Wood sculptor Deb Lowney strives to create work that is visually intriguing, intellectually stimulating and that invites viewers to consider social issues.
In 2014, her exhibit, “Canary In a Coal Mine” shown at Fireweed Gallery, combined 20 sculptures with various quotes and statements addressing climate change issues. One piece included in the exhibit, “Hanging On,” featuring a sea lion clinging to the side of a surface, was meant to depict the struggle wildlife faces as they try to survive and adapt in their ever-changing environment.
Her most recent work, shown in “Changing Landscapes,” a collaborative exhibit at Bunnell last summer, was her response to the changing environment around her, like the rapidly receding Grewingk Glacier.
“I’m continually in the environment looking close up and at a distance, and one that really gets to me is watching the glacier disappear and the speed at which it’s disappearing,” she said. “My focus of this show was to memorialize this moment in time.”
Intending for her piece, “Grewingk Glacier,” to be simple and impactful, Lowney wanted it to make more of a statement than just with the wood. Viewing the issue of climate change as black and white and the winter view of the glacier being black and white, she chose those colors, adding a hint of blue for the glacial ice. Created from spruce, the texture a combination of power- and hand-carving and measuring 26 inches by 24 inches, “Grewingk Glacier” played homage to Lowney’s love for the natural world in general and the landscape around her in particular.
This exhibit not only showcased Lowney’s commitment to the environment, but the evolution of her wood carving from the beginning where her work was more playful, like in 2004 when she displayed her work publicly for the first time with her exhibit “The Natural World” at Ptarmigan Arts. Here, her pieces were a combination of realism and abstraction, like a pair of Xtra-tuff boots and a rocking sea otter, like a rocking horse, but with an otter.
“That Ptarmigan exhibit was a hodgepodge of a show, but the response was incredibly positive and is really what encouraged me to go further,” she said. “It was me stepping out and playing with the medium and the tools and taking a risk by allowing people to see what I was playing with.”
A Homer resident since 1980, Lowney moved from Salt Lake City to work for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. It was while teaching at Homer Middle School that she was introduced to wood turning by fellow teacher Dave Brann. Intrigued, she took several wood carving classes with artist Leo Vait and her passion for wood carving grew from there. When she retired in 1999 at 45 years old, she began spending more time in her home studio, gathering spruce wood from her property and creating 3D sculptures.
“Most pieces were in the round, free-standing pieces that would sit on the ground or on a pedestal or table,” she said. “I had to really work to get to wall pieces, learning how to carve relief. I’m more drawn to creating abstract work now, but feel like I’ve been all over the map. I started with wildlife and the human figure, moved to abstract turned pieces that became wall hangings and then bounced back to a bit of realism with a twist, carving clothing. Most of my knowledge and growth has come through observation, independent study, asking questions and taking risks.”
In 2009, she collaborated with fellow artist Aleda Yourdon on “Portals” at Ptarmigan Arts. For this show, Lowney focused on making abstract wood sculptures with holes. Using wood from a tree in her backyard that she and her husband Ralph Broshes felled, her piece “X’s and O’s” was created from the entangled root system. Her wall hanging, “Knees and Elbows,” was carved from the lower part of the stump where the tree meets the roots and that to her, resembled a body tied up in knots.
While she occasionally uses wood that people give her, most of her carving is from this spruce tree.
“My husband and I had to make a very difficult choice to cut the tree down, as it was somewhat compromised and potentially threatening our house,” she said. “It was a heartbreaking decision and I made a promise to that tree that I would use every piece of its wood. Now the stump is the centerpiece for one of our gardens, the trunk and the roots have been used in most of the pieces I have created and the branches feed our sauna.”
Well known for her clothing sculptures, her first pieces included shirts, towels appearing to be hanging from a hook and gloves sitting on a counter. Eventually, she progressed to headless figures in shirts, eliminating all body parts, but making the clothing look like it was being worn, her way of keeping the focus on the clothing. These sculptures were displayed in her 2014 exhibit, “A Fashion Statement” at Aurora Fine Art Gallery in Anchorage.
Lowney enjoys the playfulness and creativity in carving wood and has long been intrigued by the process of removal.
“Once you remove wood, it’s gone for good, not like adding like a potter might do with clay,” she said. “It’s kind of like cutting wood into puzzle pieces, working those pieces and bringing them back together to create your vision with those cuts and adding colors and textures. I see images in nature as a whole and then try to envision that image in parts and contemplate how I can represent that now-segmented image in wood. It’s breaking it down into parts and then breaking those parts down into texture, color and layering, and then rebuilding these parts back into a whole.”
One challenging aspect of her medium includes what she refers to as finishing.
“When sculpting my wall hangings, which are all segmented, I never really see the piece in an upright position until it’s basically completed,” she said. “I finally hang it on a wall to see what I’ve created and I’m either pleased or contemplating tearing it apart and reworking it. Some pieces have hung in my studio for up to a year while I try to figure out what I need to change. Sometimes it just sits there.”
Another challenge is the toll carving takes on the body.
“Carving is very physical and it takes a toll on your body,” she said. “I love it, but I find my body giving in to fatigue and arthritis, so I’m striving to find ways to continue my passion and alleviate the physical stress. Consequently, I find myself trying to incorporate more power tools.”
During her woodcarving career, Lowney has exhibited in Anchorage, Girdwood, Homer, Kenai and Valdez. She has won several People’s Choice Awards and her work is on display in a few permanent collections through the State of Alaska, including at the Valdez Museum and Homer’s Pratt Museum.
From her early days of carving fun and playful pieces to striving today to use her creativity to memorialize time and place, Lowney is on a mission to share not just her work, but even more so, her voice.
“I’m trying to ask people to stop and take a moment to contemplate this moment,” she said. “If I can get the viewer to make a connection, maybe I can get them to contemplate their role in preserving these environments for future generations.”