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Sewickley artist sees the big picture with colorful murals

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 9:03 p.m.
Sewickley Herald
Kathy Birmingham of Mt. Washington, at left, and Deb McLaren of Sewickley pose near a mural painted by McLaren inside Birmingham's home Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. McLaren's murals are painted in various places all over Birmingham's home. Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Sewickley Herald
One of many murals painted by Sewickley artist Deb McLaren inside Kathy Birmingham's Mt. Washington home. Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Sewickley Herald
One of many murals painted by Sewickley artist Deb McLaren inside Kathy Birmingham's Mt. Washington home. Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald

Deb McLaren's art has taken wing, a seat and a trip, as well as turned old into new and helped to heal, teach, entertain and beautify.

McLaren, 58, of Sewickley said she has been creating art practically her entire life.

One of her most recent and ongoing projects is for Kathleen Birmingham of Pittsburgh's Mt. Washington neighborhood, who said there's hardly anywhere in her home that hasn't been touched by her friend's artistic hands, including ceilings, window frames, bathroom air conditioning vents and moldings.

Throughout the home, McLaren, who started painting murals about five years ago, has painted birds, blue skies, a rainbow, butterflies, a meadow, country accents and a rendition of the outside of Chatham Village, where Birmingham lives.

Birmingham said she loves the red brick accents, French twist and several personnel touches painted into the murals, such as her cats.

“Everything is so fabulous. It has a life of its own,” she said. “Every month or so, I have another job for her.”

McLaren also created a mural in the stairwell of a Cranberry Township dental practice featuring circus scenes, and two for her mother, Gwen Bechtol, in her Kennedy Township home, including a stone archway with steps on a steel door that her mother said looks as if it leads to a wine cellar. Another features a waterfall in Birmingham's neighbor's basement.

But, murals are just one aspect of McLaren's art. When she got tired of painting on flat surfaces, she decided to try something different and began recycling old musical instruments into works of art. It started with guitars, she said, and snowballed from there.

She has painted hundreds of instruments that she purchases from flea markets or used instrument stores. She also recycles old furniture into art pieces. Some of her creations are on display at Bottlebrush Gallery in Harmony.

They also have been displayed and sold at Vita Hair for Life, 421 Walnut St., Sewickley. Sometimes, salon clients leave instruments or furniture there for McLaren to paint.

One piece was an old rocking chair the owner had rocked her child in 30 years ago. After it was painted with animals, elves and a sky, it became a family heirloom, McLaren said.

On the bottom, she painted the phrase, “Life isn't about the breathes you take, but the moments that take your breath away.”

McLaren's personal volunteer outreach involves producing pencil drawings for parents who have lost children at birth at Heritage Valley Sewickley hospital.

She said she creates portraits of the children from photographs so that parents can show their families and friends.

“It helps them in their healing. The first one I did was of a set of twins. I just cried and cried,” she said.

One couple who lost their child called McLaren years later after having a daughter to have her create another portrait.

McLaren, who grew up in Moon Township, is a graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and studied at the Woodstock School of Art in New York and Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Connecticut. Her work is in private collections and has been shown in galleries locally and throughout the United States.

Her art also has been displayed in Costa Rica.

In 2003, she was chosen as an artist in residence as part of an internationally selected group of five multidisciplinary artists at the Julie and David White Artist Colony in Ciudad Colon.

McLaren and the other artists were housed in small bungalows for four weeks when she said she created some of her best art because she was able to focus so intensely.

“I could do whatever I wanted. At the end of the month, we all got together and showed what we had done,” she said.

McLaren has illustrated several books, including the children's story, “It's Always a Good Day for Crabbing,” by Karin Burgess. She said before starting the project, she went crabbing with Burgess and her children and took photographs which she later worked with for the illustrations.

She now teaches painting classes at Michaels arts and craft store in Monaca and art classes and summer camp programs at Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley.

“I'm just really eclectic,” she said of her art.

“I just always have to keep doing different things.”

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or jbarron@tribweb.com.

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