By Jan Mercker
A touch of whimsy, a splash of kitsch and plenty of heart and soul. Leesburg-based artist Deborah Morbeto has brought color, verve, and an eclectic style to the Loudoun arts scene for more than 20 years.
A selection of Morbeto’s lighter fare, full of charming images and fun text, is on display at the Visit Loudoun visitors center in downtown Leesburg through the end of February.
As the Visit Loudoun show went up, Morbeto was remembering her friend and mentor, the late Loudoun arts maven Gale Waldron, who died in 2018.
“I didn’t really realize how much of an impact [Gale] had until much later. … She had been such a huge part of creating an art world in Loudoun. When she gave me the encouragement she did, it helped me more than I realized.”
Morbeto is part of a group of Leesburg artists working through the Friends of Leesburg Public Arts to cement the town’s growing reputation as an arts destination with hopes of recreating an “ArtSquare 2.0” modeled after Waldron’s beloved gallery, studio and teaching space.
Morbeto grew up near Boston and credits her mother and her first art teacher for inspiring her artistic path. She was motivated by a private teacher who recognized her talent and had her painting in oils at age 11. Morbeto attended the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. Even then her interests were eclectic from film photography to ceramics to glass blowing and art history. And her passion for the Modern Art period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries shines through in her work. Art school was also where she established her ongoing commitment to making art every single day.
“I am body and soul dedicated to this practice on a daily basis,” Morbeto said.
Morbeto’s work has shifted and matured over the years. She says she’s always thought of herself as a painter but in recent years has experimented with collage and mixed media, as showcased in the small-scale pieces at the Visit Loudoun show.
Morbeto moved to Loudoun in the ’90s and worked in marketing and graphic design. She and her husband built their home in Leesburg in 1999. Morbeto shifted gears when her son, now in his 20s, was born, leaving her day job to focus on parenting and building a career as a working artist.
In her early days in Leesburg, Morbeto found Waldron’s Gallery 222/Loudoun Academy of the Arts on King Street, which later became ArtSquare. Morbeto applied for and scored a studio space on King Street and moved with the organization to a larger studio space on Cardinal Park Drive. The 2000s were a high-energy period of teaching, working hard, spending time with fellow artists and showcasing her work. But ArtSquare shut its doors in 2014 when funding dried up.
Since then, Morbeto’s art has become part of her healing and growth process as she grappled with her mother’s death before the pandemic and a new phase of her life with her husband as empty nesters. She said her daily practice hasn’t changed during the pandemic, but she has used it as an impetus to push herself to explore new media and styles.
“What changed during the pandemic was that I specifically challenged myself to learn to work with watercolors and to work with portraiture–two of my weak points.”
Her focus on portraiture inspired a new series of colorful figurative pieces with abstract elements.
“Out of that grew this incredible body of work that I didn’t expect. Like most art, it just happened. I didn’t push it or force it. … It’s turned into this whimsical series of characters.”
Morbeto said she and her husband considered leaving Leesburg when their son left home. But she reflected on her network of friends and fellow artists and decided to stay and build on her artistic foundation.
“This is our forever home and I want to capitalize on the fact that I’ve lived here and have a lot of really incredible contacts and great friends and really be a part of what makes us an art destination in the future,” she said.
Morbeto remains involved with Friends of Leesburg Public Arts, which helped make the connection for the Visit Loudoun show, in its push to move Leesburg forward as an arts destination.
“We’ve become an arts destination. … With that, we really need something like ArtSquare,” she said. “The town is ready to try again.”
To check out Deborah Morbeto’s work, go to thedebweb.com or follow her on Instagram at @deborahmorbetofineart.
The Visit Loudoun visitor center is closed through the end of January with plans to reopen in early February. For details, go to visitloudoun.org
For more information on Friends of Leesburg Public Arts, go to leesburgpublicarts.org.