To say that Debra Chial is a fan of the St. Croix Valley is a dramatic understatement. That Valley childhood made a deep impression on her. “As a child, I grew up on a houseboat on the St. Croix River,” Chial says. “That’s where I really started being in on the elements of the Valley. That’s where my love of it came from. I grew up on the river, and I grew up on beaches. I can’t imagine not living on water.”
That passion for her surroundings found an outlet when Chial’s father took her out on the river with a camera when she was 10. She took to photography immediately, and as she grew up, she found many ways to explore the art form. “In high school, I was on the school newspaper and literary arts magazine, the yearbook. I was so fortunate to have all those in Stillwater. It paved the way for what I’m doing now,” she says, which is a career in photography and teaching.
As a single parent of two daughters, Chial worked as a wedding and portrait photographer, and explored other jobs when her children were younger, but ultimately decided to take a leap and create a business using her photographs for postcards. She took small-business management courses at Lakewood Community College. That’s when she discovered that she also loved marketing—a handy talent for a small business owner.
Through the years, Chial has been heavily involved in the arts scene in St. Croix. “I’ve owned three art galleries in Stillwater since the 1990s,” she says. The first sold her photos and postcards exclusively.
A second gallery offered shared studio and exhibit space with painter Kami Mendlik. Unfortunately, that gallery was destroyed in a fire. That didn’t deter Chial, who then became one of the owners of the Stillwater Art Guild Gallery before selling her shares to other artists in order to focus more on her own work.
Her current projects include The StoreFront Gallery in Stillwater and La Petite Gallery. With artist April Mehls, La Petite offers mostly classes, special shows and events. This is a place for Chial to explore a newfound passion: teaching. “I love to inspire people and help to plant a seed for them to really see the beauty of nature,” Chial says. She’s teaching both adult and children’s classes.
She’s also revising one of two books she wrote earlier in her career: M is for Minnesota. “I’m working out funding to republish it,” she says. “I want to do more books. I need to do this.” The book is a children’s alphabet book in which every letter stands for some aspect of Minnesota, so, for example, A could stand for Aamodt’s Apple Orchard.
Chial’s work explores the natural scenery of the Valley in all its aspects. “Lately, I’m really loving being out in the woods,” she says. And there’s something else she loves: “I’ve had people who have been in the outdoors and seen something really beautiful, then tell me they thought of me. How great is that?”
That’s because Chial’s love for the area shines through her work. “Deb’s Stillwater images often capture the dramatic beauty of the spots where the buildings touch the sky or where the bridge greets the water,” says Heather Rutledge, executive director of ArtReach St. Croix. “Her perspective is fresh, and her photographs ooze with the love she has for this town, the St. Croix Valley and the shores of Lake Superior.”
The StoreFront Gallery
218 N. Main St., Stillwater