Deborah Danelley: From Winnipeg to Havana

Deborah Danelley’s art combines rough, organic textures with minimalist elegance. Based in Winnipeg, she was a Gold Medalist at the University of Manitoba School of Art, where she studied printmaking. She progressed towards mixed media, applying the Japanese principles of ‘wabi sabi’ which roughly translates as the art of finding beauty in imperfection and the unconventional, and in the natural states of growth, decay. Drawn to the physicality of materials, she works with found material including wood, metal, tea bags and books.

She has created numerous public and private commissions, and her work is exhibited in numerous exhibitions.

Deborah works and volunteers each year in Havana, Cuba, where she leads workshops for children as part of the Muraleando Community Project.


You have an exhibit in November at Winnipeg’s Blankstein Art Gallery in the Millennium Library. Can you talk about the theme of the exhibit and your work that will be shown?

Land Titles III - book collage

The definition of Salvage is ‘the act of saving or rescuing condemned, discarded or abandoned property, and of materials contained therein for reuse or refabrication.’

Throughout my career, repurposing materials has played an important role in the overall aesthetic of my work. Salvage is an exhibition which allowed me to continue to explore this interest by disassembling or deconstructing discarded books. The intent is to create new works using a sensitive balance of honouring the historical significance of these culturally iconic structures, with a fresh present day approach and modernist appeal.

The pieces for the show are all what I would call book collage on canvas. They are constructed from the various parts and fragments from old books that I have salvaged from various places. They are definitely abstract although there is a series that unintentionally resemble landscapes and have therefore been titled, meditations on landscape.

What is the arts scene like in Winnipeg?

Winnipeg has very active and interesting artists however the ‘scene’ here is, from my perspective, almost non-existent. There are not a lot of venues that have been able to withstand the economy and the tough Winnipeg market. It has forced artists and perhaps for the better, to look outside the box to speak and find other ways of reaching an audience. It also pushes the really ambitious and those who can afford to, to look outside the province for opportunities.

Artifacts IV - tea collage

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

That is a fun question….initially a veterinarian, what girl hasn’t! But for the longest time and right through high school, a contemporary dancer.

If you couldn’t be an artist, what would you do?

Now, I suppose I would teach. I have always felt that to be a really natural vocation but I was worried that I would get too involved or attached to the kids and it would consume me…I don`t know how teachers, particularly these days, do it…I am in awe!

Since 2009 you have volunteered for the Muraleando Project in Havana, Cuba.

Yes, and I am planning my fifth trip in April 2013.

I was never supposed to be an artist. Never dreamt it.”

What is the project about?

Muraleando is an cultural and social community art project founded in 2001 by several Cuban artists and led by Project Co-ordinator Manuel Diaz Baldrich. The project arose mainly in response to the community’s concern over rising crime rates and a neighbourhood physically deteriorating. Manuel was able to gather together a small but devoted group of artists to volunteer their time and skills to help. In the short time that I have been involved I have witnessed and been a part of conducting art workshops in the streets, to watching them establish a permanent center for arts, music, dance and theatre. Their efforts have revived a neighbourhood, engaged their youth and given the older members a sense of hope for the future of their children. All accomplished through the power of art to transform – constructive activities, neighborhood beautification, and community enrichment. There is no doubt that the quality of life for the residents of Muraleando has changed dramatically for the better.

What keeps you going back each year?

I was never supposed to be an artist. Never dreamt it. Circumstance led me to it later in life and I simply trusted the journey I was embarking on. In art school I remember thinking to myself after a particularly good crit from a prof and fellow students, are they talking about my work! Can I really be doing this! You see, I never did art. I had no art background when I took a leap to take an ‘Intro To Art’ course at the University of Manitoba. I ended up graduating at the age of 40 with a Gold Medal. I still keep it in front of me on the window ledge of my studio to remind me.

That was necessary to tell you so I could now say that, after the first week I spent in Muraleando working with children and that community – I recall the moment when I told husband ‘this was why I was doing art,’ and I knew that it was not going to be a one-time thing. There is something about the Cuban people that is so genuine and unconditionally loving… the children I taught are always so grateful for the opportunity to participate in the workshops, they take nothing for granted and are thrilled with everything that is provided as far as supplies go, because half the time they have never seen them before. They have so little….and when do you ever give a workshop to children where, before they leave, they will not leave until each and everyone has the opportunity to come by personally to say thank you and give you a kiss on the cheek!!! The first time that happened, I was literally brought to tears! That is why I keep returning.


Thank you, Deborah, for such an interesting interview!

See more of Deborah Danelley’s work on her web site, and you can read more about the Muraleando Project here.

Images courtesy of Deborah Danelley.

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