To approach Karyn Debrasky’s artwork hanging on a wall is to embark on a treasure hunt.
From afar, her pieces look like abstract paintings. But up close, it’s another story. Out of seemingly flat, geometic or floral images emerge a wonderland of three-dimensional surprises for curious eyes to explore.
Tiny balls of paper, meticulously rolled by the Zion resident, lead to layers of commercial or handmade paper, then perhaps to a paper cone fashioned with care or a “quilling” swirl of wrapped paper strips.
Another discovery might be a border of delicate, cylindrical black beads, packed together side by side like a miniature log path. Meander further along, and who knows what you could encounter — glass beads rising from the surface, embroidery floss, bits of wire, push pins, rings cut from bottles, rolled paper, vintage buttons and other details revealed as gazes follow Debrasky’s lines and shapes.
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She not only invites such scrutiny, she rewards it, choosing visual treats out of the creative vault of her imagination to achieve just the right balance of colors, textures and depths.
“Customers stand and look at my art for a long time,” she said. “They see different things. It can take them a while to find them.”
For 10 years, the 35-year-old artist, influenced by her background in graphic design and stained glass, has been drawing people toward her creations. In November, the Elk Creek Café + Aleworks in Millheim featured her work on its walls as part of its ongoing series of local art exhibits.
“Her work is very unique,” said Rebersburg resident Sarah Berndt, who has coordinated the exhibits since the restaurant opened seven years ago.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so meticulous. Being a detail person myself, I can really appreciate it.”
During the exhibit, Berndt noticed a common response to the collages.
“People just had to walk up to them and check them out,” she said, adding that customers often were so curious, they almost weren’t able to avoid hovering over occupied tables.
“But they did. They found a way to get up to them so they could see them closer. The (restaurant) manager told me she had a lot of positive comments.”
Café co-owner Tim Bowser also is a fan now: “I thought it was just a stunningly beautiful and creative display.”
He, too, saw how customers consistently reacted to Debrasky’s art.
“I had to direct people who thought they were paintings,” he said. “I said, ‘Nope, you’ve got to go up and look at them.’ ”
As a teenager, Debrasky chose the journey that would eventually take her to the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts and other juried shows.
It took her a while to settle on the path.
She was raised in Potter Township in an artistic household. Her mother, Sandi Garris, makes art quilts and textile wall hangings, and also is an Arts Fest exhibitor.
“She did the show circuit,” Debrasky said. “I grew up with her doing shows, the same kind of shows I do now.”
Though she had loved art throughout her childhood, Debrasky found her calling after 10th grade at Penns Valley Area High School. She attended a summer program at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for a week, getting a taste of college and liking it.
“From there on out, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” she said.
During her senior year, an independent art course strengthened her resolve. After graduating in 1997, she returned to the Art Institute, earning a graphic arts degree two years later.
Her first stop afterward was a Pittsburgh advertising agency. Over the next two years, she picked up much about graphic design — and a little insight into herself.
“I also learned it wasn’t exactly what I wanted,” she said. “I thought it would be more creative than it was. So I struggled a little with it.”
She came back to Centre County, determined to pursue her own art. To make ends meet, she did part-time graphics work for Penn State’s Auxiliary and Business Services Marketing office while she contemplated her next step.
“That’s when I started to dig deeper into what medium I wanted to work with to start my own business, because there are a lot of mediums out there,” she said.
“I knew I liked graphic design. That was my design style. I knew I needed color involved but I didn’t know what medium I was going to choose.”
And then she knew.
She toured a Greensburg stained glass factory with a friend. That was it. She didn’t know anything about stained glass, but the colors spoke to her.
Back home, she took stained glass courses, learning how to cut and solder pieces, and to grind their edges for a neater appearance in her geometric mosaics.
She enjoyed her work, starting Karyn Debrasky Design, LLC in 2004 and eventually branching out to metal and glass furniture, but she wasn’t satisfied.
The true path hadn’t appeared.
And then it did.
Glass had appealing textures and colors, but she wanted more. She wanted to bend it. She wanted three-dimensionality. But all that would have required expanding her business, and she didn’t like the medium enough to deepen her commitment.
“I had a texture in my head that I wanted to create, and I felt like the only way I could create it was with paper,” she said.
“So I decided to make one piece of art out of paper with what I was thinking, and it ended up being exactly what I wanted. I decided to quit the stained glass medium right then and there, sell everything and switch my medium.”
In 2006, she became a mixed-media artist.
One glance at her basement studio, and it becomes clear she fits the description. A rich mix of media fills her work area. Fabric and paper scraps lie scattered on the floor and her table, the leftovers from her flights of fancy.
By her chair, a small cabinet of drawers contains beads, rings, pins, wire, thread, buttons, assorted bric-a-brac plucked from antique and thrift stores and other creative options at her disposal. Some might find it cluttered, but not Debrasky. In the bottom of her house, she’s right at home.
“I don’t feel overwhelmed by it all,” she said. “I feel calmed by it all around me. I feel it’s exciting to have all these choices.”
Her graphic design and stained glass backgrounds show in her bold lines, vivid colors, dramatic contrasts and often modular compositions, but she approaches each new piece with an open mind, drawing inspiration as she works.
“I don’t draw anything before I start; I just start,” she said. “I start with either an object or a piece of paper or a texture, and what inspires me to put them together are the colors, the balance I can create, the depth that I get to play with.”
Her goal, Debrasky said, is a holistic piece, no matter how many interesting twists and turns for the viewer.
“I don’t want you to look at it and one thing sticks out in particular,” she said. “I want you to see the overall effect, so balance is really a big thing for me. Playing with the depth, color, balance and everything, to get it all seemingly one piece, that’s my challenge.”
It’s also her pleasure. In a statement for her work, “Lost in a Creative Stupor,” an interpretation of the joy she feels creating art, she wrote, “Influenced by the mediums, fully consumed by the process, rapid ideas flowing, nothing else matters ...”
“I come up with my names afterward,” she said. “Because when I start pieces, half the time I don’t know where I’m going.”
Bill van den Berg appreciates where she ends up.
Van den Berg, a photographer from Howard, met Debrasky at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts last year, left impressed and later recommended her to Berndt for an Elk Creek Café exhibit.
“I like that it’s original ... Each piece is kind of unique, and it’s a lot of work to put it together,” he said. “I like the colors and shapes ... and the three-dimensional aspect. There’s a relief. It’s not just a flat image.”
Layer upon layer, sometimes with a sheen of resin coating for added texture, she builds her designs. With all the subtle details, it’s not a medium for the impatient. Debrasky’s smallest works, 8 by 8 inches, take no less than two hours to finish.
Her larger ones? She never knows.
“I have a perfectionist streak,” she said. “I have to keep going until it’s done. If I can’t look at it, I can’t sell it.”
When she’s done, though, she taps into her other side: the aggressive, Type A personality necessary to market her work, run her business and make a living.
“I feel I have a good balance of both,” she said.
These days, she also has to juggle motherhood. She and her husband, Phil, a metal artist with whom she has collaborated on pieces, have a 2-year-old daughter.
Because their little girl loves strolls, Debrasky now has an excuse to indulge her love for nature photos, some of which she digitally alters and incorporates into her art. But being a parent has given her more than another textural element.
“I don’t have as much time these days,” she said. “I have to work faster. It’s actually freeing. I don’t have to be as much of a perfectionist. It’s opened a lot of doors.”
One has been a turn toward portraits of flowers, done in her intricate style, and seas of blossoms made from paper cones.
“I think the flowers are going to open up a whole new dimension,” she said. “You have so many colors. I can be more playful.”
Like blooming petals, her art is expanding, carrying her down the road toward more treasure hunts and maybe a few surprises of her own.
“I don’t know where it will take me,” she said. “But it works now. I found where I should be.”