Debra Nielsen

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Keepsake Artist Debra Nielsen

Debra Nielsen signature

Debra Nielsen

Title: Hallmark Keepsake Artist
Date started at Hallmark: 1997
Date started at Keepsakes: 1997
Hometown: Clinton, Iowa

Sculpting horses can be tricky, but this labor of love has become a life-long passion for Deb. Her authentically inspired designs require a sharp eye for detail that comes from a childhood of growing up around horses—and around the growing collection of models on her desk!

Deb has always loved art—and her beautiful show horses. These were, after all, the inspiration and models for her first drawings and paintings as a child. But when it came time for college, she went to beauty school rather than an arts program. Deb knew she didn't want to teach, but she didn't know there were other options with an art degree! Ironically, Deb now uses her cosmetology experience to fashion the hair and makeup on Madame Alexander® ornaments.

In addition to her other talents, Deb used to sew wedding gowns, and she is able to use that fashion experience in the fabric attachments she creates for our ornaments. Deb loves the details of her job, from dreaming up new ornament concepts to the intricate sculpting detail involved in bringing her sculpts to life.

And more than a Keepsakes Artist, Deb is the proud mother of Mallory, who "expresses her art through words," has successfully achieved her Masters in Communication, and is now a proud wife and mom herself.

In Deb’s spare time, she enjoys painting, interior design, exploring the great outdoors and spending time with her husband—fellow Hallmark Keepsake Artist Steve Goslin.

A Pony for Christmas

Growing up along the Mississippi River in Clinton, Iowa, Debra Nielsen loved to ride and show horses. She and her sisters, Diane and Donna, as well as their cousin Nancy, spent many afternoons performing their own horse shows at their grandparents’ orchard where they kept the horses during the summer.

Her American quarter horse, Honey, did pretty much whatever she asked her to do. Debra’s mom called Honey their “best babysitter.” Every August they’d load up Honey and the other horses and head for the 4-H show at the county fair in DeWitt, Iowa.

So when Linda Sickman retired several years ago, Debra was honored to take over the A Pony for Christmas series. “It’s a strong performer with our collectors,” she said. “It was a great pleasure to step in for Linda, a truly wonderful artist.”

There had never been an English-riding style jumping horse in the series, Debra noted, so it seemed like the right approach for 2017. “I hopped right on that!”

Back in Iowa, the girls didn’t ride English-style in shows, but they loved to pretend. So they’d set up barrels in the pasture with two-by-fours across the top. “We used to jump with our western saddles, which is not the right equipment—it’s a different pose and saddle,” Debra said. “But as kids in our make-believe world, we were riding and jumping in a competition.”

Those memories gave her the perfect foundation for this year’s ornament, which features an old-fashioned pull toy as the base. She created a wood-carved look, as well as a dappled coat on the horse. The tail is embroidery floss, a brass rod keeps the horse and jumper steady, and the wheels turn on the base.

Fun fact: Not only is it the 20th year of A Pony for Christmas, it’s also Debra’s 20th anniversary at Hallmark!

Dream Horse: Friesian

Although her family had several horses when she was little, Debra’s never owned a Friesian. They’re the really elegant ones that often appear in movies and on TV. Think Black Beauty or Game of Thrones.

“It’s a gorgeous-gaited horse used in dressage—in competitions—like with our U.S. Olympic team,” Debra said. “They have wavy hair and tails, they’re very muscular and stand very tall. At the same time, their personality is very mellow.”

Hollywood stars often own them. Why? They can cost up to $25,000 or $30,000! Hence the name Dream Horse.

“For many of us who love horses, our dream was to get one for a birthday or Christmas,” Debra said. “Like it’s something waiting under the tree that leads you outside and there it is.”

The Friesian, with its hefty price tag, always seemed like the ultimate breed to dream about. At some point Debra realized, “The only way I was going to be able to own a Friesian was to sculpt an ornament.”

Their most well-known color is a rich, chocolaty brown. Owners will often keep them out of the sun or put a blanket over them to keep that dark sheen intact. They also have very distinctive feathery hair near their hooves, which draws attention to their motion.

In trying to capture the intricacy of the mane and tail, she used a hot tool to apply the waves in wax then switched to a carving tool to emphasize and further define them. Metallic paint created the glistening effect of the coat in the sun.

It’s the fifth horse in this unofficial series, and Debra is already working on the next concept for 2018.

Faithful Friend Forever

Horses aren’t the only animals Debra remembers fondly from childhood. They always had dogs back in Iowa, like a black lab, a Brittany spaniel and an English springer spaniel. Her dad was a hunter, so he always had a dog to take with him.

She and her husband now have two dogs, Daisy, an English springer spaniel, and Cricket, a Jack Russell terrier. “We wouldn’t know what to do without them,” Debra says. “Dogs are hugely important to me.”

This ornament, featuring laser-made carvings of paw prints, lettering and a cloud-like shape on wood, gives Keepsake fans a simple way to commemorate pets they’ve lost. It’s a new version of a 2016 ornament that sold out. In response to feedback, the ornament team decided to remove the year so that people could buy it for a pet they’d lost in years past. The back includes space for personalization.

Find Keepsake Ornaments at your local Hallmark Gold Crown store.

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