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Check Out Debra Howard’s Story

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

Hi Debra, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I’m a native Floridian. Grew up in Miami, surrounded by clear tropical water. Middle child of 4 children.

Learned to sail at a young age and decided when I was 15 that I was going to sail around the world as an artist. I made all of my decisions to further that goal.

After graduating from Ringling School of Art in Sarasota Florida, I drove across the country to launch my art career in San Francisco and to develop the sailing skills I would need. I ended up crewing on one of the first all-women sailboat racing crews.

This was in the late ’70s. I also joined the Dolphin Club at Aquatic Park, downtown San Francisco and began to compete in long-distance swimming events, including swimming the Golden Gate, swimming in from Alcatraz Island and I broke the 83-year-old record, swimming from Oakland to SF, via the Bay bridge.

At 26, I decided that I had the skills to cruise on a sailboat, so I packed 2 duffle bags and bought a one-way ticket to San Carlos, Mexico, and started looking for a sailboat headed to Australia. I eventually found a crew position on a sailboat called the Zubinubi. They were headed to Rio.

Thought that sounded good, so I joined the crew and sailed in the Mexican and Central American waters for almost 3 years. The boat was scuttled by pirates and that was the end of that adventure. There’s actually a song written about her, that you can sometimes hear at Floridian Tiki bars.

I realized that decisions had been made aboard the Zubinubi, that were not sound. It was time for my own boat and to be Captain. I bought Ling Ling a 44-foot Kelly Peterson design, in 1986 and moved aboard. I didn’t manage to sail around the world with her, but I did sail her from the Caribbean to Maine.

During that time, through a series of unlikely events, I adopted a little girl from Romania, once she was water safe, she moved aboard, too. The pivotal point in my story happened when I turned 40.

I had a little advertising agency in Mt. Pleasant, SC (Charleston), and one day, I was working late into the night trying to finish a catalog for foot products! My daughter was asleep in the conference room and I wondered, what happened to my life?

I was going to sail and make my living as an artist, not sell people products that they probably didn’t really need! So I shut down the business and packed up my sailboat and untied the dock lines with my crew… my 7-year-old daughter, Mirela, and an old dog, named Koa.

We mostly sailed on the east coast of the US, favoring the Intercoastal Waterway. We spent 4 months on Cumberland Island, Georgia. All easy and safe sailing. One day, I had engine trouble and we were stuck at the dock in the Golden Isles, near St. Simon Georgia.

I finally broke out my paints and started painting oil paintings. After a couple of months, I put my little paintings in the basket of my bicycle, and Mirela and I visited a gallery. The owner took all of them, and I realized, I was finally a real artist!

I’ve been painting ever since.

In 2009, I took a job as the Artist-in-Residence on tiny Tangier Island. This is a 1-mile by 3-mile sand spit in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. A 14-mile ferry ride to the mainland. The job was for a year, I was to paint and document this disappearing island. There have been people on the island since 1660. A fishing and crabbing community with its own dialect.

Eventually, I stayed on as the Executive Director for the Tangier Island History Museum. I left in 2012. Bought a crazy old Victorian on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Plein Air painting events were becoming popular and I started to participate in them in 2010. I found it to be uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure about painting and the competition. I was uncomfortable having people watch me paint, it felt stressful to make decisions about where the painting was going, with wind, rain, bugs, and changing light.

I sold wonderful Ling Ling, in 2016.

I still did mostly studio work, supplying the galleries that represented me. But the art world was changing. People were saving their art dollars for the Plein air events. There’s a real attraction to the loose and passionate Plein air paintings. So I decided to throw myself into it.

I started getting outside and learning how to do it. I applied to many events. And believe me, often I didn’t get in. I have an unusual style of painting and it doesn’t conform to the typical Plein air style. I think of myself as an interpreter of the scene, not a recorder of the scene.

I bought a truck and a little RV trailer and started traveling and doing Plein air events in earnest. I am a full-time oil painter. 50% studio work and 50% Plein air. The Plein air has helped me be a better and more confident painter.

As I write this, I am on the Leelanau Peninsula in northern Michigan, where I live from May-October. I use this as a jumping-off point for Plein air events in the midwest and further north.

Just before I arrived here, I was a juried artist for the Artist on Location Plein Air in Knoxville. This was my 3rd-year in attendance. I camp at the Norris Dam State Park and paint for a full week, bringing in my work the morning of the show. Without a doubt, Knoxville is one of my favorite events.

Well organized, well attended, and more beautiful than I can possibly paint in a week!

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The biggest struggle has been naysayers. My family thought I was crazy. My sister in particular could not understand why I would love living on a boat. A few years ago, she retired and her husband and she bought a trawler and cruised for a year. She loved it.

Her understanding of the beauty and excitement of that lifestyle has strengthened our relationship. We’re very close. I can’t tell you how many people told me that I wouldn’t be able to support myself as an artist. I had to ignore a lot of people to have had the adventurers I’ve had.

For a few years, they were right. I varnished yachts for a while until the paintings improved.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I am an interpreter of the scene I’m painting.

Every painting involves solving a problem. For me the problem is, how can I get you to understand and feel the moment, I’m painting? Here’s this vast, changing, complex view and I have an 11×14 inch panel to document it on. So I use design, editing, and an unusual color palette.

I use patterns, rhythms, and design. I use contrast and texture and bold brushstrokes. If you walk into a show at an event, you cannot mistake my work for anyone else’s. I teach 1, 2, and 3-day workshops. I particularly enjoy teaching and painting Plein air nocturnes.

Can you share something surprising about yourself?
That I am a born-again Christian. I love going to church on Sunday. I have a quiet time every day before I begin to paint.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Josh Collins

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