Friday, February 28, 2020


Did you ever sit in class after school and write the same sentence 100 times?

I was reminded of that activity when I attended a calligraphy workshop this last weekend. We weren't being punished; we were doing what we loved -- writing by hand.

We had been instructed to bring a quote that we would use for our work. I chose part of a quote from Khalil Gibran about perfection, "...advance and do not fear the thorns in the path...." We wrote our quotes over and over for three days.

We created pieces of mark-making, a style of calligraphy that is more art than craft so that the letterforms become more texture than words. I select mark-making workshops because they do not demand perfect calligraphy (though mark-making by expert calligraphers sing above the rest) and they allow me to use the skills I've learned in graphic design.

We gathered around Denise Lach, the instructor, who showed us examples of her work. We oohed and aahed at the beautiful sweep of a line, the shapes inside her designs, and her inventiveness.

Though we were given much latitude with our exercises, she required one element: to keep the work within a 5 1/2 inch square. I found that restriction the hardest to do.

Writing the quote became a form of meditation. As I wrote, I found myself forgetting the sequence of the quote occasionally as I concentrated on filling the space. I needed constantly to be aware of the boundaries of the square. I had to remind myself to stop at the edge even though the word was not finished. I had to notice if I extended a flourish beyond the square that I did not repeat that gesture too often or in the same direction. I needed to make sure I didn't start each line with the same letter. I needed to vary the height and width of letters.

It was easy for me to ignore the square and extend my writing beyond the edges with most of the letters.

It was easy for me not to fill the entire space and to have uneven edges.

While other people in the class found satisfaction in the precision of writing to the edges, I found that for me to keep within the boundaries was the most difficult part of the exercise.

I re-read my quote and realized that I had selected the perfect quote for the day: "...advance and do not fear the thorns in the path...." My thorns, the edges of the square, helped me to create balance and excitement within a simple square shape, but eventually allowed me to escape with purposeful strokes the boundaries of the square.

The instructor Denise Lach teaches calligraphy and serigraphy at Basel School of Design in Switzerland as well as in workshops all over the world.
View some of Denise Lach's calligraphy here:

Friday, February 21, 2020


Do you have a place that you think of as your "home"?
What draws you to that particular place? 
Memories?  The right colors? 
Wet or dry? Cold or warm?

by Bill Slavin

I grew up near Los Angeles, one step away from the desert. Until I went to Minnesota with its lush green prairie, farms, and lakes, I didn't have a place whose landscape I called home.

The Sonoran Desert near Scottsdale

Last weekend in Scottsdale, Arizona, I found reminders of LA everywhere with the desert's similar dry, fragile landscape surrounded by imposing granite mountains. From the Phoenix airport, we drove for mile after mile through housing encroaching into the desert. Because the desert is so spare, what we build seems even more of a disturbance to me than usual. 

The temperature hovered in the seventies, which I am sure attracts people who live in colder winter climates, but I was not swayed by the weather. When I don't like a place too much, I try to list what it is that I do like.

Here is my list for the Sonoran Desert:

Taliesin West, the home and architectural school designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
The number of saguaros dotting the land around Scottsdale
The red rock cliffs of Sedona (though a visit during Presidents Day weekend is similar to Easter Week at the beach)
The changes from a saguaro and prickly pear vegetation in Scottsdale to grassland on the plateaux before Sedona and the national forest of scrub trees as we approached Sedona
The friendly people
The Musical Instrument Museum

Taliesin West

 Until we visited Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, with its low-slung buildings, use of native materials, and colors that fit with the desert, I didn't see many attempts to live within the landscape. Mostly, I noticed ugly concrete walls rising from the sand, blocking the natural beauty of the desert.

The Taliesin West living room with its canvas room

Chinese figures brought by Wright
 to Taliesin West and placed at each new vista

We toured Taliesin West and came away with a deeper appreciation of Wright's influence on modern architecture. He used geometric shapes repeatedly in his work and viewed the outside and inside of a building as one piece with movement flowing from one to the other. His work reflects the motifs of the indigenous people of the area as well as Mayan influences. The architect who designed the hotel where we were staying used many of Wright's ideas to create a comfortable inside/outside space.

Doubletree Hotel in Scottsdale

On our last day, we visited the Musical Instrument Museum, founded by Robert Ulrich of Target Stores. The museum contains over 15,000 instruments from all over the world. We became immersed in each display because of the audio and video recordings at each station. We tapped, beat, and banged some of the instruments in the Experience Room. We watched instrument restorers at work in the Conservation Lab.

The Musical Instrument Museum, which reflects the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright

 A special exhibit about Congolese music and dance showed full-body costumes worn by the dancers. The costumes reminded me of other cultures such as the samurai in Japan who use costumes to create
larger than life beings behind the clothing and masks.

Congolese masks and costumes

Intricate decoration of shells and beads on Congolese dancer's costume

The colors of the desert -- dusty greys, olive green, burnt sienna, yellow ochre -- are colors that are subtle, but with the possibility of changes in texture and hue. They are some of my favorite colors to use while I am painting.

My list helped me to see the desert with new interest. I will never call the desert my "home," but I have developed more appreciation of its subtle beauty.

All photos by Bill Slavin

Check out these websites for more information about Frank Lloyd Wright and the Musical Instruments Museum:

Friday, February 14, 2020


Nation Time by Gerald Williams
courtesy of deYoung Museum, San Francisco

Do you know these names?

Wadsworth Jarrell or Barkley L. Hendricks?
Benny Andrews or Cliff Joseph?
Elizabeth Catlett or Emma Amos?

I didn't either. 
If you do, you are much more culturally aware than I am.

I didn't know these artists until I walked through "Soul of a Nation" at the deYoung Museum. The exhibit showcases black artists' work from 1963 to 1983, a time when the Black Power Movement flourished and helped to define what being a black American meant.

Why haven't I seen these works before? I wonder. Many of them make powerful statements about the civil rights movement, the lives of black individuals, and our cultural values.

Reading the artists' statements and viewing the paintings, sculptures, and mixed media images reminded me how much I need to learn. Some of the work such as "Eve the Babysitter" by Emma Amos, could be, on the surface, considered part of the European art tradition of painting portraits. The painting shows a strong, confident woman sitting near a child. Only when I turned to Betye Saar's "The Liberation of Aunt Jemima" did I think of Amos' painting in the light of the perpetuation of the idea of the "happy mammy" from Confederate times.

Eve the Babysitter by Emma Amos
courtesy of deYoung Museum

The exhibit is unsettling as it should be.

If you lived in the Bay Area in the 1970s, you might have seen a series of billboards in Oakland created by Cleveland Bellows. His images resonate today. He worked in a time of social protest, but he called his work, social reality instead. Now that we seem to be moving closer to a national discussion about race, his art ideas make us want to understand the ambivalence within his images. One is of a boy with his hands over his head. Is he dancing, holding his hands up to keep from being arrested, or protesting? You decide.

One of 10 billboards in Oakland created by Cleveland Billows
 in the 1970s     courtesy of the deYoung Museum

Go to the deYoung Museum by March 5 to see this remarkable exhibit. For more information:


Friday, February 7, 2020


With much delight and relief, I finally completed the task of sorting my dad's drawings, his other artwork and papers. I have been wrestling with this large body of work for a long time. There are several thousand pieces and I wanted to find a good home for them. The drawings revealed his extraordinary talent for capturing emotions in the characters that he drew. The thousands of preliminary drawings that he kept show a master who continuously studied and honed his craft. Much of it is fragile and needs preservation. Much of it illustrates a story of a life that provided others with inspiration and joy.

Bugs Bunny comic strips for Warner Bros. drawn by Ralph C. Heimdahl

Hoorah for St. Cloud State University, my dad's alma mater in Minnesota. Their library has accepted the collection to be preserved in their archives and used for research by those who have an interest in comic art. I've kept some of the Bugs Bunny work as well as drawings related to our family and I distributed some to my immediate family. But I am relieved that the main body of work will be preserved and enjoyed and will not end up in somebody's private collection where it will never be seen.

Horse studies by R.C. Heimdahl

Grandchildren ice skating by Ralph Heimdahl

Family cartoon by Ralph C. Heimdahl

We are in the process of scanning and photographing the drawings and other work that I have kept. We are also doing the same for my mother's work. My mom worked at Disney until she met and married my dad. She became a housewife as so many in her era did, but she never stopped creating. She drew and painted each of her children and grandchildren, painted delicate flowers on paper and clay, and sketched scenes while we were on vacation. She is one of those many unknown artists who will not have a place in university or museum archives, so we are digitizing her work so that we have a family collection at least.

by Esther Heimdahl
This portrait hangs in my workroom as a reminder
of the hours I spent posing for my mom.

by Esther B. Heimdahl

Check out St. Cloud State University, Minnesota, here: