By Lauren H. Dowdle
Photos by Mary Tweedy
For Debra Hewitt, it all started with a cross. When she found herself painting one, she had no idea why. “I looked at my husband, Bobby, and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, but will you come alongside me and figure it out?’” she recalls. “He told me, ‘Debra, I’ll help you figure this out. Just go paint.’”
That’s exactly what she did, creating countless pieces of art that now fill her studio and the homes of people across the country. Her husband has remained by her side throughout the journey and manages her business, allowing Debra to focus on her artwork.
While she’s always enjoyed art—having watched both her mother and grandmother teach themselves to paint—it wasn’t until this Oxford, Mississippi, native moved to the Inverness area that she truly realized her calling to create art.
After painting the cross and continuing to grow her portfolio, Debra decided to bring some of her pieces to a festival in Mt Laurel, where Bobby bought a tent and got everything set up for her. When the event was over, she realized she had sold $900 worth of artwork. “Maybe I can do this,” she thought.
A customer from that festival showed a piece of Debra’s artwork to a friend who owned a store in Knoxville—and that became the first shop to purchase her pieces. She now ships her pieces to about 60 stores nationwide. “There’s not been one [store] I’ve had to reach out to. It’s all because of God,” Debra explains. “It’s like riding a bike. I had to get on the bike and just hold onto the handlebars. I said, ‘OK, Lord, you’re holding on to me, so I’m going to trust you with what I’m doing.’”
In the years since that first cross painting, the couple transformed their basement into an art studio, complete with tables Bobby built, an area for Debra’s wood panels and three Bibles—each with pages open. “I might get a nudge to put a specific scripture on the back, and then I’ll later hear from the customer that it was perfect,” she says. “I write verses on the back of every piece because I want to point everything back to (God).”
Texture and gold leaf are signature elements in many of her pieces, which she creates using mixed media, acrylic paint, water color pencils and an array of colors. “I want to see the painting like I see life: in color,” she says. “I’m inspired by nature and everything around me.”
Today her art takes the form of acrylic block prints, acrylics with easels, framed acrylics, custom-framed canvases, acrylic hangers, gift art, ornaments and other custom pieces. She also paints on silk fabric, which has become one of her favorite mediums
Whether she is depicting angels, nativity scenes, crosses, cardinals, tulips, churches or abstract creations, Debra likes to name her paintings—like ones called “Tranquility” and “Gift of Freedom,” which she created for her younger sister. She also strives to create a deeper meaning within each piece. “When I do a painting, I want to feel something with it,” she says. “I always like to attach something sentimental to it.”
For example, with her top-selling white tulip collection, she’ll ask the customer how many people are in their family or for another number that has meaning for them. Then, she’ll create a textured canvas with that specific number of tulips.
Likewise, Debra knows the importance of family and enjoys tying those relationships into her pieces. Now empty nesters, Debra and Bobby attend Church of the Highlands and lead a group for young married couples. She also enjoys mentoring young girls and pouring her time into their lives, as well as spending time with her husband, two children and son-in-law.
In the future, Debra hopes to partner with her daughter on her latest endeavor, and she has started working with a graphic designer to create patterns for a tableware line, showing her artistry has no limits. “When I have freedom, I feel like it makes the process better. I’m able to be more creative,” she says. “When inspiration hits, it hits. You have to be in that mode.”
From the first cross she painted to the vividly colored pieces displayed in homes across the country, Debra’s artwork aims to point people to the one cross that changed her life. Not only did she discover her calling, but she also found support from those around her.
“I’m grateful for how it’s grown into a full-blown company and that people like it,” she says. “Anything I need, Bobby helps with. We’re just a team.”
A portion of the profit from Debra’s art goes to JH Ranch to sponsor parents to take their children there. To view Debra Hewitt’s pieces, visit debrahewittart.com and follow @debrahewittart on Instagram. Her artwork can also be found locally at The Blue Willow in Cahaba Heights and Argent in Homewood.
One of Debra’s commissions came with a particular request—that she listen to the song “Mercy Came Running” by Phillips, Craig and Dean for the inspiration two 24-by-48-inch paintings
“When I started listening to the song, I cried. I told my husband, ‘There’s something about this,’” Debra says. “I truly got in my basement on Sunday, and the two paintings were done within 12 hours.”
In those 12 hours, Debra dried tulips and gold-leafed them into the paintings bfefore sending them off to Texas. The resulting pieces not only became focal points in the customer’s home but also serve as a way for that family to share their faith with visitors who might not be Christians.
“After I finished them, the client wanted me to send her a video to explain what I did. She wanted it to be a testimony,” says Debra, who prays over her artwork. “I want it to truly mean something and for them to feel that too.”