Art That Speaks: Debra Fritts
Abiquiu, this little village in northern New Mexico, has become a tourist destination and bucket list item because of its history, the blending of cultures, and, of course, America’s most famous female artist, Georgia O’Keeffe. Touring Georgia's home and studio in the village is a popular attraction, as her property stands today just as it did when she lived there.
Georgia was inspired by the land, the vistas, rock formations, the random bones she found, and the colors. The light. The adobe structures against the blue, blue sky. O’Keeffe masterfully captured the beauty and essence of northern New Mexico on canvas.
These same elements continue to inspire creative expression today, and many artists find themselves establishing their galleries, studios, home and lives here. There are now countless artists, studios and galleries in and around the village. As a result, Abiquiu has become an art town - an art colony - that highlights its creative forces each year over Columbus Day/Indigenous People’s Day weekend with the annual Abiquiu Studio Tour.
One renowned artist that calls Abiquiu home is the amazing and inspirational clay artist, Debra Fritts. Debra inspires us not only through her art, but also through the energy she emits and the intentional life she she has built in Abiquiu with her artist husband, Frank Shelton. We are excited to share our second Discover Abiquiu interview - featuring the talented Debra Fritts.
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The magic, the intimacy, the emotions that speak to you when you see a Debra Fritts sculpture will stop you in your tracks. The eyes - they penetrate. The mystery. Each piece tells a story, and the viewer so desperately wants to know more. Debra’s art calls the viewer close, as if to share a secret. If only her pieces could talk…
The daughter of a Lutheran minister, Debra was born in Nashville and grew up in Tennessee. Now married to artist Frank Shelton, the two are parents to four children and two grandchildren. Life eventually brought the two to a tiny artist’s colony in northern New Mexico – the village of Abiquiu - the crossroads of Native, Spanish, Mexican and American cultures.
It’s understandable how the Abiquiu land and vistas inspire Debra, as they did famous artist Georgia O’Keeffe, but visiting her studio and gallery also makes it clear how Debra and Frank have impacted their space and the land around them. Their home, studio and gallery all reflect their personalities, priorities, and their art. They have artfully shaped their surroundings, and it speaks volumes about who they are, their love, and their joy – the “artful life”. Their property is simply beautiful and peaceful, and touches the Rio Chama.
It was a gift to us to sit down with Debra and learn more about her background, her art and her amazing life here on the Rio Chama.
Discover Abiquiu: Let’s start with the early days. Tell us a bit about your family, your life as a child, aspects of your childhood that ignited the creative spirit and brought you to art?
Debra: In my early years, I kind of felt like I was living with Ozzie and Harriet! My dad was a Lutheran minister and his life was dedicated to the church. My mom was an orphan as a child, so family was incredibly important to her. She adored my father and his family; she was the best mother imaginable. My mom was so full of love, and she was truly a giving woman. And, she was extremely creative.
An Ozzie and Harriet childhood! What are the most important lessons you have learned and still carry with you from your mom and dad?
My parents lived a simple life. They didn’t have much money, but they taught me “bills paid first, then enjoy the extra.” From my dad, I also learned to love reading and learning. And, from my mom, I got my creative intuition.
Did you have other careers before you followed your path as an artist?
I did – I was a teacher. After I graduated from college, I started teaching high school art – and I was a teacher for thirteen years. I taught many mediums, including clay. When I worked with clay, I felt very free. Life was busy back then, I only had time to work on my own art on weekends, holidays and over summer break. I always felt a loss at not being able to devote enough time and energy to my own art. At what point in your life did you determine that you were going to pursue art as a career, as a life passion? Was there a defining moment?
I quit teaching when my husband’s job forced us to move, and I knew this was the best time for me to see if I could make it as an artist. I worked for a year developing my art, and then it became my career. I knew I had to do this…I felt I had something to offer but did not know how or what, I didn’t know what it looked like, but I was determined. Then a divorce came into my life…I had no money, and I either had to go full blast as an artist or get a job doing something else. Needless to say, I went full blast into being an artist.
I began travelling around the United States with my art in my white cargo van; I sold my work at high-end art fairs - indoors and outdoors. I did this for four years; it was such hard work. When I was home, I was working in the studio to produce work for the next show or exhibition. People were buying my art and I had a good income. Plus, I loved meeting other artists and loved having a connection with the people who were collecting my work. Meeting the collectors who chose to add my art to their homes was a gift to me, and I am still close to many of my collectors. Galleries started approaching me about gallery representation. Selling my art through a gallery was a wonderful next step – I was able to quit travelling and could focus more on my art.
What art mediums did you pursue, and why did you finalize your path in clay as a medium of expression?
I have a painting background, but found myself drawn to clay because it is so raw, a part of the earth. I love the color of the red clay and I love the ease in manipulating the clay to speak my thoughts, my language. It took years to develop my style and my surface treatment on the clay. I am always looking for depth in the color on the surface. Because I was a painter, it was easy for me to be fearless in layering glaze materials and firing the pieces multiple times. It was this fearlessness that brought me to where I am today as an artist.
Your sculptures emote so much energy, the eyes tell stories. They are spiritual in a way. Can you share with us what goes into each piece…how you get your sculptures to speak to us like they do?
My art speaks to viewers because it is honest. My art pieces are intuitive and are about life and daily living. I try in keep a visual mystery in each piece...which allows the viewer to connect in a personal way. I know there is a spiritual quality in my work...is it the honesty? Why does the gaze in the eyes of my figures speak to viewers? Is the tenderness of the figure seductive? I’ve had multiple people look at one piece, and the piece speaks so differently to them all. And, yet, they all connect with the emotion in a very personal, intimate way. I cannot explain this - it just happens in the work.
You are so right – your art does speak in a personal, intimate way. Has the Abiquiu dirt, land and earth impacted you as an artist? How did the move to New Mexico impact your work?
My work changed when I moved to New Mexico. I am challenged by the land, the light, the history, the spirit....I have slowly allowed the animal to appear, only the animal that visits our land. I embrace new knowledge that can help me with my work. You will see that my work reflects the land here in New Mexico.
Tell us about your process…Do you sketch the form first, or just let the clay speak? What about surface treatments? Glazes and colors? What happens in the firing process?
My process is really about trust. I work in the studio daily, and I am never sure what is going to happen – this comes with years of experience. I don’t preplan pieces or create sketches…I just let it happen. I create both small and large pieces. It all starts with the wet, red clay. I also love using clay dug from the land out here in Abiquiu – the local clay has a greenish, reddish coloring..it’s so beautiful.
Surface treatments are important elements - I love making marks, etched lines, in the clay. Since the clay is red and considered a dark, I add a white slip/engobe on areas to create lights. Then, I add in underglazes, which are the clay colorants, in a painterly manner. Once the piece is dry, the firing begins. Oxides are added and maybe glazes. I might fire a piece 3 times, maybe 5 times. It all depends on the depth of color. These are personal choices. My surface treatment reflects the land, the earth in New Mexico. Most of the pieces are darker at the base which reflects my identity to the land...and then move to a light around the head which relates to the spiritual world. Your pieces have signature 3 dots, or red cardinals. Can you share with us the meaning of those symbols?
All of my pieces are marked with three red dots - a symbol I have used for many years. My mother, being the youngest, and her 4 sisters, were orphans. The oldest sister told the other sisters that the cardinal was a symbol of their parents watching over them. When my mother passed, I intuitively pressed three small circles in the wet clay, saying to myself, “thank you, mom”. She always encouraged me to think and explore life. I colored those three marks red for the cardinal; this has stayed with me in my work. My collectors and galleries look for those three red dots and also for the way I connect the earth (darker at the base of a piece) with the spirit (lights at the top of the piece, usually the face).
It is obvious you love what you do.
I feel fortunate that I can express my truth in my work and that I am able to have an income from my work. I really have no choice - I have to be in the studio daily or I am restless.
Your husband, Frank Shelton, is also an artist. How do you two inspire each other?
As an artist couple, Frank and I constantly inspire each other. We both love surfaces and layering, we love the land, love the mysteries of nature – and all of this is captured in both of our art. We work separately, but seek opinions from each other while completing a piece. We love living the artful life - meaning our home and what belongs in our home, our food and how it is served, our clothing and the natural fabrics, our travels, our art collection, our sharing with family and friends. All of this is intentional, thoughtful - and important.
Tell us about your studio. It’s such a beautiful space, but I understand it started as a chicken coop?!
When Frank and I found this property, we immediately went to a structure on the property that was literally falling apart – an old chicken coop! Back in 1939, the Work Projects Administration, or WPA, provided aid, assistance and jobs for millions of Americans. We learned that WPA aid was given to locals in Abiquiu and the Espanola Valley to help with farming. Knowing this, we felt drawn to save this building, and after a few years, we transformed it into our art studios. I do feel the energy of the history. Even though chickens were not around when we purchased the property, the first piece I had to create in the studio was a female carrying a group of chickens…this piece is now with a collector in Nashville, Tennessee.
Do you have a favorite piece of your artwork…if so, why?
Ha...my favorite art piece that I have created is the newest one, the one I am currently working on and trying to figure out! It is the challenge that keeps me going. Then, once I resolve the piece, I am ready to move on to something else, and a new favorite is born.
You hold workshops during the year where you share your knowledge, creativity and art with a group of lucky students who get to work with you directly. Can you tell us about those?
I enjoy teaching in my workshops because it enables me to share what I have learned. I am thrilled when I see a student think, and create something original. I teach nationally and internationally at various locations, but enjoy sharing with people in my own studio the most. I hope to start teaching again once it is COVID-safe to do so. You can follow my workshop schedules on my website at Debrafrittsartist.com
Where can people see your work?
Frank and I have a gallery, called Studio One Thirty Nine, on our property here in Abiquiu. The gallery is next door to our studio, and the studio is next door to our home. We open the gallery to visitors by appointment only, and you can schedule time by sending us an email to email@example.com or calling 505-685-9468. You can view my work on Instagram at @debrafritts and on Facebook at debrafritts, debrafrittsartist and studioonethirtynine.
My work is also featured in several galleries: JonesWalker Gallery in Taos, New Mexico; Leiper’s Creek Gallery in Franklin, Tennessee; and Trove Gallery in Park City, Utah. Also, a few of my small pieces are available in the Mercado gift store at The Grand Hacienda B&B on Abiquiu Lake.
Debra, thank you so much for your time, sharing your history, and most of all, for the incredible art that you continue to create.
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The Grand Hacienda Bed and Breakfast is honored to carry several of Debra’s clay vessels in its Mercado gift shop.