of hits.

Other notable events in my 2014 life:
  • I had my first public art exhibition at a real live gallery that charged a commission on sales, and sold about ten pieces, mostly to locals. I also completed five paintings in oil and watercolor, including a groovy book cover, and wrote a multi-part post musing about art.
  • I saw two stories published, a third accepted for publication, and a previously published story anthologized.
  • I had my solution to a Star Trek logic puzzle featured at a major mainstream venue.
  • I made my first promises as a Carmelite Secular, but continue to be conflicted about belonging to the Order.
  • I adopted a stray leghorn rooster that literally fell from the sky during a thunderstorm and began following me around like a lost kitten. He's lived in my yard for about eight months now. His name is Pappagallo, after the idealistic leader in The Road Warrior. He's very smart and likes me to go out and talk to him, but despite his enormous size he's too afraid to stand up to the feral rooster that comes in our yard (that would be The Lord Humungus, I guess), and I'm always having to defend his food and his new feral hen-girlfriend (Chickie).
  • The house next door, built originally for the former Governor's mother, was bought by a branch of the local gentry, who proceeded to chop down all the trees along our property. They're expanding the house in a major construction project, their model being Gormenghast Castle, with the goal of hosting arena football tournaments in their bedroom. So I've gathered, at any rate. I've been told they're spending one and a half million dollars.
  • I applied for tenure, was elected president of our faculty senate, represented the university at the system office in Capital City (the Windy Apple itself), where I had some excellent Indian food beside a natural artesian well in a downtown basement, and other boring things like that.
While this about describes my general state of mind in 2014.

My goal this year is to try to get my novel in a publishable form, cover, map and all. (I've finished my map, and will get around to posting a raw scan and blathering about it in a day or two.) I've also been invited to show my art at a public gallery in a border town about an hour away, with a stipend for travel and lodging, and I'm working on producing a few new things for that. Right now I'm reading The Return of Tarzan, a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser novel, The Princess and Curdie (to my kids), and G. E. Bentley's biography of William Blake. And then there's the baby coming next month, and the new graduate program I'm working on developing.

So, all in all, 2015 seems off to a good start.

* I will also mention that my wife read practically nothing BUT novels by female authors, e.g., George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Willa Cather, in 2014. The Mill on the Floss, ugh. But at any rate, we balance each other out.