Friday, December 27, 2019


The oval path that surrounds Osage Station Park offers me a place to exercise and watch the changes that occur in the park as I walk four times around. Last week I came at the right time of the year to find Osage oranges littering the walkway under three trees. I used to walk this path every day but I never knew what these strange, lime green, warty objects on the path were. On this walk I used my new app, Picture This, to identify this peculiar fruit as Osage oranges that fall from three trees in the park and splatter themselves on the pathway.

I began the walk at the children's playground, which is nestled next to a memorial rose garden. Each rose bush has a bronze plaque commemorating a loved one who died. I always thought that the juxtaposition of the playground and the memorial was unusual in American culture.

Back then the children in the park used both the playground and the rose garden as part of their adventures. Now there is a sign posted in the rose bed, "Do Not Play in This Area at Any Time." I was sad to see the sign that fenced off imagination and connection to generations gone by.

I walked under the alders and black oak, which had lost their leaves in the fall, and by the middle school, which spewed out kids who ran around the path for exercise. Previously at this time of year, I would sometimes see a group pick up the fruit and throw them around. They would explode into fragments exposing the pithy interior and the seeds at the core. The oranges are not edible, some think they are poisonous, and the juice can irritate the skin. Squirrels and birds love the seeds. Cows and horses that try to swallow them whole can choke on them. The tree itself makes fine wood and hedges. The Osage, from which the tree is named, used the wood to make bows and arrows.

The Osage orange trees in the park came a long way from where they usually are grown. They can be found in the Midwest and parts of the South. R.O. Baldwin established a ranch on the site at the end of the 19th century, built a flag stop station for the Southern Pacific Railroad extension through the San Ramon Valley, and then planted Osage orange trees. Osage Station Park was named after the ranch where the oranges grew.

The Tatcan tribe were the original occupants of the land, not the Osage. The Osage, who called themselves the Ni-u-kon-ska, lived originally on the East Coast but migrated inland to the Kansas area. After the Civil War, they were forced on to a reservation in Oklahoma.

The Osage have an unusual history for an indigenous tribe moved to a reservation. At the turn of the 20th century, they became the richest per capita people in the world due to the discovery of oil under their land. They had been ceded the mineral rights to the land and prospered. But during the period between 1910 and 1930, people of the tribe either disappeared or were murdered. Many also lost their rights to the annual oil income due to chicanery. The Bureau of Investigation finally came to find the killers. The Osage murder story can be read in David Gann's true crime novel, The Killers of the Flower Moon: the Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. A good read.

A long walk around Osage Park keeps me in shape, allows me moments of exploration and reflection, and sometimes helps me arrive at a topic for my blog.

Try Picture This to identify plants:  (not a free app)

To learn more about the Osage tribe:

To learn more about the Osage murders:

To read David Gann's true crime novel, Killers of the Flower Moon: the Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, go to

Friday, December 20, 2019


Have you read enough articles about setting your priorities for the busy holiday season? All those recommendations and ideas go out my windows the closer I get to the big day. I'm scrambling to get packages sent (I found a secret post office where there are no lines), to decorate the house (I've cut back a lot from previous years), to stuff cards into envelopes with my husband (a good time to talk of good friends), and to try to avoid holiday traffic (go early or late). Laundry? Cleaning the house? Dishes in the sink? Not on my need-to-do-this-minute list right now.

Long ago I set my priority: enjoy the holiday, with an emphasis on JOY. All the scurrying around is part of the fun. But sometimes, like we all do, I need to take a deep breath and remember why I like this time of year. I think of small things: the birds at the feeder right after the rain, the other customer who bagged my groceries without asking, the lights on houses in the neighborhood and downtown, the friendliness of strangers, the toddler reaching for the falling leaves as they drifted down from the sky, and someone walking by in regular clothes but with a Santa hat on his head. Small things can bring a smile to my face.

At home, I can stop, make a bowl of soup, add some good bread, and read an engrossing book by the fire. I've recently been reading biographies and memoirs set in different locations: an Irish farm, the area in the West defended by the Oglala Sioux leader, Red Cloud, and Czechoslavakia from its founding to the present day. And some good fiction too.

Here is one of my favorite wintertime soups. 
Take a moment and warm yourself with a bowl of soup and a good book.

Creamy Chicken and Wild Rice Soup (adapted from Delish)

You will need a total of 4 cups of chicken broth
a large handful of mushrooms
1 cup of wild rice
3 Tbsp butter
1 onion, chopped
2 large carrots, sliced into rounds
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken or turkey breasts (or purchase already roasted breasts)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp thyme
1 tsp sage
Salt and pepper
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup of heavy cream

First Step:
Bring 1 cup of chicken broth to a boil and add a large handful of mushrooms. Remove from the heat and let stand for 30 minutes. Chop the mushrooms.

Second Step:
Bring 2 cups of chicken broth to a boil and add 1 cup of wild rice. Cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Third Step:
In a large pot, melt butter. Add onion, celery, and carrots. Cook, stirring, until vegetables are tender, and liquid has evaporated, about 6 minutes. Add chicken or turkey and cook until golden, 10 minutes. (Skip this if you purchased roasted breasts. Pull the meat from the bone and place in the pot with the other ingredients.) Add thyme, sage, & garlic. Stir till fragrant, 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper.

Add flour and whisk until golden. Pour in the last cup of broth and the cream. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add wild rice and simmer for 20 minutes.

Good eating and good reading. Happy Holidays to All!

Friday, December 13, 2019


Where do birds go when it is raining?

We live near open grasslands and wooded areas, so we see lots of different wildlife around us. They frequent our backyard starting in the spring. In winter, the deer go elsewhere. Sometimes I see them on the hills at the end of the street getting the last bit of grass or peeking out beneath the low-hanging branches of oaks that grow next to the creek.

In the summer they hop our low fence and follow their own path up our hill to the top where they nap, chew their cuds and later come down the hill and out our driveway.

The birds still storm our feeders when the rain stops, but I don't even see the crows on a rainy day. They usually sway on the branches at the tops of the redwoods watching for the solitary hawks that sail by. Rain makes our yard quiet and full of bird songs when it stops.

I'm still going to John Muir Laws' demos about drawing living, moving animals and birds.

I've discovered that like all art skills,  I  need to practice for a long time to learn to capture animals in motion. Try it. Sit outside and try to capture a bird moving around you. You will find that you will barely get a stick figure down or the top of a head and maybe the back of the tail before the animal or bird moves. It is hard!

It is much easier for me to look for photos to practice the animal's anatomy.  I can learn the differences between a finch and a phoebe and add those markings to my drawing quickly. Looking at dead specimens helps me to understand the parts of animals too. (Even the sad specimen of a hummingbird here.)

In class I find myself turning to my usual practice of drawing living, moving humans. As we all sit attentively watching John's presentation, I draw the heads of the participants. I know how to draw humans, so if they move, I can fill in the blanks. But the people in the class are so often mesmerized during the lecture, that they don't move, and I can capture them as they sit. Maybe I should give them names just like the birds and other animals. What would you call them?

Friday, December 6, 2019


a book called Lizard Dreams
Books are fun to make.

All you need is paper or fabric or a toy animal, pieces of heavyweight book board for the covers, glue, and ideas.

All kinds of materials can be used to make a book. I've made books from eco-dyed paper,

books with fabric spines,

books with twig spines

I've stacked 6" X 6" individual paintings together and tied them with ribbon, 

and I've sewn layers of paper into a signature, which is a set of papers folded in the middle and sewn together against the spine of a book.

This book has two signatures.

a two-page spread from a book with a canvas spine

I've learned the words that explain the parts of a book such as signature, joint, crush, foot, endpapers, and spine. The most difficult book I've made was a traditionally bound book with a hardcover and signatures while I was in a class with Dominic Riley at the San Francisco Center for the Book. Riley is from England and makes incredible books using the old techniques of bookbinders.

Books are a fun way to practice art. Books, such as old textbooks that no one wants, can be made into altered books, which can be used as practice material for stand-alone art. Handmade books can contain sketches, family recipes, or photos. And what about making a little book to slip into your purse or pocket to record your thoughts as a good friend has done for many years?

a one-signature (six papers) booklet sewn together at the spine

Books are a great way to use all the art materials I can't resist. I can re-purpose photos, magazine pages, pieces of artwork that didn't work out, and memories from family and friends. Now that handwriting is becoming a lost art, what better way to preserve examples of loved ones' handwriting than in a carefully produced handmade book? I'm working on that one.

To learn the names of the parts of a book:

To learn bookbinding:
San Francisco Center for the Book

Works by Dominic Riley can be found here:

Friday, November 29, 2019


What brings the shift of seasons to your attention where you live?

Here in Northern California, the change is subtle from autumn to winter. Chilly mornings that grow to 80 degrees continue all fall until the first rain.  We wait for the leaf colors that other places view in September.

We are just getting our full week of color now.

We heard the first rain since May splash on our windows last night. The fires in the last few years have elevated our desire for the rain to dampen the earth and to combat the dry air and strong hot winds that come in the fall. We are grateful for the rain.

Yesterday the wind was different. The chilly gusts skipped around spreading a dance of leaves across the street and back again.

This time of year is a good time for us to clean up the garden and plant new plants. We hope the rains will provide enough water to encourage the roots to dig deep beneath the soil.

We don't have the snow that some of you have in the fall. We cross our fingers that we don't have another drought year instead. We live on hope.

We wrap ourselves in scarves, sweaters and coats, tuck gloves in our pockets and seek a warm spot in the sun. We sip hot chocolate or lattes and read good books. We notice that the morning sunlight rises later and later.

Long autumn shadows and acorns cast themselves across our paths. We hurry home wondering why three o'clock now reminds us that it is almost time for dinner. We imagine bubbling soups and chilis and warm homemade bread. We know that winter is almost here.

Friday, November 22, 2019


 Have you found a feather in an unexpected place?

I look at each one that has dropped from the sky with wonder at its pristine shape, design, and lightness. I think about its purpose inflight. I put my collected feathers around a bird's nest that had fallen out of a tree.

I admire the beauty of these feathers, but Native Americans treated feathers as gifts from gods. Each tribe had different ways of displaying feathers. The Sioux used eagle feathers as recognition of important moments in a person's life. They handled each one with care and wore them so others could see. Today, First Nations work to keep the significance of the feathers intact and push mainstream culture not to use eagle feathers in Halloween costumes or at sporting events.

I thought of the beliefs of Native Americans as I painted a portrait of Sitting Bull (based on a photograph by Edward Curtis), and hoped I wasn't showing disrespect to a strong leader of the Hunkpapa Sioux. Like many schoolchildren, I had read about the various tribes who lived on the American landscape before Europeans arrived. The stories either glorified these people or made them out as savages. I scoured the library for other books. I learned about their lives, their identity with the land and animals around them, their forms of governance, their spirituality, and the various ways they confronted the new emigrants from Europe.

I read about our nation's attempts to eliminate whole tribes, to force many on to reservations, and about all the treaties that were signed in good faith by the various tribes only to be broken by the U.S. government. I was appalled then, and I still am now. I think our country owes the First Nations recompense for the treatment that continues in some form today.

Reading about Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Sioux and Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, I once again understood how strong their opposition was to the taking of their land. In Sitting Bull's words, "What treaty that the whites have kept has the red man broken? Not one."

He also said, "Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children."

Wise words to remember as we pick up a feather from an unexpected place, and as we gather around the Thanksgiving table.

by Martha Slavin

Today's post is in recognition of Native American's occupation of Alcatraz in 1969.

Read more about the meaning of feathers in different Native American cultures:

Edward Curtis and his photographs can be found here:

Read a biography of Red Cloud:
The Heart of Everything That Is by Bob Drury & Tom Clavin

Learn more about what organizations are doing for First Nations.

Friday, November 15, 2019


beach waves sand shells

Pieces that work, pieces that don't. Isn't that a good example of any kind of learning?

In watercolor, I am trying to learn not to overwork, make muddy colors and to give my paintings a boost by the drawing underneath. If a drawing is askew, then the painting will follow the same path. The practice of watercolor can often be the practice of drawing.

I am at the point where some of my paintings ring true. The colors are vibrant and mix together on the page. They are well-drawn and give me hope. Others I put aside as learning experiences.

The Pacific Art League in Palo Alto recently selected one of my paintings for their annual show. The painting is an assemblage from that stack of learning experiences.  I took the stack of 5 X 7 sketches and dry brushed gesso over them so that some of the colors showed through. I then cut the paintings into one-inch strips. I also cut more into one-inch squares.



I laid the strips on my table and kept rearranging them until I found a pleasing design. I added a few one-inch squares at the top to intensify the movement that runs through the assemblage. I drew red circles to move across the page. I called the painting, JUMP.

JUMP, the finished collage

At this point in my learning about watercolor, I often find pieces in a painting that work really well. Other times, not so much. I use two mat board angles to find the best parts of a painting and remove the rest.

I chose a subject that was too complicated
 & without a lot of value changes.

but I found some good parts too

I've set myself a goal of not overworking a painting. I'm trying to stop myself before I keep adding paint to an area that is just not working. I can lift some of the paint off with a dampened Viva towel, but I need to be aware that I will never get back to the white paper. Watercolor doesn't work that way.

If you look at the works of watercolor masters such as Charles Reid, Anders Zorn, or Winslow Homer, you will see the freshness that makes watercolor an exciting medium to work with.

These paintings are what I aspire to do:

Anders Zorn watercolor paintings here:

Charles Reid paintings:

Paintings by Winslow Homer

Friday, November 8, 2019


JUMP by Martha Slavin (watercolor and gesso)
On display at Pacific Art League's Annual Members Exhibit through November 

 I've let my poetry slip
through my fingers
down a mixed river
of watercolor and ink
to come to rest on a sandbar
Waiting like a seed to sprout again.

I think of poetry as the watercolor of writing. It is hard, it takes practice and a lot of work to create vibrant, vivid words that can describe feelings and images succinctly. I know many people who don't read poetry. I know some poems that seem so obtuse they become puzzles left for someone to try to piece together.

For a while, I was writing poetry frequently. Like painting with watercolors, I stopped when other interests pulled me away. But I recently read a poem by Stanley Kunitz called The Layers, which brought back my interest. One line, in particular, caught my breath.

"How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?"

"Feast of losses." Phrases and sentences like this contradiction grab me, pull me up short, make me sigh. I want to try to write poems again.

How could I start writing poetry again?

First, I started making lists. The subject lines of spam emails can become starter poems as these do:

Meet Your Best Matches
Gun Shows Sell Explosives

What Exxon Knew
Just Unearthed
Saudi Refugees Flee
Your Destiny Is Calling You

How to Protect Your Home
Secrets of Pond Turtles

Next, I pulled out Kenneth Koch's book, Teaching Children to Write Poetry, which I had used in my classroom a long time ago. Koch inspired kids to write poems by asking them questions or giving them the first words of a line which he then had them repeat over and over again.

His first prompt starts with the line, "I wish..." Many of the children answered with wishes for riches, not to have to go to school, or about arguments with others, but one young person wrote,

"I wish I had a home of my own."

That is what poetry does. Tugs at your heart, opens your memories, makes you see something in a new way, just as a painting can, a word painting.

What do you wish for?

Find out about Stanley Kunitz and read his book of poems and prose: The Wild Braid

Check out Kenneth Koch's books at
He also has a book called I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry Writing to Old People