By Charlene Oldham | Photography courtesy of Sally Markell
When she developed tremors in her right hand, Sally Markell taught herself to paint with her left and, thus, embarked on a second career – eventually becoming a noted botanical artist.
Sally Markell is accustomed to learning things the hard way.
After a mild case of childhood polio left her with a slight limp. Markell’s mother thought dance classes would be an ideal way to minimize the effects of the virus. Although her physical limitations ruled out techniques like tap and dancing en pointe, Markell went on to have a successful 20-year career as a contemporary modern dancer and choreographer in New York City.
Then, in her early 40s, she began experiencing post-polio syndrome, which left her with a tremor in her right hand significant enough that she was unable to write or successfully bring a full soup spoon to her lips. That’s when a friend suggested she enroll in an art class on calligraphy to learn to write with her left hand.
“So I went to art school,” said Markell, who relocated to Memphis in the 1980s. “I had no intention of being an artist.”
The classes taught her to essentially be left handed, although it took her about eight years to retrain her body and brain completely. They also sparked a newfound interest in drawing and painting. But Markell didn’t want to focus on the abstract art in fashion among most art students and teachers at the time.
“I wanted to learn to draw, to really, really draw… and the only people teaching it were the animal artists, the botanical artists and the bird artists because it was scientifically based.”
Markell said she never had an interest in fine art or nature as a child growing up in suburban Ohio, where “trees were for climbing.” Although she didn’t start seriously studying art until she was 60, she’s since won medals in international shows and says her artistic abilities have outpaced her former skills as a dancer.
“I think it’s an extraordinary anomaly in my life that my second career turned out to be a real profession for me,” said Markell, now in her 70s.
She credits patience, persistence and good teachers, including botanical painters Katie Lee and Hillary Parker for her second act’s success.
“In fact, I still sometimes send a drawing to them and say, ‘Would you look this over? Do you see a problem?’ So I have an outside eye — like when a conductor would tell a violinist, ‘You’re a little off key.’ Everybody needs an outside eye.”
Markell also counts Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and poet Mary Oliver as artistic influences. She admires the way Vermeer’s exquisite use of light created an atmosphere in his works. Similarly, Oliver deploys words to convey precise observations of nature.
Markell uses examples of both masters’ works when she teaches art classes at Dixon Gallery & Gardens and the Memphis Botanic Garden, where many of her students are master gardeners learning to draw the plants they love.
“I hope that they give themselves the time to be quiet, to observe something carefully and try to capture their feelings about what they are looking at on paper,” said Markell, who also takes on private students. “That’s my motivation for teaching a class.”
Markell incorporates movement breaks in the middle of sessions spent hunched over drawings and paintings. By bringing her unique background to bear, she lets others know it’s never too late to learn something new.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re so talented.’ And I say, ‘No, no. It has nothing to do with talent.’ This wasn’t something I was born with. This is something I worked at,” she said. “So, I know it isn’t just me. Any adult can learn. The brain is very facile. It’s very absorbent. But you just have to work.”
She’s also able to transfer her training as a dancer onto paper. The sense of space and movement she mastered then help add life to her depictions of birds and plants. Markell also tries to give her works metaphorical meanings. For instance, a piece showing a tulip trapped in the crook of a bare twig illustrates the perennial struggle between seasons. Another of two open-mouthed carnivorous pitcher plants back to back represents a bickering couple.
“If the bird doesn’t look back at me, I know the painting will fail and I turn the paper over to start again,” she said. “With a plant, it has to tell a story.”