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.

Friday, March 2, 2018


When I walk through a museum, I look for drawings. I would rather look at them then the completed works of a painter. In the drawings, I can see the thinking processes of the artist before a work is completed. I can also see the changes the artist makes as the images progresses from sketch to final draft.

From CLOWNS, a mixed media series about the circus

At Letters: California Style, I took a chalkboard lettering class from Cora Pearl * this year. I spent three and a half days with other people who love letters as much as I do. We worked for a couple of days just practicing drawing alphabets. We were doing hand lettering, not calligraphy. What is the difference?  Calligraphers write the letters. Hand letterers draw letters. There is a lot of crossover between the two techniques and the computer has brought another dimension to lettering arts as well.

After practicing for a couple of days, we proceeded to design words and phrases to put on black paper.

Finally, we worked on more elaborate designs, which would be our finished work from the class. As an artist and graphic designer, I am very familiar with the steps to create a design. I make a number of thumbnails, which are quick sketches of different ideas, similar to the brainstorming you might do in a business meeting.

Playing with words and phrases and how to represent them.

What's the best shape? How to show flight?

From those, I decided on a couple of ideas I thought would work and then drew more in-depth sketches. Then I played with what I had until I was satisfied with what I think would be a good design.

I decided to combine these two images into one poster.

My next step:  I will redraw the design to make it more symmetrical, and then work on the smaller decorative elements. Then I will enlarge the design to my desired size. I will transfer that design to black paper and pick up my white charcoal pencil to complete my poster. I will show you next time the finished result. 

* Check out Coral Pearl's website to see the variety of calligraphy and hand lettering that she offers:

Friday, February 23, 2018


Driving back from Letters: Cal Style, an annual calligraphy conference, my mind was brimming with ideas for blog postings and new creative projects. I was also listening to the radio. As I heard the young voices of the high schoolers from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, tears came to my eyes and down my cheeks. Once again, we find ourselves engulfed in horrific news and my blogging ideas faded away.

This Wednesday, those same students gave me hope. They descended on Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., to talk with their government representatives. They participated in a Town Hall meeting organized by CNN. They stood strong, they spoke articulately, they wouldn't allow politicians or NRA representatives to get away with smooth, well-practiced answers. They demanded Yes or No answers to their questions about bump stocks, semi-automatic weapons, and funding from special interests groups such as the NRA. Those students, soon to be 18 and able to vote, gave me hope. They plan, among other events, to march on Washington, D.C., on March 24.

As a former middle school teacher, I know how long we have been engaged in this debate. During my early teaching days in the 70s, teachers became legally responsible for reporting abuse, though we received no training about recognizing signs of abuse. As a teacher though, you develop a sixth sense when something doesn't seem right. Even then, I doubted my instincts and I regret not reporting a young girl's cuts up and down her arm that she claimed were the result of a fall.

I had several other students who fit into an even more troubling category. One girl wrote insulting things about me on her desktop, became such a discipline problem that I contacted her parents for a conference with school personnel. The girl's private psychologist agreed that the girl identified with me and was taking out her anger on me. The young girl eventually painted my name in 6-foot high letters on a school wall and then was removed from my classroom, ran away, and eventually landed in jail for other crimes.

Another boy came to my English class only 2 or 3 times in the year. The rest of the time he was truant. While in my class, he refused to do anything other than to sit sullenly in place. I also taught his sister and her best friend in my art class. A couple years later, while the three of them were at home, the boy came out of his bedroom with a shotgun and killed both his sister and her friend, and then himself.

My point in mentioning these students: these events occurred long before Columbine. Even before then, troubled students have been identified by school personnel, but solutions for troubled kids can vary from effective to inconsequential. What can make a horrible difference: access to guns. I was lucky the girl didn't have access to a gun. The boy did. The result: three young lives lost. And remember how many more since then.

You tell me: do we need to have assault weapons and bump stocks readily available? They don't belong in anyone's home. They are military weapons, not meant for hunting. If you agree with me, stand up like the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas and let your voice be heard.

Take a look at this article by German Lopez with comparisons of gun violence in various countries.

Friday, February 16, 2018


by Rose Owens*

For 2017, I wanted to return to the magical feeling of diving into a book, escaping the world at the moment, and learning about this new realm as well as something about myself. I wanted to get back to reading. I have been an avid reader since childhood, but had fallen out of any regular patterns due to working in the food service industry (and retail at large) for the past fifteen years. I initially shot for twenty-five books, and managed to read twenty-nine (missing finishing the thirtieth by a day!). It was a wonderful and enriching experience, and one that I am re-creating in 2018; still gunning for twenty-five books, but here's hoping I break my 2017 record!

What follows is a small sampling of books read during 2017. An additional note: I created a thematic goal within my goal, one which seemed prescient: to only read female/female-identifying authors, which turned out wonderfully and only had a couple hiccups. Please enjoy!

by Martha Slavin

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This debut novel by Gyasi was getting a great deal of good press for some time, but I stumbled upon it as a member of a book club called Page Views, sponsored by the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor. It was presented in connection with a show at the de Young called "Revelations: Art from the African American South." The art show alone is astounding and heart-breaking (and up until April 2018, go see it!), and plays with the idea of memory and identity formation, among many other things. Homegoing was a perfect fit, as it is a truly radical piece of work that moves back and forth between the life stories of fourteen different characters as their various families move around Africa and emigrate to the United States. It's riveting and Gyasi does an amazing job at keeping the reader fully immersed in the story. You feel as though you are walking alongside each character, sharing their pains and joys. There's surprise and magic, romance and sorrow, and above all Gyasi works (as have the other two authors I will mention here) to broaden the reader's worldview. This is not for complacent readers, but will force you to ask very real questions of yourself and how you negotiate with other people's experiences. It's a real commitment, but isn't that why we read? To learn and change for the better, to evolve and celebrate the dynamism of the world? You will not regret picking up this very worthy tome.

by Martha Slavin

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Truth be told, it took me a long time to get to this book because it had been so lauded for so many years. Perhaps it's the contrarian in me, but sometimes I am put off by books that EVERYONE says are great. Perhaps it's from reading said books and being disappointed that I wasn't as enraptured as I was supposed to be. Whatever the case for my putting it off, I decided I was going to read The Handmaid's Tale this year for multiple reasons: a) it fit my theme of female authors, b) the dystopian world which scarily mirrors our own, and c) I wanted to get ahead of the (then) upcoming television series based on the novel. However, I found once diving into its pages that this was more than just a case of getting ahead of the story. Atwood tells a startlingly recognizable tale, full of heart and hate, and with a protagonist who you can fully see. Offred is not an easy person to connect with, which I value. sometimes, one gets tired of endlessly relatable leads. We are pushed into uncomfortable zones, asked repeatedly if we would do the same, and realizing that no matter what, you cannot know what your reactions and response would be unless you are actually in that moment. I was very much enthralled by this book and soon became one of those talking head testimonials that I scoffed at for so many years. P.S. the show, while not slavishly devoted to the mother text, does some interesting things with the piece. Check both out!

by Martha Slavin

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

I had long admired Roxane Gay for her unabashed proclamations about pop culture (if you haven't yet, do yourself a favor and read her piece about going to see "Magic Mike XXL"; it's celebratory and fun and not what you would expect about a movie that many have labeled "a frivolous chick flick"). So it was with excitement that I dove into this book of her essays, which run the gamut from pop culture to politics to sexuality to...Scrabble? It's a truly engrossing read that will keep you questioning your intake of gender role and racial representation, which is something we could always use, but especially during these days of #MeToo and terrifyingly inhumane proclamations regarding immigrants and people of color. Next up on my "hanging with Roxane" list is her memoir Hunger, which dives into discussions about body and self-image, and is another topic always worth diving into to tease apart common-held stereotypes regarding appearances. You go, Roxane, you go!

Check out Rose's list of 29, almost completed, 30 good reads. Click on the Book Lists page at the top of this post.


I'm attending the California Letters conference this week, so I asked Rose Owens to contribute this post. Thank you for reading and please let her know your response to her post by leaving a comment!