Folding and Holding: the Double Life of Debra Lawrence

What You See Is What You Get, Debra Lawrence

What You See Is What You Get, Debra Lawrence

Deb Lawrence rents two spaces at the historic Murray Hill School in Cleveland’s Little Italy arts district. One of these is her new gallery business, tucked away in a sunlit room that used to be the school nurse’s office. Called NOCA (No Ordinary Contemporary Art space), it earns its name equally by its transitional perch on a landing between floors, and from its idiosyncratic range of fine art objects on display inside. At NOCA visitors can buy delicate gold or black nickel jewelry, imaginative ceramic ware by several artists, or even happen upon an antique ring or pill box. But most importantly, they will find a selection of Lawrence’s own paintings.

Debra Lawrence's studio. Image courtesy of Debra Lawrence

Debra Lawrence’s studio. Image courtesy of Debra Lawrence

The objects at NOCA tend toward the intimately minimalist, nudging back through world culture to sketch personal takes on material and function. A similar but more focused quality of emotional exploration is characteristic of Lawrence’s visual art, represented in the gallery by a series of small works from her “Succulent” series. These are made with oil sticks and graphite on antique linen. The title has to do with the shape of the short, arcing lines which are Lawrence’s basic formal unit here, like the nested leaves of certain household plants. Drawn in warm shades of pink, her linear bumps also seem like mountains in a child’s drawing, or like breasts. A selection of comforting ceramic vessels and teapots, a Turkish carpet on the floor, and a few well-watered, real-life plants fill out most of the remaining space. Most days, either Gabrielle Watson or Megan Talbert is seated behind the short display counter. Both are students at the Cleveland Institute of Art and, as paid interns, make Lawrence’s commercial project feasible as she goes about her other activities. Those take place primarily in the second room she occupies in the school, a space at the other end of the building and down a few more stairs: her studio.

Work in progress, by Debra Lawrence

Work in progress, by Debra Lawrence

About a year ago, Lawrence moved her studio from the Tower Press building into the basement of the old school house, specifically to room 01. You could make something of that number–that it’s primal and digital at the same time, primitive and contemporary. That’s very close to what Lawrence does as an artist, and who she is as a person. She has advanced degrees in the field of psychology, like her mother before her, and was a practicing psychologist for many years. Yet the art has always been there, too, and for the past decade has held pride of place.

“It all started when I was about six. My father built a sandbox. I would draw in the sand, draw and erase. I had a lot of energy – still have a lot. I would sketch in my head, looking at my ceiling as if it was a piece of paper, when I was four, when I was supposed to be napping. And I grew up with the idea that you didn’t have to be perfect.” This was in Ann Arbor. Her father was a reproductive endocrinologist, her mother a PhD in psychology and education. “I had a lovely, long, unself-conscious childhood.”

Among the thinkers who Lawrence particularly admires is the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, whose specialty (like hers) was childhood development. His theory of transitional objects talks about the significance and value of those special, personal things in our early lives, like stuffed animals and security blankets, that seem to be midway between real and imaginary: things that have a crucial psychological dimension. Lawrence believes that artworks have this property, also. Her recent works are painted and drawn (and rubbed and stained) on antique linen, responding to the fabric’s fine-grained intimacy. Her breakthrough work in recent years is the bed-spread sized painting titled, “Do the Hard But Right Thing.” Completed in 2013, it thoroughly explores the terrain of one piece of material. Part painting, part low-relief sculpture, it can be hung or draped for display purposes (somewhat like the sculptural works of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui). Lawrence started with a very rumpled surface, but instead of ironing decided to work with it on its own terms. Slowly it turned into a map of itself, of creases and wrinkles, explored during a manual journey through domestic-scale vastness. Graphite, oil paint, and oil stick trace and reinforce interlocking geometries, coloring patches in shades of gray, red, yellow, and black. Makeshift triangles, a series of checks, a pocket of intersecting lines that become stars – are like the lines and marks in a well-used human hand. Feminist ideas and issues are implicit in every phase of her activity, and time and fate linger behind her apparently carefree lines, set in the shadows and folds.

Lawrence paints almost every day in the cavernous basement room, hour after hour amid old heating ducts and lengths and piles of linen. “I know that I’m on the right track, “ she says. “Something is unlocked.” Her current larger works expand on the concept that they are a kind of transitional object, bridging gaps between the here and now and the make-believe. “I love the fact that my work resonates with so many people outside of my own little circle. It makes me happy,” she says, and though this simplicity is genuine, it’s not the whole story.


Lawrence’s paintings combine pictorial pleasure and intellectual nuance with a quirky energy as contagious as her own. This painter is not physically imposing, nor particularly young, yet she communicates a youthful drive of great intensity — perhaps because it is in fact underwritten by experience and learned expertise. It’s not surprising she’s had little trouble finding advocates here and in venues around the country–most recently at Lawrence Fine Art (no relation) in East Hampton, NY, which now represents her. It helps that her tentative, searching abstraction finds an unusual congruence between more traditional modernist manners and up to the minute artistic/scientific concerns involving the mapping and cognitive implications of micro-terrains.

Lawrence’s professional background in psychology lends another kind of weight and perspective to small and mid-sized works like the black and white, “Breathe Easy’” and “Pinch Me If I’m Dreaming.” She grids these patches of linen with spidery lines, like a hobo game board, then deploys marks and circles. They look like diagrams, or like microphotographs of cells. Maybe they’re sketches of game strategies, or the progress of a disease, or a schizoid tic-tac-toe session. This is the human mind as it plays with division, with series and exception, distance and concentration, loneliness and contact. Lawrence’s textures and home-made techniques often continue their eccentric motions interestingly, if quietly – but then light up, suddenly, with a boggling electric connectivity – like a potato lamp, but with wifi.

Somehow she paints all the time, and also travels all the time. For the past seven years Deb has attended various art fairs around the country, in particular those in Miami. In 2015 she’ll be going there with people from East Hampton, where she has new friends. Her new gallery is situated not far from the tip of Long Island, and in the Lawrence-like foldup geometry of the art world, may be contiguous with a much a wider recognition of her art.