Debbie McCulley has spent a lifetime working with shapes and colors, but only the last 20 years or so of it in visual art. Since the 1980s, she has made a living as a popular Spokane-area hairstylist, helping others feel and look their best. Increasingly, however, she has dedicated more energy to her artwork, including a newly remodeled studio.
"It's not an ego thing, it's not a celebration of me," says McCulley of her need to create. "It's just what I do."
In her studio, for example, McCulley couldn't help but paint the backside of a black leather office chair she salvaged. The friendly-looking tropical fish she painted on it includes a particular shade of fuschia McCulley calls dragonfruit.
It's one of many bold colors repeating itself throughout McCulley's life: in her artwork, but also her Spokane Valley home, like the ceramic flower pots lining the raised patio and the walls of her studio above the garage.
"Previously my walls were turquoise, lime green and butterscotch, and I never got tired of it," says McCulley, who started taking art classes locally in the '90s, yet held back on pursuing her art interests.
"I always knew I had the capability," says McCulley, who was surrounded by stylists who dabbled in various art media. "I kept saying, 'Someday I'm going to do that.'"
That someday occurred in 2011, when McCulley took artist Kay O'Rourke's pastel class. She didn't know O'Rourke (whose paintings and sculpture also tend toward electric jewel tones) and thought pastel referred to the color palette, like pink, peach and baby blue.
She laughs at the memory, noting how the experience galvanized her regardless. She took more classes, experimenting with watercolor under Stan Miller, for example, and finally settling on acrylic as her preferred medium.
And she gave herself a generous 10 years to learn and make art.
Then she got busy doing just that, at an increasing pace over the past decade. McCulley has continually shown at Coeur d'Alene's annual Art on the Green and her work has been selected for the poster two times. She's also participated in the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture's ArtFest, and Arbor Crest's annual Art and Glass Festival. Utility boxes in Washington and Idaho, regional wine bottles and even Rosauer's grocery bags bear her folksy, exuberantly-colored paintings.
Often she finds herself working on multiple series at a time, from her earliest images of frogs in martini glasses to a safari-inspired motif to garden critters and more recent illustrations of Spokane's iconic cityscapes.
Lately, in one series she's been experimenting with abstraction, while in another, she's playing with technique, repeating shapes of pure color on the canvas, then adding another layer of paint to define the negative silhouette of something recognizable like an umbrella or a bird, and continuing to augment the design.
"I don't paint anything I don't like," says McCulley, who is A-OK with the word whimsical as a descriptor.
In addition to participating in art shows and festivals, McCulley utilizes social media, Fine Art America and her own website to promote her work, printing it on cards, coasters, jigsaw puzzles, tiles, garden flags, and more.
Why the variety and volume?
"I've got to make up for lost time," McCulley says.