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Conversations with Debra Disman

Today we’d like to introduce you to Debra Disman.

Debra, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I was born and raised in the Chicago area where the Chicago Art Institute became a second home, and took art classes growing up, both in and out of school. In high school, I also started working in community arts as a volunteer and continued this when I went to college at the University of Iowa. I was an art major with a focus on painting but also studied drawing, printmaking, literature and creative writing, and was in the Iowa Undergraduate Writers’ Workshop in Poetry, which was one of the reasons I went there. I have always had a passionate interest in both image and text (“art and writing” as we used to call it!) and their interrelationship, and have sought ways to put them together, as evidenced in my current book, object, installation and “textual tapestry” works. I also studied a year in France, learning the language and traveling extensively, imbibing masterworks, architecture, landscape and craft, which sparked a lifelong love of travel and cultural explorations. From the very beginning, teaching has been part of my career, and when I moved to San Francisco after graduation, I began teaching onsite at the De Young Museum and through their urban outreach program, an experience which has informed my work ever since as a teaching artist in the Bay Area and now across Los Angeles County, as I engage with its diverse communities. Working as both a solo practitioner alone in the studio and in the public sphere of community engagement offers a rich practice and life, which compels and challenges commitment and creativity from all angles.

I worked this way in San Francisco for many years, showing in the Bay Area and across the country and then became involved with painting art furniture while trying to learn business skills. I had a San Francisco-based entrepreneurial enterprise for 15 years called ArtiFactory Studio, providing decorative painting, color consultation, surface design and murals to clients from all backgrounds and walks of life, as well as organizations and businesses, and continued teaching as well during much of this time. I went through the certificate programs of both the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco and the International Association of Colour Consultants/Designers in San Diego, and later the UCLArts and Healing Social and Emotional Arts (SEA) Certificate Program, The Annenberg—Inner-City Arts Professional Development Program and “Creativity” series, and the Cal State Los Angeles/City of LA Deprtment of Cultural Affairs Community Teaching Artist Program, to enhance my skills, broaden my education and connect with others, which has been invaluable to my work and career on all fronts.

When I relocated to Los Angeles in 2012, I knew I wanted to recommit to an evolving studio practice and teach in the community. I began proposing bookmaking and other workshops to my local Santa Monica Library, and to my delighted surprise, was able to start teaching almost right away. I had made artists’ books and taught bookmaking and  story-writing in San Francisco, but took the object of the book and the teaching of bookmaking structures to a whole other level in Los Angeles. By dint of persistent and concentrated effort, I have been able to develop a multi-faceted practice around these which has allowed me to exhibit my work in galleries, museums, universities and libraries across LA and the US and teach in an array of community settings and situations. I am honored to be an enthusiastic local artist in residence at 18th Street Arts Center, serve as an artist-in-residence for the City of LA Department of Cultural Affairs, and to have received a Santa Monica Artist Fellowship in 2021, all of which have allowed me to continue, develop and grow my work, practice and life!

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
I don’t think any path in life is smooth! There are always challenges, obstacles, contradictions and paradoxes encountered along the way. I have been privileged to create and be offered a number of opportunities here in the LA area, including being referred to Voyage LA by my colleague and twice collaborator Luciana Abait! I made huge changes in my work and the way I worked when we moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco in 2012. The very essence of the environment, art scene and offerings is so different in flavor, scale, intensity and mindset. In San Francisco, I had been focused on working as an entrepreneur doing custom and commissioned work for individual clients, so it was very client-driven and collaborative which I loved. When I moved to LA, I knew I was going to return to an individual studio practice and transform my way of working though I did not know exactly which form it would take. I concentrated on building up my work as a teaching artist to connect with and support the community and allow me the freedom to pursue my own inclinations, vision and voice in the studio. These two aspects of my practice have worked very well together but it has not been for lack of concerted work and effort. I knew very few folks when we moved here, so the whole process has been a glorious exploration and voyage of discovery of my own evolving creative path as well as of this remarkable and continually transforming city and region, which offers so much and seems to have a place for everyone who is willing to make the effort.

One of my biggest challenges at this point is time and how to allocate it! Between teaching artist gigs and studio work, pursuing and participating in exhibitions, studio visits, residencies and project grants, the time to view gallery and museum shows requires a lot of decision-making, and I am not able to see all I would love to see. I am continually working on the time and energy management of my work and career in all its permutations, also because it is important to show up and support others.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I am a visual artist with a strong background in writing who works both as a solo practitioner and in the public sphere of community engagement. I am known for my work inspired by the book, which traverses tapestry, installation and sculpture, often pushing familiar forms into works that arrest and baffle while simultaneously (I hope) offering places of contemplation and solace. As a maker and teaching artist, I aim to offer and invite altered ways of viewing the world and how we inhabit it and instigate exploration and examination of what we think we know and are. I do this in very conceptual ways in the studio and in more direct, concrete ways with students and the community-at-large.

Although I am seen to fall into the “categories” of book artist as well as fiber and textile artist because of my use of string, cord, thread and cloth/fabric/textiles, I identify as a contemporary artist working in two and three dimensions with the materials that most move and matter to me at any given time. The evocative, visceral, physical quality of materials drives my work and gives it its emotional resonance and relevance vis a vis how it is used. I am compelled to layer, wrap, stitch, knot and glue as well as paint, draw and write. The “tactile textile” becomes “text-ual” as well as textural when text is added to it, which is another way of layering, disrupting and complicating the surface to add levels of meaning. I love repetitive labor in making, and finding more and more ways to engage with a specific material, such as sewing and stitching with cord, then knotting and wrapping with it, then gluing it to a surface. One process inspires another, illuminating the expressive potential of the medium.

When I work with the community, I offer a roadmap of instruction that allows people to participate in creating a piece or structure which they can then take to another level and transform to their needs and inclination while learning artistic and technical skills along the way. The main focus of my teaching artistry is on bookmaking, but I also teach sculpture, drawing, painting, collage, color theory and art history. If I present a strong enough foundation of how-to, students will gain the confidence to explore the what-next and even the why at times. This is exciting and extremely gratifying, as it allows me to see the healing effect of art and artmaking close-up and personal. Studio work and teaching artistry are part of the same continuum of my creative practice, and some of my favorite projects employ both, such as “Unfolding Possibilities”, a unique artists’ book I created and stitched with words submitted by participants in my “Bookmaking With Self-Compassion” workshop presented online through 18th Street Arts Center and We Rise LA during mental health awareness month in response to COVID-19. By integrating the participants’ voices, the book, which can unfold to 78” long, became a collaborative artistic record of the greater community’s experience of the pandemic..

In terms of your work and the industry, what are some of the changes you are expecting to see over the next five to ten years?
I think the art world, like all other sectors of society, is always shifting and changing, but certain issues remain the same such as surviving and thriving as an artist, which for most in today’s world requires entrepreneurial skills and the ability to create your own opportunities; the comparative scarcity and expense of studio space and other necessary resources for artmaking, even including the availability of materials held up by supply chain issues; gatekeeping and bureaucracy; elitism and status issues, competitiveness, hierarchy and the proverbial internalized pecking order; and ongoing inequities as regards to race, gender and class which can severely limit opportunities and challenge basic functioning in the art world and world-at-large. There are institutional and organizational efforts being made to combat, mitigate and better these conditions, but it is slow-going, and it remains to be seen whether such efforts will continue and grow or whether they will be revealed to be a trend, momentarily capturing our ever-decreasing attention spans.

As we get more and more entwined with digital interactions and social media in particular, I think it gets harder to connect to what is real and tangible, even visceral, which is what I feel we as humans crave. The digital world offers many opportunities for those who are able to effectively use and not be consumed by it, so the balance is tricky. The art world reflects this tension, and artists, craftspeople and other makers are working to resolve it in a myriad of creative ways.

I think we will see more and more efforts on the part of individuals to balance and integrate seeming opposed factors and conditions such as online versus in-person; material/physical verses digital; ideas and theories verses feelings and behaviors; and the effects of these seeming sets of opposites. The business, institutional, political and academic worlds may follow suite in their offerings if they see that this balance and integration is what the folks on the ground want and are willing to stand behind, as ultimately their survival and relevance depend on people’s engagement with what they present. These changes take time and energy, two things that are always at a premium.

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Image Credits

Hopes and Fears and…, 2020, Repurposed textile squares, linen thread, 24.5 x 16.25″ (photo credit: Elon Schoenholz)
I Can’t I Won’t I Will Do, 2022, Repurposed table runner, hemp cord, linen thread, 13 x 71.5″ (photo credit: Elon Schoenholz)
I Can’t I Won’t I Will Do, (detail), 2022, Repurposed table runner, hemp cord, linen thread, 13 x 71.5″ (photo credit: Elon Schoenholz)
Unfolding Possibilities, (exterior), 2021, Mulberry paper, sewing thread, 6 x 78 x 6″ (photo credit: Elon Schoenholz)
Unfolding Possibilities, (interior), 2021, Mulberry paper, sewing thread, 6 x 78 x 6″ (photo credit: Elon Schoenholz)
Red Notebook (Here’s to the Red, White + Blue), (exterior), 2021, Repurposed placemat, canvas, lace, wood, burlap, hemp cord, linen thread, 8.5 x 12.5 x 6.5″ (photo credit: Elon Schoenholz)
Red Notebook (Here’s to the Red, White + Blue), (interior), 2021, Repurposed placemat, canvas, lace, wood, burlap, hemp cord, linen thread, 8.5 x 12.5 x 6.5″ (photo credit: Elon Schoenholz)
Rent, Wound Tear, Mend Heal Repair, 2020, canvas, acrylic paint, hemp cord, string, lace, 64 x 68″ (photo credit: Gene Ogami)
HEADSHOT Credit: Bernard Wolf

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