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

Friday, November 1, 2019


Ed Clark died recently.
You might ask who is Ed Clark?
His name was not familiar to me either
until I read his obit in the NYTimes.

As an abstract expressionist, Ed Clark created sweeping works with vivid colors that hint of imaginary landscapes. As an African American, he moved to Paris to avoid discrimination in the U.S. He joined with other African Americans, such as James Baldwin and Haywood Bill Rivers, who went abroad for the same reason. After success in Europe, Clark returned to New York City to find that white-owned galleries still would not represent him because of his color. He found other galleries to exhibit his art instead. He became well-known on the East Coast partly because he was the first artist to create a shaped canvas, which inspired other artists to follow his lead.

What touched me about Ed Clark as an artist was his favorite tool, a broom, which he began to use as a struggling artist as a way to lay down the large swathes of color that he liked to create. His paintings are full of energy, imagination, and power. Ed Clark is someone to look for the next time you visit the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Art, or the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Ed Clark came a long way from his modest beginnings scraping by with a janitor's broom to have a place in museums around the world.

Ed Clark, courtesy of Art Pulse Magazine

That broom made me think of the various tools that I've relied on in my artwork. During Inktober, I used mostly a pen and ink but also experimenting again with other tools such as pieces of bamboo, wooden toothpicks, and twigs.

David R. Hayes made my latest brush. The brush is meticulously made from a large twig, a piece of flexible metal, and twine. Hayes sands the knots on the twig handle, wraps the bristles in a bronze piece of metal to hold the bristles securely, and covers the other end carefully in twine. Handmade work such as this reminds me of the care that Japanese toolmakers take in creating their tools.

All of these tools make me think in different ways. You can see the possibilities even in my demo of the lines each tool makes. Contrast the precise line of the Rotring ink pen with the wrapped bundle of delicate twigs. How would your writing differ with each of these tools? What would a different tool do for the expression of your ideas? Does writing with one tool make you feel freer or does another tool make you feel constrained? Try a broom and let your inner Ed Clark out.

Made with twigs, bamboo, and brushes

The collage I made of my Inktober drawings & calligraphy

Take a look at Ed Clark's work:

You can find Heywood Bill Rivers here:
Heywood Bill Rivers's paintings

David Hayes has a blog and Etsy shop: