Friday, September 15, 2017


by Martha Slavin

My mother loved the illustrations of Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane, artists who lived in the Victorian era. Their delicate and detailed drawings for children's books remind me of illuminated manuscripts. The two artists used common motifs and design elements, such as letterforms, stars, flowers, leaves, swirls, repetition, and awareness of positive and negative space. My mother painted similar designs on the delicate ceramics she made.

This last weekend I felt like I was channeling my mother while I took a workshop called The Enchanted Letter led by Heather Victoria Held, a calligrapher and illustrator, who paints illuminated letters. She kept us enthralled with her mastery and knowledge of illumination, which harks back to the Middle Ages, when monks sat at their desks hand lettering religious books. The books done by monks were used for liturgical purposes, but other artists began using the same skills to illustrate books for wealthy patrons. The artists filled in many of the spaces with filigree, leaves, flowers, animals, and insects. The hand-made book became obsolete with the advent of the printing press, but the beauty and appreciation of these books never died. In the Victorian era, artists such as Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane, created children's books using many of the design techniques of the illuminated manuscripts.

by Martha Slavin
In the workshop, we worked on drawing the acanthus leaf that can be found in many designs dated back to the Ancient Egyptians. We learned how to shape the leaf around "S" forms. We placed leaves around borders. We added gold-leaf or gold paint. We colored the shapes first with watercolor pencils, then we dampened the color to smooth out the shading. We added watercolor to bring out highlights and contrast. We drew filigree between the shapes, added shading with pastels, and, finally, we glued on tiny crystals to add a little bling.  As Heather said, "A little bling never hurts." Much of what we did during the weekend workshop, I used to do in college and for several years afterward. I had put aside this type of work for other things. I gave away some of the reference books I no longer used. But now I am back full circle, enjoying the pleasure of this detailed, delicate work.

by Martha Slavin

If you travel to Europe and want more inspiration, you might want to look at the Lindesfarne Gospels in the British Library, or visit the home of Carl Larsson in Sundborn, Sweden, or travel to Bayeux, France, to see the Bayeux Tapestry, an extraordinary piece of embroidery using similar design techniques to relate the history leading to the Battle of Hastings.

by Martha Slavin

One of my favorite artists, Sara Midda, uses many of the techniques of the Victorian era to illustrate her charming books. Look also in the children's section of the library or bookstore for artists, such Graeme Base, Elizabeth Doyle or Edward Gorey, who have all completed an abcderian book worth looking through.

Check out these websites for more information about

Illuminated Manuscripts

Bayeux Tapestry
Sara Midda

Dover Publications, a great reference resource

Friday, September 8, 2017


I made a 3-dimensional piece called Wings that features a flag-like structure with wings fixed to the main post. The wings have words, sayings, and poems written on them. To keep the column stable, I put the structure on a board with small, smooth rocks resting on it. Each rock has a word for a sound such as "Murmur, Whistle or Shout," printed on them. While cleaning our house, I put the column on top of a cabinet and put the board with rocks in a separate place. Somewhere. I've lost my rocks. I can't find them anywhere in the house. They seem to be part of that mysterious event called "Lost," such as lost socks, lost papers, lost fish.

The lost fish might make you sit up. Not everyone would put lost fish on their list of Lost Things. We have a fountain in our backyard that we decided last fall to fill with goldfish: 30 2-inch specimens, orange, orange and black, orange and white, and black. Beautiful fish that mesmerized us as we watched them swim to the surface of the fountain's lower bowl to snatch up the flakes of fish food. We set up camp chairs so we could watch them in the evening. We added water lilies to the bowl. We didn't pay attention to the filtering system so eventually, the water became murky. We added barley, which helped some. We continued to watch the fish through the winter until one day in April when winter seemed to have exhausted itself, the fish stopped coming to the surface for food. We tried to entice them each night with fish food flakes, we tried different food, we finally abandoned feeding them entirely after Bill learned that when goldfish die they sink to the bottom, and we couldn't see the bottom.

For a month, we ignored the fountain and mourned our fish. We put away the camp chairs. I tried contacting fountain cleaners, fish stores, anyone who might be able to help us. One day, just as we finally decided to drain the fountain and clean it out, I spotted a 6-inch long goldfish under the lily pads. Bill threw some food in and out came more large orange streaks. We counted at least ten (it's hard to count large numbers of fish. They don't stand still.) We waited a couple of days and added more flakes to the water. More and more fish appeared. We now have our orange, black, and multi-colored ones back--only larger. Where were they for a whole month? On vacation? Sitting under the lily pads? We don't know, but we are now back to standing beside the fountain, dropping in food occasionally, and waiting for the open mouths of the fish as they snatch a flake and then dive down below the lily pads.

We can take our fish off of our Lost List. I still haven't found my rocks.

Friday, September 1, 2017


Hurricane Harvey made me think of home: what home means, what home means to people when they lose theirs. Under entirely different circumstances, I asked myself that question when we prepared to move to Tokyo. It's a question all of us can ask: what does home mean to me?


I stand in the backyard and stare back at our house. Like a Peeping Tom, I look through the windows at the golden glow that the lights cast on the fawn-colored walls, on the well-read books, and the blue paisley sofas of our family room. It is early evening and I am saying goodbye to our house.

We are about to leave on a journey that will take us out of the country for the next five and a half years. I know as I stand on the ground in the backyard that our life as we know it was over.

I ask myself, "How will I ever bring this sense of 'home,' this feeling of warmth and stability, to a high-rise apartment in the middle of Tokyo? How can I uproot our eight-year old son and expect him to fit in easily in a new and very different place that is thousands of miles away?"

View from our apartment overlooking Hiroo shopping street

My husband Bill is confident that moving is a good thing. By the time he started high school, he had moved across the United States from Newport News, Virginia, to Philadelphia, to Cincinnati to Decatur, Illinois, to finally, Los Altos, California. He learned to make friends quickly by joining extra-curricular activities. He felt he benefited from the challenge of being the 'new kid' in each place.

I had moved away from home only when I left for college. By then, I was ready to extend my roots and explore new places. But that was my decision, not my parents.

Bill and I moved to Danville when we were 30, changing houses there three times before we found our present house,  before we moved to Tokyo. We had long time friends, our son Theo was in a small public school that was well-suited to his temperament, we had a dog and cat, and I volunteered at Theo's school and with various groups in Danville. We were established in our community. I knew, by moving, that I was giving up my dreams of going back to work now that our son was older. (I wasn't allowed to work while we were overseas.)

I was looking forward to our move to Tokyo, to the adventure of living overseas in a culture that I had been fascinated by since college. I was excited by the possibility of living in a place so different from our own. But as a mother, I was concerned about the transition for Theo with this move.

Little did I know as looked at the scene in the window how much of a life-changing time this move would be.

Theo and his friends in our Tokyo apartment. His friends came from Japan, India, Sweden, Australia and the U.S.

International Food Fair at Nishimachi International School, the school Theo attended.

MOVING TO TOKYO is the first in a series of essays about our life overseas called LETTERS HOME.

Watching the events unfold in Texas shows how much we have learned from our experiences in dealing with major disasters since Katrina. People have stepped in to help when help was needed. This week those helpers showed the best of ourselves.

Home is not only a building but the community that comes forward to help others wherever you may be.