Friday, April 20, 2018


photo by Caryn Lum

When I was growing up, the word "Lefty" often referred to someone with Communist leanings. The word for Left in Latin is Sinistra. Sinistra eventually took on meanings of evil and bad luck. In the Middle Ages, lefties fell under suspicion as possible witches. Left-handed people, generations before me, were often forced to learn to write with their right hand. Left-handed people were thought to  more likely develop schizophrenia or to live shorter lives. Both of those assumptions have been disproved.

The ratio of 90-10 of right to left-handedness has remained steady though for the last 5000 years.*Researchers at Northwestern University think that the ratio reflects our need for cooperation and competitiveness in society.  If you are a righty, you probably never question that the tool you pick up will work for you. That tool has been design for the majority to use. A ladle is a good example: try pouring water from a ladle with your left hand and you will see the difficulties faced by lefties. 

New research considers the benefits of being left-handed. Lefties develop deep cognitive abilities because we need to improvise every day to make a right-handed world work for us, which is one reason why so many creatives are left-handed.

a postcard I sent to a friend after the workshop

I thought about all of these things as I walked into another calligraphy workshop. Usually, in an art class, I am among other lefties. In calligraphy, I stand out. "Who's left-handed?" the instructor will often ask and then I hear a groan of sympathy from the other attendees as I raise my solitary left hand. Calligraphy is harder for lefties. Watch former President Obama sign legislation and you can understand. He writes with his hand above the line as many lefties do. I was lucky. When I learned to write, my teacher knew to turn my paper so that it slanted to the right instead of to the left as right-handers do. I can see what I am writing that way without placing my hand above the line.

In the workshop, Melissa Dinwiddie taught us Neuland (pronounced Noy-land) an alphabet designed by Rudolph Koch in the 1920s, which is still used widely today. (Check out Pinterest pages of Neuland). It's a forgiving alphabet because it has its own quirks that give the writer the ability to incorporate mistakes. It is also challenging to righties because they need to do what lefties often have to do: move the paper around as they write and to manuever the pen in awkward directions to form letters.

Melissa taught us more than the Neuland alphabet. And she let me figure out how to make the letters with my left hand. Often people will suggest to write from right to left or upside down. These techniques work, but need practice. I find it easier to stick with my normal way of writing. Melissa's business, Living a Creative Life, allows her to make a living from art by encouraging people to find their creative side. She inspired us to be playful and to ignore what she called the calligraphy police.

She left us two thoughtful posters that she gave permission to share:

Note the imperfection in this draft of her poster

Friday, April 13, 2018


photo by Bill Slavin

Three backhoes and a jackhammer snapped and snarled at the ground for the last week. Our neighbors at the top of the hill are taking apart their backyard. I opened our back door to sit in the backyard, which is usually a sanctuary of blooming plants, animals and birds, and stillness. Instead the cacophony washed over me. I almost retreated back inside, but the noise stopped. I could feel the profound silence. No birds called. They had fled and other animals were in hiding from the uproar, leaving me breathing in the quiet. I ate my lunch quickly before the ruckus began again and thought of several examples I had come across lately about the importance of silence.

One morning I tore off the calendar page and found the next quote-of-the-day by Bill Watterson, the artist who drew Calvin and Hobbes. (1)

I picked up the newspaper yesterday to see an article about a very brief film onYouTube called A New View of the Moon by Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh. (2) The film brought tears to my eyes as I watched people react to viewing the moon through a telescope that Overstreet set up on streets in Los Angeles.

Next, I bought a slim book by Pico Iyer, a prolific traveler and writer, who once cautioned that rising populations and the loss of sustainable employment and food would make us all someday live in places like the slums of India and Africa. He has wandered the world looking for answers to his deep questions. He wrote his new book The Art of Stillness (3) so a reader could consume it in one sitting. Iyer, the ultimate adventurer, invites us not to travel from one adventure to another but to seek quiet and stillness instead.

Typical Northern California Altocumulus clouds

Later I listened to Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society,  who is traveling the country speaking about clouds. He wants people to look at the sky and be able to identify clouds. I know the difference between Cumulus, Cirrus, and Nimbus, but I was unfamiliar with a Mama (Mammatus) cloud. They can be found in the Midwest and feature pouch-like formations that look like udders. At their website, (4) you can become a member of the Society, receive their news and videos, and become a cloudspotter. You can even buy a blue baseball cap with a cloud on it. Can't you just see a field of blue caps looking at the sky?

All of these moments in the last month reminded me of being in Japan in August when crowds of people would stop their busy work schedules, set up blue tarps in the park, and spend the night moon-viewing. I am reminded of the large groups of people nationwide last summer who sought places to see the total eclipse. I am reminded of Bill setting up his camera to capture time-lapse photos of the stars last summer. I am reminded of the man from the Midwest who moved back from the West Coast because he wanted to see the Big Sky.

Cloudspotting, looking up at the night sky, and sitting in stillness: activities that illustrate that we all search for peace and understanding of our existence. We continue to ask why we are here. We look up at the sky in wonder. Fifty years ago, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey led us on an adventure through the vastness of space, reaffirming our insignificant part in the universe and our push-pull relationship with technology. Recent photos of other solar systems dwarf our planet and ourselves even more. In the opposite directions, microscopes show us smaller and smaller parts of life.

So often with our mad-rush lives, we forget how to open ourselves up to quiet and peace and the creativity that follows those moments of stillness. We forget how to be part of the universe. The hints that nudged me in the last month pushed me to get outside in the still of the night and to look up. Bill Watterson said it right. Look at the stars each night and you may live differently. Come and join me, won't you?





Another Overstreet Gorosh view worth watching:

Friday, April 6, 2018


Several years ago, a month after one of his 100-mile cycle rides, my husband landed in the hospital after experiencing shortness of breath and chest pain. His surgeon inserted stents into the arteries of his chest. His experiences the first time became a good warning to several male friends who subsequently ended up in the same situation within the year. Luckily, Bill and his friends have all survived and are living vigorous lives.

 I wrote an essay about the day he was released. I was reminded of that essay as I drove to pick up Bill from the hospital after he completed a nuclear stress test after having chest pains again. This is the essay.


Bill was released from the hospital on Wednesday morning, feeling back to his old self. We drove from the Mt. Diablo Hospital in Concord past the town square and stopped at a Peet's on the corner. We sat in the sunshine with our cups of coffee on this beautiful day.

Neither of us had spent much time in Concord. We watched as the locals walked by. We knew they were locals because they stopped to chat with each other. We decided that Concord was a friendly town. We realized as we looked around the quiet plaza that the many restaurants showed Concord's ethnic diversity. There was a brewpub, three Italian restaurants, a Korean barbeque, two Japanese restaurants, a Mexican cafe, and a Thai restaurant. A group of wheelchair riders came by on their way to the plaza park. The only real noise came from the children on the play structure across the street from Peet's.

We sipped and talked and marveled that this day could have had a different outcome. According to the doctor, Bill was heading for a massive heart attack. If he hadn't listened to his body, he might not be relaxing on the plaza savoring a latte. We might not be feeling the breeze blowing just enough to keep the air cool. We might not be sitting so that the sun shone on our hands on the table.

We were hungry, but it was still too early for lunch. We walked across the square and then ended up in the park next to a table with a group of men lounging and joking in the sun. We basked in the sun right along with them, savoring the quiet and the springtime breezes. We finally stood and walked to one of the Italian restaurants with a patio with pots overflowing with springtime flowers. We relaxed and ate a slow lunch, reluctant to leave this beautiful day.


I publish this essay again as a warning to everyone to pay attention to subtle signals from your body.  These include shortness of breath (even walking downstairs), pain in chest and back that feels like a sore muscle, indigestion, nausea, and sweating. Don't wait till you have the sudden burst of pain that we normally associate with a heart attack. Give yourself the chance to continue to have beautiful days.

Friday, March 30, 2018


While my watercolor class is on a break, I am practicing all the techniques I learned by making almost-daily, small paintings. I've picked objects from my art supplies such as this paint tube and brush. It wasn't until I chose a rock that I was reminded that Small Things are Sometimes the Hardest.

When I work on a mixed media piece such as Heritage, I expect to place layer over layer. Each layer gives me a chance to find mistakes in the organization of objects, the colors, or the design layout.

layering with photos, napkins, stencils, stamps, and paints

colors are not right, too much contrast

I layered acrylic paints, paper napkins, stenciling, stamping and copies of old photos to create this piece, which I then burnished with beeswax to give it an antiqued look.

Heritage by Martha Slavin

In my daily series of watercolors, I am trying to apply the techniques I learned in class. I am aware of soft and hard edges, I think of values more than color, and try to see the object as shapes instead of a perfect representation of the object. I spend a lot of time before painting making a contour drawing and include all the edges, even the shadow edges.

I found the paint tube, the bottle of acrylic ink and the pencil sharpener to be relatively easy, but then I tried painting a small, white ceramic rock. Not only is it white, but the shape is hard to appear 3-dimensional. You would think something so smooth, round and simple would be easy, but sometimes the simple things are the hardest.

 Can you see what I could have done to improve this watercolor sketch?
Two that come to mind:  add the highlights and bend the letters on a curve.


Come join me!
I'm participating in two Internet projects:

which is part of the Sketchbook Project at the Brooklyn Art Museum

and a postcard art swap at

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Friday, March 23, 2018


Enjoy the beginnings of Spring with these photos by Bill Slavin

 As a writer, I am always writing articles in my head. I see something that sparks an idea. If I'm lucky, I'm close to my computer or a piece of paper to write the thoughts down. If not, they blow away, wander off while I am sleeping, or disappear in a conversation.

Often while I am head-composing, I will read an article by another writer about the same subject I've been thinking about. I'd been collecting ideas about  all the sounds that accost us each day: dishwasher buttons, our alarm in the morning, laundry machine warning bells, phones with messages, and how they affect almost every aspect of our lives. I hadn't gotten my ideas on paper. Instead, I opened the newspaper to find a well-written essay about all those persistent noises in our lives. We think alike, don't we?

by Bill Slavin

I wrote a blog post about the meaning of friends. The day after I posted, I received my monthly guide from Holstee.* The guide chose to emphasize kinships and the value of relationships. We think alike, don't we?

How often have you thought about an idea only to find that others are thinking in the same direction?

by Bill Slavin

I think our similar thoughts result from a common human value: our need to belong. Like ants, we create networks: some visible, such as roads, wires, and ropes, while other paths develop in our imagination. We create connections between friends or family members. Sometimes the connections are so close we finish each other's sentences, or we 'know' what someone else is thinking at the moment. Sometimes the connections allow us to meet other people from different areas of the world.

You could say that Great Minds Think Alike, but I also think that ordinary minds do too, which allows ideas to float around the world. The Internet helps to make those ideas travel. But even before the Internet, similar concepts developed in the minds of different cultures. Variations of the Golden Rule emerged all over the world. They didn't have the Internet back then, but maybe the coincidence  is the result of how our brains work. We need connections. Those older cultures knew we needed to learn to live with one another. We formed similar rules in different places to express the importance of compassion for each other.

This year is a good time to remember our kinship with people all over the world. April 5 is International Golden Rule Day, a day created in 2011 by the UN to acknowledge our relationships and as a reminder to treat each other well. Though the variations of the GR originated from religious teachings, we all can take part in a celebration of what the Golden Rule means in our world.

To join in celebrating Golden Rule Day on April 5, go to

by Bill Slavin

Here is a listing of some of the versions of the GR. Can you identify where each came from?

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.

One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.

One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct...loving kindness. 
Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.

Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.

You can find the answers and more variations on Paul McKenna's poster of the Golden Rule by clicking the following link:

by Bill Slavin
Join with Karen Armstrong, comparative religions and Golden Rule researcher and founder of The Charter of Compassion, in her quest to promote compassionate action in our daily lives. I've signed the Charter. I hope you will too.

The following essay by Lee Beaumont gives you considerably more details about the origins of the Golden Rule in various cultures:

* Receive Holstee's monthly guides at

by Bill Slavin

Friday, March 16, 2018


I get a perverse pleasure in confusing the GPS in my car. I will enter HOME as my destination and then drive somewhere else. My GPS panics, spins, tries to find a new route in the right direction. I can imagine all the little techies inside waving frantically at me.

In an unfamiliar place, I find the GPS of great benefit. When I plug in the destination, ramp up the sound, the voice guidance gets me where I want to go. Except there are exceptions. I went to a calligraphy conference near Seattle. I put in the name of the college and listened attentively to the voice as it directed me to the wrong place: a dead-end street next to Puget Sound. If the GPS hadn't led me astray, I would never have realized how close and beautiful the Sound was to my destination.

There is a value in being lost.

I have been lost in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Paris, where I found new places not did not appear on a map or in a guide. There is also a value in getting lost even in the place where you have lived for a long time.

I forgot to look at my GPS halfway to the freeway in the Oakland hills. I'm glad I did. I knew basically where I was going, but I didn't expect to find the hidden village of Montclair, which appeared, just like magic, in front of me. Montclair consists of a few close streets, with several crowded cafes, independent stores, posters advertising local events, and people walking or stopping to talk with each other. The kind of place that makes a community lively and engaging for its residents.

In my old car without GPS, I went to visit a friend. I tried to reach her house by going in reverse from the way I had gone the week before. I missed the last left-hand turn that would have taken me to her house. Once past the street, there was nowhere to turn around, so I found myself driving down a winding hillside road. I felt lost in the woods as I drove down. No other cars drove by and the vegetation was as wild as could be near an East Bay suburb. At the bottom, I came to the San Pablo Dam Reservoir, a large body of blue water. I was on an adventure.

I kept following the road, now called Wildcat Canyon Road, up to the top of the Berkeley hills. I took a right on to Grizzly Peak Road, another narrow, winding street near Tilden Park and the Berkeley Rose Garden, past charming houses till I came to Marin Avenue. Another left, and I found myself driving straight down one of the steepest streets I've ever been on. Each time I crested an intersection, I felt the same stomach-churning feeling of a roller coaster ride. Luckily for me, each intersection had a stop sign or I could see myself sailing high off the road to land on the next section of hill.

Thanks to AAA who still offer paper maps.

With GPS or without, I find a value in getting lost. Being lost and finding my way, means I have to trust myself, follow my instincts, ask for help, and always look back where I came from.


I just finished a book by Robert Moor called On Trails, where he thinks deeply about the value of trails, how they originate and what we would be without them. Good read.

Friday, March 9, 2018


A hallelujah to myself for finding time to complete a project that I started in an art workshop. First, I am a workshop junkie. I love to go to learn new things, meet new artists, and to create. I usually come away full of ideas to continue with whatever technique I had just learned. Then life gets in the way. And quickly, months pass, and I look through my stack and realize that those ideas languished undone for a long time. I've come to accept that process. I've found that even though I may not drop everything that I'm doing to concentrate on the new technique, I incorporate many of the ideas that I've learned into my artistic quest.

But I'm also happy when something clicks enough to continue my interest, as the chalkboard lettering did for me. Last week, I showed you the thought processes I go through to develop a design. This week  I want to show the final results. After last week's work, I enlarged my 6-inch high drawing twice so that I now had a 13 1/2 X 8-inch design to work from.

With a piece of white Saral paper* attached to the back of the design, I transferred the image to my final, I hoped, black paper. With a charcoal pencil, I retraced and shaped the lines. Charcoal doesn't rub off as easily as chalk does so I didn't use a fixative to keep the design from smearing (hairspray works well for chalk).

Voila! here is my finished chalkboard lettering poster.

*Saral paper is a wax-free transfer paper that comes in a variety of colors and makes it easy to tranfer designs to paper or fabric. It's available at JoAnn's, Michael's or Dick Blick's.