Jacob’s Ladder (2005), oil on canvas, from The Bluest Day series.

Deborah Addison Coburn

B.F.A. '74

Jacob’s Ladder (2005), oil on canvas, from The Bluest Day series.

Making Sense and Art Out of Chaos

By Elisa Gallaro

For Deborah Addison Coburn (B.F.A. '74), art is an "exercise in controlled chaos." The Maryland-based painter, printmaker, and collage artist is a master at combining lines, shapes, colors, and textures to create what she describes as "a composed, harmonious experience." The results can be powerful and poignant, as demonstrated by her award-winning One Family series. The 15 portraits celebrate both Coburn's roots as a descendant of Prussian and Polish Jews and the diverse backgrounds of friends and acquaintances.

She created the collection in 2017–18, a time of heightened rhetoric and restrictions on U.S. immigration. Her charcoal drawings incorporate collage, including fabric, buttons, embroidery, and Kosher string, to "convey the richness and diversity that immigrants contribute to our country, which should be celebrated, not feared," Coburn says. The series earned her an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council.

Photo of a middle-aged woman with brown hair.

Deborah Coburn, headshot.

Organic shapes painted within a diamond shaped composition.

Both Sides Now (2021), acrylic and oil on canvas, from Ignorance Was Bliss series.

Other compositions, including Coburn's 2019 Ignorance Was Bliss series, are more lighthearted. She began the series before COVID-19 and then set the watercolors aside during the pandemic's darker days. But the paintings struck a chord with gallerygoers during a spring 2021 exhibition at Studio Gallery in Washington, DC. 

At the time, COVID-19 vaccination rates were on the rise, officials in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic were easing pandemic-related restrictions, and people were starting to venture out after months of isolation. With their vibrant colors and playful abstract shapes, titles such as Back Then, The Calm Before the Storm, and Who Knew? delivered a much-needed break from the stress and worry of prior months and added to the appreciation of life before COVID-19.

Coburn attended Cornell at the recommendation of her parents, who saw it as an opportunity for her to earn an art degree as part of a well-rounded education. It was the right choice for a student who sometimes found herself "questioning whether I was dedicated enough to be an artist," Coburn says. At Cornell, she enjoyed the camaraderie of a close fine arts community, while broadening her horizons — attending concerts; taking a variety of electives, including a course in mime; even sleeping on the lawn as part of a Vietnam-era protest. 

A layered watercolor painting depicts colorful abstract shapes on top of a green background surrounded by a white frame and then an outer blueish-black frame.

The Calm Before the Storm (2019), watercolor on Waterford paper, from Ignorance Was Bliss series.

She credits her college experience with informing and laying the foundation for much of her work, even though her journey from Cornell graduate to highly regarded professional artist was a winding path. After earning her B.F.A., Coburn took years off from painting to work in an advertising agency and then focus on raising her children. By 2001, she and a friend were co-owners of a decorative painting company, designing and painting murals and providing other original finishing touches in private homes.

Then came 9/11 and, with it, a search for more meaningful work.

Coburn knew she wanted to change course but was unsure which direction to take, until her husband suggested she return "to real painting." She began by taking classes at a local art school, where a teacher invited Coburn to join a painting critique group. Soon she was a member of a cooperative gallery in Washington, DC, exhibiting works there, as well as in art centers and other galleries in the District, Maryland, and Virginia.

An early solo show recalled the haunting images of 9/11. Before the attacks, the day seemed almost perfect, with bright sunshine and amazingly clear blue skies. Coburn describes September 11, 2001, as “one of the most beautiful days of the year and one of the most horrible days in our lifetime." Her Bluest Day series is a collection of 12 striking pieces that capture the raw emotion of Coburn’s memories of 9/11 and its aftermath. Most are paintings: oils or acrylics on canvas or linen. Some employ mixed media and a process that Coburn developed to help jumpstart her creativity when tackling the blank canvas or paper. 

She compares her creative process to a conversation that can take time to flow. "Once I have something on the canvas, it starts to talk to me," Coburn says. "For me, that dialogue is the fun part. But getting the conversation started can be a challenge." She came up with a way to break the ice while "fiddling around" with figure drawings created during the first months after her return to painting. "I had a stack of them," Coburn recalls, "and I started cutting them up into pieces and arranging the pieces into a collage — creating order out of chaos by assembling these pieces into a satisfying composition." The technique appeals to the same part of her that embraced experimentation while she was a student at Cornell. "I often create multiple pictures from the same composition or elements, but experiment with taking them in different directions," she explains.

In her more abstract pieces, Coburn incorporates "exuberant gesture, line, and color, which encourage the eye to move around the surface, making little discoveries along the journey. My goal is to create a balanced composition that conveys energy, rhythm, and the excitement of creating." It's a fitting approach for an artist whose success is sweeter because of her own journey of discovery. 

"I'm glad I took a roundabout route," Coburn says. "It makes me really appreciate where I am and what I'm doing now."
 

Website: dacoburn.com

Projects


The Bluest Day (2005–06)

Shades of blue make up most of the composition with two yellow polygon areas containing gray characters.

The Bluest Day (2006), mixed media on paper, 32" x 42".

The Bluest Day (2006)

Dark blue lines form abstractly drawn ladders and buildings, over a soft background of varying shades of blue paint strokes. A sparingly used red appears at the base of a ladder and in a building window.

Jacob’s Ladder (2005), oil on canvas, 30" x 40".

Jacob’s Ladder (2005)

Shades of dark reds make up this moody, abstract painting.

The Only Cloud (2006), mixed media on paper, 28" x 26".

The Only Cloud (2006)

An olive green pentagon forms the basis of this painting, as red, orange, and yellow rectangles rain down over the composition.

Pentagon (2006), acrylic and oil on canvas, 40" x 40".

Pentagon (2006)

Rectangles arranged uniformly in grids cover a background of shades of blue.

Effigy (2005), mixed media on linen, 36" x 48".

Effigy (2005)


Oil & Water (2011–17)

A colorful abstract painting with dark lines forming organic borders around areas of color.

Connections (2011), oil on linen, 32" x 58".

Connections (2011)

A colorful abstract painting divided into rectangles filled with organic, colorful shapes.

Conglomeration (2016), oil on canvas, 36" x 40".

Conglomeration (2016)

An abstract landscape with lines and colors indicating mountains and water.

By the Sea (2012), oil on linen, 44" x 30".

By the Sea (2012)

An abstract painting made of rectangular sections filled with organic, colorful shapes.

Go With the Flow (2016), watercolor on Arches paper on board, 24" x 18".

Go With the Flow (2016)

A colorful abstract painting divided into rectangles filled with organic, colorful shapes and black lines.

Asterisk (2017), watercolor on Arches paper on board, 24" x 18".

Asterisk (2017)


Seeing Through the Mind's Eye (2014–15)

An abstract painting divided into areas of color.

Off the Top (2014), watercolor on Arches paper, 16" x 12-1/4".

Off the Top (2014)

An abstract yellow shape, slightly reminiscent of a profile view of a head, sits at the center of this abstract painting. The background is divided diagonally into two areas of color: a green triangle on the upper right side and a blue triangle on the lower right side.

Yellow Head (2014), oil on linen, 38" x 50".

Yellow Head (2014)

Abstract painting of organic shapes in shades of yellows and blues, outlined in black and accented with red lines and triangular shapes.

Sprite (2015), oil on linen, 38" x 50".

Sprite (2015)

Abstract painting dominated with large areas in shades of yellow and orange.

Dick (2015), watercolor on Arches paper, 12-1/4" x 16-1/8".

Dick (2015)

Abstract painting dominated with large areas in shades of yellow, orange, and blue. A vine-like motif cuts across a green areas.

Landed (2015), watercolor on Arches paper, 9" x 12-1/8".

Landed (2015)


One Family (2017–18)

Charcoal portrait of a Chinese family in front of a dark background with Chinese characters.

Lee Family in Montreal (2017), charcoal and collage on paper, 50" x 39".

Lee Family in Montreal (2017)

Charcoal portrait of a large immigrant family in front of a background of colored tapestries on a wall.

A Grandfather's Pride (2017), charcoal and collage on paper, 66" x 49".

A Grandfather's Pride (2017)

Charcoal portrait of an immigrant family. Orange, semi-transparent rectangles containing writing are placed sparingly across the canvas.

Lost in Translation (2017), charcoal and collage on paper, 57" x 46".

Lost in Translation (2017)

Charcoal portrait of a family. Two of the women were authentic, patterned clothing, painted in color. Rectangles with colorful patterns cover the wall behind the family.

Ishii Family in Hawaii (2017), charcoal and collage on paper mounted on canvas, 56" x 38".

Ishii Family in Hawaii (2017)

Charcoal portrait of a multigenerational family. The men wear casual, Western-style clothing. Three women wear hijabs. An older woman wears a patterned, green chador. Colorful patterned tapestries cover the wall behind the family and the front of the stage they sit on.

Family Reunion (2017), charcoal and collage on paper mounted on canvas, 59" x 26".

Family Reunion (2017)

Charcoal portrait of a family in which the men wear suits and the women wear simple Victorian-style, long-sleeved dresses. Blocks of colored patterns appear on the women's dresses, the only areas of color on the people. Blocks of color also appear sparingly on the house behind the family and the ground.

A Blended Family (2017), charcoal and collage on paper, 67" x 37".

A Blended Family (2017)

Charcoal portrait of a family. Plaid clothing and areas of denim pants appear in color. Patterned, colorful rectangles also cover the wall behind the family.

Mexican Family (2018), charcoal and collage on paper mounted on canvas, 26" x 40".

Mexican Family (2018)


Ignorance Was Bliss (2019–21)

Organic shapes painted within a diamond shaped composition.

Both Sides Now (2021), acrylic and oil on canvas, 51" x 51".

Both Sides Now (2021)

A watercolor painting of geometric shapes over a background of colors blending together.

Before We Miss It (2019), watercolor on Waterford paper, 20" x 28" framed.

Before We Miss It (2019)

Brightly colored abstract shapes make up an oval-like shape sit in the center of the painting on top of a a background of muddier colors that flow into each other.

Back Then (2019), watercolor on Waterford paper, 20" x 28" framed.

Back Then (2019)

A layered watercolor painting depicts colorful abstract shapes on top of a green background surrounded by a white frame and then an outer blueish-black frame.

The Calm Before the Storm (2019), watercolor on Waterford paper, 24" x 20" framed.

The Calm Before the Storm (2019)

Horizontal bands of color form a background to organic shapes.

Unknown Known (2019), watercolor on Waterford paper, 20" x 28" framed.

Unknown Known (2019)

A dark stormy shade of blue forms a background for colorful organic shapes.

Clueless (2019), watercolor on Waterford paper, 20" x 28" framed.

Clueless (2019)


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