Austrian painter Gustav Klimt once said, “even when I am being idle, I have plenty of food for thought both early and late—thoughts both about and not about art.”
When Debra Zare retired after 30 years of teaching art, she knew she wouldn’t be idle. But like the Symbolist painter who so influences her today, thoughts of her work are a constant presence. Both as a teacher and an artist, Zare has never stagnated—constantly exploring new challenges and going the extra mile.
“As a teacher, Deb Zare was an encyclopedia of knowledge in so many media,” reflects longtime co-worker and friend Carolyn Bielski. “She came in every morning with ideas that she had dreamed up the night before on things like new courses, new units, or field trips.” Additionally, Zare never stopped producing her own work: “I was always an active artist. That was important to me.”
Zare—a graduate of Libertyville High School who specialized in ceramics at Northern Illinois University and later went on to start the photography program at Lake Forest High School—always wanted to become a better painter. “When I was teaching, I only produced a few paintings each year,” she explains.
Retirement offered her that opportunity. She decided to put in the work to hone her painting style and skills, attending workshops, taking classes, studying other painters, and working with mentors. Knowing that she wanted to do her first solo exhibit, she had to create a body of work with a unified theme. She found inspiration in the work of Gustav Klimt.
“I’m so taken by how he uses gold,” she says. “And the way he makes the women’s faces and hands emerge from two-dimensional backgrounds, he makes them come alive. It’s really quite beautiful.” While Klimt found the sensual beauty in women, Zare’s muses are orchids. As an avid gardener, she has plenty of experience with orchids, “I love how they look … very feminine, very sensual shapes. We all try to grow them, some successfully; most unsuccessfully,” she adds with a laugh.
Back when she had seven orchid paintings completed, she was eating dinner at The Gallery in Lake Forest with her husband Dave when they ran into her dear friend Cecilia Lanyon, the gallery’s co-owner. Dave urged her to tell Lanyon what she had been working on, and when she did Lanyon was all for it.
“I asked her how many I needed to have, she said ‘13 to 15.’ I said ‘OK’ and got to work,” says Zare, whose collection, “All for Beauty,” is appearing at The Gallery this month. Like Klimt, the shapes and patterns surrounding her subjects are flat, contributing to her compositions spatially and decoratively. Unlike Klimt, however, Zare’s paintings are not centered but play around with asymmetrical balance. “It’s about my investigation of his work and how I can borrow some components of it in my own pieces,” she explains.
Zare has been working on her orchid paintings for her exhibit for two years, taking the summers off to spend time at the beach in Michigan. But, she brings her sketchbook along and works on ideas when inspiration strikes. She finished her final painting last June, but ‘idle’ is not in her vocabulary: “I’ve got ideas for a few more, but I’m not sure if they’ll be done in time for the show. I already have 15, so I’m not worried.”
While she loves being retired from teaching and focusing on her art work, she misses the day-to-day contact with her students. “They inspired me when I saw what they were working on and what they were passionate about.”
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