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Deb Lawrence joins commitment and creativity in her mixed-media work

Story by Carlo Wolff
Photography by Michael C. Butz

Deb Lawrence’s “Say It Like It Is” series. Courtesy of the artist.

Deb Lawrence is the buzzing kind. Some early mornings, she wakes up, already sketching in her head. Days, she spends a good deal of time in her studio, rolling oil stick onto homespun, antique linen, then applying acrylic to the work for texture, depth, psychological complexity. Lawrence is nothing if not hands-on.

“I work on the floor,” says Lawrence, interviewed in her studio on the first floor of the Tower Press Building on Superior Avenue in Cleveland. “I don’t use an easel. A lot of my work is very psychological at the core.”

This fully engaged artist is dedicated to creating works of both visual and psychological appeal. Not only is Lawrence constantly producing art, she also is committed to raising Cleveland’s arts community to a more sophisticated and intellectual level. Not to mention schooling the area so fine art in Cleveland is valued as highly as it is in bigger cities with higher standards and patrons willing to spend more on such work.

Robert Thurmer, who selected examples of Lawrence’s oeuvre along with that of other artists who work in the Tower Press Building for “Looking Up,” an April exhibit in the building’s Wooltex Gallery, considers Lawrence’s art “some of the best stuff I’ve seen in town,” adding, “it really, really stands up to scrutiny, and it’s very substantial.”

The director of The Galleries at Cleveland State University says Lawrence was a “driving spirit” behind the exhibit. “Sometimes artists find a particular mode of working, they find a particular image, and they repeat themselves,” Thurmer says. “She’s not. She’s constantly exploring and she constantly reinvents what she does with paint on canvas.”

Her art is “sort of a visual window into her experience as a psychologist,” Thurmer adds. “We’re interested in our interior experience; we think we know what other people think, so this is a visualization of what that might look like.”

A portion of "In It Together," oil and oil stick on canvas, 2013, 46 inches by 54 inches.

A portion of “In It Together,” oil and oil stick on canvas, 2013, 46 inches by 54 inches.

The daughter of liberal parents who owned a kiln in their basement, Lawrence grew up restless, imaginative, open-minded – and convinced everyone else was, too.

“I grew up a long time ago,” she says, standing in her studio loft. “I have a lot of energy and passion. I’m shocked that I’m 55 – and I don’t feel it in any way.

“When my parents tucked me in, they always said to me, dream big,” says Lawrence, noting her father, a retired physician nearly 80 years old, is currently building a “seaworthy boat” made from the wood of apple trees he chopped down himself.

A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., Lawrence attended the University of Michigan there, earning a bachelor of arts in psychology. She went on to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland for her Ph.D. in child psychology and still maintains a limited child psychology practice.

“A lot of the work has to do with coping and who we are genuinely inside versus how we present ourselves and how we go about handling contemporary life,” she says of her art.

As if to prove her point, a large section of one wall is dedicated to split images, a series she calls “Say It Like It Is.” There’s a mask-like quality to these smaller works, as well as something ethereal, but at the same time, something that goes deep. The top of the face doesn’t seem to mesh with the bottom. All about duality and ambiguity, the “Say Its” are curiously and winningly impish. And they’re best viewed as a collection, though she’ll sell them individually. Her work goes for about $200 to nearly $10,000, she said, though most of it falls into a range less than $5,000.

Lawrence also has created “Finders Keepers,” its baseline a group of discarded Army duffel bags she has turned inside out and made into totems equally disturbing and daffy, using spray paint, acrylic, gesso, emulsion ink and pencil. “Finders Keepers” is a strangely provocative and artistic form of recycling.

Many of her works start as concepts, and the idea often precedes the imagery. In a work’s gestation period, she says, she’s full of anxiety, not knowing where to start. Titles help a lot, like “Say It Like It Is” or “Take a Breath,” the latter a resolutely abstract black-and-white series conjuring maps of interior territories yet to be discovered.

“I’m working it out in my head for several days,” she says of her process.

Deb Lawrence discusses her recent work, “Ready or Not: Mount Kusama,” the first piece in a series intended to bring greater attention to female artists, at her Cleveland studio.

Deb Lawrence discusses her recent work, “Ready or Not: Mount Kusama,” the first piece in a series intended to bring greater attention to female artists, at her Cleveland studio.

During the interview, Lawrence was working on a piece called “Ready or Not: Mount Kusama,” an homage to Yaoyi Kusama, a Japanese artist who has created work spanning installations, paintings and performance art. “Mount Kusama” is part of a series Lawrence is developing to honor underappreciated female artists. It is a lively work, Kusama’s severely coiffed head bracketing a volcano in an homage to an Andy Warhol painting of a volcano. Kusama was an influence on Warhol, Lawrence explains.

As for the Cleveland arts scene, Lawrence bemoans the lack of an arts district. The scene is “still in its preschool years,” she says, with “a lot of lookers but not many real art collectors.” She has done better commercially through art galleries in Miami, Chicago and New York than she has here, she adds.

She also wishes there were events, like panel discussions including “scholarly conversations about collecting” that could school arts lovers in the value and pleasures of that field. In addition, she said, local galleries could do the Cleveland scene proud by bringing local artists along on their excursions into larger markets.

So there’s always work to do.

“I always have this huge need to do the next thing,” says Lawrence, a mother of three who, when not at Tower Press, lives in Shaker Heights with her husband, a physician. Creating art is “like giving birth,” she adds. “And you’re so proud. And then you want to have another one.”