Friday, December 25, 2015


"I am thinking of you today because it is Christmas, and I wish you happiness. And tomorrow, because it will be the day after Christmas, I shall still wish you happiness. I may not be able to tell you about it every day, because I may be far away or we may be very busy. But that makes no difference -- my thoughts and my wishes will be with you just the same. Whatever joy or success comes to you will make me glad. Clear through the year...I wish you the spirit of Christmas."
                                                                                 ....Henry van Dyke

My cousins Pete and Pat sent this message with their Christmas card. Though not everyone celebrate Christmas, the sentiments still resonate.

Happy Holidays!
May your days be joyful and fun-filled.

Cheers, Martha Slavin

Friday, December 18, 2015


Samuel towers over me as we walk down the school's hallway. I am his Writer's Coach and he is in seventh grade. The first time we met, he spoke with a strong, confident voice. Today -- a few days before the holiday break -- his mind is elsewhere. The night before I read the last of Jan Karon's books about the small town of Mitford.  The main character, Tim, is struggling to reach a young teenager who grew up in a dysfunctional family. Tim makes the decision to just love the young man.

I think of that solution as I sit across from Samuel, who I know from our previous session, to be bright and insightful. I spent 17 years teaching students who were Samuel's age. Next to parenting, I  found teaching middle school kids to be the hardest thing I've done. Now as a tutor, I need to let go of my ego, my own perceptions, my desire to be liked, and my own agendas, and just be present with the students I work with. Today, no matter how fidgety Samuel is, I've decided just to love him and let him take from me what he needs to get. I listen to his essay. I ask him questions to help him include more details of the story he is analyzing. I point out the parts where he has done well. In the end, Samuel walks away with an  essay he is satisfied with, and I walk away without feeling the frustration of failure because I put 'just love' in my day with him.

Would you like to tutor as a Writers Coach?  Check out the Writers Coach Connection at their website:  It's a great program that should be nationwide.

Friday, December 11, 2015


I sit in my favorite chair. The pages of Norton Book of Nature Writing catch between my fingers. Each page is so thin it is like lifting a spider web. In my hands, the pages stick together repeatedly. I remember books from my childhood with similar pages. I would spend hours leafing through our dictionary and the family Bible. I enjoyed the delicate feel of the pages, which made me slow down so that I didn't tear them.

Other books drew me in with their illustrations. I especially loved black and white wood engravings. My family acquired a special edition of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights that contained prints by Fritz Eichenberg. The engravings evoked such tension, emotion, and mystery that I dived right into the story of Jane Eyre and read the book over and over again.

Looking at this illustration again, I could easily put myself in Jane's place as she stands facing those who are judging her.

This year I've hunted for illustrated books. They are hard to find, but I discovered several books with wood engravings, which is a process that is time consuming yet in skilled hands such as Eichenberg can intensive the mood of the story. I treasure these books:

Rainbows are Made by Carl Sandburg with wood engravings by Fritz Eichenberg

Two volumes of Thoreau, both with wood engravings by Michael McCurdy:

The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Robert Bly, and Walden, the 150th Edition

Barry Moser, another wood engraver, illustrates another book with images of the poets inside, The Light Within the Light: Portraits of Donald Hall, Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kumin, and Stanley Kunitz by Jeanne Braham.

I have also looked for artists' sketchbooks and found two small colorful volumes. Both are extraordinarily detailed with careful pictorial observations by the artists.

The last book is one I carried with me through college: Orestes, or the Art of Smiling by Domenico Gnoli. The pen and ink drawings create an imaginary world full of humor and delightful details.  Take a look!

What books have you been reading this year?

Friday, December 4, 2015


Do you take online classes?

 Online classes give me time on my own to work. I can then share my pieces and receive critiques from people who don't know me. Classroom classes give me the chance to mingle with other creative people. We stimulate each other, share techniques, and work without competing.

Once my classes this fall were complete, I started working on a watercolor that was inspired by a mushroom I found hidden under one of our camellia bushes. Water had pooled inside the bowl of the golden mushroom.

I imagined a little forest sprite fishing from the edge. I've been trying to paint that scene ever since. I am reminded of Albert Einstein's definition of insanity:

"Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

He wasn't talking about artists, I don't think. I often paint something over and over.  Sometimes the experimenting creates interesting, improved results. Other times, I overwork the piece and the painting loses its liveliness. Sometimes, I needed to stay with the original piece. Sometimes, if I can get through the experimenting and the tightly wound stages, I come out with something that is better than my original.

I started the sprite painting by using a Zig Artist Sketch Pen, which is waterproof, instead of my usual pencil, to outline the image on a piece of cold press paper. I could erase pencil lines, but the marker was permanent. I wanted to keep as much detail visible as I could.

I didn't like my final painting so I tried another set using a different kind of watercolor paper. This piece demonstrates the value of marking on the back what type of paper it is.  I used a pencil this time to draw the image, but I still didn't like the results.

Many watercolorists use cold press paper because of the texture of the paper, which grabs the watercolor paint. I decided for the sprite image to try hot press paper with its smoother surface, which might help to show the details. I used pencil again to outline the shapes.

As I painted the last example, I realized that long ago in a class at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, I worked on a painting with a similar theme. I pulled out my old portfolio and stared at the painting. I remembered the teacher's critique. She told me to study the work of another student, whose figures were joyously animated, full of life and emotion. At the time, I found the comparison discouraging, not understanding that I needed to work hard to accomplish similar results. But now I am back at practice. I remind myself again, "This is the best I can do right now."

My original painting from an Academy of Art class.

Cold weather blew in last week, which has encouraged me to spend more time in my workroom. I gaze out the window at the leaves blowing by or watch rain drop on our thirsty yard. I turn back to work table I enjoy the painting practice and try to reach beyond what I can do now.

If you are interested in online art classes, here are two that I have enjoyed:

Jacqueline Newbold's watercolor classes through the Artful Gathering website. http://atozinnia.org

She also gives workshops around the country.

Chris Berdoll's watercolor class through the Artists' Network University.