How a serious health scare helped C&O restaurants co-owner Debbi Singer find her creative voice

By Kathy Leonardo

For C&O’s Debbi Singer, a battle with ovarian cancer opened up a window into her creative soul

Debbi Singer had always loved art. Surrounded by artists in her daily life, the Venice resident admired their creative spirit, but as a busy mother and co-owner of C&O Trattoria and C&O Cucina, she never gave a second thought to making her own art. Working in the restaurant business was her creative outlet.

“I always admired their skill and it looked so much fun, but I never had the courage to pick up a brush,” she says. “Feeding people definitely felt creative and satisfying.”

But in 2008, while preparing to go on her honeymoon, Singer began feeling pain in her right lower abdomen. After numerous medical office visits, doctors discovered an ovarian cyst that they initially thought to be benign, but Singer’s intuition told her to have it removed.

“Lo and behold, I spent my honeymoon and beyond at Cedars-Sinai, having treatments for six months. ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans,’” Singer says with a chuckle.

After six months of chemotherapy and an all-clear diagnosis, Singer’s intuition told her to insist on a second surgery to remove her other ovary, and doctors were shocked to find cancer cells that had gone undetected.

During her recovery, Singer — always a believer in the power of positive thinking — began posting affirmational sayings around the house. To make them more visually appealing, she taught herself Photoshop and started designing her own affirmation cards. Making colors pop lifted her spirits.

“I just started to play, and the affirmations and visualizations became so much more powerful,” she says.

Then Singer started playing with stencils, acrylic paint and oil pastels, and over time she began creating her own fine art canvases.

Ten years after her initial diagnosis, Singer paints several hours a week and is preparing to launch a solo exhibition of her work on Sunday at The Upper West in Santa Monica.

“I feel like a kid in a sandbox surrounded with her favorite toys,” says Singer of her newfound life’s work as a fine art painter. “After I picked up a paintbrush, I discovered that the healing continued and has intensified through the process of laying layers of paint on my canvas.”

“Forgiveness,” one of Singer’s more abstract canvases, shows an effluence of warm reds flowing from a dark cloud that appears to be hanging over the hand of the artist herself.

“Sisterhood” is more figurative, but created while reflecting that “through all of life’s ups and downs, I have been blessed with a group of women who have stood by me,” she says.

“I Will” is perhaps the best example of Singer “working it out in paint” — created when she was furious at herself for not speaking up during an important business decision. “I was faced with a canvas, and all that came out of me was black,” she recalls. “Then I remembered being a kid and having to write ‘I will not talk’ hundreds of times on the chalkboard.
I went with the flow and started writing ‘I will talk’ over and over. As the emotions intensified, so did my anger, and at the bottom part of the painting I found my voice. It was a transformative process.”

Singer, who is donating proceeds of painting sales to the Ovarian Cancer Circle and Safe Place for Youth, says art is teaching her to embrace the fullness of life.

“Vulnerability is a strength, so I am willing to share my journey, and now my art, without fear of judgment,” she says.

The opening reception for Singer’s “AffirmSheArt” exhibit is from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 18) at The Upper West, 3321 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Call (310) 586-1111 or visit