Debbie Underwood returns
to Montreal for solo exhibit
Painter speaks of her life as an artist and what inspires her evocative paintings
By Irwin Rapoport
October 17, 2023
I first encountered Debbie (Dee) Underwood‘s art on Facebook a couple of weeks ago – it was a wonderful painting of Ben’s Delicatessen at night. The colourful and dreamy image perfectly captured the atmosphere of Ben’s, which was located at the corner of de Maisonneuve Boulevard and Stanley Street and torn down to construct an office tower.
The painting accurately portrays the exterior of the building and gives us a glimpse inside via the windows. Ben’s was an iconic landmark in downtown Montreal, and its interior included the Poets’ Corner, where literary luminaries such as Louis Dudek and Leonard Cohen met. No doubt many readers have memories of Ben’s as diners and passers-by, with a few who met Cohen and the other poets who regularly gathered at the famous deli.
Debbie, a born and bred Montrealer who grew up in Rosemount, resides in St. Thomas, Ontario. Although she no longer lives in our fair city, she is most definitely a Montrealer at heart, and many of her paintings bring to life several legendary spots, such as the St. Viateur Bagel Factory, Ben’s and Park Extension scenes.
And from October 19 to 22, the public is invited to Debbie’s first solo exhibition, Coming Home, at the Casa d’Italia.
“This is a dream come true for me,” said Debbie. “I started painting my Montreal Series at the beginning of COVID while living in Alberta. Once I was halfway through my series, it was apparent to me to embark on showcasing my collection of 16 paintings of our beloved city. I held off on selling the originals to the public, allowing them to be displayed in Montreal, their home, and my home. I look forward to meeting you all at this special event!”
“With an unparalleled ability to capture the essence of her subjects, Dee brings her unique vision to life on canvas,” states her biography. “Born and raised in Montreal with a deep appreciation for the beauty found in everyday life, Dee finds inspiration in the bustling energy of urban environments, the tranquillity of nature, and the captivating allure of animals. Having lived in six provinces across Canada, her inspiration and artworks beautifully merge realism and impressionism, creating a captivating visual experience that resonates with viewers.
“Using acrylic as her preferred medium, Dee expertly manipulates bold colours and textures to create vibrant and dynamic compositions,” it added. “Her brushstrokes are expressive and confident, enhancing the sense of movement and atmosphere in her works. Whether it’s the interplay of light and shadows on a city street, the intricate details of wildlife, or the serenity of a landscape, each piece conveys a profound sense of emotion and narrative.”
While pursuing her artistic projects, Debbie’s reputation is such that she is often contacted by individuals to paint commissions, working closely with clients to bring their ideas and visions to life.
“I understand the importance of capturing the essence and personality of the subject, infusing each commission with my distinctive style and artistic flair,” said Debbie.
Her artwork has garnered recognition and praise from both art enthusiasts and collectors alike and has been featured in numerous exhibitions across Canada, captivating audiences with her ability to evoke emotions and transport viewers to different worlds.
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In the following Q&A, Debbie talks about her life as an artist and what inspires her.
WM: When did you know you had a passion for painting, and how would you describe your progress as an artist? Who were the teachers that helped guide you to hone your skills?
Underwood: I realized my passion for drawing and painting at a very young age. I first enjoyed sketching cartoons and then on to nature scenes and cityscapes. I have fond memories of my father waking up at 3 am, finding me sketching at the kitchen table and telling me to get to bed! I had many teachers throughout my training years, from grade school to college. Their encouragement was so important to me, helping me hone my skills.
WM: Who are some of the artists that have inspired you, and which artistic movements influence you?
Underwood: Alice Neel, Georgia O’Keefe, Van Gogh, The Group of Seven, and Montreal artist Richard Savoy are among those I look to for inspiration. When I look at their art, I observe the brushstrokes, value, hues, and especially the lighting their paintings portray. I believe that one of the most important aspects of art is its connection with people. With my Montreal paintings, this was very apparent… Montrealers love their city and have a deep connection to it.
WM: Every artist has their painting process. How would you describe yours?
Underwood: I always premix my acrylic paints. This way, while I am painting, I can stay in the flow of creating while not being distracted by having to mix paints. I also like to clear my space by smudging myself and my workspace. This sacred process brings me great clarity and a sense of relaxation. My preferred brands of paints are Golden and Liquitex acrylics.
WM: How long does it take for you to complete a typical painting? Do you use photos and make any drawings in the planning stage?
Underwood: It all depends on the size and subject of the painting. My smaller paintings can take up to 60 hours to complete. There are usually a lot of details to them, and this, of course, takes time. I never rush a painting – it’s a labour of love. I usually take photos of what I want to paint, study them, then draw them onto my canvas. If I am looking for something in particular, a photo reference for example, I will ask the photographer for permission to use it.
Once I finish a Montreal painting, I post it on several Montreal historical Facebook pages (Montreal Then and Now, Montreal Past and Present, Park Extension Memories, Montreal Memories), sit back, and enjoy the feedback from many people. Because of this, I have a wonderful following and people looking to buy my prints and request commissions from all over North America. For me, it’s all about connecting with people and sharing their fond memories of Montreal.
WM: What are some of the influences that guide your subjects?
Underwood: I am influenced and inspired by nature around me. I find myself constantly looking at shapes, colours, and hues. A lot of my inspiration also comes from studying other artists’ styles and movements. My love for Montreal comes through my paintings of my beloved city. As a child, I was always interested in the architectural styles of Montreal. The beautiful churches, old Montreal’s Art Deco and Victorian structures, spiral stairs unique to Montreal, and the list goes on! Painting Montreal scenes always takes me back to my childhood living in the bustling inner city.
WM: This is your first solo exhibit and, fittingly, held in your hometown. How does it make you feel?
Underwood: Showing my paintings of Montreal is a gift not just for me, but for all Montrealers. They evoke wonderful memories and spark up interesting stories. Completing a painting inspires me to do another. For me, the challenge with art is to creatively bring together reality, imagination, medium, and technique to produce something that will make the audience feel like they are part of that story.
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I am keen to meet Dee in person and enjoy her evocative paintings of Montreal that mean so much to me and, without a doubt, you, the reader.
Debbie Underwood, Coming Home at Casa Italia, 505 Jean-Talon E, from October 19 to 22.
Vernissage: Saturday, October 21, between 2 and 5 pm
The gallery is open daily from noon to 5 pm
Irwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist with Bachelor’s degrees in History and Political Science from Concordia University.