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Lighthearted but not lightweight: Faux Paw’s Debby Carman puts her heart into her art and her business

By LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Stepping into the Faux Paw Gallery at 611 South Coast Hwy the other day felt like crossing the threshold from real life with all its worries into Kaleidoscope Land, where everything is colorful and fanciful and carefree. 

Indeed, I experienced a certain giddiness, as if the dog and cat-themed pillows and tote bags and sculptures and books and ceramics and lampshades and toys and cards and mugs and gorgeous pet bowls were jumping up and down with joy, inviting me to join their happy world. 

Owner Debby Carman leans into the whimsical nature of her art: “For years I’ve been writing daily ‘Whim Shots’ – inspirational sayings that bounce off the whim of life,” she says. “It’s who I am, I’m a seeker and I’m full of hope and joy. Everyone smiles in the same language, right?”

Lighthearted Debby

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Eclectic and elegant: that’s Debby’s style

Debby is stylishly and, yes, whimsically dressed in an outfit that makes the most of her still youthful figure: sleek checked pants, slightly scuffed cowboy boots – evidence of her love of that footwear – red paisley blouse, scarf, and black jacket, hung with a horsehair tassel, which she fingers as we talk. 

“I don’t wear jewelry, only my wedding ring, but I love hanging and dangling things,” she says. “I like to mix up paisley and checks and floral prints.”

Her Maltipoo, Cozy Coquetti, looks on approvingly from under floppy white bangs as we chat, just as Swatch sets the tone at Mood on Project Runway. Previous beloved dogs included Cha Cha the Dancing Dog, who became a character in her Bowzers and Meowzers books for kids. 

A cataclysmic moment leads to a life-changing decision

Debby may be lighthearted, but she’s no lightweight. She owned four flower shops and an event planning company in Newport Beach before experiencing what she describes as a “cathartic, cataclysmic moment” 28 years ago, a moment that changed the trajectory of her life.

“I knew then that I wanted to cartoon,” she says. “I had never done anything like that in my life before, not even as a child. But it felt right. It was my destiny and it became my passion.”

The inspiration for the six characters who animate her books started with Gronk the Green Dog, who, Debby says, came alive in an instant, as though she was channeling his energy: My name is Gronk, and I’m Green/I know I’m a dog/So it’s the silliest thing/For a dog to be green, I mean.

Lighthearted Kittywimpuss

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One of Debby’s Bowzers and Meowzers books for kids

Sheer force of will along with business savvy steered her to the Frankfurt Book Fair – which, incredibly, has been around for 800 years – where she set up her stand with her books and posters, ignoring those naysayers who said that wasn’t the best venue for her to launch Faux Paw.

“By the third day, I had a signed deal for Korean rights. French, Spanish, and Portuguese contracts followed after that and the business took off. Over time the cartoons evolved into all the art you see here.”

Debby gestures to paintings of dogs and cats that adorn canvases and mugs and every imaginable kind of merchandise. “I paint from the inside out, from the heart – you’ll see that each item incorporates a heart. Also I paint in broken lines, using splashes of color to create the whole. I love splatting polka dots on my canvases too.” 

Pet owners come to Debby to depict their dogs and cats in glorious multi-colored form on customized items, from ceramic water bowls to pet urns.

Business challenges leave her undaunted

While Debby’s art may be carefree, running a business in this town can be challenging, given high rents and ebb and flow of potential customers depending on the season. Debby is undaunted. “Though the recession was a challenge ten years ago,” she admits. “Art is a tough profession.” 

Lighthearted gallery

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Faux Paw Gallery, presided over by Cozy Coquetti (on the right)

Today she is excited to share that she’s expecting a visit from Costco that might bring in the big bucks. Licensing agreements with major corporations have helped her thrive. And she has plenty of customers who are huge fans – drawn in part, I’m sure, to her ebullient nature. 

After living in Laguna Beach for 40 years and practicing her distinctive art for nearly three decades, one could say that Debby has become a legend in town, though she looks too young – and too present – to be a legend. 

Other interests include Shakespeare and US history

In addition to running her successful business with galleries at two locations – the other one is in Boat Canyon – Debby has a range of interests, some of which might surprise people. 

“If I had to choose a different career, I’d have liked to be a Shakespearian academician,” she says. “My favorite plays are As You Like It, Macbeth, and Titus Andronicus. The light and the dark.”

American history also fascinates Debby. Her great-great-grandfather fought in five battles during the Civil War, including Antietam, but she’s more interested in revolutionary times. 

“I try to read at least one biography a year,” Debby says. “I especially admire John Adams. He was indefatigable. George Washington too.”

She holds monthly inspirational meetings at her home, a place she describes as “full of candles, music, color, and texture – I’d call it museum-esque. My guests leave comforted and inspired.”

Debby is also a huge baseball fan, specifically of the Angels – which reminds her of our Stu, also a rabid fan of the team.

Debby remembers Stu

“I adored that man. He was a cartoon.” Debby means this as the highest accolade she can give anyone. “I mean, he just had a cartoon face, full of expression. He was always ready with a smile and a laugh.

“And he was the kindest man. He was a co-parent to my godson Brandon. I’ll never forget how Stu came to Brandon’s USF graduation, even though he was so ill, using a walker, with his oxygen tank. 

“We loved to talk about baseball stats. I miss him. What he did for this community, his values, it’s incredible.”

Lighthearted bowls

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Faux Paw pet bowls are uniquely beautiful

Oh, and another passion of Debby’s is cleaning up beach trash, which she has been doing every day for 30 years. There’s a photograph of her dragging an entire abandoned tent off the beach, dwarfed by the burden but dogged (which, come to think of it, seems like the perfect adjective for Debby). “We’ve all got to work together to clean up this planet,” she says.

We tour her gallery, her enthusiasm palpable, my amazement growing at the vividness of her art. “Every day I think, this is all so magnificent, that this is where I am at now,” she says. “I feel so fortunate.”

And with that, she showers me and our photographer Mary Hurlbut with gifts – tote bags and cards – and insists on putting together a packet of books and goodies for my granddaughter. 

After enjoying an amazing forty-five minutes with this kind, passionate, funny, smart, generous woman, I leave her cartoon wonderland into the drab street, as if exiting a psychedelic dream. 

I smile all the way home, and then some.

 

Lana Johnson, Editor - [email protected]

Tom Johnson, Publisher - [email protected]

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Maggi Henrikson, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Stacia Stabler and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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