Mark Ballard

Creative talents a result of a lifetime of learning

Mark Ballard created this flower arrangement for a funeral.
Mark Ballard created this flower arrangement for a funeral. Special to The Telegraph

I love the process of learning new things. I’ve always yearned to expand my horizons in any way possible. During my lifetime, I have taken many courses in subjects that sparked my interest. Sometimes I exceled at what was taught and other times, well, not so much. There is no doubt that we always learn the most when we are interested in the subject matter.

I get a lot of questions about my education in the varied aspects of creative things that define my career. First and foremost, I consider myself an artist. I began taking private art lessons when I was 8 years old. I loved drawing and painting. So, when I graduated from high school it was a no-brainer for me to continue my artistic training. Little did I know the widespread path my career would take.

Although I’ve written five cookbooks during the last two decades, until recently I never attended formal cooking classes. In my family, those kinds of classes weren’t really needed. By osmosis, I was taught to cook every time I entered my mother’s or grandmother’s kitchen. Southern food has a way of sticking with you — in more ways than one.

The only craft class I ever remember being enrolled in was 30-plus years ago when I motored to Fort Valley to learn how to create camellias out of paper. This class provided valuable information that, to this day, I still continue to use and teach.

One of the questions I get asked the most is when and where I learned to arrange flowers and create wreaths. When asked, I always secretly snicker to myself because I certainly never had formal floral design training by any stretch of the imagination. A lot of what I know about flowers, I learned from working with them in the dirt.

During our summer vacations when I was a small boy, I would often go visit my grandparents. I played outside until dark and always ended up covered in dirt. I created one-of-a-kind, primitive pottery by mixing plain dirt with water and allowing it to bake in the sun. I also enjoyed assisting Granny when she planted and re-potted plants. The days with Granny always flew by and I wouldn’t come inside until night fell.

Before I went into Granny’s house, I had to be completely hosed down on her back porch. I clearly had dirt under every fingernail, smeared on my face and arms and even inside portions of my clothes. Granny always called the rows of dirt that clung to the crevices in my neck and under my arms “turnip patches.”

“Mark, you have enough dirt on you to fill one of those flower pots,” Granny used to say.

My first recollection of arranging flowers took place among the dearly departed. Sometimes Granny would take me to the cemetery plots where our family members were laid to rest. She had a box she kept in her car full of everything one would need to make bronze gleam and marble sparkle. We used Vaseline, chamois skin, brushes and other tools to make the headstones look fresher. It was at the cemetery where I first learned of “permanent” flowers.

Over time, the oppressive Georgia sun bleached the faux funeral arrangements as they proudly sat in vases at the top of each headstone. The pigment became completely drained from the heavy and sometimes unrealistic plastic flowers, leaving them colorless. Granny wasn’t about to toss them out, so into the trunk of her car they went.

Returning home, Granny set up a make-shift studio in the garage. She provided a variety of paints and small brushes for me to use to breathe new life back into the faux flowers. After I finished them, we would re-arrange them and replace them at the graves.

It was many years later when I realized that without signing up for a class, I received training in both painting and flower arranging from Granny during those hot summers.

Sometimes information we need in the future doesn’t come from teachers in classrooms or formal lessons. Sometimes it just slowly attaches to us as we travel down life’s road. Sometimes our plans for the future take different directions than we anticipated or could have even imagined. That’s why it is important that we remain open to learning new and exciting things until we take our last breath.

Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions or comments to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA 31208; call 478-757-6877; email; follow him at; or become a subscriber to Mark’s Facebook page.