IN HER SHOES trailblazer – Debbie Westergaard Tuepah, 54
It was the mid 90’s Debbie Westergaard Tuepah was golden and on an upward trajectory. Rising through the corporate banking ranks, she was targeted to go where few women had been. Then her sister-in-law lost her fight with breast cancer.
For many of us this creates a fork in the road, a significant life event that shakes us to our core. It brings us face to face with life’s big questions. The answers can cause a shift in life as we know it.
Debbie shifted. The decision – she would begin moving towards what fed her soul – art and creating.
It was a long journey home.
The path was filled with twists, turns and knots from the beginning. It would take two tries to be accepted at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, Canada. Then it was a matter of making it all work and life has a way of complicating things. At the beginning Debbie was raising 2 children, working full time, and dealing with the logistics of her husband taking on a contract out of town, and then when her father-in-law became ill providing support for both in-laws by inviting them to move in.
It took eleven years to complete her education. The first eight years were painfully slow, Debbie could only manage one course a semester. Finally in 2011 she graduated. It was the same year her youngest son Trevor graduated high school.
Luckily immediate gratification wasn’t something Debbie needed. Instead she seemed to thrive on building tenacity and saw it as important role modelling for her son and daughter, “I wanted my kids to see that life isn’t always easy and if you want something enough you will do whatever it takes to get there.” A laugh escapes when she remembers those early days, “the message for women in the 80’s and 90’s was you can do it all and have it all…and I say yes you can…..but not all at the same time!”
Debbie looks at life as a book with many chapters and while this chapter may have taken a long time to write, her work as an artist, curator and arts advocate is rich and meaningful and feeds her soul.
Cheryl: High fives Debbie! You must have felt like you were on a hamster wheel at times. How would you describe the journey?
DEBBIE: It was fantastic. I had to work really hard, there were highs and lows but I learned a lot. One big lesson was understanding the hamster wheel. It isn’t a bad thing if you are brave enough to jump on, if you try really hard to control your pace, and if you’re brave enough to jump off. I also practiced the art of ‘going for it’.
We all have these great ideas that are just hovering a tiny distance away from our grasp and then when they are ‘magically’ reachable, we panic and let self-doubt stop us. Heaven forbid we’re embarrassed, right? What this journey taught me was to ignore self-doubt and embarrassment and just do it, which translates to life in general. Like any post-secondary experience it also taught me to be really open to different ways of thinking or being and in that context it taught me how to deal with the haters. At an art and design university you are critiqued on the work that you do, that’s part of the learning process.
Your classmates and instructors circle round and tell you what is or is not effective in the artwork that you’ve created. It can be pretty harsh to hear but you learn pretty quickly that there is a difference between a person who offers a positive and helpful critique in comparison to someone who just gives negative criticism. As a result I try really hard to ignore the haters, focus on being positive and not spit out negative criticism in my daily life. I am most definitely not perfect at this but I am purposeful in my attempt to be a help rather than a hinderance. And I guess that’s the final part of the journey, the confirmation that there is no such thing as perfection.
Cheryl: You relentlessly pursued your dream. It wasn’t easy. Many of us couldn’t have gone the distance. How did you keep going?
DEBBIE: I know its a cliche but you need to be happy, and if you are then it’s easier to put on your superwoman suit in order to juggle a lot of balls. That being said, I’m not sure I would want to do the same thing now. I think maybe juggling one large beach ball might be sort of fun. My family would disagree with this statement and say that my beach ball has a way of multiplying. And quite frankly, my husband and kids do know me best. Without them and my extended family and friends supporting me there is absolutely no way I would have been able to keep forging ahead and still be happy.
Cheryl: What was it like going to school as a ‘mid-lifer’?
DEBBIE: I love the title of mid-lifer and my plan is to be a mid-lifer until the very end. To me it implies that we keep on living life, no matter what our age, what we look like, or what our physical capabilities are. To me this insane later in life attempt to be young is not really what ‘living’ life is. I say embrace where you’re at, maximize everything about all aspects of your health and go for it. When was in school I didn’t really think about age as an issue, so it wasn’t. That being said some of the younger students would take a little bit to warm up to the mid-lifers, but they soon realized that intelligence, compassion, fun, and creativity exists at all ages. What I found exhilarating in working with younger students was what we often consider to be attributes of youth —- their amazing sense of idealism, optimism, invincibility, and quite often, fearlessness — things to behold! It gave me a different connection to my own kids and their friends. I was lucky enough to have a behind the scenes peek at their generation and hopefully I was a role model of lifelong learning. On the flip side of that coin the mid-lifers also brought some different things to the table. I was in school with people who were up to 70 years old and most of them came from amazing backgrounds and careers; a developer of artificial intelligence, newspaper editor, a homemaker who lived all over the world, mathematician, pharmacist, cardiac surgeon and inventor, professor of psychology, singer, well the list goes on.
So, I guess my answer is that I loved being in school as a mid-lifer — lifelong learning should be as important to all of us as exercise, eating healthy, or sleeping — to me it is one of the fundamentals of good health. I think I need to work a bit harder on the exercise and sleep thing though.
Cheryl: Did you ever think I can’t do this? You had fear but learned to use it as an asset. Describe that.
DEBBIE: I think I’ve always lived in a state of nervousness, a level slightly below full-on fear. It started when I was a little kid, mostly because I wanted to keep up to my best-buddy older brother. I just went for it and made that nervousness work for me instead of against me. Maybe nervousness or fear is what makes us human. The adrenaline that comes with a sense of discomfort is a great motivator — it pushes us to look for better ways of doing things. Metaphorically I’m still trying to keep up with my brother, only in the back-to-school scenario I was more vulnerable because I was releasing creative ideas to the world and I knew I was going right back to being a full-on rookie in a new endeavour, but “whatever”.
Cheryl: What most excites you about your work today?
DEBBIE: I think it is the creative process. I like mucking about. I also like that I’m always learning and my work is still moving forward. I have way too many ideas for artworks that I want to complete, so that’s exciting. It would be real drag if my brain went dry creatively.
Cheryl: You describe life as a book. What is the title and one sentence summary of this chapter?
DEBBIE: Crazy busy, crazy creative, and just plain crazy.
Having a bit of crazy in your life is good thing. Making work in a free and often aggressive way, embracing life with extreme enthusiasm, and working hard, perhaps even too hard, must mean I’m living.
Cheryl: Means you are fully ALIVE! Your work is extraordinary….as I look at piece after piece I’m saying…”Oh WOW”…where does your inspiration come from? What is the message you hope your work conveys?
DEBBIE: I’m influenced by the barrage of information that we receive every day, from the internet, television, radio, print. My work is very material and luscious, which attracts people to it. Once they are engaged with the work I hope they then move to thinking about what the work is trying to say. I suppose I attract with beauty to address the horrific.
That being said, one thing I believe is that once a piece of art is done and is in the public realm its not mine anymore, I’ve basically released it to the interpretation of anyone who experiences it.
Cheryl: You worked so hard to get here…you’ve been a working artist now for 4 years….what are your hopes and dreams going forward?
DEBBIE: To keep doing what I’m doing.