Aldridge Gardens Featured Artist for December & January
Tupelo, Mississippi native Debra Riffe earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Howard University, College of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C. She’s been a professional graphic designer and illustrator for more than 30 years. She calls her art training “old school,” using pencils, technical pens and paper to hone her skills. “Using the computer as a design tool remains a constant challenge,” she says. Debra’s artwork will be featured in the gallery at Aldridge Gardens in December and January. A reception honoring her work is scheduled for Dec. 11 from 5-7 p.m.

What is your preferred medium? How did you first get into it?

My preferred medium is relief printmaking, specifically, linoleum block and woodcuts. During my last semester as an undergrad, I was informed that I needed an additional three credit hours to graduate. I enrolled in a printmaking class that included silk screening, intaglio, lithography and linoleum block. I couldn’t have imagined that I’d revisit relief printmaking 30 years later and build a successful fine art and poster design business.
In 2006, I wanted to participate in juried art festivals. I’m a self-taught needlepoint artist and I’d had moderate success, locally and regionally stitching, designing and selling needlepoint canvases of my original art. However, multiples are needed when exhibiting in art festivals and I knew that it would be impossible (insane!) to create multiples and build sufficient inventory in needlepoint, so I reached back and transposed many of my original illustrations into linoleum block prints.

What inspires you, and where do you typically work?

I lived abroad for five years in Barranquilla, Colombia, South America and discovered a common set of life experiences that parallel patterns found in many cultural activities of the American South. You’ll find a range of themes in my work: social injustice, civil rights, illiteracy and food inequality. Additionally, music is a topic that continually shapes my visual narrative. I don’t create fanciful butterflies, cute puppies or dancing bears. My compositions, mostly figurative, are always images of African Americans, always southern, always rural. I believe that every artist should make art inside of their experiences. I create what I know, nothing more; nothing less. I’ve learned to trust my instinct in translating my ideas.
My studio is in my home. Ten years and hundreds of prints later, I’ve outgrown my workspace. It is indeed my world; my happy place, an unbelievably tranquil space organized in a manner where I’m able to create and thrive.

Do you try to convey messages, stories or specific themes in your pieces?

Messages in my art are conveyed through the titles that are always written in lower case. The titles are broadly based on rural, southern dialect derived from black vernacular speech patterns that I find lyrical and layered.

What’s one piece of yours that stands out in your mind as particularly meaningful or special, and why?

It would have to be the image that won the Bluff Park Permanent Collection Purchase Award in 2012: “the band of gideon roam the sky,” a linoleum block relief printed with black oil-based ink. My grandmother would rise at 4:30 a.m. to prepare coffee and breakfast for my grandfather before he left for work. They would sit at the kitchen table and talk, quietly, until he finished his last cup of coffee. Once he left for work I’d hear my grandmother humming a song; probably a hymn, as she washed the dishes. I couldn’t make out the words clearly but the refrain, I thought, sounded like “the band of Gideon roam the sky.” I never asked her about the words because in my memory I associated the smell of coffee brewing, early morning talks at the kitchen table and the sound of her humming with family, security, home. I’ve held on to that memory for 50-plus years. I was thinking about my grandparents when I created the image. In the print, you’ll see a cacophony of birds that appear to be directionless but upon closer inspection the sweeping and swooping is indicative of unity and synchronization. Ebb and flow. Call and response. Communication. Communication was key in my grandparents’ lives. They were married 55 years.

What can people expect to see in your Aldridge Gardens gallery exhibit?

Those who are familiar with my artwork can expect to see a large number of linoleum block images that I refer to as my signature pieces. These images are printed in black oil based ink on bright white printmaking paper: “tug o’ war,” “pickin’ fo’ fried green tamatas,” “i learnt’ to sing a glad new song,” to name a few, are easily recognizable by my carving style and they’re favorites of my patrons. Twelve months ago, I set the bar a little higher for myself and began experimenting with reduction color woodcuts. Several of those color prints will be exhibited, also. Represented by Canary Gallery, LLC located in the heart of the loft district of Birmingham. Debra Riffe can be reached at debra.riffe@gmail.com.