June 21, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dennis Wattier walks across his ocean-blue carpet to head downstairs to his basement studio. The retired industrial technology teacher shuts the door as the familiar smells of maple, walnut, and cherry woods envelop him. These same woods are stacked on a shelf, ready to be shaped and turned. His current project, two hands with eerily realistic fingernails curling around a globe, sits next to hand-carving instruments. The sculpture isn’t complete, but a similar one is displayed in the living room upstairs. Large cutting and turning machines stand ready for action. Pulling on a red apron, reading glasses, and a face shield, Wattier loses time to his creative pursuit. He doesn’t flip on the radio, preferring to “listen to the wood.”

It is so loud he doesn’t hear his wife, Deborah Murphy, slip into her own studio next door later in the morning. Murphy brews a pot of coffee. Like her husband, she is a serious artist who spends hours honing her craft. Her studio is alive with black-and-white graphite drawings, realistic colored-pencil landscapes, and acrylic paintings of porches.

Deborah Murphy in her studio

Deborah Murphy in her studio.

She hears a block of wood hit the wall followed by her husband cursing. Murphy heads to the record player and blasts an album by her favorite band, The Beatles. In fact, Beatle-mania is present in an assortment of photos hanging along the walls. Skeletons of birds and other animals watch her from the bookcase. Some she found on walks, while others were gifts from friends. On another long white shelf, a small petrified bat is framed and hanging on a wire.

Murphy gives up her soft blue chair to the cats, Tula and Ziller, and instead sits on a hard wooden chair in front of her easel. The canvas displays her current colored-pencil drawing and inspiration, a bright blue slough flowing next to a yellow grassy bluff. She saw it just outside Council Bluffs and believes the simple lines coming out of the landscape are beautiful. Murphy has drawn and painted professionally since the 1970s, when she received her bachelor’s degree in art education from Kearney State College (now the University of Nebraska at Kearney). Art supplies cover the table next to her easel. Murphy has also taken over the former recreation room next door. The ping-pong table is typically covered with matboards. Wooden frames, made by her husband, lean against the wall.

Murphy immerses herself in her art as the morning light from the windows make the scene on her canvas come alive.

“She gets to look out at nature. I get to look at her.”

Deborah Murphy and Dennis Wattier

Deborah Murphy and Dennis Wattier on their deck.

Their marriage seems to be a case of love at first sight. Murphy was a “naïve 18-year old” freshman at Kearney State who saw a handsome man walking up the stairs to her friend’s dorm. Wattier, then a junior, invited her to a party. Their marriage is still strong after 40 years.

“We like each other,” Wattier says.

“It’s about having our own space,” Murphy adds.

The house has helped in this regard since each of these retirees has separate studios. Murphy, an award-winning artist whose works have been exhibited on the national level, pushed her husband to find something after retirement. He tried pottery, but didn’t have a knack for it.

“You have a good relationship with wood, so you need to find something that speaks to you creatively,”  Murphy suggested.

That is when Wattier joined the Omaha Woodturners Club and perfected his talents. His work has been shown in various museums around Omaha, and is for sale at the Joslyn Art Museum gift shop. In the guest room upstairs, row upon row of woodworking projectsfrom bowls to vasesshowcase his efforts.

Wattier comes upstairs around lunchtime, covered in sawdust.

“It [the sawdust] gives her texture for her paintings,” he says, laughing.

On warm days, they eat lunch together on their screened-in porch. In the afternoons, Wattier often golfs while Murphy runs errands or works on her website in her office. She teaches art classes two days a week at Metropolitan Community College and mentors kids on Wednesdays at Nathan Hale Middle School. They re-connect to take bicycle rides or listen to live music.

Evenings will be spent at home in their mini-museum. Large pieces of art greet people who walk through the front stained-glass door. A green leaves-and-grass painting titled “Connectivity II” by Murphy contrasts with local artist James Freeman’s dark drawing of a raven. Two metal figurines by artist Larry Sosso appear to fly down from the ceiling with arms outstretched. Nebraska artists Mary Day, John Miller, Robert Willits, Kristin Pluhacek, and others line the walls of the hallways and living room, creating speculation. One graphite drawing by Murphy, “Meld,” shows a woman with a wide open mouth engulfing a worm from a bird’s beak. 

“It creeps people out, but being one with nature is a goal in a perfect world. It is a good dream,” Murphy explains.

Wattier constructed the house with art and nature in mind. It has ample natural light and wall space to display his wife’s talent. Sun spills into the rooms from curtain-less windows.

The desire to build his own house began in college when Wattier worked summers as a framing carpenter. Wattier started after drawing the blueprints. He isn’t sure what the name of the house’s style is, perhaps traditional or classic “Wattier-style.” He sawed, trimmed, and cut each piece, knowing it would fit based on his drawings. Even before the couple moved from Benson, their garage contained upstairs cabinetry, wood frames, and baseboards.

“I had a front door without a house,” he recalls with a laugh. 

Upstairs, white arches are modeled after ones in their previous home in Benson. A skylight beams down on a huge poster of John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr. In the moonlight, The Beatles reflect on the ceiling.

“Lucy in the sky with diamonds,” Murphy jokes, referencing the popular song.

The house reflects the couple’s love for art, architecture, and aptitude. It is a combination of their talents.

“It’s a perfect way of life,” Murphy says. “Most people who retire are at a loss, but creating keeps us young.”   


Check out Murphy’s artwork at deborah-june-murphy.com or see Wattier’s work in the gift shop at Joslyn.

This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.