As a member of a military family, Debra Chronister, 57, professor of art at Victoria College, lived in a different house every year of her life until high school. She moved to Victoria in 1995.
“I have a wanderlust and travel a lot,” Chronister said. “I never expected to stay in Victoria for so long, but here I am. It’s the longest place I’ve lived. I didn’t see my longtime future being here but Victoria is a great place to be a creative person so it has suited me.”
Chronister makes, exhibits and sells art in Victoria. She works with clay, and she draws. She also sculpts with wood and metal. But, she explores other creative outlets, too.
She writes and performs with a theater group, Here Be Monsters. And she played the ukulele and sang with the Doe Ray Meees, an all-girl trio, for a “magical year” before one of its members moved and the group disbanded. They stayed booked and busy singing old-time Western tunes at Bootfest, the PumpHouse, Aero Crafters and private events during their stint.
Growing up, art served as solace for Chronister. She discovered in high school that she was good at art as well as drill team. She began thinking that she might be a drill team sponsor who teaches art for her career.
She earned her degree in secondary art education and studio art from Texas Christian University.
“As soon as I started taking focused art classes, I was just struck and engaged,” she said.
The first time teachers put clay in her hands, she just instinctively knew what to do with it. They assumed she had experience working with the medium, which she did not.
“My body just knew what to do with that medium,” she said.
By the time she was a senior, the teachers let her use an unused graduate studio.
“That was a game-changer — a dedicated space to work on art. I was able to work on work at whatever hours I needed to,” she said. “It enabled me to create a great body of work for a graduate exhibit. I was really enamored with photography, so I took great photos of my work that helped me get into graduate school.”
Her path to graduate school was a winding one. While an undergraduate, she drove a Clydesdale carriage in downtown Fort Worth. One of her passengers connected her with a woman who owned a cattle station, or ranch, in Australia. She went to work on the cattle ranch for one year where she lived in a large wooden tent.
“That was a real coming-of-age experience for me,” she said. “I saw how pure food could be in Australia. It was an eye-opener.”
She became a jilleroo. She was a “horse tailor” who fed the horses, laid out the equipment, performed safety checks and assigned riders to horses for the day, among other tasks. When she finished her job in time, she participated in muster, which is riding herd on the cattle.
When she returned home, she went into culture shock in her bedroom from high school with matching bedspread and curtains. She wondered what she would do with her life. She awoke in the middle of the night with the idea that she might work for the Scarborough Renaissance Festival.
“I loved the theater, dance, the musical performances and the horses,” she said. “It was all so engaging.”
When she called the next day, she learned auditions were in three days. She made the troupe and once again lived in tents in Chicago and Boston. Her character was a fairy. She trained pony mules and donkeys. People would bring her injured animals or animals that had been kicked out of their nests to rehabilitate and save, and one pigeon that survived landed on her during shows.
“Every place I worked, I learned so much,” she said. “But it was time to stop living in a tent, so I thought a graduate degree in sculpture might be the next move.”
She checked out Alfred University in New York City with the best sculpture program in the nation on the way home to Texas, but the vibe was cold. She then decided to look into the University of Texas at Austin, and she was admitted.
After graduate school, she was accepted into the Core Program, a prestigious residency with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. During her residency, she took a part-time job as a teacher of environmental education with the Houston Zoo.
“It was a blast and I felt like I was making a real impact on lives by helping people learn about the environment and understand wildlife,” she said.
The person who hired her at the Houston Zoo accepted the director’s position with the Texas Zoo in Victoria and asked her to come to Victoria to fix the education program. While visiting the zoo, she encountered the Beautiful Burro contest and fell in love with the town for its sense of humor. She accepted the position and moved.
In Victoria, she met her art mentor, Madeline O’Connor. Chronister noticed resemblances between her work and O’Connor’s and reached out to her.
“She had me over for tea, took me under her wing and introduced me to people,” she said. “I began an extraordinary creative life in Victoria.”
After the 2002 flood, she left the Texas Zoo and accepted a teaching position with Victoria College.
“I do not teach how to make things but how to think about making things, how to solve problems,” she said. “It’s not about making a thing, it’s about growing a person. The ceramics are a byproduct of the learning experience.”
Her position has allowed her to delve into historical research with the LaBelle Firepot Project. She recreated about 40 firepots, which are bombs, to help a maritime archaeologist discover the power of nine firepots found in the LaBelle shipwreck.
“I got to be part of a great experiment and research project,” she said.
Her lecture on the project combines art, craft, chemistry, history, research and sleuthing, she said.
Another project, the restoration and recreation of parts of statues in the McFaddin Church allowed her to go through layers of time through layers of paint, she said.
“If I lived in Houston, would I have these experiences? I don’t’ think so. My life would be less rich if I lived in a bigger city,” she said.
Locally, her work has been on display at the Nave Museum, the Victoria Art League and the Five Points Museum of Contemporary Art. Her work also has been shown in Germany, Scotland, and across America.
“The opening of the Five Points Museum of Contemporary Art opened Victoria up to the world of contemporary art and now we are part of the nationwide art scene,” she said. “What an honor to have had my work in that museum.”
She described her inspiration as an amalgamation of observations of nature and natural forces. Her ceramic work is a collaboration of the forces of wind, water, earth and fire.
The most challenging part of creating her art is finding the balance between acting and allowing.
“How much do I allow the liquid properties of the paint to act on the object? How much do I allow the sense of mass in the clay to be present? How much do I allow the fire to affect the piece?” she said.
In regard to the importance of art, Chronister said it is a visual means of communication and humans need to connect with each other. The visual language of art transcends all language barriers.
“I love it when my art goes into the world to have a new life with others seeing it every day,” she said. “Art is nothing if you make it and keep it. You have to share it for it to do its job.”
This story was updated July 23 to reflect that Chronister was a jilleroo in Australia.