Monday, 9 August 2010

Woodcuts Found At The Edge Of The World

On my first visit to Alaska, residents were about to pick up their annual Oil Check, on outright grant ($800-$1,000, depending on how much oil has been pumped out of the Prudhoe Bay fields the preceding year). So I started playing an opening gambit conversation with these Alaskan dreamers: What are you planning to do with your next stash? And what did you do with your other stashes?

One of the most interesting dreamers was the septuagenarian Juneau wood block artist, Dale DeArmond. I was so beguiled by her latest, The First Man—a feminist creation myth based on an Eskimo legend—that I sought her out in her barn-red clapboard house high on a hill overlooking both the harbor and he Juneau-Douglas Museum (which used to be the public library she headed for many years).

She was eager to show me where her first grant went—a hand press in her basement where she was at work pulling woodcuts to illustrate a bit of humorous local doggerel for her and her husband’s 1989 Christmas card. The First Man is the 12th title she’s cranked out of their computer bibliography. One of them reveals her puckish spirit: “Dedicated to my husband, whose brains and published work I picked for facts in this little book. The errors and woodcuts are my own.

First Man recounts a tale she found in Dr. John Driggs’ Some Sketches from Northernmost America (1902), in which an Arctic Eve bemoans her isolated fate as she envies the goose which had its gander, the fox its vixen, and so on down a bestiary of pairs.

Whenever she asks a pair how they did it, they reply that she doesn’t know how good she’s got it, free from the family hassles that afflict their pairedness. But Eve wasn’t to be talked out of a mate. One night she idly started molding a wad of spruce gum into a fantasy figure mate. She slept for the last time the sleep of the innocent.

“When she woke in the morning, there, in place of the spruce gum figure, was First Man. Young Woman cried out in joy and First Man looked at her and said, ‘I’m hungry. Pick me some berries.’ Just then Raven came along, and seeing what had happened, said to Young Woman, ‘Ah, I see you got what you wanted. Now get to work!’ And she did. And sometimes she was glad and sometimes she was sorry.”

DeArmond’s edition of 800 copies was produced in Sitka at Old Harbor Press (P.O. Box 97, Sitka 99835, $39) by her old friend and printer Margaret Calvin. In the colophon we learn that the 14 illustrations “were printed directly from the original end grain maple blocks…The hand-made cover paper is Ingres Antique. The books are hand-sewn in the Japanese style and all materials used in the book are of archival quality and guaranteed to last 200 years.”

The Eskimo tales have lasted much longer than that, but for a disposal society, that ain’t bad. (I was also amused that this refined, genteel librarian had the goodish gall to translate back into plain English passages that the good doctor Driggs had seen fit to haze into Latin, back in Smithsonian Institution 1902. My kind of librarian.)

Incidentally, her current project is to illustrate what octogenarian Bryn Mawr College emerita professor of archaeology Fredericka de Laguna dug up over a half century ago in Yukon River Athabascan Stories. Imminent from Sierra Club / Little Brown are her illustrations for The Boy Who Found the Light.

And the Barbarian Press in Mission, British Columbia, has asked her to be included in their survey of the best end-grain wood-cut carvers in the 20th Century. (Crispin and Jan Elsted thought their sweep would only garner 40 worthy of immortalizing: they found 141, so that meritocratic anthology won’t appear until 1992.)

Reprinted from Welcomat, Hazard-at-Large, December 26, 1990

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