Sword fights, corsets, and giant goat people at the Sonora Celtic Faire

Queen Elizabeth
The Queen’s Court at the Sonora Celtic Faire

I am a sucker for themed dress-up events like the Sonora Celtic Faire. I love the Irish tunes rippling through the fairgrounds, with the occasional  Scottish strathspey straining to be heard. My heart beats hard to the pulsing Celtoid drums of bands like The Wicked Tinkers; my eyes mist over at ballads sung by the venerable harp-and-fiddle band Golden Bough; I make my fiddler swing me in the aisles to the raging reels of Molly’s Revenge.

I cheer at the anachronistic (and questionably Celtic) crash-and-bash heavy armor battles and charging horses carrying jousting knights. I admire the long sword-wielding solders in their swoon-worthy uniforms and leg-revealing hose. I shiver with a thrill of awe at the costumed players pretending to be royalty.

I even salivate at faux-Dickensian food like bangers and mash, and turkey legs bigger than your head. Who doesn’t want to gnaw greasy meat off a bone held like a cudgel in the hand?

Wings at the Sonora Celtic Faire

But what I like best are the costumes.

Three sprites at the Sonora Celtic Faire

I’m a nerd that way. I’m flabbergasted at the creativity of those clever enough to make intricate costumes. Most of the cosplay isn’t historically accurate,  but what it lacks in research, it more than makes up for it with creativity and fun.

goat people
Goat people on stilts

I mean, the goat people were just awesome.


Knights in shining armor
Knights in shining (and dented) armor waiting to do battle

The knights who bang on each other with wooden swords seem to take their competitions seriously.

Knight jousting
Knight jousting

The jousting ring was not so serious, with a lot of crowd pleasing banter and only a short display joust. But still, charging Percherons! Guys bashing each other with staves! More, please!

Sword play
Young lads sword fighting-Don’t try this at school!

Everywhere boys fought mock battles with swords—toy and real. Even in these modern times, video games  flicker dimly when compared to the romance of actually smacking each other with sticks. Real time, real bruises.

Bubble lady
Bubbles at the Celtic Faire

Originally I thought I would bring my sketchbook and draw, but the fun of photography won me over, and I captured many images that will grace my easel in the future.

Costumed queen
Queen for a day

As much as I love to draw, I mostly kept my sketchbook in my bag. There was too much going on. The camera allows me to capture ephemeral moments, like this young man well seated on his mount.

Boy with sword
Young knight and his ride

At the end of the day, exhausted, I sat still long enough to dig out my sketchbook and draw while I  enjoyed the traditional Irish music of my friends’ band, Cooking with Turf.

Irish band
Cooking with Turf

Cooking with Turf will be playing at the First Congregational Church in Murphys on Sunday, March 20th. Hope to see you there!




Painting sale


Trimming Velvet
© 2012 By Margaret Sloan
12″x9″ Giclée 

I recently made some high quality giclées of two of my paintings, and I’m offering them for sale on Etsy. The originals are close to my heart, and are not (nor ever will be) for sale. But beautiful prints are available.

Because music means so much to me, and particularly Irish music, I’m going to donate 25% of the sale of these prints to the Community Music School of Santa Cruz Celtic Music Camp for teens and kids. I’ll be telling you more about this wonderful program in the future. Please feel free to pin, post, or tweet these images to help further this campaign!

These giclées were professionally printed at Atelier 812. We spent hours correcting the colors, balancing the saturation, and adjusting values to make these as true to the originals as is possible. Printed in brilliant archival colors on 140 lb. watercolor paper,  they are as close to the real paintings as I think you can get.


King of the Fairies
© 2012 By Margaret Sloan
9″ x 12″ Giclée 

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

Last night’s fun

Tombow brush pen drawing of Athena, done in the dark without my glasses. But I caught the gesture of the way she plays, almost like dancing with her beautiful five-string fiddle.

We saw Mick Maloney and Athena Turgis last night. Mick, Irish musician and musicologist, has woven research into the early days of music theater, and the influences and collaborations of Irish immigrants and Jewish immigrants. He’s put it all together in a cd and show called If it wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews.

I recommend the show. The history is fascinating, the Tin Pan Alley songs are compelling (if a little weird to our 21st century ears), and the fiddle and banjo playing of Athena and Mick are over-the-moon wonderful.

They’re at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley tonight. Get there if you can.

The morning after St. Patrick’s day

St. Patrick’s day is over, and with it goes for another year the green beer, leering leprechauns, and the ridiculous and boorish kiss-me-I’m-Irish behavior. Thank God.

This kind of faux Irish revelry, while lucrative for Irish pubs, people who make green sparkly hats, and those who put green coloring in cheap beer, is like, well, like drinking cheap green beer compared to drinking Guinness.

The pure drop—traditional music, set dancing, singing and story telling—is nothing like the commercial event we celebrate in the States. It’s deeper, denser, more satisfying, and infinitely more fun. There’s a community built around it, and it’s going on all around, under the mainstream media radar, in pubs and pizza parlors, churches and granges, living rooms and back patios. And once you get involved in it, you’ll find more and more of it around you.

The best place to start learning about the Irish-American community is to listen to some traditional Irish music at a session. There’s a good list of sessions around the world at thesession.org. And once you’re tapped into this community, well, you may be housing round the set yourself someday. And when that happens, you’ll know what that last sentence means.

Going on the wren

Watercolor sketch © 2009 Margaret Sloan

Today is Saint Stephen’s day, and for those in the Irish music community, it means one thing: Wren Boys! Tonight we will dress funny (and warmly), and go from house to pub, and sometimes even a fire station, playing tunes while the dancers dance a set. Sometimes the house is too small, and then we play on the street. Then we’ll pass the hat; this is a fundraiser for the Cooley-Keegan branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

Going on the wren is an old tradition that was nearly lost in the 20th century, and it nearly wiped out the winter wrens of Ireland as small boys hunted wrens to exhaustion and death to use the poor small carcass in their house to house festivities. Nowadays, I’ve heard that  people use a fake wren (we do). Thank goodness.

Last night, unable to sleep (as usual), I was mulling over an illustration for wren boys, and an idea popped into my head that the wrens were to be used for the hunt, so that they’d be a part of the hunters rather than being the hunted.

I needed to draw people small enough to fit on the back of the wren. Call these wee folk what you will. The hats were inspired by a failed sketch at the Dicken’s fair (interesting how a sketch you hate can still generate ideas), the lanterns inspired by a pair  of fabulous lamps made by my friend Cyndy.

Imen McDonnell, at I Married an Irish Farmer has a wonderful post about the Christmas season in Ireland, where, it seems, the season lasts a couple weeks rather than the day and a half it lasts here (not counting the marketing frenzy leading up to it.)

And if you are in San Francisco and  hear whistle, fiddle, flute, and drum tonight playing outside your window, step out and join us!

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.

The practice of music and art

Pastel pencil on colored paper
Pastel pencil on colored paper

This is a small drawing I made of my friend Cyndy. It’s from a photo taken as she was sitting around a campfire, playing tunes with a group of musicians.

I know Cyndy’s present teacher. He’s told me that she’s the kind of student a teacher loves to have. She really thinks about the music she plays, and she makes him think about it too. And she practices!

She’s passionate about her fiddle in the way most of us are passionate about a new romantic partner. But, come to think about it, I know a lot of musicians who are married to their instrument, and playing music is simply part of their everyday experience. I also know artists who feel the same way about their art. (I’m torn between the two. Do I play tunes, or do I draw? Tough question, that.)

Sometimes playing music or making art becomes a stale thing, or a stressful thing, fraught with needs and cravings that block the joy of our passions. But if we really think about what we’re doing, and lose ourselves in the process, suddenly the work becomes play, and we amaze ourselves at our success.

Shannon Heaton, one of my favorite Irish flute players, has a terrific blog at Whistle and Drum called The Inner Game of Irish Music about practicing the music. She’s talking about Irish music, but she could be talking about drawing, painting, old time music, classical music, dancing, or even just plain-old, everyday work.