Friday, 18 February 2011

The Small Bit and My Blessing

   One of the benefits of being married to someone studying folklore is the beautiful volumes of folktales which tend to appear around the house from time to time.  A few months ago, peering into the yellowed pages of the teal and gold one in the photo there, marked "Sgeulachdan Gaidhealach" (Gaelic Stories), I came across a story called "The Girl and the Dead Man".  (I should perhaps mention that the actual title of the book is not Gaelic Stories, but Popular Tales of the West Highlands, collected, written down and translated by J.F. Campbell, dual-language Gaelic-English).  The story was collected from Ann Darroch of Islay, who said she'd heard it as a girl from an old storytelling woman who used to earn her living telling stories beside the kiln fires where people used to come to dry their corn (wheat).  It is a short story and is very worth reading online here if you can't find an old paper copy to curl up with.

   The story is about three sisters who go off into the world, one by one, to find their fortunes.  Before leaving, their mother bakes each of them a bannock and then cuts it into two pieces.  In turn, she offers them "a' bhlaidh bheag 's mo bheannachd na 'bhlaid mhòr 's mo mhollachd" (the smaller piece and my blessing or the big piece and my curse).  As it often is in stories, the eldest two sisters are greedy and choose the big piece,  the first of many selfish choices that will ultimately ruin them.  The youngest daughter takes the small piece and is blessed.

    My favourite part of the story comes when the youngest daughter finds herself alone with the night "wreathing" around her.  I love that particular description of the night.  The whole story is so vivid that it seems to wreathe around in the mind.  But anyway, she is out in the darkness, and she sits down to eat her bannock, and then, all around her, she finds a host of creatures looking for a share of it.  In particular there is "an t-sreath chuileanach 's a da chuilean deug", which Campbell left untranslated, saying that 'the narrator, the translator, the transcriber, the dictionary, and the "old men"' had failed to make sense of it.  He said it was a sort of bird which had twelve puppies.  Another theory is that it was a mistake in transcription, which would make it a "sow (triath) of the whelps with a litter of twelve".  Of course, triath also means leader, so it could be read as " the leader of the whelps" according to that theory.  Basically, it is still quite ambiguous, the way the best things often are.  What is clear is that this creature, whatever it may be, is also accompanied by all the birds of the air, and they are all hungry.
    So they ask the girl for some of her bannock, and while her sisters had refused to share, saying they didn't even have enough for themselves, the youngest daughter says she'll gladly give it if they will keep her company.  They eat and everyone has enough, and then the birds and sreath chuileanach and its puppies all put their wings around the girl and they huddle together to keep each other warm.

    I liked the idea of a sort of bird-like dog or dog-like bird for the sreath chuileanach and so I went along with that.  It has been said, around this house, that the sreath chuileanach and her puppies do not look very ferocious.  It seems normal to me that it should be this way, in the way a family dog is beautiful or cute when she is relaxing at home, but when any perceived threat arises, she turns into a grotesque and furious creature, with bared teeth, angry eyes, a wrinkled snout, and hairs standing on end.  In the story, the first two sisters perceive the sreath chuileanach and puppies as terrible monsters, while the third sister calls them pretty.  In this peaceful scene, they can't have their feathers and furs all on end, or ferocious expressions. 

   The photo of my etching above is the best I could manage with my camera.  I couldn't capture the range of tones of the actual print, and the photograph of it is somewhat washed out.  As for the story, it continues on past this moment with the girl and the birds, and has a scene of dancing in the woods with a dead man, and other wonders (read it!), but this was the moment I wanted to capture.

   So many stories have the same moral messages at their cores, about the importance of good living, generosity of spirit, co-operation.  I am impressed by the fine imagery this message is dressed in for this particular story, and I also appreciate that the story has this scene as a moment of bliss at its centre.  The repetitive formulaic passages that many oral Gaelic-language stories have (though, I would imagine this is probably found in other traditions as well) are also interesting to me.

   An example of these sorts of passages, from later on in this story, would be: "The wages she had were a peck of gold and a peck of silver; of nuts as she broke, of needles as she lost, of thimbles as she pierced, of thread as she used, of candles as she burned, a bed of the green silk over her, and a bed of the green silk under her."  Or in other tales, people might fight one another to such an extreme that they affect the landscape, making "the hard places soft and the soft places hard..." and such descriptions tend to stretch on and have a special sort of rhythm in their original languages.

   They can be found over and over again embroidering different tales.  My visual nod to this oral tradition was to try to construct the image by filling up the copper plate with patterning.  This gave a sort of meditative quality to the work as well, which seemed perfect to me, considering the ideas behind it.

   This meant that I spent a lot of time making tiny little lines and dots.  For an etching, the same image will be drawn over and over, line by line many many times.  In the local art museum there is, if I remember correctly, a painting of the sea by Joan Eardley with a caption that says it was painted quickly and roughly because she was such a passionate painter and so on and so forth.  And I really like Joan Eardley's work, but I do get very tired of hearing about how slapping up paint on a canvas is real, passionate art... the faster you do it the more passionate and artistic you are... a good artist can see a person falling and have them represented on the page before they hit the ground and such like.  Passion is also in perseverance.  There could be no other way to explain so much effort, so much time.

Etching is necessarily about doing, the redoing, then undoing, and doing again.  It starts with the first study for the copper plate:

And then this must be transferred, line by line and dot by dot, on to the plate itself:

Next, all those lines must be scratched into the hard ground on the plate:

Then, if all has gone well up until this point and all the chemicals have behaved as they should (which they really did not the first few times with this plate!) the plate is placed in acid, and the lines where the hard ground has been scraped away are bitten into the copper plate.  The plate will probably make a few trips back and forth to the acid bath, with adjustments being made in between.  Next, to have tones, not just lines, in the plate, one might start down the slippery slope of aquatint which can also be a very long process... though instead of copying over lines many times, it tends to involve tracing over brush strokes many times.  And usually it also involves scraping away, layer by layer, the surface of the copper in the places where things should be lighter.  The back and forth between darkening in acid and lightening by scraping and burnishing can go on for weeks sometimes until the desired tones are found through test prints.  Each test print seems to involve a feeling of hope, and then, for every print until the last one, the realization that the end is not so near as it had seemed, and then back to work.  But I think I am slowly growing more patient, and I do hope that I will one day manage to live the good example of folkloric heroines.


  1. Beautiful print! And the story sounds wonderful. I'd love to be all cuddled up with a bunch of winged things! Tonight, however, no winged things, but just as good, a furry cat person.

  2. How beautiful, Jodi, I can only repeat and repeat : how beautiful, all these feathers and birds and faces one creature.
    Such work deserves all the time you give to it. Also, this kind of effort makes one a stronger and deeper soul, I know, and that reflects in the quality of your art. There is passion that lasts for lifetimes. Perseverance and patience are its food ...
    One of these evenings I want to read the story. I am searching now for a day that gives me 6 or 7 hours time only for the etching bath and nothing else. Take care and go on, you're a wonderful gifted etcher.

  3. Oh I love visiting here. It's a soft place for me to land at the end of my day or as today, a soft start to my morning. You weave a gorgeous mix of stillness and wonder into your etchings and the language of your words chosen to tell how your art is conceived and then nurtured into life
    through the detailed layers of dots and lines -
    a meditative slowness of time and your passion and gift I think Jodie.

    Translation error or not, the bird with puppies lights up the imagination, glad it nibbled you into creating your beautiful interpretation - I'm looking forward to reading this tale over the weekend. Smiles*!*

  4. It seems that the process of making the etching, the back and forth and layer by layer, matches the rhythm of the stories with their repetition of action.
    The result in both is very satisfying, leaving a strong imprint.
    It is a dark morning here, with the wind and rain whipping around the house like a wild well-suited to the old stories!
    Margaret Lambert

  5. Thank you all *so* much for your lovely comments! And I hope everyone of you managed to fit in some of the stillness, or time free of distractions for reading and working (those big blocks of time are great when you etch at home aren't they Barbara? Otherwise it seems like half the time spent is setting everything up and then cleaning it all again!) this weekend... or that you will have some time soon. It means so much, doesn't it?

  6. I envy you the presence of those lovely old books and admire your dedication! Wonderful connections between the tale and subsequent art, even right down to the rhythm of composing, telling, retelling (like your, and so on)

  7. What a magical story, and a magical representation of it. Your gentle-faced winged dogs remind me of my beloved cocker spaniel. What a warm and peaceful night the girl must have spent with them!

    As a child I grew up with old books of Scottish folk and fairy tales, and I have never lost my love of them. At the moment I am reading 'Tales from Highland Perthshire', collected in 1891 by Lady Evelyn Stewart Murray from the Gaelic speakers on the estate of the Duke of Atholl. Alas, I can only read the English translation, though they were kindly gifted to me by a native Gaelic speaker. This tale of yours reminds me of many of the tropes one encounters in these other tales.

    Thank you for explaining the process of etching. I knew it must be painstaking, but didn't know quite how painstaking. Hurrah for such labours of love!

  8. this is really beautiful, and your introduction to it gave just the right feeling for viewing--
    and i agree with you completely about perseverance and patience--it shows such a passion, a depth of passion...
    gorgeous, gorgeous, magical work!
    thank you, always, for this blog!

  9. Your description made me think of some pictures I saw of Tibetan monks making a mandala with colored sand. Work that is both painstaking and meditative.