ART FOR A BETTER WORLD

September 22nd, 2013  |  Published in September 2013

ART FOR A BETTER WORLD

by Saad Ghosn

• Images For A Better World: Kimberly SHIFFLETT, Visual Artist

Kimberly Shifflett was born in Champaign, Illinois, grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and settled for a few years in Tucson, Arizona.  After skipping her art classes at the University of Arizona to learn to weave, she started a needlework design business, and moved to Cincinnati in 1993.  A painter, printmaker, fiber artist, and occasional experimenter with nontraditional materials, Shifflett is a BFA graduate of the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and a MFA graduate of the University of Cincinnati. A believer in the power of art to promote social change, she has been an educator for the Art Links, Adopt a School program, a teaching artist for Artworks Cincinnati, and a weaving teacher to Bedouin women in Wadi Rum, Jordan, as a USAID grant recipient.

Shifflett’s artwork explores the boundaries imposed by societal rules that separate people and lead to violence and conflict. Her current project explores the division in sentiment caused by our society’s increasing hostility to the immigrants coming into this country from Mexico. Her paintings in her series Borderland, are a narrative of a migrating people victimized by the ramifications of our country’s corporate and political policies.

Borderland: For decades the border area between Mexico and the United States shared a peaceful culture with a prosperous economy as citizens of both countries easily crossed back and forth to work, visit family, and shop. Today people come north seeking opportunity, but instead of a better life they find themselves worse off then if they had stayed at home. Squeezed between a concrete steel barrier, drug wars, starvation wages, and shanty housing they are trapped in misery.

To show the contrast between the expansiveness of the land and the limited prospects of the people, the paintings were created tall and narrow with most of the subject matter arranged at the bottom of the work. The tall sky shows signs of smog from the multitude of factories violating pollution standards. Lines are messy and indistinct with blocks of color portraying the shantytowns. To recreate the feeling of adobe, sand and decay, layers of paint were put down, rubbed off, and the process repeated again and again until there was a feeling of history piling up and wearing down which characterizes any area that has been inhabited for a long time.

Hill Factory, Maquiladora, oil on canvas

Juarez has over 300 factories and the influx of some 200,000 people has overwhelmed the city’s infrastructure. Smog layers over the factory. There is no proper housing, water or electricity for the workers. They live in homemade shacks of scrap wood with boulders holding down the corrugated metal roofing. Water is trucked in for washing but it is not drinkable. A worker averages $7.50 a day.

On the Way to Monterrey, oil on canvas

 

In May 2012, 49 corpses were dumped in Monterrey City with their heads, hands, and feet cut off. The fourth massacre in a month in the city was attributed to an escalating war between rival drug cartels. There are people in our community who traveled through this dangerous area to come here. The city of Cincinnati is shown with the bridges across the Ohio sinking toward the south and a ladder of bones for immigrants to climb up to reach the city if they can get past the fence.

Ghosts on the Border, oil on canvas

 

The Border Patrol is driving in a cloud of dust near the wall. People are hiding in the adobe houses waiting to cross. Every year hundreds of immigrants die in the desert from dehydration and heat exhaustion while attempting to avoid getting caught. The wall and increased military presence has pushed people farther out into the most inhabitable areas.

The Killing Fields, oil on canvas

 

In August 2010, Mexican marines found 72 bodies at a remote ranch 90 miles from the United States border. The 58 men and 14 women were thought to be immigrants on their way to Texas when they were kidnapped by Zetas. When it became harder to smuggle drugs over the border, the gangs turned to kidnapping and extortion to make money. The sky in the painting is very dark with red showing through the black to represent the loss of life and joy for the travelers and the evil of the drug cartels.

Perilous Crossing, oil on canvas

 

By 2012, the carnage has surpassed even Ciudad Juarez’s. Many of the victims in the body dumps were innocent people snatched off the street and murdered in a campaign designed to create terror. The Zetas territory covered northeast Mexico to the Texas border.

Trapped, oil on canvas

 

Today, Mexicans come north seeking opportunity, but instead of a better life they find themselves worse off then if they had stayed at home. Squeezed between a concrete steel barrier, drug wars, starvation wages, and shanty housing they are trapped in misery.

 

• Words For A Better World: Gary WALTON, Literary Artist

Gary Walton, born in Covington, Kentucky, grew up in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. He received a Bachelor in Arts degree from Northern Kentucky University (1981), a Master of Philosophy degree in American Literature from the George Washington University (1985) and a Ph.D. in International Modernism (1991). He also studied writing and publishing at the University of South Dakota. Walton’s areas of special interest are Twentieth-Century American Literature, the Irish Literary Renaissance and International Modernism.

Walton has published several books of poetry and of short fiction, also a novel, Prince of Sin City, about Newport, Kentucky, in its heyday as a gambling Mecca. His latest book of poetry, Eschatology Escadrille: Elegies and Other Memorabilia, has just been published by Finishing Line Press (2013). Walton has been nominated for the Pushcart prize, for a Kentucky Literary Award and as a “March Pick” by The Small Press Review.

Walton has taught writing and literature at The George Washington University, The University of South Dakota, The University of Cincinnati, and Northern Kentucky University. He has also worked as an editor for the United States Coast Guard and several literary journals. He is Editor of The Journal of Kentucky Studies. He has also written and produced radio plays for the Radio Repertory Company of Cincinnati. Currently, he is an assistant professor at NKU where he continues to write poetry, fiction, plays, and essays as well as teach writing and literature.

Called postmodernist, Walton’s work is yet in the tradition of Walt Whitman. Like Whitman he loves America, the democratic ideal it stands for, the humanistic ideal codified in its Declaration of Independence. Founded on the concepts of not only individual freedom, but of equality and fairness and hope, Walton feels that America was never meant to be an empire, but rather a sanctuary and a place of opportunity for all people, and not just the wealthy.

• The poem ’Simony’ was in response to the heartbreaking horror of the war in Iraq, a war Walton felt was unnecessary, illegal, and fraudulent, waged simply for oil. The sad irony was between the image of the flag-draped coffins of dead American soldiers, the real cost of the war, and the patriotic hype created by the media. It was as if America had sold its young for material comfort and profit.

Simony
“US Death Toll in Iraq Tops 500, as 3 More Troops Die”—CNN

Observe the flag-draped boxes
Descending from the airplane—
With their feckless, sober attendants—
Like so many cartons off an assembly-line,
Each filled with the remnants of stoic faith,
Inflated abstractions as inflame an innocent mind:
All this for what: another tank of gasoline?
What hubris! What calumny to call such waste, justice.

I know that those safe at home
Sitting in candy-colored SUVs or sliding
Off polyester easy-chairs will swell
Full of hot rhetoric and blast the skies
With their prepackaged electronic ideology,
But what real comfort are these words to the
Mothers, sisters, fathers, sons and daughters
Of these who were ground up under the
Savage foot of cold calculated commerce,
Sure to be forgotten in the next whirl of economic
Cycle or spin of the fickle political wheel;

It is so easy to feel smug with stars-and-stripes
Snapping smartly against the virtual blue of
A thirty-two inch plasma tv or shake with pride
At the band’s synthetic crescendo that fills the room
With digitized stereophonic ecstasy, a simulation that
Feels almost as good as the real thing;

So, with such a slurry of sensory stimulation,
With such a flood of video-taped, prerecorded
Mind-numbing simulacra, it is no wonder that
We find it difficult to think, much less pause,
To put our foot out to slow the merry-go-round,
To cover our ears in the din of this cacophonous
Wonder, just for a moment, to take a deep breath
And hear our own hearts breaking.

• The poem ‘Almost a Haiku’ is about irony both in subject and form. Haikus traditionally are pastoral poems that turn on a revelation or an epiphany (to use a Joycean term) or a surprise in the mind of the poet as he or she meditates on nature. The irony of this poem centers on the terrible realization that in the world today we cannot enjoy the beauty of a bright sunny day without recollecting the horror that such a day brought a decade ago. In that sense, 9/11 indeed “changed everything.” The subtext to the irony is that the trauma most of us feel (since we were not there) is vicarious, received through the media–that horrible picture of the plane striking the tower. So, the poem is not really a pastoral poem (nor is it 17 syllables–the traditional haiku form in English)–therefore, it is ‘almost a Haiku.’

Almost a Haiku

Blue Sky—Bright
Beautiful—like the day
The planes hit the towers:
Can Equanimity ever come
Again with a sky like this?

• Hoppin’ Harry is a fixture in the Cincinnati Blues scene. His daughter is the glamour model and actress Carmen Electra who attended the Cincinnati School for Creative and Performing Arts. The dichotomy of the worlds that Harry and his daughter inhabit could not be greater: his being the smokey bars of the blues scene in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and hers, the halcyon world of Hollywood. Walton’s poem centers around the competing mythologies of American life evidenced not only between Carmen and her father, but within the blues scene itself. His inspiration for the end of the poem came from the short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke where the end of the world is precipitated by a computer expert setting up a program that would run all the possible names of God, the suggestion being that the purpose of the world was simply to discover all of God’s possible permutations. Once that was done, the experiment with creation was over. This idea corresponded ironically in Walton’s mind with America’s own idea of itself fracturing here at the end of Empire.

Hoppin’ Harry, Entropy, and the End of Our World:
An Elegy

Hoppin’ Harry,
Carmen Electra’s Poppa,
Was playing tonight
At the blues jam
Here at the end of
Empire—and he
Sang a song by
Howlin’ Wolf, and
One by Robert Johnson,
Two by the Brits who
Wished they’d been
Born in the bayou or on the
Delta—and outside the
Lights of our world
Were beginning to stutter,
Some even to blink out,
Each unto each,
Until everyone there knew
The blues were all
We had left to call home.

• The poem ‘The Lack of Bees’ stems from two heart-breaking events. The first was Walton’s watching the slow dissolution of his mother by “Alzheimer’s disease;” the second, while his mother was in the throes of this human nightmare, hearing on the news that bees were dying all over the globe and no one able to figure out why. The fact remained that the end of bees could precipitate an extinction event for humans since all plants depend on bees for pollination. Walton saw a similarity in the two events. He also found it ironic that not just all physical life but all mental life and thus all meaning was dependent on such delicate processes as the chemicals that control the firing of brain synapses in humans and the ones that control bee homing instincts. In short, not only was life a paradox but so was its end.

The Lack of Bees

There are no bees
This summer:
No honey, no sweat,
No bumble;
Something is happening
To the fabric of nature,
A decided pull toward entropy
And confusion and chaos,
Like the stubborn frayed hem
Of an old Calico skirt
Flouting the law and order
Of the design itself
By floating free and ragged
In the swish of weary
Decrepitude and ambivalence
Or the worn patch at the elbow
Of a favorite tweed that
In spite of itself begins
To resemble the veil of a widow;
Or the gabardine trousers
Whose knee is found threadbare,
Like the last wisps of
Hair clinging to a bald man’s pate;
Or alas the very weave of
Your most stalwart sweater
Who has given up even the
Pretense of modest integrity and
Is unraveling, returning
Like a vague memory to a
Simple wad of yarn;

II

My mother is losing her mind,
Finding it again here and there
In patches, like snow puddles,
In the cruel and indifferent
Weather of the dusk of her life—
She searches still for those bits
That escape her grasp feeling that they
Are important but not really
Remembering why—a name, a date, an emotion;
The words will not come, though
She bids them with bitter tears and stutter;
The syntax fades like the sound
Of a distant drum into a mere echo,
Like the beat of bats’ wings into
The night of a fading foreign horizon;

III

How can we have fruit this autumn,
If the flowers are not courted
With the sticky entreaty of the bees’
Intrepid dance of love?
There are rumors that the bees have
Forgotten how to fly home,
That their mental maps are dissolving
Like their own honey left abandoned in the rain;
How lonely it must be to be lost,
Away from the hive, from home,
From your fellows who gave you identity
And meaning, left flying arabesques
In solitary, frightened desperation, searching
For your own special cynosure,
That place you can call your own?

IV

But wait, mother is at the door, crying out;
She has fallen, her arm bruised and bleeding,
Her head swollen like a dandelion puff ball—
She asks if she can speak to my father,
Her husband of 60 years—should I remind her
That he died two years ago?
Will that information help guide her forward
Or will it simply send her reeling
Off course into the wilderness of her
Own porous confusion and pain?
In the pause between the question and
The answer, I pray to hear the tiny
Beat of apian wings bringing an end
To this sense of finality, of futility
And for a sure and certain guide back from
The brink and hope for the sweet
Return of soft sensible summer, perhaps
One worth remembering.

 

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