Sally Waldrup Powell

StudioWaxing the Surface of Art

Written by Brett Levine    

Photo by Jerry Siegel


For Sally Waldrup Powell, one of art’s biggest challenges is balance. “Creativity is always about balance,” she explains, sitting in her studio one recent spring day. “Artists constantly have to understand the differences between showing works at outdoor festivals and making works for gallery exhibitions, or between finding works that audiences respond to while exploring ideas that keep you true to yourself.” Despite the contradictions inherent in these ideas, Powell simply continues to move forward, creating paintings that she hopes bridge between an audience and her expressions, but she acknowledges it isn’t always easy. “It took a long time for me to say I’m an artist,” she says. “I really was a jack of all trades. I had studied art at the University of Alabama, but I moved into other creative realms. I worked with flowers and moved to Atlanta three times, New York, and Grayton Beach. Now I am really happy to be here in Birmingham!”

It was in Grayton that Powell realized she wanted to commit fully to being an artist, but even then the initial plan was not really keeping with what she had envisioned. “I thought the approach would be to open a gallery and working studio, but I learned really quickly that I just could not paint in front of people,” she says. This revelation led her to simply focus on creating her own works and beginning to exhibit on the art fair circuit; her first shows were at Artsquest in Florida and at the Fairhope Arts and Crafts Festival. This led to Powell’s participation in a number of festivals nationwide, including the renowned Plaza Art Fair in Kansas City, which was also a learning process. “I was painting in oils when I started on the festival circuit,” she says, “but I learned really quickly how that simply wasn’t an option. First, I moved on to working with acrylics, but now I do a lot of my larger works with plaster on board using a palette knife.”

In fact, Powell’s love of media is something that brings her as much joy as it does create challenges. “Two years ago I took an encaustic workshop with [well-known local artist] Maralyn Wilson,” she says. (Encaustic painting involves using heated wax as a material that is applied to a work’s surface.) “I had bought an encaustic kit years before, and carried it with me every time I had moved, but once I took the class with Maralyn, I was simply hooked.” This led first to Powell participating in a series of open studios with Wilson, and now to Powell using a portion of Wilson’s studio to explore encaustic work on her own. “I love the medium because there is so much you can do with it,” she says. “I am not even so interested in pure encaustic painting—in adding pigment to wax—but I am really fascinated by how it can be used to pattern a surface.” This approach to experimentation characterizes everything Powell does, and the results are scattered throughout her studio. “I just use the medium; it can be encaustic, or paint, or rubber cement resist, or oil stick, or text as image. What is important to me is just how it works, so I constantly try to experiment and learn.”

Powell also values community and collaboration. For the past three years she has spent a month as the head of the craft shop at an all girls’ camp in Mentone, Ala. Her desire to share in this way stemmed both from her childhood experiences at camp and from a 2006 retreat. “I went to a retreat with six other creative women, including a poet, so we were not all visual artists,” she says. “What we shared was the struggle for balance as a woman artist. The time away allowed me to refuel, and in many ways to refocus, and to think about how I wanted to continue forward as a painter and a creative person.”

She is finally finding a sense of balance she is comfortable with creatively. She participates in a small number of outdoor exhibitions each year, including the Crestline Art Show, which she loves: “I have to support it. It is in my own back yard!” She also continues to exhibit at the Harding Art Show in Nashville, Tenn., and to pursue projects such as the BraveHearts collective of five women artists that exhibited at West Elm in Birmingham. She is professionally represented by Gregg Irby Fine Art in Atlanta, and she recently exhibited in a two-person exhibition with Maralyn Wilson at Gallery 1930. Her work is available at Four Seasons Antiques and Art in Homewood.

Clearly, for Powell creativity is about finding the right combination of voice, medium, and venue. Speaking about life as an artist, she describes her greatest opportunity very simply: “There is really nothing I love more than getting into the creative zone. You have an outlet for ideas, art to do, and something to learn.”

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