Debra Ramsay is an abstract artist working in painting, drawing and installation. She maintains a full time studio practice in New York City, and her work has been shown both nationally and internationally for over 30 years.
Debra and I met through mutual artist friends and I have always admired her work ethic and strong habits of routine in the studio. I wanted to sit down and speak with her about her journey as an artist because, like many of the conversations I have on this blog, it varies from the “prescribed” path we may assume about professional artists. I am so thankful to Debra for her honesty, openness and generosity in sharing her experience for this conversation.
SF: Debra, can you start by telling me more about your background and how art first entered your life?
DR: Art was my escape growing up. My mom had undiagnosed mental health issues, creating an environment where I wanted to be as invisible as possible to avoid drama. The coping skills I developed, using art as a vehicle to transport myself to a positive place, were invaluable.
SF: I’m sorry to hear that you were in such a difficult environment at such a young age. It seems like drawing and art played such an enormous role in helping you get through that time. While you were growing up, was there any point where you took this impulse to make and create and begin calling yourself an “artist” or did it simply just remain a form of escape for a long time?
DR: It wasn’t until much later that being an artist became an identity for me. I worked for five years as a hairstylist after high school before going to college to focus on nutrition. I applied to colleges based on their art departments. I wanted to study art history and take studio classes, all the while being practical and wanting a job skill that was of interest and would support me. Going to school was also a way to move into NYC… another goal on my list.
I was accepted to Pratt and ultimately transferred to Brooklyn College because the science department at Pratt wasn’t very strong. Art wasn’t my main focus at that time, but I was acknowledging that it was important to me. After graduation, I got married (to a physician) and we moved out of the country. We started a nonprofit organization to administer free healthcare in rural clinics in the West Indies.
SF: Was there a specific focus of your organization that tied both of your interests together? What prompted you to want to live abroad?
DR: We wanted to be of service, feel like our work was impactful, and live in a beautiful place where life was simple. We chose these small islands based on research we had done of the major health concerns in those areas. Diabetes and hypertension, both of which can be controlled with inexpensive drugs and lifestyle/dietary changes, were the major causes of illness on the islands. One doesn’t need high-tech machinery to test for these illnesses, so we could be effective without a lot of capital to get started.
SF: Was there something that happened when you came back to the U.S. that made you shift what you wanted to do?
DR: Yes, having only a bachelor’s degree in nutrition limits what jobs were available to me in the US. Even though I had been practicing in the field for years, out of the country, in the US I would have only been qualified for food service positions. We moved to Oregon. We had a daughter, I became a stay-at-home mom. That allowed me some time to think about bringing art making back into my life.
SF: I also know through conversations I've had with friends and female relatives about starting a family that the majority of the income they would often bring in would often only cover the cost of childcare. And unless you're really passionate about that thing you are showing up for everyday, it ends up being hard to justify spending all of your time at a job just to pay for childcare. I have a lot of female friends and relatives that left the workforce because the tradeoff wasn’t worth it to them.
DR: Yeah exactly. I would have been in jobs that were not fulfilling to me. In Oregon we lived on 18 acres of land. I did a lot of gardening. In a series of unplanned steps I acquired a menagerie of animals, including two donkeys, a couple dozen chickens, and four sheep, all of which were very pampered and spoiled. They were a great little team of demanding monsters. I was growing and preserving most of our food. It was a huge amount of work, yet I was carving out some time to focus on making art.
I had entered a pastel drawing in a group show and it won an award. It was after that award I thought, “Well, maybe now I can say I’m an artist.” The first dozen or so times that I said it I would verbally trip over the words.
SF: What did you do to bolster up your confidence as you started to claim the title of artist for yourself?
DR: I just kept working. Finishing one painting made me want to make the next one better.
Feeling the pull of “ what if” … as in chasing an idea, wanting to develop it further. It was that “what if” thing that drove me.
I didn’t know any other artists at that time. I was geographically isolated and didn’t have a lot of free time to spend on meeting people. It isn’t my nature to seek out people, part of that comes from my childhood - I’m comfortable being alone.
SF: What were the things you were seeking in your work at that time?
DR: My work was more narrative then. I made a series of paintings looking at topographic maps and finding in those lines shapes that resembled human anatomy. I would glue the maps to wood panels covering them in wax paint and then scraping away the paint to reveal some of these anatomical forms I found in the contour lines of the maps. I was also etching skeletal forms into copper sheets and nailing those images on the panels. I wanted to make visual the different subjects being similar in their literal shape.
SF: Because your art had been this mode of escape for you for so long, and now you were trying on this identity as an artist, did you ever have to confront a change in your relationship to your work?
DR: Actually it came as a pleasant surprise that the work was well received and that people were interested in it.
SF: So art actually opened up a way for you to connect with people more.
DR: Yes. Interesting that this thing that initially came from a place of isolation ended up becoming a connector for me.
SF: So where do things go from there? You have to have a family now, you're making things on your farm, you’re starting to put your work out into the world….
DR: Fast forward about twelve years, we get an opportunity to move back to New York City. In NYC I started to connect with other artists who were also working with encaustic paint. There was a woman in New York who taught classes in encaustic paint technique. I reached out to her just to say “Hi, I’m an encaustic painter, too.” (Which was very unlike me). She was very warm and welcoming. She ran an arts group that met once a month and she invited me to join them.
SF: At this point, was there any kind of shift in your mindset or vision for what you pictured for yourself as an artist?
DR: I did not have a master plan. My primary role was being a mom. It felt great to be connecting with other artists. Being in their company, I slowly started having an interest in showing my work.
SF: And did being in a new place also kind of shift the things you were making? Was there a big change in your work, or was it more gradual?
DR: Moving from the West Coast to the East Coast necessitated an extreme paring down of what came with me. Only one or two paintings, from 12 years of inventory made the trip East. I gave artwork to friends, I donated it to fundraising events and some of it fed a huge bonfire. Watching work turn to ash was a nice cycle. I will always have the experience of making the work - what I learned and how that moved me along in my artistic evolution. I didn’t need to have the actual objects. I have no regret about letting go of that work. I’ve since done it a second time in a more recent move. I value space more than things.
It was a nice reboot to set up another studio, in NYC, totally open to what the current situation would bring up. The visuals were very different, the environment was very different, I was changed.
Initially my studio space was in my home. Eventually I got a separate studio in a tiny apartment. I’ve never had a studio in a building with other artists, I think I'm most comfortable working in a more isolated setting.
SF: I think that it’s a strength that you are able to be comfortable being alone with yourself. I think there are many artists that may go through school and then come out into the world and want to continue making work, but may not realize how solitary making art is much of the time. It takes tenacity.
DR: I have to say, though, I do really like having people come to the studio, visiting other’s studios and having friends to talk to about the work.
SF: But in terms of the day to day, it feels more natural for you to want to be able to work alone.
DR: I never considered trying to find studio space with others. I just found a tiny apartment that would work for me close to my home.
SF: There is something to be said for wanting to have a space close to your home and not having to travel too far to a space.
DR: For me, being a mom remained the priority. I didn’t want to be like the parents that raised me. I was consciously breaking a pattern. It was important to be around for my daughter - that was always my priority.
SF: So how did you actually carve out studio time for yourself during those years?
DR: Staying flexible week to week, moment to moment. My daughter was pretty independent, so while she was in school and taking ballet, I would have pockets of time to work during most days.
SF: What were your concerns as an artist at that time? Were you thinking about showing your work more? Were you more interested in just doing the work itself? What were your priorities?
DR: I firmly believe that we make the work that we need at that moment in time. And/or the work that we are making is a direct reflection of what is going on inside us. To an outsider, it probably looked like I had a pretty ideal living situation, in reality it was intensely trying, having a marriage unhinge in slow motion. I began to make work that was so utterly obsessive and controlled it took all of my focus and took forever to make. I was doing this mosaic inlay technique that involved cracking egg shells into minute particles and gluing them into place on a wood panel. It was mind-bending, the degree of focus that it took.
SF: So your work was still acting as a foil to your life, in a sense.
DR: And it was keeping me so busy and focused that it functioned as an escape. It was giving me something to hold onto.
SF: But you aren’t there now.
DR: Right, and my work is a lot more open.
SF: What allowed this change to happen?
DR: Going on art residencies, several months apart, gave me some clarity on the need to make changes in my personal life. That lead to a divorce and a lifestyle change. I was lucky to have the residencies appear, allowing me an opportunity to step back, out of my routine, to reflect.
SF: We don’t realize sometimes how much holding these truths inside can wear us down slowly, and how it is so transformative to let it out.
DR: And I had no idea how it was all going to work out when I put these changes into motion. It was art that allowed me to know what I needed. Going to that first residency showed me the possibility of something different.
SF: Did you have support at that time of other artists or community around you?
DR: I had a few people in my corner.
SF: How have you built up the artist community you have today?
DR: Over time, my community has actually distilled down. My workspace is so nurturing for me, I often find it difficult to leave to attend openings, I’d rather continue working. You lose friends that way. The relationships I have now are fewer, but deeper. I’m satisfied having a handful of those friendships rather than a larger network.
SF: How do you find inspiration in your work now? I know that you think very meticulously about your work and process. How do you balance your strength in creating systems, with allowing space for discovery in the work?
DR: I have a wonderful view of the East River and the expansive sky over it. This informs much of my work. The view is ever changing. Weather, seasons, and time continuously shift. It feels more like I live in my studio than work in my home. Either way, it’s good. It keeps me sensitized to the work and there is very little lag time when I begin again the following day, since I live with it. I’m a morning person and I like to get into the studio early. My day starts around 6:00 am.
Regarding using systems and leaving room for discovery - it was about two years ago that a significant shift manifested in the work. It was in alignment with a greater sense of freedom in my personal life.
SF: So would you say now that the systems you use are more a framework to operate within, instead of the system being used to dictate an outcome?
DR: Right, exactly. Previously I would set up a system that would control almost every aspect of making a painting, there weren’t many intuitive choices. Now there's a little bit of system use for generating an idea or an element of the project, but a lot more open space for allowing things to happen. For example, I'm noticing that graphite pigment moves differently than other colors of paint because graphite also functions as a lubricant. Graphite paint glides over a plexiglass panel differently than any other color. Everything from my tools, to the amount of pressure I use, or how a panel is prepared affects how the paint responds. I’m watching this and observing and following it. There’s a lot of letting go involved.
Conceptually, I’m very attracted to the idea of impermanence; how things are always shifting. I think about that when making work. I choose materials that allow the work to shift in appearance. I’m painting on clear panels, with sheer and opaque veils of color. When the light in the room shifts, the painting’s appearance shifts as well. Sometimes I use interference paint which bends light rays giving the viewer the sensation of seeing a color. As you walk past a painting you will see a flash of color and then it’s gone as you keep moving.
I want to make paintings that allow one to experience change. To literally witness the painting changing, impermanently. I have a long term interest in portraying time, working with the idea of impermanence seems like a logical partner. I like making artwork that documents change over time and also shows an immediate direct experience of change within the work.
SF: What do you now value as most important for yourself as an artist?
DR: One of the gifts that being an artist gives me is that it keeps me curious. I am so grateful for that. I work at trying to remain open to what that curiosity shows me.
SF: You seem to have found a way of working that is very compatible with both who you are as a person and what what you care about. You have a great sense of self-awareness in terms of how you best work and what feels good to you.
I sometimes find that I am fighting with myself, trying on someone else’s way of working or making. And I think that it’s the influence of outside voices, social media, etc. and simply trying to find my place in the larger conversation. My lack of self-assuredness is something I’m very aware of and work hard to keep in check.
How do you keep out the noise?
DR: I too remember looking at other people’s work and thinking, “This is what ‘real’ art looks like.” Or “This is what ‘successful’ art looks like.” Sometimes even, “This is the work I wish I made.” It wasn’t until I stopped comparing myself to others that I was able to recognize that that’s their work. Getting to know a couple of other artists more closely I was able to realize, “Of course this is their work.” It made sense. Understanding that allowed me to let go of wanting what others had, were doing, etc.
I want to make the work that I want to see. That’s it. That is the goal for each day - make something I want to look at. Some days it doesn’t work out. Yet using that as a starting point is really helpful. Yes, it’s a thrill when someone sees my work or comes by for a studio visit and likes it. I try to not get attached to that feeling.
SF: That is really helpful to hear, and I appreciate you being able to articulate this central point that helps you stay focused in your work.
Thank you for your openness and transparency in this conversation today. I am hopeful that this will help others see their own path as valuable as they continue their own journey as an artist.
DR: Of course! Thank you for coming by.
Save the Date!
Debra’s work will be in a two person show at Key Projects in Long Island City, NY opening on May 11th:
A Clearing: New Work by Sharon Brant and Debra Ramsay
May 11 - 26th, 2019
Opening reception: Saturday, May 11th, 3 - 5pm
Key Projects: 41-29 41st St, # 2G, Long Island City, NY 11104