Omaha Artist Finds Joy in Sculpture

Omaha Artist Finds Joy in Sculpture
Today’s Omaha Woman (July 2008)
By Wendy Townley

Tears only a mother could shed spring to Debbie Masouka’s eyes as she details her daughter’s overseas school trip this past summer. This was one of the first times Moral, 16, was away from home – and from her parents, Debbie and Mark – for an extended period of time.

“She’s just exploring and seeing things for the first time,” Debbie explains.

While Moral crisscrossed Europe, seeing new sights (which includes visiting famous art museums), Debbie, too, returned to a new experience she has repeated over and over again for the majority of her adult life.

As an artist best known for her oversized rabbit head pieces, Debbie has created and displayed her signature sculptures using primarily clay for several years around the country.

Art is a welcomed guest and permanent fixture in the home Debbie shares with her husband, Mark, and their daughter. Mark works as executive director of the Old Market’s Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. In addition to working on her art, Debbie is coordinator of the center’s Okada Sculpture Facility across the street.

Debbie vividly recalls her first reaction to the world of art and the idea of creation. As a young girl taking an oil painting class, an extracurricular activity suggested by her mother, Debbie, a Detroit native, was asked to paint a landscape.

“She (the teacher) would give us our oil paints and our canvas and we had to paint what we saw,” Debbie recalls. “That’s a pretty hard question for a child; and I remember sort of going through what that meant, trying to interpret something and accepting what I did and accepting my own interpretation. And that was the first time I experienced something that way.”

What began as a brief – yet lasting – lesson for young Debbie has stayed with her throughout her life. Her internal urgings to create continued, but Debbie’s waters of creativity hit flood levels during her first year of college at Wayne State University.

“That’s when I really realized that I had all this creativity, and it just came out,” Debbie says. “I wasn’t even taking an (art) class and I felt this need to spend time drawing things and I needed to know how to do that, for some reason. I was driven by some internal motor.”

Debbie was on track to earn a degree in early childhood development. But while working with young children as part of the curriculum, Debbie focused her classroom time with students on art projects – and nothing else. It was then that a mentor encouraged Debbie to focus her own studies of art.

“I knew what I wanted to do and I knew this is what I loved to do and nothing else mattered at that point,” Debbie recalls.

After changing her program of study and earning a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from Wayne, Debbie pursued a master’s degree in Fine Arts from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

While at Cranbrook, Debbie had the opportunity to study under internally renowned ceramist Jun Kaneko. Debbie also met her future husband at Cranbrook and the two married toward the end of her studies.

Upon graduation Debbie and Mark were accepted into an artist’s residency program in Montana for a year, and then moved to Omaha for a six-month residency program at the Bemis. After their brief stay in Omaha, the couple moved to Las Vegas to open an art gallery during a time Debbie describes as a “real turning point for Vegas, when people were taking a new look at Las Vegas.”

Moral was born while Debbie and Mark were living and working in Las Vegas. Debbie recalls the similarities between Omaha and Las Vegas. Both cities have experienced periods of growth, energy and a renewed interest in the arts.

But the differences were strong enough to cause Debbie and her family to look elsewhere to plant roots.

“If money is an understatement in Omaha, people are overstating it in Vegas,” Debbie says. And as far as raising a child in Las Vegas, Debbie recalls the moment when she decided it couldn’t be an option. Each time Debbie picked up Moral from pre-school, she arrived the same time as another, unmistakable parent who worked as an Elvis Presley impersonator.

Debbie and Mark had maintained their relationship with Kaneko since Cranbrook and moved back to Omaha in 2003 to work at the Bemis. There was concern about the Bemis’ future and its leadership. Because Debbie and Mark participated in its artist-in-residency program, they felt compelled to return to Omaha and put their efforts toward supporting the Bemis.

Today, in between raising her daughter and working with other artists at the Bemis, Debbie spends her days creating her rabbit head sculptures, which are upward of 60 inches tall.

“I love shapes. I love textures, and I love the ability to create new and different ones,” Debbie explains. “Even though it’s the same object, the same shape, I’m able to do such a variety of information on the same shape that I’ve never become bored with it.”

Debbie finds her rabbits to have an iconic reference and a monumental, stoic feel, acting as a guardian and headed in a particular, yet unknown, direction.

Debbie hasn’t stopped with rabbits, however. She recently tweaked the rabbit design to create horse heads, the likes of which rest solidly on their snouts.

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