October 2019 Issue
by Caroline Logan Cherry
Photography by Christian Lee
It was a crisp fall day in Kansas City when third grader Debi West, dressed in a white Bee Gee’s inspired pantsuit, was introduced to art class. It’s no wonder this memory burns so bright for the artist, teacher, mother and entrepreneur. It was the beginning of a lifelong pursuit of art.
“I was always creative. I would make my mark in the steam on the shower door, or take my finger and make my mark on the side of dusty cars, and then I would pick up crayons and make my mark all over my parents’ dining room wall,” she says, her laugh echoing over the phone. “I was that kid.” For Debi, her elementary art class, bright and early in the morning, changed everything. It was a chance to be celebrated for making her mark.
Thankfully, for her family’s sake, Debi has stopped making her mark on dining room walls. The mixed media artist teaches art to both young and old, writes for the Art of Education University, acts as a graduate assistant, designs and sells jewelry and is president and founder of WESTpectations, an educational consulting business that promotes the importance of art.
“Art is everything and everywhere. Seriously, without art we are naked on a beach! Artists are designing the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the buildings we’re in, the chair we sit in, the bed we lie on, the eating utensils we use. It’s all around us,” Debi explains passionately. “It’s what makes us human, the ability to think creatively.”
Since retiring a year ago, Debi has been a force in the creative world, dispelling the idea that art is just a painting on the wall, but rather a mindset the 21st Century needs. She advises teachers in the 9 states and 52 counties she has been consulting, “88 percent of the current job force is seeking those creative thinkers.”
Debi urges teachers of all ages, subjects and levels to think beyond and adopt a style of teaching that does more than encourage kids to regurgitate information to instead think creatively and divergently. Unfortunately, there are many negative connotations she’s working to dispel, some she’s even faced herself. “I would have the most creative, amazing kids, and they would come to me and say, ‘my parents won’t let me go to school for art…’” Having fought her own parent’s concerns, Debi has found a way to disolve this belief: “It’s not like you’re going to get out of school and be an artist, you’re going to be a creative thinker.”
Of course, this doesn’t always win people over, especially parents with the idea of a “starving artist” in their heads. “My parents always said ‘no! you’re going to go to college for business,’” Debi chuckles. It wasn’t until being encouraged by her high school art teacher that Debi decided to follow her gut and pursue a degree in studio art with a concentration in graphic design.
“I was like ‘I’m gonna be a graphic designer and live in New York City and change the world one graphic design at a time,” and then, like so often happens, life had different plans. “I ended up getting in a really bad car accident,” Debi explains. “So, this company had to give the job I had lined up to someone else.” While Debi was in physical rehab, coping with the sudden change, she decided to begin teaching at an afterschool program and volunteering at a local Sunday school. She was hit with one of those “oh wait a minute this is what I was supposed to do” moments.
Debi oozes a boundless affection for the arts. When asked what she does outside of her eight jobs, she matter-of-factly responded, “Art is my fun.” Debi sees art in everything she does, there is no escaping it. But why would she want to? She poetically speaks about her living art.
Her husband Chuck, daughter Carson and son Croy, who passed away 11 years ago due to hospital complications. It starts to become clear why art has become such a driving force in her life, “I think that art really did save me, you know.”
After losing her son, Debi was able to throw herself into her art. “None of us are ever healed, but I was finally able to breathe. I realized my art was an extension of Croy,” Debi says, “If I’m not living my best life here then I’m doing him a disservice, and so I think everything I do is for Chuck and Carson and Croy.”
Jet-setter: “Our goal right now is to travel! We just really want to see the world,” Debi says. “We love Playa Del Carmen. We’re going to Belize, Panama, Italy, Vietnam, Korea and Thailand. We’re also going to do Europe, I like Crete, and I really want to go to Egypt. Oh yeah, and Australia because Carson will be living there.”
#TogetherweARTbetter: Debi has created a hashtag to promote her art movement, “My hashtag line is #togetherweARTbetter, with a great big capitalized ART. I feel like as a whole, together we art better is really starting to take off and people get it.”
Tailgate Queen: Like most Southern football fans, Debi and Chuck never miss a football game, “We go to the University of South Carolina or Georgia almost every weekend!”