Artist and Ambassador

On Manitoba

December 2012 Issue

by Sarah Richards

Before Deborah Danelley became an artist, she worked at a company that sold software that helps people decide on a particular vocation. 

“It was a program that allowed students to input information about themselves and their interests, and it would spew out different types of career options,” says Danelley. 

Plugging away at her career in sales and training provided Danelley with lucrative work and an interesting job. Nevertheless, she says she felt unfulfilled—even unchallenged with her profession. As part of her work showing others how to use the software, Danelley took her company’s career diagnostic countless times. The software’s assessment: Danelley needed to be doing something more creative. Still, it took two rounds of company downsizing before life set Danelley on a different path. In 1990, she signed up to study an introductory art class at the University of Manitoba. 

Since then, she’s shown her art across Canada, in the United States and in Cuba. She’s also been commissioned by clients like Victoria General Hospital. “Even to this day, it’s been 15 years since I graduated and I still kind of feel like I’m just getting going now,” says the Fort Rouge resident.

Much of Danelley’s work is driven in part by her passion for the textures and subtle colours of objects like used tea bags. She also deconstructs old books and incorporates their fragments into her art. Danelley is entranced by out-of-use books that have been weathered as they’ve passed from reader to reader, like the used Mennonite school hardcovers she received as a donation. “I think things like that carry this energy—there’s a history to them already that you didn’t create,” she says. “The covers were so worn, damaged, beat up, shredded and stained. The inside covers had writing and scribble marks.”

Arnold Saper, Danelley’s former U of M printmaking teacher, says her work is physically affecting and layered with references. “She has a tremendous sensitivity to the material,” says Saper. “I don’t know if it’s always easy to explain … You get the feeling of ‘prairie’ in a lot of her work.”

Danelley says it took a while before she realized that many of her pieces have involved spine-like elements—such as the spines of disassembled books—complete with the emerging threads suggesting, perhaps, nerve endings. Looking back, she feels this may be unintentionally influenced by the fact that she lost a newborn son to spina bifida in 1987. Spina bifida is a congenital defect in which a foetus’s spine does not correctly develop. In its most severe form, it can leave an opening in the baby’s back from which the spinal cord and tissue protrude. “I didn’t try to make it happen; it just naturally seemed the direction I was going,” says Danelley of her artwork. “It went back to again, why was I on this path, going in to art?”

An affirmation of her career choice arrived in the most unlikely way. In 2008, she met Manuel Díaz Baldrich, a Cuban artist who was visiting Winnipeg to promote an exhibition he was part of. During their conversation, Baldrich told her about a community art initiative he’d started in his struggling Havana neighbourhood. Like the rest of the country, the area suffered economic hardship after the collapse of Cuba’s main trading partner, the Soviet Union. Baldrich felt those hardships led some locals to adopt a survival-of-the-fittest attitude—something he and another artist wanted to change. The project was named Muraleando, after the vibrant murals created by the group.

Baldrich’s excitement was contagious; Danelley ended up volunteering to providesome art workshops to the local kids. “I’d travelled a lot in the past on my own, but never to a foreign country where I didn’t know the language,” she says. She packed suitcases full of donated art supplies. Once there, she spent six days in Havana teaching children how to transform old books into their own three-dimensional works of art. “I cried every night because I was just so exhausted, overwhelmed and taken by the people and their gratitude,” recalls Danelley. Baldrich says Danelley’s fundraising and enthusiasm have helped sustain the group. “Every year, she’s organized a different workshop for children, women artists and seniors in our community,” says Baldrich. “Each workshop has had a different magic and charm and left a deep impression on us.”

In 2010, the Cuban government gifted the group a massive, 100-year-old concrete water tank. Since then, locals have been transforming it into the Muraleando headquarters. They’ve cut out windows, a door, added electricity and made an exterior courtyard for community festivities and to better receive visiting tourists. Danelley says all of it has been done through volunteered sweat and donations. She says the experience has answered any lingering question as to why she was led into a career in art. “I knew when I was in Havana that the art was giving me the connection.”

Danelley has been back every year since—always bringing with her suitcases full of donated art materials, sundries and clothes. That dedication has earned her a nickname: the ‘Canadian ambassador’ of Muraleando.”