Deb Farrell was raised in a small town in Connecticut. After a car crash killed her father when she was eight, Deb masked her pain with humor and hyperactivity, while inwardly she experienced intense anxiety and fear of death. This tension—between outer experience with the tangible world and inner awareness of that world’s impermanence—persists in her work. Deb studied world religion and psychology at College of the Holy Cross, received dual degrees in Psychology and Studio Art, and earned top jury awards for her explorative body of work on childhood memory. She moved to California in 1996 to co-create a social art program for homeless men and women, people who transformed city sidewalks into uplifting plant and rock installations. She then moved to Boston and helped found an art therapy program for the residents of a homeless shelter. In 2007, Deb and her husband moved to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood where Deb took inspiration from the emerging street art movement. She currently lives in Park Slope with her two young children and one old dog.
Love and relationships are terrifyingly finite to me. I carry a permanent marker to capture and hold them forever. The simple figures that I draw take me back to my early childhood, and the dramatic landscapes against which they are set imply the complex emotions and events that have developed since. I was eight when my dad died: a drunk driver entered the highway going the wrong direction and hit an eighteen-wheeler, which lost control. The truck crushed Dad to his death. He left behind my mom, heartbroken; my three sisters, each still struggling to understand our broken childhoods; and me, with a visceral fear of losing that which I love most. I am currently working on a body of work about Thanatophobia—fear of death. This phobia, from the Greek thanato (death), has roots in fear of the unknown and loss of control. Most humans fear death on some level. And it is part of the human condition to want to know, understand, and even control the world around us. Yet death and loss are outside our control.
Interview with writer Suzanne Farrell Smith, the artist’s sister:
Why do you make art? I know you, a single mother of two with a demanding full-time job and an ancient dog and multiple family and school and neighborhood responsibilities. I know you have to reach your hands into the center of your life—wrench it open with the strength one might need to pull apart elevator doors—in order to make art. Why do you do it? What role does art play in your life?
Why make art? It’s my primal scream … an imperative release. If I don’t make art I will explode. Making art helps me to cope with unbearable emotions that grow inside and coil and choke me. I have a good friend who cuts herself, and we talk about how for her, cutting is a release. It reminds me of what art does for me. It helps me deal with painful feelings. When I make art, I feel a pop. I feel better.
A lot of my art deals with loss. But when I’m ultra-busy, I don’t have time to feel. So I make sure I’m involved in a million things. I trick myself into avoiding pain by piling on the responsibilities. But when pain comes, it’s a tidal wave that knocks me flat. I have to make art to get up again.
I am most productive in the months after tragedy. My divorce. Mom’s death. I find a Sharpie and start sketching on anything I can get my hands on. Those drawings—when I am most sad—have slow lines and wobbles and places where the marker rested longer. When I am angry, I might grab a canvas off the wall and tear at the old paint with my fingernails.
I like how you describe my process—wrenching open the doors of the center of my life. You know what, Sis? I once wrenched open the doors of my apartment building! The front doors are giant glass and metal sliding squares that open electronically with the swipe of a little keychain fob. I had brought Ruthie out for a walk, me exiting first out of a side door into a blistering winter blizzard. But before Ruthie could step out, the wind slammed the door shut and I looked down to see a little dark spot sticking out from the side of the doorframe. Then I heard horrible shrieking. I tried to get the door open but it locks from the inside. It was awful. I sprinted to the front of the building but had forgotten my fob. The doors were closed. I tried to open them, all the while hearing shrill shrieking. Panic knocked open a floodgate of adrenaline. I literally wrenched the doors open with just the tips of my fingers. Then I ran, sobbing, up the main stairs, down the hall to the side-stairs, and then down to that side door. And, there was Ruthie, my ancient dog, sitting just fine. It was the leash caught in the door, not her paw. It was the blizzard making shrieking noises outside. I slid to the floor and held her for a long time. I guess my art-making process is like that … lots of sobbing and adrenaline and then relief.
We met our first tragedy early. You were eight, I was six, when our father was killed by a drunk driver. Gone was our beloved dad, our financial security, our mother’s emotional rock. Gone was our feeling of normalcy in our village, which was, in the early 80s, populated by families with Navy fathers, Coast Guard fathers, Electric Boat fathers. Our early tragedy still influences me as a writer. How does it still influence you as an artist?
You were so young. Only six. I know you don’t remember. But I wasn’t always this emotional. I was actually a pretty solid kid. Had friends, was sporty. But when our Dad died I went from being a confident eight-year-old to an overly sensitive wreck. I cried at the drop of a hat. I did lousy in school and started lying about everything. Everyone seemed to have a normal life but us. And that made me mad. I was even quoted in the newspaper: How do you feel about a drunk driver killing your father? “I am mad.” And we became famous. We were the Farrell Girls, daughters of the graceful widow of Edward. People looked at us. So I became an ultra-sensitive, mad, self-conscious kid. Mom knew that I was struggling. I hated that she always wrote about my “self-esteem” in her holiday newsletters. Oh, and then Mom made us get perms! Having a frizzy do really didn’t help my “self-esteem.”
So all of this still influences me. I get mad. I feel sad. I make art.
The Farrell Sisters have been talking a lot lately about losing our father. The time is poignant… being the same age or older than he was when he died, having kids the same ages that we were when we lost our father. As you know your nephew, my eldest, is now eight years old—the exact age I was when Daddy died. My sweet son is the epitome of confidence and idealism and humor. He looks and acts like a Mini Me (pre-death-of-father). I hope my son does not experience tragedy at this young age but I anticipate it for both my kids.
My art is changing as I think more about how death could change them both. I feel more anxious. I think about my own death and how screwed up they will be if something happens. It makes me work crazier hours and throw myself into more activities.
As a loving insider, I know you’re going through another unexpected and difficult experience—wait, Sis, let’s called it a storm, the kind that hits in the middle of the night and scrambles the landscape—and I know you’d rather keep it private right now. But I wonder, is the latest experience impacting your art?
Yup, this is another shrieking blizzard! When I first heard the words I immediately felt surprise and also relief. But in hindsight those feelings were on the surface. I didn’t understand what my upturned reality really meant. I didn’t know what was coming. I still don’t. I’m stumbling along blind. I immediately got busy researching and collecting information so that I would be better prepared to support my family. To be prepared for tomorrow and next year and the years to come. Unfortunately, even while this is more and more in the ‘norm,’ it is not. And because it’s different and tragic in its way, we are famous and looked at. The more I learn, the more fear I feel. I am so anxious that when I try to draw or paint, my hand shakes. Plus there is loss … a blanket of tragedy and mourning on top of anxiety. It’s all bringing me back to that emotional wreck of an eight-year old. Like C.S. Lewis said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.” I’m grieving the odd loss like I grieved our dad and I’m terrified and so sad and it’s all welling up and I am trying to keep busy. But if I don’t make more art soon, I will explode.