Winter storm and crying in the snow

Bench in snow
Snow ghosts looking over the valley filled with white

1:50 am Saturday morning

The storm woke me.

Well, really, anxiety woke me. My nerves shrieked like a bad actor chewing the scenery while an orchestra of winds howled around the house. With it’s ever-present sub-text of grief, my brain wouldn’t stop the reel-to-reel predictions of doom, of tall trees crashing through the roof, of branches flying through windows, of chaos and destruction.

I always worry about heavy wind in the Sierra. Trees surround our house. Big trees. Trees weakened by drought, anchored into the earth with withered roots. And the earth, sodden by days of rain and ten inches of melting snow, tends to give way easily; picture trying to stand a spoon in a bowl of pudding.

This is the second series of storms that started Friday evening, when the first storm dumped snow on us and wrapped the world in white in less than an hour. I barely made it to the gate of the development where I live; once through, my car—a flat-lander car sans chains or 4-wheel drive—wouldn’t climb the hill. Instead, I parked the car and walked the last mile to my house, through fat wet flakes that obliterated every step in minutes.

For whole minutes at a time, while I slithered up the slushy highway, while I slid the car to the side of the road, while I broke snow through the front yards of neighbors, while I marveled at the darkly luminous night, I didn’t think about my mom. Small mercies.

Cedars in snow
Cedars weighted with snow. I mourn while the trees expect to shed the heaviness when the weather warms.

Voices in the snow

Next morning, when the light rose slowly, a heavy fog curtained trees that were lumpy with snow, and more snow—flakes now like soft cotton squares—drifted down.

All day Saturday, between bouts shoveling and extricating my car from the side of the road*, I walked miles through the snow, enjoying the crunch under my feet, the freshness of the air, and the smell of snow that is a non-smell, a fresh scent, blue and sharp and nothingness. I thought perhaps I could exhaust myself so that I would sleep through the night.

Wet black oak branches curled and scribbled against the white landscape, scrawling hieroglyphics that I tried to read. A grove of horse chestnuts looked like they were dancing a slow circle-dance. Cedars drooped under the weight of the snow, and ponderosas stood like snowy sentinels. It was like a National Geographic photo. Reflexively I thought, I’ll call mom, or send her some pictures of this. She loves to watch the weather so. I though of her at home, sitting on the couch reading the charts and diagrams in the newspaper every day, imagining the atmospheric conditions that affect her kids and grandkids in their far-flung homes.

And just as reflexively I thought, I can’t call her. She’s not there. The phone would ring and the answering machine would pick-up, or my father. And he will no longer say, “Let me get your mom. She’s right here.” Although my dad and I talk twice a day now, holding each other up as we wade through our grief, the absence of those words, “you wanna talk to your mom?”  makes me ache.

I began to cry as I walked down the deserted street. I called out, “Hello mom,” and the memory of her voice reverberated.

“Hey, sugar,” I imagined her saying.

“Momma, where are you?” I said out loud, and her voice in my head said, “I’m here.”

“I can’t find you,” I said. “Come home. Come back. I miss you.”

And I remembered that she can’t come back. Her body is ash now; it fills a box hidden in the closet in one of the bedrooms; we can’t stand to look at it. Her voice in my head faded, drowned perhaps by my sobs, ugly in the snowy stillness. I cried noisily until I passed a man in a blue track suit shoveling snow at the bottom of his driveway. He looked at me, leaning on his shovel and scowling with discomfort.  I choked back my tears; it’s a small community and perhaps I will soon get a reputation as a crazy lady.

Chestnut trees
Horse chestnuts circle dance on a hill.

Dramatic break? Not so much.

By midnight on Saturday, strong winds blew in, and the keening as they knifed by the house woke me. In a bad fantasy movie this would be the dramatic break: overwhelmed by grief, I run out into the storm, nightgown plastered fetchingly to my body as I wander aimlessly but with great emotion through the lashing winds. Trees rock and roll, then crash down, barely missing me, and I sob in the mounds of greenery until a strange old woman finds me, leads me to her little house and feeds me hot drinks so bitter they sting my tongue but bring sleep until morning sun breaks through mullioned windows. There’s a denouement. I’m still sad, but healed, and able to walk through honey gold sunshine into a brand new life.

Feh. My life is boring. There aren’t any mysterious, magical old women living in cottages near by; just retirees and working moms. I’m too much of a wimp and too old to be an ingenue scampering helter-skelter into a storm. Instead, I took an anti-anxiety pill and sat in the little room we call the library, writing this post until the medication smoothed the jagged edges of my nerves and grief. They are small white lozenges the doctor prescribed when I told her that I suffered severe panic attacks after my mother died; I don’t like taking them, but the doctor explained they are medicine, so I take as directed when the anxiety shouts too loud. Outside the storm still rages, but an hour after taking a pill I don’t care as much. My nerves have settled down, writing helps quiet my mind, and eventually, around 4 a.m., I’m able to sleep, despite the winds rocking the cedars and pines and shrieking around the house.

*I want to give a big shout out to my neighbors, G. and his son, K., who helped me shovel snow and free my car. You know who you are! Your kindness touched me deeply. Small gifts like that are amazingly helpful to soften grief. Thank you.



Girl with garland
Watercolor on Arches #140 hot press

Watercolor Portrait Class

September 16 & October 21, 1pm to 4 pm

I will be teaching a watercolor portrait class at Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper in Copperopolis, California. These classes are small, with no more than 6 or 7 students, so I can give personal attention to everyone, no matter what their level experience.

Watercolor is the perfect medium for painting translucent, lifelike portraits of faces. Learn how to choose a photo, draw your image, and paint a face in watercolor.

I have been painting in watercolor for 15 years, and am excited to help you learn to use the sometimes difficult medium of watercolor.

Using demonstrations, practice exercises, and  fearless paint slinging, I will teach you to trust in your paint, brushes, water. And most importantly, I will help you trust your own intuitions as you memorialize your favorite photos, and make personal remembrances of photos of your loved ones.

To register, call 209/785-2050 or email Larry {at} TownHallArts {dot} com
To find out more about Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper, visit their website:

I also teach private classes at my home studio. For more information, email me at Mockingbirdatmidnight {at} gmail {dot} com.

Join me for World Watercolor Month


Somehow July has become World Watercolor Month. Charlie O’Shields from Doodlewash was the mover and shaker that started this observation. You can also learn more about it from

That’s just dandy. I love watercolor; until recently, I worked in watercolor almost exclusively. It’s a medium that’s still challenging me, even after 30 years of working with it.

I’ll be observing World Watercolor Month too, sometimes with old paintings, but more often with new. I’ll be offering some quick tutorials, and I’m planning some in-depth online courses soon. I’ll be talking about my journey through water, pigment, and paint; I hope it will be helpful to your watercolor month. If there’s something you’d like to learn about watercolors, ask me in the comments.

Antler (cropped) Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press


The best summer fun sketching at the county fair

Chrisy Horne and Michel Olson
Florence the traveling castle

I credit Roz Stendahl for my obsession with our county fair. She blogs at Roz Wound up about her annual pilgrimage to the Minnesota State Fair. She makes it sound like so much fun that when I foggily realized that we had a county fair (very close to my home, and with free shuttle service!), I couldn’t wait to hightail it, pens and sketchbook in hand, to the Calaveras County Fair, otherwise known as Frog Jumps.

But I also just love county fairs in rural areas. They are small events, but the effort that goes into them is large. From the displays of pickles and flower arrangements to barns filled with artwork, animals, and school projects, county fairs are the community coming together to compete, to crow, to participate and shine.

I almost missed the fair. Dates sneak up on me. I’m not good with calendars, although I should have been more on top of it because I wrote an article for the local paper about the Gypsy Time Travelers, a fun show appearing at Frog Jumps.  Storyteller Christy Horne spins tales of legends, iron, maidens, men and devils to the beat of blacksmith Michel Olson’s hammer upon anvil. Their stage is a castle built by Olson —check out this link to get a better view of Florence the truck that packs a castle.

Seated on a hay bale waiting for the show to start, I sketched Florence (above), but after the show started, I was so entranced by Christy’s story and Michel whacking away at glowing metal bits that I forgot to draw.

Steam engine
1908 Weber 10 hp steam engine

After the Gypsy show, we segued over to the Foothill Flywheelers’ exhibit of antique engines. Hundred-year-old pieces of machinery puttered, popped, whirred and growled.

I love old engines. I’ve always wished I knew how to work on them; they seem like magic to me. I drew this venerable 1908 Weber engine while keeping my ear tuned to her owner’s explanations of how she ran. The words he used—rocker arm, regulator, governor—were like little marbles of sound that clacked pleasingly in my ear. I wrote them down so I could to keep track of them.


Chicken barn
Roosters and a hen

We skipped the midway, although it would have been fun to draw the rides and the crowds. But I was intent on the animal barns.

4H prize winners at the bovine barn

The animal barns are my favorite. I love to draw animals. But that’s not the only reason I love the livestock barns.

They are places where little dramas play out daily.

Many of the animals at Frog Jumps were raised by kids in 4-H. I grew up in the ‘burbs. We didn’t have 4-H. I’m still a little envious of the kids who get to engage head, heart, hands, and health by raising farm animals.

The kids work hard, and are proud of their pigs, chickens, cows, goats and sheep. And the animals are spectacular, all gussied up for judging; brushed, combed, and curried to look their best.

There is, of course, often a sad ending to this story for the kids and the large animals. You can read one of those stories in the sketchbook page below if you wish (assuming you can decipher my scrawl). Farm kids have to learn to be stoic about such things.

County fairs are some of the fun of summer, and a great place to sketch.

Swine barn
Fine pigs at the fair

How to find artistic vision when you’re just groping in the dark


Three watercolor people
5-minute figures in watercolor

Once a week I attend a life drawing session. I love figure drawing more than doing just about anything else (except maybe eating ice cream).

But for the last few months I’ve really been struggling; I’ve been looking for something in my work, a change, a way of seeing. Trouble is, I’m not sure what it is that I’m searching for. It’s something that I can’t yet define.

Other artists tell me they search too, stumbling towards a foggy idea that morphs and shifts as soon as they think they’re near.  The mind’s eye is often myopic. It’s not unusual.

It is frustrating, all those failed experiments, the ghastly embarrassments, the ever-growing stacks of used-up paper. On some days, it seems it would be easier to throw away the paintbrushes and become something simpler, a neurosurgeon maybe, or a nuclear physicist.

My brain, smarter than my heart, says, “give it up. Go watch a movie instead.”  But my stubborn and desperate heart over rules my brain. The part of my soul that aches after painting is  ever hopeful each time I stand up to the easel that this time…no…okay…this time…argh!….no, really, this time for sure I’m going to have the breakthrough I’m looking for.

I keep looking. I’m ever hopeful that one day I’ll paint around a hair-pin turn and suddenly the thing I’m looking for—the thing I can’t even describe or identify on a map—will come into focus and I”ll be able to grab it.

“There you are, you little monkey,” I’ll exclaim, clutching at it before it can get away.

Which of course means it must get away. Because if it doesn’t wriggle from my hand and dance back into the dimly lit future, it’ll die in my cramped and rigid fist. Then where will my artistic vision be?

I like to know it’s there in the half-light of my mind, taunting me, teasing me with occasional flashes of clarity (usually when I’m in the shower). So I slog on, trying to paint smartly, fearlessly, easily. And as I feel my way through the dark, every so often a faint light will glimmer across a portion of my work. A brush stroke that shows the turn of a shoulder. A happy color choice. A gracefully proportionate figure. And that flicker will be enough to keep me going.

Small steps. Baby steps. Sometimes steps that go backwards. That’s all I can do as an artist: Put one foot in front of the other and keep working. Because it’s the thing that makes my heart sing, even when I’m grinding my teeth with frustration.

How about you, dear readers? What are you stretching for in your art? Share in the comments how you keep yourself working.

Watercolor figure
20-minute pose in watercolor



Do you believe that art can change the world?

charcoal drawing of girl
Charcoal on paper
© 2106 Margaret Sloan

I’m always on the lookout for cute photographs. At a local parade I snapped photos of a little girl waiting for the next queen-of-the-rodeo horse squad to clip-clop past, thinking, this will be an adorable painting. Little girl with stuffed cat. What could be cuter?

As I mulled over how I wanted to interpret this image in paint, the flickering screen of my inner eye kept standing this child in the ash of the ruined city of Homs. I saw her hide as bombs flew. I saw her run with her mother through a hail of bullets. Worst of all, I saw her wander through the rubble of war.


My art is usually pretty apolitical. I just paint pretty pictures. I want to make people happy. I don’t want to offend. I try to ignore my activist brain.

But the image of this child in war wouldn’t go from my mind. I tried to ignore it, and  penciled many sketches in which she happily watched a parade while tinsel and confetti rained on marching bands and dancing horses. But I crumpled each scrawled drawing into the recycling bin.

Where does art come from?

Do you believe that artists have muses? I’ve always thought it a conceit, a mythology of wishful thinking. But if a muse has ever spoken to me, she did so this weekend, through a lump of charcoal and a sheaf of paper. That muse gave me an ultimatum. She demanded—no, she unequivocally ordered me—to draw this little girl in a street of disaster. She conscripted my arm and forced my hand to create this image.

I’ve never known war. My country hasn’t had massive armed conflict on our soil in nearly 200 years. So far I’ve been lucky to have avoided terrible natural disasters. The children in my family have grown up safely, well-fed, well-loved.

The thought of any one of them—and by extension, any child anywhere—wandering alone and afraid, makes me weep.

I had just started working on this drawing—smearing the charcoal with my fingers because the urgency with which I needed to draw made a pencil seem too weak, too precious—when the fiddler called me to say, “oh my god, they’ve had a terrible earthquake in Ecuador.”

More children wandering amid ruins.

If I believed in using emojis, at this point I’d insert a very, very frowny, frowny, frowny face.

Can art change the world?

Can a drawing change the world? I don’t know. I think they have in the past. Artists in the past believed in their own power. Bertolt Brecht said “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

But in our modern era, saturated with horrific images, thoughts, and actions, what can a few smudge marks on paper do to heal the world?

If there was a muse at work in my studio, I don’t know what she expects from the creation of this drawing. But I can guess.

Dear reader, if this image touches you, I hope that it will entreat you to be more human. Of course I know that you are human. I imagine that you are compassionate, loving, and concerned. I also imagine that you, perhaps like I do, sometimes forget the children in the world who wander alone across disastrous landscapes, made homeless, frightened, and alone by events not of their making.

I hope this image will make you remember your humanity.

If you are able to help, please do so. If you can donate time, money, or just prayers and thoughts, I hope this image will entreat you to become involved in helping. Help someone, anywhere, anytime. I’m not going to give you a list of charities. You know how to find them.



Strange Holidays: International Bagpipe Day

Piper © 2016 Margaret Sloan Watercolor on Arches #140 hot press

Did you know that today is International Bagpipe Day? The Bagpipe Society in Britain has deemed it so, and exhorts you to “go out and play your pipes – anywhere, anyhow to anyone!” Perhaps you’ll hear someone playing pipes today; I think it’s a sign of luck to come.

Bagpipes, the ultimate in balky reed instruments, are traditional throughout the world. My favorite are the Irish Uilleann pipes, which are the kind of pipes my friend Mike is playing in the painting above.

To avoid sounding like a punter, pronounce the  word “illin,” which is Irish for elbow. They’re played by pumping a bellows with one elbow to fill the air sack, which is squeezed by the other elbow to force air through the reed to make the squawking sound pipers describe as music. Get it? Elbow pipes.

Follow International Bagpipe Day at the society’s Facebook page:

And listen to this fine piping when you need a pick-me-up today.

Your artwork sucks: 5 tips to defeat criticism and learn how to be a better artist

Painting of girl
What to do when the monster of criticism attacks.
Detail of painting “Reeling for the Empire”

When a friend lobbed a few critical words at my life drawing skills (something I work hard at and am proud of), all my self-puffery deflated like a sat-upon whoopee cushion.

We all know the sting of criticism. And artists—sensitive lot that we are—tend to become derailed by the smallest hint that our work is not up to snuff.

The criticism came from an artist I respect immensely, so it stung especially hard. I was ready to crawl into a hole, learn Microsoft Office and reemerge as an office lady. Why would I even think I could be an artist?

I’ve seen a lot of talented people give up their love because of a few off-the-cuff critical words.

But I can’t do that. Because to not paint; to not draw; to not tell stories? That really hurts. If criticism is like being stuck with a hat pin, not working at my art is like being eviscerated with a dagger.

Yes, really.

So I’ve developed 5 ways to deal with criticism. They aren’t foolproof, but they do help keep me from sinking into despair.

1. Consider the source. Did a yayhoo in a beer hat just say my painting sucks, then shows me a watercolor his great-grandmother did of two Labrador retrievers in a pond?

Wait, what? Those are ducks?

Unless he then tells me he’s a professor at a prestigious art school, and then goes on to offer me a free detailed critique of my work, I smile, hand his phone back to him, and go on painting. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion.

If, while sipping his beer, my hypothetical art professor goes over my languishing painting and tells me where I’ve gone wrong. I listen. And here’s where the last three bits of advice on my list come to play.

2. Don’t take it personally. I am an artist, but my art isn’t me. The art I’ve made in the past just shows the road I’ve been traveling. Sometimes that road is rocky and I stumble on a rough track, sometimes it’s smooth and I zoom like a sports car. But that journey doesn’t define me; I like to think that it’s the potential art I might make that defines me.

3. Consider the criticism. This is hard. Because it hurts a little to admit to myself that my carefully crafted work is never going to make it into the Guggenheim, even as outsider art. It hurts a lot to find that my peers think my art sucks.

But I force myself to take the criticism in my hand and examine from all sides. Is any of it valid? If so, what bits can I keep and learn from and what bits can I put in a mental drawer and forget about for now? And if it’s not valid, I file it away in my mind anyway, because it could be that I’m just not quite ready to hear it.

4. Consider your options. If the criticism is valid, what steps do I take to make my art better? Do I need to learn more about composition? Do I need to learn more about color theory to clarify muddy color? Do I need to work with another media for a while to loosen my arm?

My art is about communication, and if I’m not doing a good job of that, what will it take to improve my skills?

5. Keep working. Like a traveler on a pilgrimage, I keep putting one (metaphorical) foot in front of the other. Art (and life) is sometimes a slow trudge, and I’m learning to take help from even hostile territory.

The fiddler tells a story about his martial arts teacher, who said, “People ask me how I got so good at martial arts. I got so good because I got beat up a lot.”

Because even when criticism is meant to draw blood, you can learn something about the battle.



 Addendum: Wow, I want to thank those of you who read this column and then came to my defense! That means a lot to me. 

But really, I was not fishing for anything. I was trying to talk about the hurt feelings that artists all have at some time. I honestly wanted to share how I deal with those hurt feelings, in hopes that it might help others in the same situation.

Keep on creating, whatever you do! And if you have any tactics you use to survive and benefit from criticism, share it in the comments section.