Debra Hope Colligan
The unfinished second floor of Debra Hope Colligan's Cape house in Falmouth works very well as her painting studio. Large canvases lie about and are stacked up in front of the wall studs while light shines in from several windows. There are oil paintings of well-known music icons in their early years mixed with portraits of horses and dogs. In the 1980s Debra was a part of the vibrant NYC music scene, managing talent, organizing events and combining art with music.
With a degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, her paint brush was always near and her renderings of then young musicians such as James Taylor (with long, dark hair and a thick moustache), Bruce (without wrinkles), Michael Jackson (with a regular nose and healthy skin tones) and Rod Stewart (he remains unchanged after twenty years. What is his secret?) are clear evidence of her first name familiarity with her subjects.
On September 5, 2004, while horseback riding, something unknown spooked Debra's horse and she was thrown off, landing on her head. Though she was wearing a helmet, she suffered a major brain trauma to her frontal lobe, spending months in the hospital and in rehabilitation. Today she has a shunt which needs to be checked at three month intervals and she often experiences fatigue, but she is a documented medical miracle. Dr. Anjon Chatterjee of the Department of Neurology, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, has Debra as his star subject in his study of brain damage in artists; does it affect natural or trained talent, and if so, in what way? Debra shows no discernable difference and, in fact, has lost none of her skills.
Several years ago she and her husband Dennis (a photographer who specializes in pet portraits) moved to the Cape, a place where both had lived in the past. Debra chose to pursue her love of animals and now brings her artistic talent to pet portraits. With a long history of support for animal rights organizations from PETA to the Humane Society, she frequently supports those causes by donating paintings for charity events. She says, "I want to help animals through art."
To get to McCarthy Design Studio, walk up the brick pathway to a ten by ten Pine Harbor shed with window boxes and a dark metal star on the doorway. Surrounded by flowers and painted the same colonial taupe as the main house, it is a charming amenity to the property. But more importantly, inside instead of lawnmowers and weed-whackers, it has been insulated and paneled providing a three season studio for pet artist, Laurie McCarthy. On a small table to the right there is an easel, poster paints and brushes for three and half year old Daniel, Laurie's son. When he wants to, he puts on his blue smock and paints with big, rapid swipes creating a two minute painting before his attention darts elsewhere.
In the winter season Laurie moves into her home where she still paints pet portraits and also works on murals for client's homes.
Laurie's BA degree in studio art from Hamilton College lead to a career in management positions in a Soho gallery and at a package design firm. Her own art was limited to an annual show of employee art and personal paintings for family and friends. When Laurie's parents moved to Brewster, Laurie and her husband, Jim, made the move from Staten Island to West Barnstable a short while later. Once on the Cape, she decided to begin painting for a living believing that the Cape is "a lot friendlier environment for artists." Her venture into pet portraits grew from a birthday gift for her husband of the family dog, Boomer, a friendly Yellow Lab.
Is artistic talent genetic? Laurie talks about her mother and sister as having "visual talent"--good with decorating and colors. But she believes her talent came from her grandfather and great-grandmother. Both were students at the Art Students League in NYC. While she never knew her great-grandmother, she had a loving relationship with her grandfather who passed away when Laurie was fourteen. "I was very close to him and still think I'm doing this as a tribute to him in a way," she says.
Another family member, her father, took up stained glass after a long career with IBM (no artistic skills required) and has become a regular exhibitor at the Artisan Guild of Cape Cod annual craft fairs. Father and daughter are usually just a few booths away from one another at these functions, showing their family solidarity in the arts.
The Cape is rife with artists of wonderful skills and these two artists, Debra and Laurie, have carved out a niche with pet portraits. For a lasting memory of a favorite pet, their artistic depictions of pets (dogs, horses, cats, rabbits, etc.) make a beautiful gift for yourself or someone you love.