I had been going to tell this part of the story later, but something happened this morning that made me decide to tell it today:

I dropped off my “Operation Christmas Child” shoebox this morning. The lady coordinating things at the drop off location asked if we could pray over the box. Of course, I expected her to pray for the refugee child who will be getting the box. Instead, I listened, stunned, as this woman whom I’ve never met, prayed for…my hands.

In 2012 I was diagnosed with Lymphoma, and went through 6 rounds of chemo. Halfway through the treatment, my fingers started tingling. I learned that this is the first sign of neuropathy; a word I didn’t even know the meaning of. Caused by nerve damage to the extremities, neuropathy begins with tingling, progresses to pain, and can end in complete numbness.

For some people the effects reverse, and for some they don’t—some people end up with numb hands/feet for life. And it takes 6–12 months after the chemo is complete to find out what the end result will be.

Up until then I had handled all the treatment/side effects/uncertainly relatively well. But with the normal use of my hands in potential jeopardy, I started to unravel.

I had been a commercial artist for 20 years, and I also coach figure skating—I literally make my living with my hands and my feet. But my main concern was, ‘what if I can’t paint anymore?’ About the time I had devised a way to strap a paint brush to my wrist, it started to dawn on me that perhaps painting was more important to my life than I had previously realized.

After 6 months the tingling and numbness began to subside from my fingers and eventually disappeared completely: my hands were spared. I started painting with a newfound urgency and sense of responsibility to the work. I found my voice in portraits and telling other people’s stories. And I found a purpose—yes, even a gratefulness—for the cancer, for waking me up to what I believe my role is meant to be in this life.

In a portrait show, it is traditional for the artist to include a self portrait. For “Famous,” I will show this painting of my hands, which were given back to me, and with which I intend to speak for as long as I am able.

Coincidentally (or, you know, probably not), today is the third anniversary of my diagnosis.

“Voice” Deb Marett, Oil on Canvas

Click here to see a video of the painting in progress.




Exactly one year ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon in my friend Timothy’s apartment, writing my artist statement. For those of you who haven’t encountered this particular vehicle of torture, the artist statement is supposed to sum up everything about your inspiration, message, vision, and world view in 200 words or less.

It is one of the standard things asked for when applying for grants/shows/competitions. It is a Big Deal, as evidenced when my friend who is working on her MFA at the School of the Art Instsitute in Chicago told me, “for us, the statement is almost more important than the work.”

I had been turned off from artist statements ever since I read the one by an artist who puts motion sensor cameras in the woods & then frames the resulting photos of passing woodland animals, and….well, that’s it. Her statement made it out to be critically important, groundbreaking work.


My favorite one ever is by Anthony Howe, who makes kinetic sculptures that move in the wind which are truly mind blowing (If you do nothing else today, click on that link). His artist statement? “Let’s sit out on the patio and watch the whirligigs.” I love this man.

Nevertheless, faced with the edict to come up with something or lose out on the opportunity to enter in a show, I sat down with Timothy, (who loves artist statements, and the type of art where someone puts motion sensor cameras in the woods), and got to work.

After 5 versions, during which Timothy would read what I wrote, give me feedback, and leave me to it while he got on with his life, he finally took the ipad away from me and wrote out a very thoughtful statement about my work. I pounced on the free help with profuse thanks and called it a day.

Having spent a restless night being chased by words about intent, voice, purpose, and Why I Paint, I got up in a strange mood and wandered around the house aimlessly for awhile before stepping into the shower.

Most creative people will attest to specific times when something comes upon them from quite outside their own minds or beings. Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk discusses this beautifully: in ancient Rome, artists were believed to have a “genius” living in the walls of their studios. Note, the artist was not himself a genius. He had a genius–an external creative force that helped him create his art.

When that happens, it is as if someone unscrews the top of your head and pours a whole bunch of stuff in: fully formed ideas that had never occurred to you before. In this case, I ended up wrapped in a towel on my bathroom floor, sobbing as image after image came into my mind: the statement, the purpose for my work, the very reason I am painting. The next series I would paint. Who I would paint.

That’s big. That’s huge. I had never found my voice with painting before, and had pretty much dabbled with anything and everything that I felt like, wandering from still life to plein air landscapes, to animals, and lots in between.

Now I knew. I knew that portraiture is my voice, and I knew that I have work to do. I sat down and wrote out a whole new artist statement. It was quick, it was easy, and it was all true. And it brought back a memory of a poem I had read many years ago, which was about to become the basis for the next 2 years of work.

by Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence, 
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse. 

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   

The idea you carry close to your bosom 
is famous to your bosom.   

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets, 
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, 
but because it never forgot what it could do.

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. Copyright ©1995.


Dear Deborah,
Thank you for your interest in the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts and your submission to the Ploch Art Gallery. It is with regret that we must notify you that your work has not been selected by our jury panel for a solo exhibition at this time.

I am nobody. I am a portrait artist no one has heard of, and I am creating a show featuring the portraits of 15 people you have never heard of. I am shining a spotlight on 15 people who, although you don’t know their names, are really quite remarkable. You should know their names. You should know their stories.

I am doing this because we as a society have become far too enamored with whomever the media dangles in front of us. We know too much about the lives of sports stars, actors, musicians, and a particularly strange group of reality tv people, who for some reason keep showing up on our tv screens, without having actually done anything whatsoever to merit our attention.

You know their faces, and you know their names. If you pay any attention to the daily newsfeed, you know who is dating whom, who is pregnant (or not), and very possibly where they went on their last vacation.

But I want to turn your attention to a different group of people. Who has had an impact on your life? Who do you admire, and why? Who has inspired you because of the work they have chosen or the people they’ve helped? Do they even know that you look up to them?

My project is called “Famous.” Those 15 people are my own personal celebrities. They are mentors, poets, scientists, neighbors, care givers, and more. Each of them is saving some little small corner of the world—but it isn’t so small to the ones in that particular corner.

My 15 chosen portrait subjects, every single one of them, when I explained the project and asked if I could paint them, had the same reaction: “Me? You want to paint me?? Wow, that’s amazing, I don’t know what to say. Really, ME?!”

As I am working on the paintings, I am also approaching galleries to find a venue willing to host the show. Originally, I really only had one in mind—it was a perfect fit. There is an amazing gallery space, a theater where we could host talks by the subjects about their work, and even an area for children’s art, which will also be a component of the show. It was my dream gallery. I put in a submission months ago, and today I got the answer back: “Nope.”

That was a bit of a blow. I had thought I was offering a really great concept, with a lot of components that would bring people in. I have already been working on this show for a year, and will continue for another year before I’m ready to hang art on walls. I spend long days, early mornings and late nights to keep this project on schedule while also working full time.


One of the maddening things about this type of application is that you almost never get any feedback as to why they made their decision. So your mind tries to fill in that gap: Nope—your show isn’t interesting enough. Or flashy enough. Commercially viable enough. Contemporary enough.

And then a voice whispered: You aren’t famous enough.

And I realized that it really is perfect. I’m not famous enough. Which is pretty much the point of this whole thing. So I’ll keep applying to galleries, and when there are more rejections, I’ll just remember that this isn’t about getting into the most beautiful, perfect place. It’s about telling people’s stories, changing perspectives, and reminding all of us that fame should mean something a little bit different. And of course, that we are all famous to the people whose lives we impact.

So bring on the rejections! Let’s really get this thing rolling. I’m not famous. But I’m looking around for my small corner.