The child of an educator, Sally grew up on the campus of several New England private schools, including Fay, and graduated with a B.A. in art history from Brown and an M.A. in art history from Columbia. Before launching her career as an artist and illustrator, Sally spent ten years working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. So it’s no surprise that the alphabet watercolors she creates for her clients at The Letter Nest are much more than the usual cartoony fare. “It’s a more elevated presentation,” notes Sally, “but with no less whimsy and delight.” In her most recent work, Sally has also incorporated a new ingredient, a bittersweet affection for New York City and everything it has been through in the last nine months.
Like many New Yorkers, Sally, her husband, and two young sons escaped the city in March, worried that they would be isolated in their apartment as COVID-19 shut down the city. A trip to her parents’ house in New Hampshire turned into a five-month sojourn. Answering emails and working on commissioned pieces between nap times, homeschooling assignments, and Zoom classes introduced Sally to a new kind of productivity. “I had to perform creatively in condensed periods of time,” says Sally. “You have to produce; there’s no room for pondering!”
From watching the news and connecting with friends, Sally knew that New York was a changed city, but it wasn’t until her family returned home at the end of the summer that she experienced it first-hand. When her husband occasionally went into the office, it was to a building that was 12% occupied. Forty percent of Sally’s neighbors still haven’t returned. There are no tourists wandering the streets, and it’s a sign of the comparative emptiness that Sally’s sons could safely ride their scooters to school this fall on the city sidewalks.
Sally had previously drafted a New York City alphabet, but her shifting perspective on the city led her to reimagine her work. “When I first drafted this two years ago, it looked drab in cement gray and blue,” Sally recalls. “But with the pandemic, there’s a new emphasis on being outdoors and using all the green spaces like Central Park, Riverside, and the High Line— more of an intersection of nature and the city.”
Sally crowdsourced ideas from Instagram, a platform that she once held at arm’s length but has since learned to embrace. She gleaned some hilarious suggestions for her alphabet that only a MetroCard-carrying New Yorker would understand, like “A is for Alternate Side Parking.” Like her previous alphabets, her letter guide to New York City is brimming with wit and whimsy. No fewer than five of the twenty-six letters in her alphabet reference Sally’s time at the Met and objects in its collection.
Her latest creation has struck a nerve with young families who have moved out to the suburbs this year and want to take a piece of the city with them. “Although this was a response to something personal, it also resonated with something universal, and I’m seeing a lot of new visitors to the website as well as new orders.” Author, writer, actress, and New York influencer Jill Kargman of Bravo’s Odd Mom Out picked up Sally’s New York City Alphabet before its launch, giving it her blessing and a boost in visibility.
As for what the future holds, Sally has decided to devote herself to The Letter Nest full time. “I’m jumping in feet first, and the weight and urgency of that decision hasn’t hindered my creativity, so I hope that continues!” Sally has a committed following, and the pandemic has many people looking to redecorate, so the time feels right. “People are feeling a real allegiance to home, and when we’re all climbing the walls, some of us will be inspired to decorate, redesign, and beautify them!”
To see more of Sally’s work, you can visit her website at www.theletternest.com or on her Instagram @sallykingmcbride.