Born and raised in New York, resident in Italy since 1982, Debra made Venice her home in 1996. She has also lived and worked in Philadelphia, Athens (Greece), Delft (Holland), and Camaiore (Italy).
Debra graduated with honors in 1979 from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, majoring in Anthropology and Design of the Environment.
She pursued independent studies in archaeology (Northwestern University Archaeological Field School); in drawing, sculpture and design (Parsons The New School for Design, NY), in Greek demotic architecture (Dimitris Philippides, Athens and Henry Glassie, Philadelphia), and in stone carving and sculpture during four years at the stone carving studio of Henraux SpA (Querceta, Lucca).
Her early training and employment include drafting and design for Friday Architects and Planners (Philadelphia) and participatory design for the Philadelphia Architects Workshop.
From 1986 to 1994, she was partner and creative director of a practice specialized in conceptualizing planning models and designs, in collaboration with architects and planners, for such public offices as the Port of Rotterdam, the Port of Seattle, the Town of Allumiere, and the Italian Ferrovie dello Stato. During that period, she also delved into the history of representation, received training in restoration, and provided translation services.
In 1994, she commenced her full-time studio practice employing light-based mechanical printmaking processes (such as silkscreen and photoengraving) to translate her drawings and, from 2000, adding laser-cutting and new media technologies in the production of thematic installations. In these last, the enhancement of some architectural feature in the venue, in tandem with the materials and processes employed in producing the staged components, both emphasize the role that perception and context play and are expedients to embedding the visitor within the visual narrative.
Debra has exhibited her work and installation projects in galleries, institutions, and corporate collections in Italy and the USA, including The Print Center (Philadelphia, PA), the American Academy of Arts and Letters (New York, NY), the Bank of America, the Museum of Art and Design (New York, NY), the Museo Ebraico di Venezia (Venice, Italy), the Centro Studi e Documentazione della Cultura Armena in Venice, the Studio d’arte contemporanea Pino Casagrande (Rome, Italy) with whom she enjoyed a longstanding collaboration, and the Galleria Michela Rizzo (Venice, Italy). She has also participated in the Film Festival of Locarno and the Athens Video Art Festival.
Artwork, installations, and research projects have been commissioned by such institutions as the Università Iuav di Venezia in collaboration with their multimedia laboratory MeLa, the Università Iuav di Venezia’s Faculty of Arts and Design with the International Laboratory of Semiotics, the Museo Ebraico di Venezia, the Fondazione Venezia per la Ricerca sulla Pace and, most recently, the Centro Studi e Documentazione della Cultura Armena in Venice.
Her collaboration with the metal fabricators Caratelli Acciaio Inox SpA, reflected early training with artisans and her interest in translating a traditional ethos of crafting into advanced industrial processes.
Debra’s activities have extended into Social Practice Art for public and private institutions in Venice, with projects aiming to develop tools or shared platforms for addressing environmental and social concerns.
A concept project (Oyster Bar), commissioned in 2010 by Thetis SpA for communication strategies in promoting habitat restoration and for providing incentives to improve commercial fishing practices in the Lagoon of Venice, inspired the concept for a participatory project of environmental stewardship. Developed with the marine biologist Michele Pellizzato, with the support of FIPSAS-Venezia, Ri-popolare! proposed tools and actions to encourage sustainable fishery practices as well as an alternative livelihood for fishermen as stewards of the very stocks they fish.
The project aimed to draw attention to current conditions, provide criteria, suggest preferred choices and underutilized alternatives to the greater population, citizens and tourists alike, with a proposed app (Pesce a Misura) for consumers and restaurants, and an itinerant platform for promoting exemplary practices in collaboration with the Consorzio Venezia Nativa and the Cooperativa San Marco di Burano.
More recently, the Fondazione Venezia per la Ricerca sulla Pace commissioned a web project that might attract a greater public to their research in human rights law. The resulting pilot project produced in collaboration with Phonodia, an online poetry project of the Università Ca' Foscari Venezia, aims to serve as a vehicle of inquiry into the language of law that defines international human rights and the language of poets for confronting those issues. The first edition of Blind Spots was launched in May 2015 and focused on developing the platform for Phonodia's selection of poets. A future edition will expand the selection as well as link the poets' words to the foundation's research.
In 2017, in a collaborative effort between the Centro Studi e Documentazione della Cultura Armena, the Fondazione Venezia per la Ricerca sulla Pace (VeRiPa), Venice Art Factory, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and Radio Ca' Foscari, Debra developed a month-long program entitled Dropping Seeds that centered around her installation at the Centro Studi and a poets' residency curated by the poet Efe Duyan at VeRiPa's headquarters in an ex-convent. The project was conceived as an exchange between the image and the word about persisting legacies of genocide and giving refuge.
Among honors conferred, Debra has been a three time recipient of a residency fellowship from the Yaddo Corporation in Saratoga Springs, New York and the recipient of a Puffin Foundation grant.
Debra has been regularly invited to lecture and conduct workshops as well as serve as visiting critic and mentor at European and American universities, including: Università Ca' Foscari Venezia, Italy; Pratt Institute, Rome program, Italy; Università Iuav di Venezia, Venice, Italy; Università di Ferrara, Ferrara, Italy; New York University, Steinhardt School, Venice program, Italy; Università di Roma “La Sapienza,” Rome, Italy; Istituto Europeo di Design, Venice, Italy; Transart Institute, Linz, Austria (now Berlin / New York); University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.
The following journalists and scholars have written about her work: Paolo Balmas (Il Segno, Quadri & Scultura), Riccardo Caldura, Angelo Capasso (Tema Celeste), Daniele Capra (Exibart), Orsola Casagrande (Il Manifesto), Martina Cavallarin, Serena De Domenicis (Arte e Critica), Linda De Santis (La Repubblica), Pericle Guaglianone (Exibart), Agnes Kohlmayer, Patrizia Magli, Elide Pittarello, among others.