Celina woman with physical
challenges patiently creates miniature wintry worlds
By MARGIE WUEBKER
Deb Fleming faces challenges in life, but wielding a paintbrush
or a toothpick isn’t one of them.
The 40-year-old woman’s handiwork fills two curio cabinets,
decorates a Christmas tree and covers a large sheet of plywood.
More examples can be found in nearly every room of the Mud Pike
home she shares with her parents, Albert and Anita Fleming.
“I get so involved I sometimes lose track of time,”
she confesses with a smile. “Oh well, it keeps me off
Fleming, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy in the months
following birth, began painting ceramic figures 16 years ago.
She credits family friend Angela Thurston with introducing her
to a pastime that now takes center stage.
Accompanying Thurston to Klay Kitchen, a Celina craft shop owned
and operated by Ruth Getman, gave her the encouragement to try
something new. She cut her teeth, so to speak, on a ceramic
“I never thought I could do it,” she says. “But
I showed myself I could.”
That same philosophy applied to earlier challenges like walking,
riding a bicycle and graduating from high school. She achieved
milestones doctors once deemed unlikely.
Fleming eventually turned to Santa figures in all shapes and
sizes. Dozens inhabit a large curio cabinet in the living room.
They range from tall, lean fellows to the familiar roly-poly
The stark ceramic figures come to life as she applies brightly
colored acrylic paint with a steady hand. Santa, wearing a traditional
fur-trimmed suit of brilliant red, sits atop a majestic carousel
horse. Another design reveals a frisky nature as he holds a
sprig of mistletoe over the head of Mrs. Claus and prepares
to steal a kiss before taking off with the trusty reindeer.
He apparently chose a different steed on one occasion. That
piece shows the rotund figure with his customary bag of toys
on the back of a polar bear.
More figures depict Santa’s evolution from the mid-1800s,
while others illustrate how the English and Germans see the
bearer of holiday gifts.
“Deb and I did some research,” Anita Fleming says.
“Santa did not always wear red; sometimes he chose blue
Young visitors like the large wind-up figure that plays “Santa
Claus Is Coming To Town.” The artist has lots of favorites
in the collection, but one ceramic statue holds a dubious distinction.
“I asked myself more than once why I ever started that
one,” she says pointing to the North Pole resident checking
out a series of birdhouses. “It took a long, long time.”
A judge at the Mercer County Fair rewarded her diligent efforts
with a third-place ribbon. The award is one of several she has
garnered over the years.
Fleming considers the ceramic village as her masterpiece. She
has painted nearly 40 buildings and numerous accessory pieces
since the late 1980s. A sign, designed and made by her brother,
Bob, proclaims the spread “Debtowne.”
It takes nearly four hours to set up the display after her dad
and brother, Rick, carry the plastic storage totes from the
attic. The dismantling process is equally lengthy with each
piece being wrapped separately.
The lighted village includes houses, a fire station, two ice
cream parlors, a Tweet Shop specializing in birdhouses, a post
office, music shop, coffee shop, holiday store, pizza place,
several lighthouses, a newspaper stand, a gas station and even
a little red schoolhouse. A locomotive trailing a coal tender
and three cars chugs through the setting with a flip of a switch.
Assorted figures depict familiar yuletide activities with the
more ambitious putting lights and candy canes on a large tree.
“I use a toothpick to paint the candy canes and other
small detail,” Deb Fleming explains. “A brush is
much too big for that stuff.”
It takes practice to achieve a realistic look for snow coating
the roofs and sides of various establishments. She achieves
the desired effect with a coat of white paint followed by blue.
A final layer of white achieves the desired effect. Fleming
also knows how to mix colors in order to come up with new shades.
Finding new pieces, like a doctor’s office, police station
and hospital, is becoming more difficult with each passing year,
she said. Wal-Mart and Frank’s Nursery & Crafts remain
the best sources for future projects.
Much of her handiwork becomes Christmas gifts for others. Starting
in the fall, she spends a lot of time working in the spare bedroom
while Christian music plays softly in the background.
“I like to get an early start,” she says. “That
way there is plenty of time to do a good job. I don’t
like to be rushed.”
Her five nieces, two nephews and great-nephew eagerly anticipate
opening “Aunt Deb’s” presents. They know the
contents could be decorations or statues of favorite characters.
“I’m just happy to be doing all of this,”
she says candidly. “My hands don’t cause problems;
I wish the same applied to feet and legs.”
But Fleming prefers to dwell on what she can do instead of focusing
on multiple surgeries or fall-related injuries that have occurred
far too frequently.
In addition to painting ceramics, she enjoys latch hooking —
a skill she learned from her grandfather, the late Paul Hughes
— and playing with Penny, her yellow Labrador. She is
also a formidable opponent when it comes to PlayStation games.
Fleming isn’t looking forward to New Year’s Day
because the Christmas finery will be returned to the attic.
However, numerous Easter bunnies and spring decorations are
waiting in the wings.
After all, her hobby is not bound by just one season.
“I’ve told Deb time and time again that I wouldn’t
have a holiday decoration to my name if she moved away,”
the proud mother says. “She certainly decks our halls.”