Originally trained as a painter and printmaker, I turned to photography eight years ago, partially because I was drawn by its ability to capture a moment in time. These moments and images are ones we sometimes take for granted, yet they strike a chord within the soul when we focus our attention.
I have been captivated with making art about the human face since I was a child. I also photograph animals and even these photos, whether taken locally or on another continent, are portraits. The portrait photo provides insights into the mind of both the photographer and the subject or subjects. In some of my portraits, let's call them "art portraits," I am inspired by the connection between the “real” world and the dream-like imagery that I can discover by using Photoshop and other editing programs to create a kind of alchemy between the photo and what I want to express.
As a full time artist living in Suwanee, Georgia, Debra’s home away from home is her studio at Tannery Row Artist Colony in Buford, Georgia. Located in a historic tannery building that dates back to 1897, the colony is a collective of 20 artists working in a variety of media. The colony has galleries where the group regularly exhibits their artwork. They also hold two juried exhibitions a year for Georgia artists outside of the colony. Prior to having a studio at Tannery Row Artist Colony, Debra maintained a studio on Carlyle Street in Norcross, Georgia. Debra currently serves on the Public Arts Commission for the City of Suwanee and is a former board member of Suwanee Arts Center where she is still active as an exhibitor and volunteer.
Debra was born in New Jersey where she spent most of her life until she moved to Georgia in 2001. A large part of her adult life in the north was spent working in the advertising industry in New York City where she was a media buyer for three different advertising agencies. The artist’s 16 years in New York allowed her to gain exposure to some of the most renowned galleries, museums and art schools in the world. She was a regular visitor to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She took several painting classes at the Art Students League and studied at Parsons School of Design as well. Eventually her love for the visual arts led her to pursue a degree in art. In 1999 she earned of Master of Arts in Fine Arts from Montclair State University. The artist has continued her education with courses at Atlanta Printmakers Studio and Penland School of Arts and Crafts in North Carolina, where the she took weeklong courses in 2007, 2014, 2017 and 2019.
“My first memory of making art dates back to when I was seven years old. We were visiting my mother’s sister, Aunt Rita, in West Orange, New Jersey. I sat in the grass in the backyard under a Chestnut tree and drew a portrait of my Uncle Phil. Uncle Phil had been the victim of a factory accident in previous years and so he lost an eye and wore a prosthetic. I remember my family being in awe of the drawing, which definitely resembled Uncle Phil, prosthetic eye and all. I had no understanding of shading but I did have an understanding of line and the human face. The attention I got was a contributing factor to me drawing even more. As I grew older I did drawings of celebrities from fan magazines. I have always been fascinated with the human form.”
“When I was studying for my graduate degree in painting,” says Debra, “I spent a great deal of time painting animals and landscapes. Eventually I came back the subject that interested me most when I was seven years old: the human form.”
Although Debra earned her degree in painting, she has focused most of her attention on printmaking and digital art over the last few decades. “I enjoy the process-oriented nature of both printmaking and digital art, says Debra. “Each of these artistic disciplines demand preparation and a series of distinct steps prior to the creation of the final artwork. Both also rely on mechanical methods, albeit printmaking, a process developed during the Renaissance, uses a “low-tech” printmaking press.”
Debra uses Adobe Photoshop and an Apple MacBook Pro to compose her art photography/digital painting artworks. She prints her own work on an Epson printer. She uses fine art 100% rag paper and often uses printmaking paper that needs to be cut and coated with a substance to make it compatible with the printer.
“Making art on a computer is not just a matter of pressing a button, says Debra. “I can spend between 12 and 20 hours on a digital painting. Since my work is photography based, it requires taking the right photograph, processing it, preparing a unique background, and then photographing or scanning it. I tweak the digital file endlessly (and somewhat compulsively) until I reach what I call an ‘Ah ha” moment.” Each digital painting has its own unique process, so there is no one set formula for achieving the result I want. And often I don’t know what result I want to achieve until I see it on the screen.”
Debra has exhibited her work extensively in local since 2002. She has also exhibited her work at Tannery Row Artist Colony, Chastain Arts Center, the Norcross Gallery and Studios, Suwanee Arts Center, the Hudgens Center for the Arts, and the Quinlan Visual Arts Center. Several articles about her work have appeared in the Gwinnett Daily Post, a local newspaper.
Debra says her influences are Gauguin for the spirituality of his work as well as the German artist Anselm Kiefer. "I feel that I am also heavily influenced by Far Eastern art," says Debra. "One of the most interesting classes I took while earning my graduate degree was Far Eastern Art History. The course tracked the path of Buddhism throughout the far East. It also dealt with Hinduism and Shintoism."
Debra also loves European art and has been fortunate enough to see in person many of the works she studied in art history books. In 2007 she traveled with a group from Oglelthorpe University on an art history tour of Italy. The group visited Rome, Pompeii, Naples, Sorento, the Isle of Capri, Assisi, Ravena, Sienna, Padua, Florence and Venice in a ten-day period.
“That trip required a lot of stamina and would have been art history overload for most people,” says Debra, “but I loved every minute of it. One of the most amazing moments of the trip was when a small number of us broke off from our group and walked into a small church, Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome. There on the wall, an arms length away from me, was the masterpiece The Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Caravaggio, a painting that I had studied in art history courses. There were only five other people in the church with me; this was not like any experience in a crowded museum where the paintings are heavily guarded. To have that very personal moment with the painting was something that I will never forget. It still gives me chills. And it serves as an incredible reminder of the power of the visual arts.”
Debra also traveled to Paris in 2009 where she visited the Louvre for three days in a row. “I remember bounding up a stairway in the Louvre. At the top was The Winged Victory of Samothrace,” she says, “At the time I was producing a lot of artwork of goddess figures.”
The Winged Victory is a Greek sculpture that dates back to the 2nd century BC or earlier. The name of the artist who created The Winged Victory is not known for sure. “Prior to seeing her in the Louvre,” says Debra, “I had only seen her in art history books. Images of her are all over the Internet, but no photograph of her, including my own, does her any justice. You need to see her in person. She is glorious.”
Debra traveled back to Rome and Venice in 2014; at that time she visited Sicily and Malta as well. The following year she spent a week in Cuba with a group of artists. “Havana has for years had a very vibrant visual arts culture,” she says. “We met some amazing artists and visited some incredible studios.” Debra also went on a safari in South Africa. "My trip to South Africa on safari stands out as one of the most amazing times of my life. The photos of the animals I took while I was in South Africa became a body of work that is influenced by conservation and the preservation of life on this planet."
Barnhart's travel list wish list includes the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, as well as Istanbul, Turkey, Egypt, and the religious site Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
“For me personally, the major reason to travel is to see art and make art,” says Barnhart. “My travel and education have both had major impacts on my passion for the visual arts. I am so very grateful every single day to have that passion. No matter what happens, I am absolutely driven to make art.”
Tannery Row Artist Colony
554 W. Main St.
Buford, GA 30518