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Debra Dolores Designs dreams big

Debra Sutherland creates unique fashion designs based on her own artwork
Solon area artist Debra Sutherland sits in front of on her newest works. Her latest collection is inspired by the cosmos. (photo by Jen Moore)

SOLON– When you first meet designer and artist Debra Sutherland, she simply oozes optimism.
She will excitedly show you her latest fabric designs, gush about her newest garment creations, and wax poetic about where her inspiration comes from. When you ask her about what she’s going to do next, the answer is clear.
And the thing is, you will instantly believe her.
She exudes confidence as she talks about her prints becoming everything from dresses, to wall hangings, to dinnerware.
Sutherland, a resident of rural Solon, creates one of a kind, wearable works of art, as well as home décor, under the business name Debra Dolores Designs.
Sutherland began her artistic career early in life. Born into a family of artists and jewelers in Denver, Colorado, she won her first competition at the age of 17. After high school, she moved to California and attended Santa Monica College, where she studied drawing, painting, and design.
Upon graduation, Sutherland gained experience in almost every facet of the art community. Among her experience, she worked in a gallery, represented artists, and dabbled in interior design.
“I was always in the artist studios, always looking at artists’ work and loving them, but with money and living in California you have to make a living and I saw many artists that weren’t making a living,” Sutherland said.
But she never shook the feeling that she was meant to create, that she had something special to offer the world.
So, she started painting again, immersing herself in all aspects of the creative process and learning new skills along the way. She taught classical painting at Mission: Renaissance in California and also learned the art of abstract painting.
But, in 2007, things changed drastically for the artist when she and her then boyfriend, now husband, moved to Eastern Iowa for career opportunities.
“I was like ‘oh, do I have to paint corn and flowers and weeds?’” she said. “I didn’t think I could paint that.”
So used to seeing the colors and scenery of sunny California or mountainous Colorado– both of which, according to her, hold the title for “Most Beautiful Place on Earth.” Sutherland struggled at first with drawing inspiration from the fields of Iowa. But, soon she realized that all she had to do was look out of her studio window to find her inspiration.
Sutherland’s home can easily be described as secluded. Sure, she has a few neighbors on either side of her, but for the most part, it’s nothing but nature. The route from Solon is a series of lonesome country roads, peppered with the occasional house and farm. The scenery is quiet and serene.
Essentially, it’s the exact opposite of Sutherland’s designs.
But that doesn’t mean she didn’t connect with what she saw around her.
“It was painful at first because this was what was in my heart, to paint bold, creative works,” she said. “But, I’m inspired by nature and it’s inspiring just to live here. What comes out of my hands to the canvas, though, is not what I see. But, it’s a great way to be inspired.”
As Sutherland continued to work on her art, she began experimenting with digital technology, Adobe Photoshop in particular. To transfer her designs from canvas to objects, Sutherland takes photos of her paintings in their various stages and then plays with the images on her computer, adjusting and altering them until they become works of art in their own right. She then uses the images to order her fabric in small swatches to see the final result. For Sutherland, the waiting and anticipation is one of the hardest parts.
“When it comes in, I scream with joy because it’s always much prettier than what I thought it was going to be,” Sutherland said. “I love my designs online, but when you see it in person you’re able to see more of the finished product.”
In November 2013, Sutherland took her designs to a new level when she entered a University of Iowa sponsored contest where designers had to create a garment based on the Jackson Pollock painting “Mural.” Sutherland’s design was a bold and colorful dress with a seemingly simple, straight skirt and halter-top. Layered over the dress was a dramatic and voluminous paper skirt that opened up in the front and came just past the model’s knees.
“Needless to say, it won the competition,” Sutherland said.
Since winning, numerous doors have opened up for the fashion designer. She’s commissioned several custom dresses already and has a line of infinity scarves on display, along with her artwork, at Chait Galleries in downtown Iowa City. Her winning dress was displayed there as well.
Sutherland says everything she does comes from simple lines, though there’s nothing simple about her clothing. Her patterns and designs have a high fashion feel to them, but still remain approachable to the average woman. When Sutherland first brought her designs to Iowa, she wasn’t sure how they would be received.
“I didn’t know if Iowa would love my stuff because it’s pretty bold. There’s nothing neutral about it,” Sutherland said. “But any size woman would look pretty cool in it if you have a strong personality.”
What sets her work apart, besides the unique designs, is the organic and flowy feel each of the garments possess. They are loose without being frumpy, unstructured while still looking graceful.
Each piece is made from approximately a yard of fabric, so she uses the technique of draping to see how the fabric naturally conforms to a woman’s body. Sutherland tries to use as much of it as possible so that the artwork doesn’t get distorted. This method also gives her pieces versatility, as many can be transformed from a dress to a skirt with just a simple tie.
Sutherland’s next step in her artistic journey is creating a collection of clothing for an upcoming trunk show in Orlando, Florida.
Randy Wolgast is one of her partners in this endeavor, and has known Sutherland for approximately nine years.
“I think [her designs] are fresh and sassy; there’s this attitude about them that I like,” Wolgast said. “She’s not shy with her use of color or patterns. She’s just a great friend and artist.”
He hopes this show will propel Sutherland into the fashion community and feels that her work gels perfectly with the tropical atmosphere of Florida. The duo hopes to have the show ready this fall or next spring.
Beyond that, the possibilities are endless for the designer. Her business inspiration comes from Mary Englebreit, a graphic artist and illustrator whose designs in the 1980s and 1990s could be found on everything from magnets to dinnerware. This kind of signature collection is what Sutherland would love for her work, and she feels her background in art and interior design gives her a leg up on the competition.
“I could see someone really having fun with my products,” Sutherland said. “Do I look at what’s out there? Yes, but it’s all safe. Everything I have is fun and playful and joyful. It’s just creative and different.”
Sutherland’s work can be purchased from her online Etsy shop, Debra Dolores Designs and is also available for custom orders.