Artist Profile: Debora Iyall

Above: Debora Iyall. Photo by Billy Douglas.

One of the ubiquitous radio hits of the early 1980s was spawned by a most unlikely band. Romeo Void was a phenomenally strange punk outfit fronted by a chunky, fierce-looking young woman who half-sang, half-snarled their songs. In 1981 they hit the charts with “Never Say Never”, a violent, suggestive anthem of the punk-era sexual revolution. A few years later they followed up with “A Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing)”, a response to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” that leaves the listener wondering whether the girl has an abortion or keeps the baby when she “takes care of business”.

Fast forward to 2009, when elegant-looking Debora Iyall is busily working in her art studio in Citrus Heights, California. Married to sound engineer Patrick Haight, Iyall still carries a bit of that punk flair but, by and large, isn’t the type of lady you’d have expected to howl about sex with old men. She has become one of the most respected visual artists and art instructors in the state today, and has a firm connection with the Inland Empire.

In 1954, Debora Kay Iyallwahawa was born of Cowlitz Native American heritage in Soap Lake, Washington. She was brought up in Fresno and attended the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1970s. Iyallwahawa experimented with poetry, sound, performance and visual arts, sometimes incorporating Native American references into her works. Her friends at the school included musicians Peter Woods, Jay Derrah and Frank Zincavage, who talked the young artist into forming a band with them. She trimmed her surname down to Iyall (pronounced like “Hi, y’all”) and became the frontwoman of Romeo Void. Inspired by then-huge British bands like Joy Division and Gang of Four, the band added saxophonist Benjamin Bossi to bring a free-jazz flavor to their infectious, hammering music.

Romeo Void recorded their first album, It’s a Condition, for the local 415 Records label, home to other Bay Area punkers like Translator, Wire Train and Red Rockers. The record was packed with powerful songs about the denial of emotion, using sex as escape, and the hardships of modern life. On “White Sweater” Iyall muses about the clothes her sister wore when she committed suicide, while “Myself to Myself” (video below) speaks of withdrawing from society.

Cars frontman Ric Ocasek got wind of the album while on tour and invited the band to his studio in Boston. Under his producer’s hand Romeo Void recorded the EP Never Say Never, which was released on Columbia Records and gave them their first major national exposure. On tour the band’s brand of spectacle, with their oddball saxophone and portly, ferocious frontwoman, earned them a sizeable audience. There was, quite simply, nothing else like them on the market.

Romeo Void continued to record and tour into the mid-1980s. Benefactor, their 1982 album, kept up the punk mode of the first releases, but in 1984 they went in a more accessible direction with Instincts. Bossi’s saxophone was less harsh and Iyall’s singing became more melodic as well. Her anger was tempered by resignation and perhaps even a sense of hope. Despite reaching the Top 40 with “A Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing)”, the band suffered internal tensions and broke up in 1985.

Debora Iyall recorded her only solo album, Strange Language, the following year for Columbia. It didn’t fare well in the marketplace, due more to changing public tastes than to the vivid performances. She took a step back from the music business and returned to the visual arts, becoming an acclaimed painter, printmaker and instructor. For more than a decade Iyall taught art at the Palm Desert satellite campus of Cal State San Bernardino and at the 29 Palms Creative Center and Gallery, holding regular exhibits of her own works and those of her students. She came back in touch with her Native American heritage at this point, working those references into her prints while embracing the beauty of the Desert Southwest. At times she presented workshops as an artist-in-residence in San Bernardino, creating pieces like the one shown below, “San B Nights”. Of this piece Iyall says, “I wanted to show a narrative work done in a monochromatic color scheme, that may be considered ‘tight’ and is appropriate for high school. I wanted to present an evocative four-directions composition with radiant lines around a portrait. Beyond my intentions it reflects an essence of my reality.”

Above: Debora Iyall, “San B Nights”, acrylic.

Iyall’s specialties include monotypes, a process that produces a single print from a flat painted or inked plate, and relief prints, in which the raised surfaces of a carved or incised block are inked or painted to produce a print. She has created a number of strikingly beautiful monotypes in the subtle palettes of the Southwest Desert, as well as many monochrome and two-tone relief prints.

Above: Debora Iyall, "Sky/Mountain", monotype, 2005, 29 Palms Creative Center

From 2006 to 2008, Iyall worked as an art instructor for the Navajo Nation in Arizona, teaching young Native American students to express their heritage, spirituality and life experiences through visual and performing arts. In 2009 she and Haight moved to Citrus Heights when he obtained a teaching position in audio engineering at Pinnacle College. Iyall is presently continuing to create artworks, teaching as a private instructor, and seeking a more regular teaching position in the area.

Iyall has continued to make music as well. In 1999 she formed Knife in Water, a duo with guitarist Peter Dunne. In 2004 Romeo Void got back together for an acclaimed episode of VH1’s series “Bands Reunited”. In 2006, while completing her master’s degree in art at Portland’s Lewis and Clark College, Iyall began collaborating with local musicians in Nvr Say Nvr, revisiting Romeo Void’s music and other original and cover material. September 2009 marks her tour as a solo artist alongside Wire Train and Translator, two reunited bands from the old days of 415 Records. She continues to be a dynamic, multi-faceted, always engaging creative artist.

Above: relief print, inspired by a Native American full moon gathering at Corn Springs Wash in the Chuckwalla Mountains of Riverside County, northeast of the Salton Sea.

Here are links to our prior artist profiles:

Hugo Distler
David Carranza, Jr.
Albrecht Durer
Rev. Howard Finster
Sam Maloof
Thomas Blackshear
Dr. He Qi
Sandra Bowden
Laura Kramer (Psalm 23 Jewelry)
Chris Schlarb John Newton
Vincent van Gogh

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