Art Saved My Life

What I know for sure is that every soul on this earth needs an escape, an outlet, a safe harbor in which to lose themselves and, ideally, to find themselves again.

I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1959. As a child, I moved frequently and every time I made a friend, we would move again, though I carried something constant to each new place. Art. With my father’s encouragement, I explored my creativity at an early age. Art entertained and amused me; it provided a space for me to be creative and productive by myself. I can say with absolute certainty that I am my most “authentic self” when my hands — and mind — are infused in some sort of art form.

In high school, my art teacher was pivotal to my creative exploration and self-esteem building. In her class I created — my pride and joy, a piece called “The Lady” — my very first stained-glass piece. I felt my personality came alive and was personified in this work of art. The red glass had bits of real gold in it, and it shone so brightly. It was bold, and so was I.

“The Lady”

Shortly following college graduation, wherein I minored in art, I got married in 1983. It was a whirlwind relationship with many ups and downs — it would be disingenuous for me not to say the downsfar exceeded the ups. My husband was a successful commodities trader, and there was a great deal of charm in the beginning, but my starry eyes soon became clouded over with fear. I came to observe what initially appeared to be a “short fuse.” I figured my husband simply had a very demanding job that necessitated expert knowledge and focus. So, I convinced myself that I just needed to give him space when he came home from “a really bad day at the office.”

I had three children with this man, and they were the brightest lights of my life. They were beautiful, funny, and distinguished with their own little personalities. My youngest, Tanner, was so much like me. He was witty, ornery, animated, and loved working with his hands. Tanner loved the water, great music, and observing the sights and people around him. He was an old soul, quite cultured — yes, I speak of him in the past tense, and that is no mistake.

As the kids grew older, the pressures of work and raising a family appeared to chip away at my husband’s psyche. At first, he turned to alcohol to help relax him, but the “relaxation aide” soon turned into a more serious problem. Something changed within him — something very alien and very alarming. My marriage soon became riddled with verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. I was a target, and so were my kids. I felt the urge to escape, but as a woman of sound logic, I tried to be patient. So very patient. I knew my husband and I knew we loved each other. I waited for him to change — for the dark skies to fade just a little. I felt isolated, disheartened, and alone. Yes, I had caring family and friends, but I felt like this was my dirty little secret. What could I tell them? What could they honestly do? This was my life, after all. I felt like the walls were slowly closing in on me.

Naturally, I found solace in my passion. I am a stubborn, resolved woman, and I made up my mind that I would not lose myself in this firestorm. I threw myself into my stained glass and delved into mosaics. It created a momentary — but powerful — diversion from my emotional turmoil and ever-present stress that the abuse would continue to escalate. In moments of silence, I worked. My hands and work space were often dirty, but it felt like beautiful chaos to me — a private world that I could sink into and feel safe. Embraced. Just as when I was a child, I felt the restlessness and anxiety over an unknown future slip away for a moment and be replaced with serenity. With my art, I was in control. Of me, of my space, of my choices. I needed that balance when so much was out of balance outside the studio walls.

After much soul searching, I drew up the courage to file for divorce. I feared for my children’s future, as well as my own, if we stayed. The abuse had not waned; it had turned from erratic and covert to habitual and with lasting trauma. When my love for what I thought I had had gradually chipped away, my survival instinct finally kicked in. I fled. I fled the life I had built and invested in for 15 years. It was soul crushing, but it made me stronger, and my creative outlet was my light in the darkness. It was like a silent voice urging me to take a deep breath, see things as they truly were — not as I imagined they would be, and fight…for my and my children’s welfare.

After a very messy, emotionally taxing divorce, I reframed and took a bold leap into a new territory: I started my own bead jewelry business. Entrepreneurism was a whole new ballgame, but I met some amazing people and sold some pieces in Racine, Wisconsin’s upscale Lemon Street Gallery, as well as private entities, churches, and schools.

Years later, I stepped up my enterprising game and, with my youngest son Tanner, turned over a new leaf: Landis Bracelets was born in 2014.

The bracelets are made from sterling silver, exquisite Spanish leather, and premium European cork. Every one of my bracelets stems from a line named after each of my three children, each truly unique and distinctive.

Having Tanner at the helm with me was incredibly enriching. We had always been close, and he had grown into such a wonderful young man. He had good business sense and was a formidable, creative force that guided me with our endeavors. Tanner had my impish, slightly ornery sense of humor, and we had joked that our respective “inner child” would have to take a backseat to our absolute professionalism. We took our creations very seriously. Landis Bracelets were in high demand. I felt like we had together gained a new lease on life. Everything was falling into place. At last.

Yet, later that year, my life came to a screeching halt. Tanner had struggled with depression for quite some time and had turned to prescription drugs for an escape…from a horrifically abusive childhood. Yes, we had escaped a toxic home environment, but we carried those demons with us.

On October 10, 2014, my world as I knew it shattered. I found my son unconscious — a nearby pill bottle confirming my worst fear. My mother’s instinct took over and I began giving him mouth-to-mouth. Praying to God with all my might, in between shuddering breaths, I willed Tanner to wake up. I begged him to open his beautiful blue eyes, to fight back, to come back to me…but he was gone. My life as a mother — and that tow-headed, thoughtful, creative little boy — flashed before my eyes. He would have been 26 years old four days later.

There have been oceans of tears and days of complete numbness. I do not know how, but I survived the death of my son. This month marks four years. For some reason, this past year has been the hardest for me. With everything clogged in my head, I sat down one blisteringly hot August evening and purged.

When the charcoal stick hit the blank canvas, I had no idea what was to emerge. I just let it all wash over me like a violent tidal wave. Moments later, I looked down to see the most grotesque, but also organic and beautifully raw, work of art I have ever created. I entitled it “The Face of Addiction: Opioid Demon,” and that is exactly what it is. The coal black, sunken eyes; the twisted grimace; the flaming red horns; the angry fire below. This was my most vulnerable moment as an artist, my most mournful as a mother. But when I completed this drawing, something… shifted. I was exhausted, but I also felt I had undergone a catharsis. I had given a face to something so inexplicable, so heart-wrenching. This was the face of addiction. This was my son’s descent into the darkness, his passage through destruction. It represents all that I feel about addiction that I simply could not voice.

The Face of Addiction: Opioid Demon”

There is no more poignant, factual statement for me than “Art has been my voice, my escape, and my vehicle for survival.” It has been a lifelong friend, a hand to hold onto, a medium in which to be independent, and a healing balm. I could not have made it through the storm without it. Art has saved my life. I know my son is still with me; his vibrant light has been my beacon to keep moving forward, despite the gut-wrenching pain of losing him. He would not want me to despair or to give up. Tanner will always be my son, and I will always be his mother. And that is the bittersweet irony: I go on because of him.

This is the story of Deborah MacFarlan

Deborah “Deb” Landis MacFarlan was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. After cultivating a passion for art very early in life, Deborah was able to survive and end an abusive marriage. With a new leaf turned, Deborah began a bracelet-making business that she managed with her son Tanner. Life seemed stable again until she found her son dead. Once more, art became a means to escape sorrow.

Deborah is a self-described adventurer with a true zest for life. For her, art is more than a hobby; it is a passion and nurtures her “very restless, feisty Taurus spirit.” She is upbeat, a friend to many, and has never met a stranger. She boldly advocates for children–especially those with special needs and behavioral challenges–and feels that art is invaluable as a teaching tool and healthy form of expression. She loves to laugh, travel, be outdoors, explore new places, and get to know new faces. She is, by the truest definition of the term, a survivor.

Deborah, 2018.
| Writer: Nicole Rose Forbus | Editor: Colleen Walker |

Life Log #177

This story first touched our hearts on September 28, 2018.

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