In 1937, Donald Holden commissioned Bessie Marshall with WPA funds to paint the Lee Park flora. It was a welcome assignment. A soft-spoken woman and mother of nine children, Marshall was also caring for her disabled husband. She painted from live specimens, often working at a green table on her porch. Her notebook shows she spent at least 1,674 hours on the WPA commission. After completing the work in 1940, Marshall sought to gain wider recognition as an artist. Her portfolio drew praise from prestigious publishers, and she came close to being hired by Encyclopedia Brittanica. But major commissions never materialized. Despite these setbacks, she maintained an optimistic attitude. “I’ve got a motto,” Marshall wrote to her daughter, “always merry and glad.”
Bessie and Myron Marshall and their nine children, c. 1926. Back row, left to right: Elizabeth (Bits), Catherine, Bessie, Myron, Louise. Front row, left to right: Helen, Arthur (Pinky), John (Bus), Myron Jr., Richard, Herman. Below right: Bessie Marshall in 1937, the year she began painting the Lee Park wildflowers.
Bessie Marshall had no formal art training, but she possessed a keen eye and deep knowledge of plants. Her paintings are remarkable for their exquisite detail. Tiny hairs seem to bristle on dainty stems, and the chalky film on blueberries looks real enough to rub off. She applied color carefully, capturing the delicate blue of the large-flowered aster and the vibrant orange of the trumpet creeper.
Above: large-flowered aster. Carolina or pale vetch, right.
Within the discipline of botanical illustration, Marshall found room for expression, as in her dramatic skunk cabbage with its robust rhizome bearing a thick cluster of roots, right. The white milkweed is shown above.