Like many artists, Debbie Viola of Massapequa Park didn’t realize her creative potential until later in life. After landing a legal secretary position straight out of high school, Viola worked in Manhattan for the next 20 years before making the decision to turn her dream into a reality.
“I was born in Brooklyn and have been living in Massapequa Park for 28 years. I absolutely love it here,” said Viola, who was working for a lawyer when she first moved to Long Island. “I was great at typing and stenography; it was all I knew, so I worked for the same person for over 20 years.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Viola was working from her midtown office on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street when she witnessed the attack on the World Trade center.
“I was watching everything live from my office window,” said Viola, adding that it was her daughter’s first week of school at Barnard College in the city. “My husband and I decided that I would spend the night with my daughter at her dorm, and as I was leaving, my boss followed me and said, ‘since you’re leaving early today, can you finish your work at the dorm?’”
Astounded by her boss’s audacity, at that moment Viola knew she needed to leave her job, but waited until after Christmas to quit.
“It felt like financial suicide but I had always dreamed of putting my creativity to use,” said Viola, who had been dabbling in art a few years earlier. She had painted her bathroom and had done work for family and friends, but was not landing enough work to actually make money.
“I never went to college because it wasn’t an option back then, but I am self-taught and was always creative,” said Viola. “My husband was supportive of my leaving my job because he knew I couldn’t stand working for my boss anymore, and he told me to give it a shot with the painting and see what happens.”
Viola had the opportunity to open a shop in Bellport while she was still working in the city, and planned to do both.
“I spoke with a board of retired business executives and they said I couldn’t do it all—work in the city, run the shop, teach painting classes, and paint and sell everything,” said Viola. “They told me it was impossible, and that got me so mad that I made up my mind right there; I’m going to do this.”
Thirteen years later, Viola’s risk paid off big time. She was voted the “Best Artist of Long Island,” five years in a row and finds the honor, as well as the entire experience, very humbling.
“I think my clients called and nominated me, because I didn’t even know until they told me I was on the list,” she said. “I still pinch myself every day. It’s a lot of hard work, it’s physical and my husband thinks I’m crazy, but I enjoy it.”
Viola’s business, now called Custom Art, Finishes & Murals by Debbie Viola, encompasses everything from murals and paintings to faux finishes on furniture, walls and ceilings. Some of Viola’s celebrity clients include Rudy Giuliani and the Hiltons, who were out in Bellport and stopped by the shop. Viola was also on ABC’s hit show Extreme Home Makeover.
“Looking back now, it’s like ‘how did I do it?’ But that was all I knew; how to be a robot and get everything done,” said Viola. “I took many classes at The Finishing School in Floral Park, which was one of the top 20 schools in the country for artists and just closed this past year,” she continued, explaining some of the ways she honed her painting skills.
“I’m a member of the Interior Design Society, and my favorite medium to work with is acrylic because it doesn’t smell, so I don’t have to worry about what I’m breathing in,” said Viola, who doesn’t paint anything oil based, and keeps all of her supplies in a finished basement, complete with plenty of shelves, closets and a desk.
Viola loves living in Massapequa Park, and the her artwork has been well-received by the community.
“I have done work for the Corner Galley, Carmela’s pizzeria and the Curtain Store when they were on Sunrise Highway. I did a wall finish for A Taste of Home Bakery in Bellmore, as well as work for residential homes in Massapequa.”
One of Viola’s favorite jobs was when she was commissioned to do a life-size Indiana Jones portrait for a young boy in Massapequa with Leukemia.
“The family’s home was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, so in a week, their entire house got rebuilt. It was a huge surprise while the family was gone in Disney thanks to the Make a Wish Foundation,” said Viola.
When they came back, they were shocked and so thankful. I was just so happy to be a part of it. Every Christmas, I send them a card.”
Years ago, Viola never imagined that what she is doing now could be a remote possibility for a career.
“If someone told me back then that I would quit my job and become an artist, I would have called them crazy,” she said. “I love the freedom of being an artist and not knowing what will show up on the canvas.”
As for the future, Viola can paint it however she wants. She plans on having a shop on Etsy by year’s end, and was recently commissioned by St. Agnes of Rockville Centre to do work on the church’s interior.
“Right now, I have an art consultant representing me. She’s been selling a few paintings a month,” said Viola, adding that her paintings displayed at the Guggenheim last month have all been sold. “Other than that, it’s just word of mouth to get business, because for what I do, people want to know someone and know that their work is good.”
To learn more about Viola and to view her artwork, visit www.debbieviola.com.