Debbie Hess didn’t know she had a dormant ability to create. It wasn’t until she took an art class after graduating South Dade Senior High school that her innate ability began to surprise her. She put off art, however, to continue a more fulfilling career as a recreational therapist, helping children with addiction, psychiatric disorders, and those who suffered abuse and neglect.

Once the hospital she worked at closed down in 1999, she relocated to the Keys and began substituting at St. Justin Martyr Catholic School. Her love of helping children encouraged her to get her teaching certificate, and start a career. When the school closed, she moved over to the Academy at Ocean Reef for eight years, finally transferring to Treasure Village Montessori, where she’s in her third year.

The artistic itch never left Hess, though. She continued taking the occasional art class, and expanded her creative side into theater. Her art originally manifested itself in murals. Hess has painted a number of them at private and professional dwellings that include seascapes and local flora and fauna.

“The Keys have inspired me, being around water and wildlife. I love being on the boat fishing, lobstering, and diving,” said Hess.

Her confidence grew as she transitioned to canvas.

“I like bright colors, so a lot of the animals I paint aren’t colored to be realistic. Often they turn out more whimsical looking or cartoony. I like using bold colors like blue, red, and purple to make them eye-catching,” said Hess.

Her process is mostly organic and part mystery, said Hess. Beforehand, she might set the ambiance with candles, incense, or music to act as a catalyst for creativity. She begins by sketching the scaffolding of her paintings from photographs and adds colors until it feels right.

“It’ll take me a long time before I really like it. Sometimes I’ll have one painting atop another. Let’s say I didn’t like it, I’ll just add paint over the top and keep going,” laughed Hess.

Hess prefers using watercolor or acrylic paints to flesh out her sketches, mixing in heavy gloss gel for added effect. She also incorporates the use of papier mache at times to add texture.  In the future she wants to explore other art methods like mosaics and more intricate papier mache sculptures.

“I’d also like to try my hand at ‘en plein air’ (in open air) art,” said Hess. “I wish I had more time to learn from other artists but I stay fairly busy.”

Hess’ art is exclusively showcased at RESF Island Properties in Key Largo. The South Florida based realty company is sponsoring Hess’ first ever appearance at the Art Under the Oaks festival. The free festival will be at San Pedro Catholic Church on Saturday Jan. 14 from 9 a.m. to 4p.m. The event has roughly 50 local artists attending, and more than 100 exhibits on display.

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