All roads lead to art
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Deborah Herndon craves knowledge.
How else can you summarize an intellect who has earned a master's degree in urban planning, a doctorate in mineral economics and a law degree?
Vivacious and verbal, Charleston artist Herndon is a photographer on a mission to explore how human institutions and architecture reveal culture and can facilitate conflict resolution. "I'd probably been a war correspondent," she said, "except I don't want to get killed."
She has participated in 32 juried competitions in the past two years and received eight awards, including a first place in the "You Are Here" regional juried exhibit at the Parkersburg Art Center. Her work has been shown in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.
Herndon's print process on commercial-grade metallic paper creates a saturated, reflected 3-D effect with light.
Her art expresses her vision for understanding cultural cues, human connections and avenues for resolving disputes; that vision evolved from three varied graduate degrees and a wide range of personal experiences.
She spent her first five years in Rockbridge County, Va., and moved with her family to Huntington when her father took a position with a law firm there. She went to Cabell County public schools through high school and then launched her winding path through higher education.
After receiving an undergraduate degree in sociology and anthropology from Marshall University in 1976, she went directly to the College of Architecture at Virginia Tech. She said she felt a growing interest in "how people come together into a built environment." She looked at architectural details everywhere she went and wondered, "Why those images, why those choices? You just know looking at some architecture that something is going on, and I wanted to know what it was."
Herndon had an early perception that urban and regional planning was the solution to many social and cultural issues. "I really thought all you had to do was plan it right," she laughed.
A few years after she completed her master's degree, federal funds for urban planning projects started to disappear; by this time she had also earned a master's degree in geo-environmental studies. Her first marriage ended when her son was very young, and she had a driving motivation to keep improving her skills and education so she could support her family. She heard about a doctoral degree at Penn State in the field of mineral economics and was fascinated.
"I didn't have any calculus," she said, "which was like saying I wanted to study Japanese literature and couldn't read Japanese."
In her early years, her maternal grandmother had taught her that it is "possible to make something out of nothing," and she leaned on that belief and convinced the university she could succeed in the program.
Herndon's new field was valuable to the coal industry, and she began working for various coal companies, including A.T. Massey, in government affairs and policy work while she finished her dissertation; but she was not just an office worker.
She went underground.
"Both of my great-grandfathers were mine superintendents, but that is different work from carrying a bucket into the mine," she said. To understand the coal business, she believed she needed to know where the underground miners "were coming from and how they did what they did."
She soon realized, though, that she needed skills that could transfer from the coal industry to other fields. "Coal can be cyclical," she said. "People told me I argue a lot, and I thought I'll just go the way that works for me." That way was a legal career, and she graduated with a law degree from the Saint Louis University School of Law in 1995.
She met Blair Gardner in 1988 when they were both working in fields connected to the coal industry. The two fell in love, and were married in Paris in 1990. Her husband announced, "I am going to take you to France every year for the rest of our lives," and he kept that promise. After 23 annual trips back to Paris, Herndon developed a love of French culture that influences her art. "The French have a unique blend of order with a huge commitment to artistic expression and imagination," she said.
Capturing unusual architectural symbols in France with her camera, Herndon began developing her passion for photography. "I wondered why, for example, there were so many dolphin door knockers, and learned it was a tribute to Dauphin lineage. Everything I researched helped me learn about how a culture's people feel about their connections, institutions and environment."
Herndon holds law licenses in Illinois, Missouri and West Virginia, and she and Gardner had "a commuting marriage" for five years. She began practicing law in St. Louis just out of law school, and started a practice in Charleston in 1995; she then moved to St. Louis again in 1998, and then to Chicago in 2000 to head litigation for Potash Corp., a company that produced commercial fertilizer. That position required her to travel wherever there was a claim against her company. "I had no other life," she said.
Her husband began working for Jackson Kelly, in Charleston, in 2001, and she found her way back to the city in 2005 as general counsel for the water company. Her father suggested that she develop a solo law practice in his field of wills, estates and trusts. She now divides her time among her legal practice, helping her own parents with their personal needs, and pursuing her photography.
Herndon's life path is winding, yet it circles to a strong sense of purpose and passion.
"I will never go out and photograph mountains, valleys and trees. There are plenty of people who do that," Herndon said. "I'd much rather focus on things that everybody overlooks. I enjoy finding pieces of cultural puzzles and putting them in a context to share with others."
Learn more about Deborah Herndon's art at www.rivetingnotes.com.
Reach Elizabeth Gaucher at Elizabeth.Gaucher@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.