Who Decides What Is Good or Equal

Artists as Activists By: Saad Ghosn

In her art, Kim Shifflett questions arbitrary boundaries

A recurrent theme in Kim Shifflett’s artwork is that of boundaries. They range from boundaries imposed by societal rules and expectations, delineating roles and behaviors in such matters as gender, relationships, families, deciding good from bad, to actual physical borders that separate and isolate people, leading to poverty, violence and conflict.


Born in Champaign, IL, Shifflett grew up in Las Cruces, NM, near Ciudad Juarez on the other side of the Mexican divide. It was at a time when flow between the 2 countries was welcome and safe and when crossing the border was a daily enjoyable adventure; she often accompanied her friends and mother to party or shop on Mexican soil. Shifflett was also interested in art very early on, drawing constantly, her talents encouraged by teachers and family.

Kim Shifflett in her studio. Photo by Saad Ghosn

At the age of 18 she left New Mexico, settled for few years in Tucson, AZ, moved to Lexington, KY, and then finally to Cincinnati, OH. Along the way she married twice, bore children, learned to weave and knit, started a needlework design business, pursued her art education. She earned a BFA degree from the Art Academy of Cincinnati and a MFA degree in painting from the University of Cincinnati.

In undergrad, older that most of her classmates, she felt less free, having to juggle her role as wife and mother with her study demands and aspirations for a professional career.

“At home I was always expected to do the ‘women chores’, cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids, tending to everyone else’s needs,” she says. “I always came last. People would even make me feel selfish for wanting to be in school.”

In a traditional society built mostly around men’s convenience, she found herself fighting for her interests, having constantly to redefine and assert who she was. The theme of feminism then permeated her work. She did a series of semi-abstract paintings on relationships, women in the family, all the push-and-pull they daily experience. The images were based on round balls, one of them representing her; they would also be accompanied by statements to clarify her message.

In Tomato Soup Family, for instance, she is a big red ball at the bottom; pushed away by 2 other balls on the top, one being her husband, the other her daughter.

She later expanded her series to address more specifically her relationship with her teenage daughter. They were both struggling for independence, yet her daughter demanding, needy and rebellious at the same time. The abstract paintings in the series were done using Elmer’s glue and graphite, Elmer’s glue in her mind associated with the school classroom, thus connected to her daughter.

In I Hate You Mom but Can You Please Take Me and My Friends to the Mall, she reflects on the expectations and tasks she’s supposed to meet just for being a mother; and in Stony Silence because I Said No, related to not letting her 14 year old daughter go to a slumber party at a 16 year old boy’s house, on how these expectations were only used when they suited her child.

Between undergrad and grad school, Shifflett worked on another series related to flowers usually considered weeds. Travelling down the interstate to get to her studio she would often admire along the way large patches of beautiful and colorful flowers jut to find them the following day mowed away.

“I felt every time violated,” she says, “like if someone was deliberately destroying my favorite garden. Why would a flower in a certain setting has value and beauty and in others not. Who decides what is good or equal? Unfortunately by drawing arbitrary lines, our society often contributes to abusive control and prejudice.”

Trapped, oil painting. Painting and Photo by Kim Shifflett

She did colorful paintings of black-eyed Susan, corn flowers, other ‘weed’ flowers she had encountered, one painting for each month from spring to early winter. She used on purpose very large canvasses to draw in the viewer and give added importance to their subject.

Halfway through grad school, Shifflett went back to visit her parents in Las Cruces. Wanting to return like in the old good times to Ciudad Juarez she was strongly discouraged by her sister who shared with her the ongoing violence in the border town, the hundreds of working women found dead for no reason, the daily killings due to the drug wars, the desperate prevailing poverty. She was appalled not to have heard about it on the news. Doing her research she discovered the truth of the new reality and embarked on a new series of paintings, Borderlands.

Her large and somber painting Trash Town is a commentary on the effect of NAFTA on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who, in order to find better paying jobs, relocated to the border cities where new factories had opened. Unfortunately they were met with inexistent infrastructure, no electricity, water or sewage, and ended up living among trash in shanty towns, the for-profit companies not concerned with their well-being.

The killing Field was based on the massacre of 73 to-be illegal immigrants who, before reaching the USA, were kidnapped by drug cartels, held for ransom and killed, their families not able to pay.

Trapped is in response to the escalating violence in bordering towns, people becoming prisoners in their own homes, trapped and squeezed between an obstructive border fence, terrorizing drug lords, daily danger, and poverty. It was also related to similar imagery and background she had experienced on a recent trip to the West Bank, Palestinians impeded in their daily living by a big dividing wall, numerous checkpoints, long lines and queues, omnipresent occupation. Shifflett had travelled to the Middle East to help Bedouin women improve their weaving technique and find opportunities to better market their product.

‘We’re all alike,” says Shifflett. “Women, environment, border conflicts, are universal issues that touch all of us. When I disagree with something, I use my art to raise awareness, start and facilitate a dialogue, hopefully promote change. My art is compassionate. I strongly identify with immigrants who leave their country wanting better chance, education and living; with burdened women and mothers; with devalued ‘weed’ flowers; with ‘invisible’, victimized individuals in our society.”