Keeping the Past Alive
Travel Back in Time with Artist Deborah Macy
Art can be many things to many different people. For some, art is freedom. For others, its illusion, or fantasy, or the answer to an unanswerable questions. Art can imitate life, and it can also illustrate our dreams.
If paintings are in fact dreams, then artist Deborah Macy’s dream world is set to the backdrop of the 1920s or 1930s Massachusetts. At a time when many women spend their days in long, beautiful gowns, life was simpler, and the pace was more leisurely. The Bay State painter has spent a large part of her career using her talents to transport herself and an appreciative audience back in time.
“I like to get away from today’s rush and bustle and get back to a place where things moved slower,” she says.
A portraitist specializing in pencil and pen graphite paintings, Macy says working with oil and color is her preferred method, and her real passion is focusing many of her pieces on period era settings.
A stroll around her home tells the story of her vision of the past through each painting mounted on the walls, and upstairs in her studio is shrouded in old Victorian gowns she collects to offer her subjects.
“I have a handful of vintage dresses, not a costume,” she says. “They were given to me in a trunk from an antique shop.”
Macy has been using the dresses for about a decade as part of her artistic process. If she can get a live model, she often has them sit for her or—if they have the time—head out to a location around southern Massachusetts.
“I like to slow things down,” she says. “There is too much activity in today’s digital world.”
While she is a self-proclaimed painter of faces, Macy also takes time to consider the background of her subjects. If they can’t go on location, she uses reference photographs she takes herself to put the living model in front of a scene, whether a lighthouse, river, bedroom or some such location that inspires Macy.
At times she has to pin the back of the dress to fit her model—and when she has no human model, she drapes or stuffs the garment. “I’m creating a fantasy,” she says. “I’m bringing the past back to life.”
The inspiration for her paintings comes to Macy organically and sometimes without warning, especially when it comes to finding models for her vintage work. “I find my models wherever I am,” she says. “An artist is always looking.”
About 15 years ago, Macy recalled strolling around an antique market when she saw a pair of vintage lace boots walk by. Her first thought after taking in the woman’s full attire: This woman could model for me.
She approached the woman and asked, “Could I paint you?” She ended up painting the woman five times, and to this day Macy has one of those paintings hanging above her mantel in her home.
“She turned out to be a great model,” says Macy, recalling the memory and noting how weird of a question it is to ask someone to model for a painting. “You take a leap of faith. It takes some courage.”
It’s not every day that she comes across the perfect model, but, she says she is always on the lookout.
For Macy, the vintage paintings are her labor of love. She also spends a great deal of time doing portraits on commission, which, she says, can be grueling as she strives to make each likeness as dead-on accurate as she can.
“You don’t always see people as they see themselves,” she says, adding that while she aims to please, she does want some imprint of what she sees to show through. That’s the typical portraits artist dilemma, she notes. It’s as the great poet Oscar Wilde once said: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”
“I try to capture something about the person,” Macy continues, “something about their spirit.”
She quickly has an idea of where a painting will take her upon the first meeting and subsequent photo shoot with the subject. Sometimes, the model will sit for some or all of the painting process. Most of the time she uses a combination of methods, which are put together like a puzzle.
The work is as exciting as it is demanding, as she never knows what she’s going to do next. She even occasionally works with children, which comes with its own set of challenges from chasing them around with a camera to getting the shading just right.
“They never sit for me,” she quips, recalling a recent commission where she was asked to paint two brothers, five and seven years old.
“They were beautiful children,” she says, adding that the painting was graphite, black and white. “You have to be very sensitive with the shading for a child’s face.”
In Her Blood
Macy was born a painter and grew up among women artists. Her grandmother had a particular influence on young Macy. A watercolorist, Macy’s grandmother taught art until she was married, and since artists didn’t show much in the early part of the 1900s, she focused her efforts on committee work for her doctor husband.
Macy was just five years old when her grandmother died, but she soon began teaching herself to paint by copying her grandmother’s watercolors. Her mother was also a skilled drawer and encouraged Macy to cultivate her talents and passion for painting.
“Along the way an artist has to find out what they are good at…it’s a natural progression,” she says. “You paint everything and find out what you love. For me, there is always a figure in it.”
She gravitated toward portraits about 25 years ago, when her two sons were young and credits a spiritual vision with not only her decision to focus on faces but also to pursue art as a career.
“I honestly believe it was divine intervention,” she says. “I’ve always loved faces ... this is my gift to give.”
Macy works on her vintage images as often as she can, which she sells on her website, deborahmacy.com, and through fineartamerica.com. She also occasionally holds showings and says she often includes her mother and grandmother’s paintings in her shows, since they didn’t have the same opportunities to get their art in front of audiences.
“I [also] use my studio and home as a gallery,” she adds. “I find people need to see the artwork ... websites are only an intro or preview [to the pieces].”
She has also followed in her grandmother’s footsteps and has been teaching art both in private lessons in her home and at Greater New Bedford Vocational-Technical High School’s evening school for adults, where she explains canvas painting.
“I love it,” she says. “I give them the tools to go home and paint.”
Painting starts first with a vision, she says. You’re making something new where there was nothing before.
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