Looking for a new nest


Bird on nest
© 2010 Margaret Sloan
Pastel on paper

It has been many a long month since I’ve blogged. Life has been busy! And for the last two weeks, we’ve been fluttering about like two meadowlarks before a bulldozer as our rented home has been put up for sale. In the Cities by the Bay—a metropolitan area crammed with overpaid hi-tech workers and floating on rivers of investor cash—we probably don’t stand a chance of building or buying, although that won’t stop us from trying.  But our best hope is to find a rental we can afford (dear reader, if you know of something, please let me know…).

Home is a tenuous place. Lots of people in the world don’t have homes. The economy sneezes and lives fall apart. Tornadoes rip off roofs, and earthquakes crumble walls. Water drowns foundations, and  fire sends all to ash. War…well, thank God we don’t have to worry about that in our country right now.

And when you come down to it, home isn’t just a structure (although structures shelter you from rain or wind). It’s in your heart, with those you love. And the fiddler is my home, his arms my shelter, and his music-filled heart the center of our family nest. (Yeah, yeah. Sappy, I know. But scary times call for large amounts of sap.)

Fiddle Nest

Music Sunday


Portrait of a fiddler (but not my fiddler), done in a Canson sketch book with a Pigma Micron pen.

Music is an essential part of my life. You all know what that means. I almost never play much music anymore.

People are funny that way; the things that mean the most to us often take a back seat to everything else. And despite the fact that the fiddler and I love to play music, (in fact, playing traditional Irish music is the oldest, strongest part of our relationship) we are both scheduled to the hilt with non-musical tasks, and so we don’t often have a day devoted to tunes.  To break this trend, we decided to make last Sunday a music day.

The first event we attended was the 9th Annual Santa Cruz Harp Festival at Our Lady Star of The Sea Church, presented by Shelley Phillips of the Community Music School of Santa Cruz. I hope you’ll see more about this wonderful school in future posts.

Harp players

I’ve never seen so many harps in one place! Pixie harps, celtic harps, concert harps, wire strung harps. The music was lovely, the church was beautiful, with lots of milky winter ocean light pouring through etched-glass windows. Perfect for drawing, but the sanctuary was crowded, and I was, of course, struck with extreme shyness.  Someone might look at me! Oh! The Horror! But I dredged up some grit, got out my journal and sketched while the musicians played. If anyone watched me, I didn’t know about it. I listened to the music and drew. It was like a little bit of heaven.


If you click on this sketch, you’ll be able to see a blurry bit on the fiddler’s chin (also not my fiddler) where my pennywhistle dripped moisture as I played a tune over the half finished drawing. Although the pen was a Pigma Micron, and supposedly waterproof, I guess it’s not immune to pennywhistle drool. 

Afterwards we stopped at The Poet & The Patriot Pub for the last bit of the Irish session. It was brilliant fun, and once again I forced myself to open the journal and draw (mostly while the other musicians played tunes I didn’t know). No one even payed attention; they were intent on their jigs and reels. And that was the most lovely thing of all.

Celtic harp

Galloping life

Dance party where the brilliant Lisa Ornstein played fiddle and led the band. This photo was taken at ISO 1600, f3.5, 1/10th of a second. Then I fussed over it in photoshop for awhile.

Life has been a whirl, consumed by daily tasks that impinge my art practice. It’s been a long while since I’ve posted.

It’s not that I haven’t been lifting pencil and brush. I have been, but most of what I’ve created is not for public consumption.

I’ve been incubating. I’ve also been learning a few new skills. I’m taking a beginning photography class and finally learning to use my fancy camera after owning it for 2 years. At the same time I took a landscape painting class. Yes, more classes. I know I said I wasn’t going to take any classes for a while, but then a while passed. And when these two classes presented themselves I couldn’t refuse.

The photography class has been fun, and now I know where the on/off button is located, and why it has three clicks.  And instead of putting the camera on automatic, I make choices about the geometry all the little dials form. Getting the little orbiting concepts of ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed aligned well enough to create a perfect crystalline photo is darn hard. I still don’t understand white balance, but I know these things take time.

It’s a good thing I don’t have a television.

Chicago Irish interlude

Box player at the Abby

A visit to Chicago would have been incomplete without attending an Irish session. The Chicago Irish music scene is legendary. My fiddler said this was the one thing he really, really, really wanted to do. I, of course, was not against this idea.

We found the Abby, where, when we walked through the door,  we were astounded by the most amazing whistle playing.

It was Laurence Nugent, a top Irish whistle and flute player. Pretty cool.

At the Abby

If I’m shy about drawing in public, sometimes I’m even more shy about playing music.  I couldn’t see taking my whistle out and squawking  around on it like a wounded ostrich when there were musicians who were roaring like lions. Instead, I sat at a table, had a beer, and listened to ripping reels, jigs, and hornpipes while I painted. Listeners are an important part of a session too!

I leave you with this video.


Laurence Nugent

Loving the fiddle

I’ve been working on this watercolor of my friend, Cyndi, holding her fiddle. Finally it’s finished (oops, except for strings. I’m going to add those using chalk).

I don’t have much to say about it right now, except that it took me longer than I expected.

Musical conversations

A few weekends ago I attended a music party in the mountains, at the ranch of long time friends who are musicians and dancers. The weekend was filled with music (rather than painting) and dancing (rather than housework or laundry).

I don’t mean we had concerts, where a few people sat on a stage and entertained us, as if they were the experts and we were the consumers. I mean we played music and danced. All of us participated.

This was conversational music. We spoke to each other using the language of jigs, reels, waltzes, and hornpipes. The accent was sometimes Irish, sometimes American, sometimes Swedish, French Canadian, or Blues. But we understood each other, or tried to understand each other, and respond in kind.

On Sunday morning some of us got together and sang old American religious tunes, gospel, and modern American Folk music.

On the long drive home I reflected that it would be very hard to attend a non-music party. I’m not sure I remember how to behave at a party where people don’t pull out fiddles, flutes, accordions, dulcimers, bagpipes, and guitars and speak to each other in the pleasant tones of a tune.

Music is communication, and can be a two-way conversation. When I pick up my flute, I’m not practicing a tune, I’m learning how to speak.

Klezmer Festival!

I was lucky enough to have a front row seat and plenty of light, so out came the sketchbook. How much happier could I be than to listen to amazing music while drawing the amazing musicians making said music?

Last night we heard the trio Veretski Pass play their Klezmer Shul, a beautiful piece of music that combines Jewish sacred and secular music of Eastern Europe (and maybe some “co-territorial” music from other cultures).

In a talk with the audience after, the fiddler Cookie Segelstien (oh, alright, she’s a violinist, if you want to reference her work in the classical world. As if being an amazing Klezmer fiddler isn’t enough) told us that there used to be, a long time ago, special shuls (houses of worship) dedicated to specific tradesmen. There were shuls for builders, and tailors, and, they think, there were shuls for musicians. Cookie said, “we asked the question, in that light, what kind of music would Klezmer musicians jam on?”

The music was terrific. It was haunting, and joyful, and all the things you’d expect from three amazingly gifted musicians mining the very roots of their musical souls. The Klezmer Shul is what happens when classically trained musicans cross over into folk music and create something new and wonderful.

I loved what I heard last night, but it was more academically inclined (not that this is a bad thing, mind you). It’s just that the kind of music in the clip below makes my heart dance. This video clip is pure Klezmer.

I’m hoping we’ll have some of this music in the house soon. My own fiddler has been away these last two days, attending Klezmer workshops at the KlezCalifornia yiddish Culture Festival at Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto. I would have loved to join in the fun, but I just can’t take on another hobby right now. But I’m hoping he brings home some tunes.

Boxwood flute

Boxwood Flute © 2009 Margaret Sloan

This painting is a portrait of a young woman I met at Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp. Her flute was made of boxwood, which has a tendency to warp.  Hers was bent in a charming shape. But, she said, it hadn’t really made any difference in how it played. It was a sweet-toned flute, and fit her playing style very well.

It took me a while to finish this painting, with many sketches and smaller studies. I started off rather badly; the night I began I was exhausted, and there was loud, very interesting music playing in the classroom. I have a really hard time working when music is playing, because my brain stands up and says, hey! There’s music going on over here that you need to come listen to right now! It’s one of the things I know about how my brain works. I can’t have music playing when I’m painting or drawing.


I’ve been working on this drawing of Catherine McEvoy for my watercolor class. It’s been problematic because my photo reference is so bad. I took it in class last year at Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp. Really, the photo is mostly just the idea for the painting, and a brief reference for Catherine’s face.

My teacher, Steve Curl, brought up something that has helped me with the drawing. “Think about the angles,” he said. “That will give you the dynamism you need to show the intensity the has when she plays the flute.” Steve is a musician as well as a painter, and right off he recognized  the dynamic force with which Catherine plays the flute. That force is what I’m trying to capture.

So I put the drawing in Adobe Illustrator and picked out the angles and the line of action to better understand the drawing. The purple lines are the dominant angles, the light blue lines secondary, and the orange lines are the lines of action. I still don’t have it quite right. I’ll have to spend some time in front of a mirror with a flute (holding it backwards since Catherine plays left-handed) in order to understand the pose. It’s times like these I wish I could afford a model. And I’ll have to spend some more time watching Youtube videos of Catherine. Darn.