• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

A lifetime of capturing emotion in her art

As the oldest of 13 siblings, Woodford County artist Debbie Waitkus says she was unaware of her mom’s artistic abilities as a very young child. Her mom was so busy raising children that she didn’t often have free time to express her creativity.

Yet over time, Waitkus began to realize that it was her mom’s side of the family who always enjoyed expressing themselves in their art. She remembers being exposed to shading techniques while coloring with her uncles, and watching an aunt do a painting of a tricycle. “I was just fascinated that they could do that. So I would ask my mom: How do I...?” This eight-year-old Cleveland girl had a need to know how her teenage uncle, Ron, used shading to bring light and dark dimensions to his art. She also had a desire to create her own art and often went to her mom for advice on how to improve a drawing or painting. Later, it was her high school art teacher – a commercial artist – who took a 17-year-old Waitkus “under his wing” as a mentor and by entering her artwork in contests. Winning the state and finishing third in the tri-state (Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York) art competitions boosted her self-confidence and earned her a $500 college scholarship, which was mind-blowing for someone so passionate about creating art in its many variations. While other high school students viewed art class as “dumb” or “a waste of time,” Waitkus says, “I really wanted to learn.” She was not only learning about various art movements in history, but getting opportunities to express herself in her art and training her eye “to really see what’s there.” Waitkus still has her Lincoln-West High School art portfolio, which was kept by her mom and later given to her. Memories come flooding back as she takes a visitor on a visual journey of her artwork, including pencil drawings of family members. She vividly remembers drawing her dad while he was sitting at the dining room table. “He was falling asleep because he just got home from work,” Waitkus recalls. “He worked a 10-hour shift, ate breakfast, talked to my mom,” and now his teenage daughter was asking him to sit for a portrait drawing. “I think they liked them. That’s why my mom hung onto this stuff,” she says. Shortly after graduating from high school, Waitkus moved to Florida, where she continued her arts education at Broward Community College. She had plans to earn a college degree and maybe become a full-time artist, but instead embarked on a career in banking – though art has never left her life. Since coming to Woodford County in 2003, where she lives with Bob, her husband of 27 years, and their two dogs and four cats, Waitkus has spent the last decade or so taking art classes taught by well-known Lexington artist Betty Plymale on Tuesdays or Thursdays. “I get really focused. This is my time,” says Waitkus of her weekly art class. It’s an outlet to express her creative side – no matter if she’s painting portraits of a person, dog or cat, capturing a beautiful landscape, or working on a ceramic piece. “I really, really enjoy it. It takes me away from work. I just get lost in it,” she says. Her husband, Bob, insists she goes to her weekly art class because “he knows it makes me happy and he knows I enjoy it,” says Waitkus, who prefers using oils rather than acrylics or watercolors because she can create richer, more natural-looking colors by mixing oils. “I’ve worked in pastels,” she adds, “but I like my oils.” Waitkus appreciates having a live model for portraits to capture “what’s really there.” She also understands asking a person to sit for several hours while she’s painting a portrait is impractical in most situations. So Waitkus often relies on photos – sometimes color, other times black and white, to help distinguish between light and dark extremes. Now a customer service employee at Citizens Commerce National Bank, where her art has been displayed at its Versailles branch, Waitkus has sold paintings and been commissioned to do numerous portraits, so she understands the challenges faced by professional artists who must market themselves and their art to earn a living. Simply put, Waitkus loves expressing emotion in art and being able to share her paintings with others. She recently did an oil painting of her brother and his wife on their 10th anniversary after seeing a Facebook photo of them celebrating the occasion. Being able to express the couple’s deep emotional connection on canvas “really meant something” to her brother, Waitkus says. “You can tell he really loves his wife. She really loves him. It was a really special moment for them. And that’s what I wanted to capture.” Her brother was so deeply moved by the emotions captured in the portrait that he cried after seeing it. The couple’s portrait and other examples of her art can be viewed by accessing debbie-waitkus.artistwebsites.com and she can be reached by phone at 221-9032 for inquiries about commission work, her original paintings and prints. Her art has been displayed at Francisco’s Farm in Midway, the Jack Jouett House and Woodford County Library. She describes any exhibitions of her work as “kind of a kick.” Waitkus was selected as the “Signature Artist” for the Woodford Humane Society’s Freedom Fest in 2014. Her paintings of well-known horse farms, which have hosted Freedom Fests, have raised money for the Woodford Humane Society, where she and her husband are longtime volunteers. Using photographs that she shot of Woodford Reserve Distillery, Waitkus was painting a landscape of the tourist attraction during a recent conversation. It’s a scene she’s painted before, but never tires of revisiting from a different perspective. And its beauty is only a short drive from home in the midst of the Kentucky River Palisades. “We really like living in the country – out here,” says Debbie, who traveled to Italy in 2009 and again in 2011 to broaden her experiences in oil painting and pottery techniques.

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