Sharon Markwardt | Colorful Expressions

Sharon Markwardt’s bold paintings of animals bring both joy and understanding

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Sharon Markwardt, Morning Shadows, oil, 30 x 72.

Sharon Markwardt, Morning Shadows, oil, 30 x 72.

This story was featured in the August 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art August 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Meditative is not a word you generally associate with the dusty, milling agitation of a crowded rodeo bullpen. Sharon Markwardt might not have thought in those terms, either, until a day on the rodeo grounds in Jackson, WY. Before that moment she had made eye contact with plenty of animals—Texas longhorns, bison, donkeys, horses, goats—face-to-face or safely separated by a pipe fence. She’d picked up on the endless ways they communicate with oscillating ears, posture, voice, and eyes and taken scores of photos to use as reference in her art. But this bull stood stock-still, staring at her with an almost unnerving intensity and calm. All around him the others were in continuous motion, while the bull in the middle was like the calm in the eye of a storm. Meditative was, surprisingly, the right word for him.

From this encounter emerged the painting titled FOCUS [see page 75], and it allowed Markwardt to play with the contrasts that add richness to art and life: movement and stillness, looseness and visual detail, chaos and quiet. In the painting, the bull with the piercing gaze is rendered in a tighter manner than the other two, emphasizing his motionless stance amidst the swirl of activity. The artist believes that similar momentary breaks from the busyness of life are what feed her soul and allow her to really see. “It’s a zen approach to observing,” she says. “In everyday life we stay so busy multitasking that everything gets blurred and out of focus, and we’re really missing out on a lot.”

In FOCUS, the combination of softer and more sharply defined elements reflects the different approaches that competed for Markwardt’s interest earlier in her career. “The muse took me kicking and screaming in the direction of detail,” she says,
remembering with amusement her interior wrestling match: “Do I have to? Yes, it’s fascinating! But it’s hard and it’s slow! But I love detail!” She smiles. “Now it’s become less arduous and more fun—it’s fun to combine the two.”

It’s not the first time that various artistic qualities have “cross-pollinated” in Markwardt’s award-winning work. For years she painted in watercolor before switching primarily to oils. Yet her watercolors contained a depth and richness of color often associated with oil paint. When working in oils she applies paint in multiple thin layers, achieving a degree of transparency along with vibrant hues. “My approach is still very watercolor-ish,” she says. “I love the glow of a white surface through the paint.” And while her choice of medium and subjects both shifted dramatically at one point, what hasn’t changed is her reason for making art: to bring joy to viewers and herself.

In a sense, Markwardt’s current focus on animals takes her full-circle to her childhood in Texas. Her family, with Sharon wedged between an older and younger brother, lived in the city of Arlington near Dallas and Fort Worth. She was a “critter
kid,” a tomboy who loved animals and being outdoors. She remembers always keeping at least one eye on the ground, delighting in the details of little things in nature that caught her attention.

Her left-brained affinity for precision came from her father, an aerospace engineer. Her mother was mostly a mom when Sharon was young, but rose before dawn many days to make art while the children were still asleep. Later she earned an art
degree and worked professionally in watercolor, etching, and embossing. As a result, there were always art materials around the house. More importantly, Markwardt says, her mother gave her implicit and explicit permission to be a creative individual, never pressuring her to abandon her passion in order to find a “real job.”

At the University of Texas at Arlington, Markwardt’s interest in animals initially took her into biology. Somewhere around analytic geometry, however, she realized her habit of earning straight A’s was about to hit a bump, and she switched to art,
continuing with biology as a minor. It turned out the school’s painting department was heavily focused on abstract expressionism, an aesthetic that did not particularly resonate with her. So she veered into three-dimensional art, studying metalwork, papermaking, and clay. Married at 19 to a scientist, she completed her degree and worked in the pharmaceutical field until the second of her three children was born. But she was never without the satisfaction of making art. She painted in watercolor and created handmade paper, using materials that were easy to take out and put away. She also taught art to grade-school kids when her children were young.

At the time Markwardt’s painting was largely representational, but her style and subject matter were “all over the place,” she says. Then two interrelated events changed everything. The first, when her children were older, was a move to a
semirural suburb near Fort Worth and the purchase of a couple of horses. The second pivotal experience started with a horseback ride gone wrong. Markwardt was an inexperienced rider on an inexperienced horse, and the ride was dramatically interrupted by what she refers to as a “high-speed unplanned dismount.” At least she missed the poison ivy when she landed. But the consequences of such a horse-and-rider matchup were just as the old cowboy adage says: green plus green equals black and blue.

In Markwardt’s case, the incident eventually yielded much more color than that of the bruises (and broken tailbone) she sustained. Because she knew she needed to get back on the horse to push through her fear, she did. That experience had
the effect of replacing her formerly accommodating disposition with one of being calmly assertive; in her artistic world, that translated to boldness. She began using vividly striking colors in paintings of western and animal subjects inspired by her
surroundings, which for a time included horses, dogs, a donkey, a neighbor’s longhorns, and a nearby herd of buffalo. “I was ahead of the wave with [artists painting] colorful animals, and then that wave caught up with me,” she says.

But it wasn’t so much a case of changing her colors as actually seeing more color and pumping it up. “It’s about being more attentive, putting more focus on it. I was gradually training my eye to look very closely at color,” Markwardt says. She adds that her color choices are always in relationship to each other. “If I see that this is the warmest spot, I put in yellow and crank it up. This spot is dark and I feel it as cool, so it’s purple. And the rest falls in between.”

Markwardt is also known for the bold, tightly cropped perspective that characterizes much of her work. She once had a longhorn bull suddenly fill her camera lens as it charged, hooking a horn through the fence that protected her, but more often
it’s creative cropping rather than actual observation that shapes her compositions. In DARK SIDE OF THUNDER, for example, a solitary bison dominates the elongated canvas, its colors electric against yellow-gold grass and a background of deep black.

But Markwardt’s bison in her Thunder series offer even more than commanding color and form. Look closely at the dense curls in the buffalo’s fur. There the artist scratches through a layer of paint to embed words that she—like traditional Plains
Indians—associates with the beast, words like abundance, strength, courage, spirit, and soul. “They’re kind of prayers,” she says. “They’re not obvious, just little Easter eggs, and if you find one, you look for more.” While donkey fur is less wooly, its
depiction occasionally hides words such as joy, play, dance, and sing, reflecting a lighthearted view of one of Markwardt’s favorite animals.

Because she currently divides her time between a home and studio outside of Fort Worth and a condo and studio in Santa Fe, NM, Markwardt has found new homes for the animals that lived with her for a number of years, including her horses and
miniature donkey. The horse barn has now been outfitted with sturdy vintage equipment and transformed into a machine shop known as Markwardt Metal Works. Working together on design and fabrication, her family of five (aka The MarkWorks)
creates striking contemporary steel furniture, interior design accessories, and kinetic sculpture. “It’s nice that as a family we can be creative, brainstorm on designs, and each contribute our own skills,” Markwardt says.

Although the barn no longer houses animals, Markwardt visits her critters often when she’s in Texas. She finds herself continually amazed and delighted by their antics and by how she can understand their communication. Donkeys in particular
are loaded with personality, she says. “If they’re angry or curious or distracted, their ears swivel like antennae to convey the emotion—they’re a hoot!” And just as they make her smile, Markwardt is rewarded when her work makes viewers smile. She
also hopes the animals’ natural expressiveness can help build bridges between humans and other species—and among ourselves. “They emote in ways people can relate to,” she says of her subjects. “If we can see our kinship with animals, then
surely we can relate to other people. That’s one of the goals of my art.”

Manitou Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Your Private Collection Art Gallery, Granbury, TX;

This story was featured in the August 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art August 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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