“But unless we are creators, we are not fully alive.” – Madeleine L’Engle
Humans are called to create: chefs develop menus, sculptors manipulate clay, mechanics use engines and valves, painters pick up a brush. After deciding to leave her law practice to answer this call, Virginia Beach artist Debi Stadlin reoriented her life to painting. For Debi, painting was a means through which she could recreate, reflect on and express her place in the world. In over a decade of painting, Debi has developed a language of seeing through vividly-colored landscapes and imaginative snapshots of her thoughts and musings. As someone who longs for newness and change, we all have something to look forward to as she continues to create.
Interview with Painter, Debi Stadlin | by Katie Clinton
Q. How did you decide to go from practicing corporate law to becoming a painter? What drew you to painting over other media?
A. The year I was to “make” partner in the law firm I had been with for 7 years, my mother died very suddenly. Within 2 months her younger sister who was like a sister to me, was diagnosed with cancer and died within a year. During that year, my grandfather had a stroke. I was attempting to cope with these devastating events, raise a then 6 year old and I knew that this year was going to change me and what was important in my life. It did change me and what was important. I began to listen to my inner voice and started to meditate. The grief was overwhelming and so were the needs of family members. I quit work to help my Aunt, who passed within a year of her diagnosis and to help with my grandfather.
As time passed, I went back to law part-time, but had this nagging feeling there was more to my life. I continued with meditation and explored some other modalities of therapy such as breath work and music therapy. What these led me to was what I can only describe as a peak or transcendent experience where I was told very clearly that the next step in my plan was to work with the turtles in Costa Rica. I thought it sounded a little crazy at first but I went to Barnes and Noble and remember saying out loud “show me the trip”. I picked up an Earthwatch Magazine and the trip was in it…I signed up as a volunteer with a scientific team working in Las Baulus Park in Costa Rica and spent ten days working with the leatherback turtles. It was an amazing experience to be surrounded by a team of eight young scientists fully engaged in their passion for saving these ancient turtles. These are turtles descended from the dinosaurs. They are five feet long. Our job was to patrol the beach at night and if we spotted a nesting turtle to gather the eggs to take them to the hatchery. Each night while I was there, I had a dream and they were all about my creativity, rearranging my life and not being afraid of this part of myself and looking at my creativity as a gift.
I came home knowing I was supposed to paint. I didn’t think it was totally crazy because my great-grandfather, who lived until I was 21, was a painter from Russia and all of his brothers and his father were painters. His mother was a chemist who worked with pigments. I found a teacher, Charles Kello, who was very generous with his teaching and tolerant of my drive to learn. The first time I painted with him, I knew in every cell of my body that this is what I was meant to do.
Q. What was your creative outlet before devoting your time to painting?
A. As a child, I was very creative and had a very busy imagination. My mother kept me stocked with supplies to express myself. I learned to sew very young and had a sewing machine by the time I was nine. I made my own clothes in high school and college and my first suits for my job after college. I was always into color and design with sewing.
When I started working, first as a CPA and then as a lawyer, I collected art and was somewhat Martha Stewart with my home and planning dinners and parties.
Julia Cameron, author of the book, “The Artist’s Way”, talks about how in a family children are often designated as creative at one thing or another. It often happens when children are quite young. In my case, my brother, who is a year younger than me and I took a watercolor class when I was six and he was five and after the class, I remember we sat at a picnic table and the artist/teacher laid out our paintings ( mine were ducks) and I remember so vividly him saying, “your son has talent”. I was a pretty bright child and my interpretation, which was not dispelled, was that I did not have talent. I never tried painting after that. My brother on the other hand, had art lessons and started art school after high school. It is amazing to me that something one person says can have that type of impact on a child. I am extremely supportive of anyone who wants to paint and have a theory that you cannot make a mistake that I go through before I teach or work with anyone. It took me almost 40 years to pick up a paint brush after that painting class at age six!
Q. How did your life before becoming a painter inform your work?
A. I think that my life before painting made me very appreciative of my life as a painter and the freedom I now have to express the beauty and joy of nature. I have deepened my connection with nature, myself and most important with Spirit. I am no longer living on the treadmill of life. I used to have a recurring dream that I was on a merry-go-round and I was trying to get off and every time I would get close, it would speed up. I don’t feel that way about life any longer.
Q. Drawing and painting are very personal expressions of how the artist perceives the world. In what ways have your paintings informed you about the place in which you live that perhaps you hadn’t previously noticed or appreciated?
A. I am constantly reminded of the beauty of living in Tidewater – the seasons, the ocean, bay, rivers, lakes, inlets. Water is everywhere. I could spend a lifetime in our Botanical Gardens and never tire of the beauty. The birds here, the egrets, the herons, the eagles are a constant draw for my attention. I never tire of walking with my camera and lately just walking to feel the beauty.
I also have a deep appreciation for travel. My favorite spots so far have been Ireland and Tuscany. I like to stay in one of the small villages and immerse in the village life. I see it as a chance to become intimate with the beauty, the people and experience it that way. Once in Tuscany, we went out to dinner in this small village that had some very steep hills. In front of the restaurant was a well. Throughout dinner we watched an older woman carry her small bucket to fill and walk down the hill very slowly about 5 or 6 times. It was one of the most zen things I have ever seen – her slow steady movement, the beauty of her older body, her nurturing of her plants. It is one of those scenes that plays over and over for me, especially when I go into rapid movement for no real reason.
The other thing I love in general about the small European villages is that the elders are so much a part of life. I love to see them all dressed for the outdoor markets. The women wear pumps and they stop to talk to each other and there is always a touching. I love to see the men sitting on the benches as the sun starts to go down. There is a congregating in these villages that we don’t see here.
Q. Teachers help to shape the minds of their students and prepare them to be contributors to, and innovators of, their respective fields. Having studied under Charles Kello, what was his strongest influence on your work and your approach to painting? What other pedagogical influences have helped to shape your work and you as a painter?
A. Charles Kello is an amazingly generous teacher. He shares so much of what he has learned over the years as a painter. I came to him never having painted or drawn. He taught me the foundations of everything I needed to launch myself as painter. When I studied with him, I would show up with 4-5 paintings I had started each week and ask him how to advance them. I was able to see what I hoped to accomplish and he taught me how to do that. When I say he was tolerant of me, I mean he put up with my drive to learn, which was gi-normous!
After studying a couple of years with Charles and painting hundreds of paintings, I felt I wanted to develop my own style. This is an ongoing evolutionary process for me and part of who I am. I experiment quite a bit. I started out painting from photos that I took. I always had my camera and what I started to feel was the predictability of a painting. I knew it would look like the photo. I felt I had more to say. For me the next level was to add a level of depth to what a scene evoked. It was an internal shift that happened first and then it became part of my expression.
Q. You mentioned that oftentimes to quell the restlessness that emerges in your life; you seek a location change and move. You fought this last bought of restless with staying put and created a compelling series of “New World Paintings”. How has your painting informed you about place and helped you to garner a relationship with the place and community in which you live? Did it help you to suppress this urge for change?
A. I think I am a person who is just restless and this force drives me to learn and make adjustments more than the average person. It is an ongoing process for me. The restlessness I felt that moved me into the New World painting series was an internal shift to be more present and not have to know the future and how it would all turn out, a growth spurt into living with the unknown and the mystery of all that is possible.
I stopped taking my camera on walks and started feeling something that I would normally photograph. It often was not in the colors, I physically saw. It was more the sense or essence or quality of something. That was where these paintings came from.
My current shift is to abstract painting with an underlying texture of the canvas. For me the abstract is a step in my process. I do not know where a painting is going when I start it and it unfolds. I only know the next step. What color does it need? Where? It is much more satisfying for me to paint like this now. I also love to be invited into someone’s home to create a painting to reflect the people and the energy of the home. I find this to be very exciting and it also allows me to connect at a deeper level with people. I am hoping to preview a couple of these on my website soon.
Q. What would you say has tested and changed you most since you began to paint? In other words, what would you say has made you grow most as a painter in that last decade?
A. As an artist, I have a deep need for self-expression that is like breathing. It is essential. As a spiritual being, who is ever-evolving, I also have a need to express this deeper feeling/sensing nature of myself. I think my art is the expression of my personal growth and my inner life. What has tested me most as a painter is the energy it takes to be a one person business. I am a pretty prolific painter and a high energy person. As a one woman show, you have to order supplies, plan shows, manage inventory, do the shows, physically drive a van, pack and unpack it, set up a tent, develop a website, learn how to use social media, find galleries. I am pretty good at the business side, and it still exhausts me at times! I have phased out of the outdoor show circuit and am currently reinventing my marketing approach. I would say this is the biggest challenge!