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Carving Memories

Debra Riffe’s art brings new life to old stories

Debra Riffe asks me to sit down to watch a short video. The film, made in 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Birmingham Civil Rights Campaign, shows over 30 of Riffe’s linoleum block prints depicting Civil Rights activists and foot soldiers. These black and white images of cooks, maids and other extraordinary everyday people of the movement are set to music with a chorus repeating “dedicated to service, never nervous ‘bout holding the line.”

An afternoon spent in Riffe’s home studio is about much more than learning the technique of linoleum block printing—it’s about listening, learning, teaching. 

In 2018, Riffe decided to pursue her art full time after a long career in graphic design—including 20 years at Birmingham City Hall, where her office happened to be the exact office once occupied by Eugene “Bull” Connor. 

Always an artist, Riffe received her BFA in Illustration from Howard University College of Fine Arts, Washington D.C. 

“In school, I’d always take a sketchbook with me wherever I went and a camera—35mm. Fast-forward, and I got married and had kids. I enjoyed going to soccer games, but I always felt like I needed to be doing something, so I started doing small needlepoints.”

Using images from those sketchbooks—drawings mostly of Southerners and African Americans—Riffe designed her own needlepoint canvases. “I was just doing it to amuse myself. I’ve never wanted to sell them. I decided after my first art show that these are my legacy and I want to keep them,” Riffe muses.

Later, with her kids in high school, Riffe became interested in the art festival circuit. In order to create enough art to sell at a festival, she turned to a new medium—linoleum block prints. Using those same drawings she’d used to create needlepoints, she created block prints. “pickin fried green tomatoes” was the first tapestry she converted to linoleum block. 

The Bluff Park Art Show was Riffe’s first as an exhibitor. “Everything I had was black and white; the rest of the artists were using color,” Riffe recounts. “I didn’t sell anything until the very last day.” She still remembers that first patron, who encouraged her to keep coming back to the show. 

Inspired by Memories, Inspired by History

Outside of Civil Rights history, Riffe’s art is inspired by both her own childhood memories and those she elicits from her audience. “A lot of my ideas now come from asking ‘what did you see when you walked into your grandmother’s house when you were 10 years old?’ I take the time to listen. For those of us fortunate enough to share time with grandparents there is always the one memory. Everyone has a story to tell, they just need someone to listen.”

She shows us photos of her great-grandfather and recounts the story of being a rambunctious, curious young child in D.C. whose mother sent her to live with her grandparents in Tupelo, Mississippi, where she finished high school. She learned to drive in her great grandfather’s truck—“as he was losing his ability to drive, I just needed a licensed driver in the car with me!” she quips. 

“Now I want everything I do to be part of a narrative. I feel it is my duty to share the story of Civil Rights history. Art is supposed to stimulate you and make you ask questions,” Riffe states. After viewing the works in progress and themes behind her current body of work, we are excited for the conversations they will surely provoke.

Upcoming

Riffe will be a featured artist at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in September, where her older works will be showcased. Additionally, her 24-panel narrative work within the current “Lightplay” exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art will travel to the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University.

Riffe’s work continues to be displayed at Canary Gallery, where longtime friend and gallerist, Libby Pantazis bubbles with enthusiasm when discussing the artist’s latest creations. 

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