Every creative idea has a story behind it. These stories are often left untold because they’re too painful or expose character traits we would rather hide away. I believe everyone has a story to tell. Whenever I set out to create a new project, I keep this quote by Jeff Bartsch at the front of my mind: “Stories bring people together who would otherwise be divided.”
The shopping basket handle dug into my fingers from the weight of a dozen large sweet potatoes. “Why didn’t I get a cart?” I wondered. I turned down the produce aisle, and there he was: The cute guy from the gym.
“Hey,” he said, looking at my basket. “That’s a lot of potatoes.”
Feeling embarrassed, I lied: “Yeah, I’m going to a barbecue, and I’m making sweet potato salad.” He looked confused and said: “I’ve never heard of that.”
I was silent. He continued, “OK, well … I’m picking you up at 7 for our date?” I must’ve looked hungry because he asked, “Do you want me to pick you up earlier?”
“Yes, that would be great!” I said, trying not to look too eager. We agreed to 5:30 p.m.
I rushed home to get ready, happy that I would not be eating another sweet potato for dinner. I had been living on them for weeks. I felt guilty because I was more attracted to the thought of a good meal than I was to my date.
When 9/11 happened, the whole world seemed to come to a stop, and the Cedros Avenue Design District in Solana Beach where my shop, which carried a fun and eclectic mix of artisan and vintage home decor, was located had turned into a ghost town. I had hardly seen a customer in weeks. Suddenly, I could barely afford food for my dog. I ate sweet potatoes because my mom said they were filled with nutrients.
When the guy called the next week to ask me out again, I declined, saying: “I’m sorry, Bobby, I’m not in a position to date anyone right now. My business is failing. I’m trying to make it through the holidays, and afterwards, I’m planning to close my shop.”
“Well, OK,” he said. “But I’m pretty good with business, and it seems like you could use a friend right now. Maybe I can help.”
That was 20 years ago, and if it weren’t for Bobby Shenberg’s help, I would’ve likely given up on my dream of being an artist and shopkeeper, and DIY Paint would’ve never launched.
Storytelling has always been important to me, and although most of my friends are gone, they live through our stories; and in a way, I get to visit them each time I tell them. I was more than happy to pass that on to Debi. Many of my close friends were great artists — they created glass sculptures, art and films — but none were more creative than Debi!” — Bobby Shenberg
Relationships can completely change the trajectory of someone’s life. This was a lesson I had yet to learn. I have always loved making things, but I liked keeping to myself. I didn’t understand the value of sharing my creative process with others or the value of building relationships.
Over time, my customers started to return, but often when they saw me making something behind the counter, I would hear, “What kind of glue do you use?” or “Where do you find these cool vintage things?” I would give evasive answers because this was my livelihood, and if I gave my secrets away, then it was back to potatoes. I would overhear them say, “I could make that.” I would think up but never verbalize a snarky response: “But you didn’t think of it,” or “I’d like to see you try.” This negative mindset drove me to try to make things in a way that would be impossible to copy. I didn’t know it then, but my efforts were so off-track. I was so easily offended and unhappy, and my store continued to be a struggle.
The world has drastically changed since 2001. There was no internet when I started my business, so when my friends started inviting me to join Facebook, I resisted. But there was this other side of me that really did want to share with others.
It took time and patience on Bobby’s part, but we did end up dating for a while. Dating turned into friendship, and now he is considered part of our family. He won me over because he took interest in my dreams and told great stories. At the end of a long workday, I would say, “Tell me another story, Bobby.” He would paint a picture with words that took me to another place, away from my hard and frustrating life. He told me about his adventures growing up with his dad, who was an Emmy-winning movie editor at Universal, and his life in Newport Beach. His stories were funny, and his world was completely different than mine. His stories created a connection between us and a strong friendship.
I was burnt out and tired of being guarded. YouTube was new, and I was drawn to making videos. The thought that I could possibly tell my own stories, in the way Bobby had, was a secret dream I was too embarrassed to even speak out loud. I started making videos in 2012, and I named my channel Debi’s Design Diary because I had hopes to share not just how-to videos but also the authentic struggles that artists tend to hide in their hearts. I soon discovered that video-making is an art in itself. You can shape and create a mini film, just like you can create with paint. Camera angles, lighting and music are like colors in a palette, and the words and stories told are the brushstrokes.
“Stories bring people together who would otherwise be divided.”
— Jeff Bartsch of Story Greenlight
My creative process is usually a week long. Three days of painting and filming, and three days of editing. With each video I create, the need to make it count is always my goal. I try to blend a story into every tutorial in the same way that I blend paint colors together because stories create engagement.
My hope is to encourage viewers to try new things and to show that failure is a healthy part of the process. Many times, my projects take a wrong turn, but I don’t edit out the ugly stages. I share what went wrong, so the viewers can hopefully avoid my mistakes.
DIY Paint exists because of the popularity of the YouTube channel. The opportunity would have never come if I had not already built a strong platform to share how unique this paint is. I had been selling another clay-based paint in my shop for years when the brand suddenly and drastically changed its formula. I was heart-broken, as this paint was so unique, and it was my bestselling product.
I searched and searched for a new paint that I could love just as much but could not find anything like it at all. Eventually, I found a manufacturer who agreed to make my dream paint. I was still just a very small business, but they took a chance on me because I had sold so much paint through my YouTube videos.
The best part about DIY Paint is that it is mistake-proof, with just nine ingredients and no self-levelers or barriers, so you can reactivate it with water and change your mind in the middle of a project. It can be watered down and treated like a dye or a watercolor. You can use water to blend two colors together to make new colors. It is extremely saturated because it’s primarily made of clay and pigment. It has the richness of oil paint but the ease of acrylic paint! It adheres to almost anything; it dries very fast but cures slow, so nothing you do is written in stone until you apply a sealer.
“I’ll tell the truth, when I’d rather lie, I’d rather be known than keep it inside.”
— Lyrics from I’ll Get You Home by The Coast
Three years ago, the world stopped again, but this time it was different. 9/11 seemed to bring us together, and for a short time we were kinder to each other, and the U.S. flag was everywhere. But in March 2020, after our governor said, “Shelter in place and stay 6 feet apart,” social media became a firestorm of judgment like nothing I had ever seen before. Even Bobby and I stopped speaking for a while.
My first thoughts went to fear: “I’m going to lose my paint business.” But I didn’t want to return to my old ways. I wrote down this quote from my pastor. He said, “We are probably the most offended and polarized people group in history.”
In the last few weeks, I’ve been working to make my studio more functional for filming. When I started this journey, it was just me and my phone; no fancy tech equipment nor a designated place to paint. Bobby has helped me hang studio lights and put all the practical elements into place, so I can work on producing a new furniture book and livestream. We have survived our strong differences and beliefs about faith, politics and worldviews because of the stories that weave our friendship together.
My dad and his dog, Levi, work here with me, too, helping to make improvements to this little historical cottage that houses my studio.
My art studio is a dream come true! In the early years, I created and painted behind my front counter. I even filmed videos in the stolen moments when no customers were in the shop. This year, I decided to create a functional workspace, with a staging wall, studio lights and an art desk. All of my favorite tools and supplies have a place now. I’m surrounded by some of my favorite things — and my workflow is not only easier, it’s a lot more joyful!
My business has also survived but, most importantly, my heart has changed yet again. I make pretty things because it makes me feel like I’m contributing something good in a world full of things that I cannot fix. Making things has helped me get through many difficult situations. But that is only part of the story; the connection we make as we create, with the Master Creator and with each other, is what truly saves us.
I would encourage you to tell your own story; you might be surprised at how powerful it is.