Freedom to Make a Difference

Realist painter Deborah Martin turns to ethereal abstraction to express the emotional experience of autistic children and the people closest to them

December 1, 2015


Deborah Martin’s azure eyes move about her sparsely furnished living room as she talks about giving up a comfortable life as a gallery director in downtown Los Angeles in favor of the stark beauty of Sky Valley. The artist landed here after searching for a place to rekindle her creative spirit.

Dressed in faded jeans tucked into scuffed cowboy boots and a plaid shirt knotted over a white tank, Martin is grounded and devoid of pretension. She wears no makeup and her skin radiates the dewy luster of someone half her age. Blond locks escape beneath a black cowboy hat worn with all the ease of a rebel nature.

“When I left L.A., I left everything behind to come to the desert and lower my overhead so I could paint full time,” she says.

When she’s broaching the topic of her latest project, a series of paintings following the lives of children with autism and their relationships with their immediate families, Martin’s hummingbird energy funnels into the fierce vigilance of a mama bear: Creating a platform for autism awareness through visual art has become her current passion.

“I want to create work that has the potential to affect real change,” she says. “This project inspires me. I want to do this; I need to do this.”

Known as an American realist, Martin says she embraced the term when she began painting again after a 20-year lull, but with this series, she’s ready to break free of definitions and draw outside the lines.

Only a few weeks into the project, Martin has already sketched the first portrait of an 8-year-old boy named Finn, who lives in a complex inner world and is unable to speak but is keenly aware of his sister, Annabel. “Annabel’s special bond, acceptance, and innate need to protect her brother provides support not only for Finn, but for the entire family,” Martin says. Based on a photograph she acquired from Finn’s mother showing the children playing in a lake, the oil-on-canvas painting blends Martin’s signature exactness with an ethereal quality rooted in emotion rather than realism.

In the portrait, titled Potential, Finn sits in the shallow water, responsive to the swirling tide yet disconnected from his surroundings. Several feet away, his 10-year-old sibling swims confidently into the deep.

Martin’s intuitive understanding of autism stems from years of working with special-needs children during college and an enduring relationship with a close friend who struggles with this complex spectrum disorder.

The families committed to the project span the country. Through social media, Martin keeps track of each child and his or her support system. “When an image or a story speaks to me, I begin to envision how to represent that family’s experience.”

Although she hasn’t drawn the human form much since studying art in college and her early abstract work was executed on paper rather than canvas, Martin believes this fresh direction marries all facets of her artistry.

“I’m merging all of the experiences I have had in my life into one intention that will hopefully make a difference in the lives of others.”

Visit to view Deborah Martin's work, which is also on display at Melissa Morgan Fine Art in Palm Desert.