Sallie Middleton: A Life in the Forest
Sallie Ellington Middleton (1926-2009) spent her childhood in one of Asheville’s most remarkable homes located near the end of Chunn’s Cove Road. Designed by her uncle Douglas Ellington, who also designed the Asheville City Building, the house was listed in House Beautiful as one of “The Ten Most Interesting Homes in America.” Middleton and her sister Martha spent their childhood exploring the valley and hillsides of Chunn’s Cove. It was here that Middleton first demonstrated her interest in the natural world and her talent for art.
Middleton has long been considered one of the most gifted painters of plants and animals. She possessed a remarkable eye for detail, a skilled hand to record what she saw and a keen imagination to shape her enchanted images. Her detailed paintings required months or even years to complete.
Middleton had little formal training in art. Her uncle Douglas Ellington, who studied art and architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was noted as a watercolor artist as well as an architect. He taught her about painting, and she also studied at the Plonk School of Creative Arts in Asheville, NC, and spent a few months at the Vesper-George Commercial Art School in Boston, MA.
Middleton painted with transparent watercolors, a difficult media to master. She said that for her, watercolors were easy to transport, less obtrusive in the wild and less messy than oil paints. She is quoted in The Magical Realm of Sallie Middleton as saying, “I am the very kind to track the oil through the house and get it on the baby, who would put it on the dog, who would transfer it to the cat—on into infinity.”
Middleton often made forays into the woods to gather plant materials for her paintings. She told a story of one such expedition where she encountered a water moccasin on her way home. She decided to imitate a tree and out-wait the snake. As darkness drew near, she realized that the snake was out-waiting her, so she decided to jump over the snake and hurry back home.
Other subjects came to her. One time she was presented with three baby rabbits whose mother had been accidentally killed. She raised them in spite of being told this was an impossible task. When it came time to release the rabbits, they refused to leave; so, she took them back home and began to paint their picture.
Middleton spent most of her life in Asheville or in Charleston, SC. For many years she and her husband, G. Abbot Middleton, Jr., lived in Charleston. After their divorce in 1968, she returned to Asheville with her daughters, Sallie and Mikell. To support herself and her family, she turned to her art. Aside from a few years living in Biltmore Forest, she spent the last rest of her life living in the same home she had grown up in, in the forests of Chunn’s Cove.
Middleton exhibited her work at the Rice Museum, Georgetown, SC; Hinchman House, Nantucket Island, MA; Sumter Gallery of Art, Sumter, SC; Spartanburg County Art Association, Spartanburg, SC; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC; Schiele Museum of Natural History, Gastonia, NC; and the Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, SC. Her paintings can be found in museum collections including the Gibbes Art Museum in Charleston, SC, and the Mint Museum.
All works in this exhibition are watercolors by Middleton from circa 1970-1990. They appear courtesy of Sallie Middleton Parker and Mikell Middleton Howington. The exhibition is sponsored in part by Frugal Framer, John Cram & Matt Chambers, Ray Griffin & Thom Robinson, salliemiddletonart.net, salliemiddleton.com, mansfieldplantation.com, Mikell Middleton Howington, and an anonymous gift.
Image Credit: Sallie Middleton. "March-Cardinal" (detail). Watercolor. Asheville Art Museum. Extended Loan from Sallie Middleton Parker.